Today, about half of the world population lives in urban areas. By 2050, it is expected that 90% of humans in the world will be living in some sort of large societal conglomerate. Several political thinkers have done work on how to organize such societies under a “social contract” and how they should be governed. Specifically, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau focused a great part of their work on life in the “state of nature” and in society. With these three thinkers in mind and with the state becoming each day more present in the lives of a greater number of people, it is imperative to analyze the best way we can organize ourselves in order to keep order and at the same time achieve a just, happy, and virtuous society.
However, before idealizing about the best way to run a society, one should first analyze the main characters of the goal: humans and their nature. This is important because the kind of state one wishes to have must be effective in governing the kind of humans that there are. For Hobbes, human beings are selfish animals, only interested in survival and in their own welfare. However, this idea would not explain how small communities in the past would naturally be formed in order to socialize and bear the fruits of a community life. The same argument applies for Rousseau’s view on human nature, which argues that man and woman would prefer a solitary and isolated life. This, once again, does not explain the spontaneous formation of so many societies throughout the world. On the other hand, John Locke believes that humans are social beings by nature and therefore find living in communities to be just natural. In the modern world, although some people do prefer to live in complete isolation, it would be fair to say that most people seek out social relationships, whether in rural areas or in cities.
Based on the information above, one can wonder about how life would be in the “state of nature,” the condition where humans live without a central authority responsible for imposing order through force and without institutions in charge of creating and using laws to regulate relationships between people. Although this may not align with Hobbes in his view of human nature, one might foresee that today’s massive societies with ten plus million people living together would mostly probably descend into a state of war and conflict without any sort of sovereign to govern it. Could anyone imagine what would happen in a city such as São Paulo, with its 20 million plus population, without any sort of sovereign authority and its security apparatus? This situation would probably not end well. The outcome would probably be different in the case of small communes since one can see native communities living together throughout the world, mostly in peace, without a strong form of centralized authority such as nomadic people in the Sahara Desert or native Amerindians in the rainforest (thus proving that the state of nature is not always as bad as Hobbes portrayed). This latter example would have more of a resemblance to Rousseau’s idea about the state of nature and humans as having few desires and necessities. Moreover, Rousseau had a more negative view of society and believed that we were better off in the state of nature and became corrupted in society. However, the difference in quality of life and opportunities is clear between someone living in the “wild” or a small isolated community and someone living in a complex and modern society with all its opportunities, comforts, conveniences, and security. Therefore, as Locke believed, most people would tend to prefer to live in a civilized society in order to take advantage of all the perks it has to offer that cannot be find in the state of nature.
Within a society, the three thinkers would call the relationship between the people and the sovereign the “social contract.” Indeed, it makes a lot of sense that, if we want to live in a society, we have to bond to others and to the sovereign (or government) in a form of agreement (explicit or tacit). We cannot just do whatever we want. Paying taxes, voting, serving in the military, obeying laws, and taking part in other duties are all part of the “package” if we want “the cake.” To break with these duties – all part of the social contract – would be seen as a different attitude to all three thinkers as shown below.
Hobbes sees the social contract as unbreakable since we cannot rebel against a sovereign (unless the sovereign becomes a threat to the lives of the people) who is protecting us from the awful state of nature. Since we have already established that the state of nature is not as bad as Hobbes stated, it would probably not be worse than an authoritarian regime. Therefore, one might not agree with Hobbes’s view about the sanctity of the social contract, as it would be wise to break it in certain cases. On the other hand, Locke based his social contract in consent from the people to the government (similar to Rousseau), thus making it legitimate. Therefore, in the views of both Locke and Rousseau, the same people have the power to revoke this consent if abused by the state. Today, this power is what we have in some democracies with the right to vote, freedom of speech, right to assembly and protest, and the ability to contact ones representatives in government to demand or oppose certain policies. This seems to be a more ideal form of managing the social contract than what Hobbes described.
This then brings us to the role of government. Today, in some parts of the world, there is a big debate about how much role a government should play. On one hand, there are those who focus mostly on liberty and freedom with a minimal government. On the other hand, there are others who believe that humanity has a lot to gain from an efficient and active government and that, to live in a society, we should all relinquish some of our freedoms and rights in order to gain the fruits it brings. For instance, we should obey laws, follow rules, and pay taxes. In exchange, we gain security, the entire state infrastructure, a legal system, and, in a lot of cases, education, healthcare, and other welfare benefits. For Hobbes, most our rights (with the exception of life and liberty) ought to be exchanged for security, which most might say is very extreme. Alternatively, Locke believed that we relinquish the rights to judge and execute the laws of nature to the sovereign, but this is conditionally in exchange for a decent government. Rousseau is more direct and believed that the sovereign and its role is basically to fulfill the will of the people in the form of a government that obeys the people. Thinking about universal suffrage in liberal democracies, Locke and Rousseau seem to get it right in regards to the role of government.
However, we still have not confronted the idea of “minimal government” as mentioned above. Those who support small government argue they are forced into a social contract that they cannot individually break and therefore it is not valid. For example, some say taxing is theft because they do not have the option of not doing it. Other examples include social duties such as compulsory voting and military service in some countries. The best answer to this argument is that, in order to bear the fruits of living in a society, one has to live under such a contract. However, if he or she chooses not to do so, they have the option to literally leave the community and live “off the grid,” in the “wild.” It is not an easy feat in the world today, but possible as some tribes still do this in the Amazon or Africa, for instance, and it solves the argument of illegitimate governments (although not in cases of abuse of power), at least in the case of democracies.
So far, it has been argued that it is better to live in society than in the state of nature due to a human nature that is social and because the fruits and security society provides. In an ideal situation, the sovereign would have enough power to regulate the community, but this can be taken away if abused. The state would be there to protect our freedom and property, and provide benefits. Most of these characteristics are associated with the ideas of Locke rather than those of Rousseau and certainly those of Hobbes.
What about representation? Which form of government would be the best one? Once again, each of the thinkers has a different point of view in this matter. Hobbes did not have a clear preference for the form of government. He deliberated about democracies, aristocracy, and monarchy. However, contrary to Locke and Rousseau, he believed that an all-powerful monarchy and even authoritarian sovereign would be better than the state of nature, as long as they protect society and secure peace. Rousseau had a positive view of democracy. However, in his view, today democracy would probably not work since he believed it could only work for a very small state that is inhabited by like-minded people and that has a high degree of social and economic equality with an absence of luxury; these characteristics are quite contrary from what we have in today’s democracies. Once again, John Locke had a view on the form of government that seems to be closer to the ideal one supported here. He believed in a separation of power between the legislative and executive branches, which brings us Montesquieu’s ideas of checks and balances where power must be checked with power to avoid abuse. Moreover, for Locke, the legislative function of the government would be the supreme power of the commonwealth and had to aim at the public and common good, create laws that would be the same for everyone, and would not be able to tax and transfer power without the consent of the people. All of this appears to be a very ideal form of government as these features have been incorporated by some of the most advanced societies discussed below.
One important note is that, in most societies, there is a constant power struggle between members of the political, economic, and civil spheres. An all-benevolent executive leader might find it hard to exercise his or her power if this power is constantly challenged by certain members in that society. In this case, some elements of Machiavelli’s The Prince might come in hand. In this work, Machiavelli highlights the necessity of a strong leader who prefers to be feared rather than loved. Bringing these ideas to the ideal government discussed, it will be necessary that in some societies, an ideal leader should exercise his or her power in a way that brings respect and efficiency, but not to the point that he or she might be seen as a despot.
In general, today, we see most of the characteristics of John Locke’s ideal form of government in advanced societies such as the social democracies in Scandinavia and the liberal democracies in Canada or Australia. Although they have differing legislative-executive relations and electoral systems, they all have a separation of power, universal suffrage, and several freedoms to keep the “sovereign” in check. Moreover, it is hard to suggest that one might be better of living in the state of nature than in Sweden or Finland because these societies have achieved a human and social development unprecedented in human history. The citizens in these particular societies have never lived longer, had lower child mortality, been healthier or more educated, and had the least chances of dying through violent means than any other society anytime in the history of humankind.
Still, a problem arises when determining what is “good” in a society and what is just or not. How to establish what is fair? Since Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, humankind has been struggling with this philosophical question. In theory, today, laws that societies created through the legislative and judiciary systems would reflect what each “community” would believe is just and fair and how they can help the members of such society achieve what they consider the Good and virtuous life. However, the creation process of such laws is a messy and complicated practice which usually reflects power distribution in a society and which will probably never reach a final chapter or answer. Therefore, due to the complexity of the subject, it will not be deliberated in this discussion of the ideal government.
To conclude, today we have about 7.5 billion people in the world with more to come, all with different backgrounds, cultures, values, and aspirations. No single form of government given by the main political thinkers might be ideal for every single society. However, after thousand of years and a lot of trial and error, it seems we have put many of John Lock’s ideas (alongside others) into practice and apparently, although with some recent “hindrances,” we have been doing relatively well societally speaking. Hopefully, we are going to keep improving in the art of being human beings as long as we have bright minds such as political philosophers and thinkers to guide us through the storm of something called life.