Social contract theory is a cornerstone of libertarian or classical liberal thought. In essence, this foundation myth posits that human beings, while in the “state of nature” (a time prior to the existence of any discernible society), first contracted with one another to form a civil society for their mutual survival and protection of their “natural rights” – life, liberty, and property – and then proceeded to agree to create the foundations of the state, a government which was contracted to act as a third party judicator of disputes between members of society, administrator of justice to those found guilty of violating the society’s laws, and protector of society from foreign aggressors; in essence to prevent the violation of individuals’ “natural rights” from threats without and within.
This fantasy tale is certainly more palatable than the completely abstract, modern liberal notion of “human rights”. It reflects the existence of natural law, and is based at least on part on certain actual rights – namely those of the English people (and, arguably, by extension the Anglosphere). This of course is the first fact that belies the abstract notion of contractual government as classical liberals perceive it. All modern ideas surrounding liberty, rights under the law, and representative government are based firmly in the English political experience.
This is a central point of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. English rights and liberties were just that, English. Hardly abstract like the supposed “rights of man”, they were rooted in English soil and the birthright only of Englishmen and their political heirs, earned by prescription and tradition passed down through the ages by their forebears. John Lilburne, traitor to both Crown and Cromwell, arguably the first Englishmen to ever write about rights and liberties in the way modern libertarians appreciate them, was not arguing for his “natural rights” (that would not occur until the likes of Locke and Sydney). He was most adamant that the rights he wrote and spoke of were his rights as a “freeborn Englishman”, and that those rights belonged to the “natives of this land”.
Despite the obvious historical fact of the uniquely English origins of belief in “life, liberty, and estate”, libertarians assume these rights to be universal. They deny the uniqueness of the English political experience and allege that so-called natural rights are inherent to every individual. But even if one admits the existence of so-called natural rights, the argument that all men everywhere are somehow owed them is still ridiculous. For what are natural rights but pretty words used to describe that fundamental human instinct – survival – as it plays out in the real world? All humans in a barbaric state, and frequently in a civilized one, desire absolute freedom of movement, feel ownership and connection to inanimate objects and land, and will protect themselves in whatever way necessary from mortal harm.
But recognizing that such instincts exist by no means implies that complete freedom to act on them is in any way guaranteed as a right to anyone, let alone that governments everywhere since the dawn of time, whether they’re aware of it or not, were or can be instituted to protect such “rights”. Unsurprisingly it is de Maistre who best reveals the folly of the notion that government ever was or can be based on abstraction:
I will simply point out the error of principle that has provided the foundation of this constitution and that has led the French astray since the first moment of their revolution.
The constitution of 1795, like its predecessors, has been drawn up for Man. Now, there is no such thing in the world as Man. In the course of my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.; I am even aware, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be Persian. But, as for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life. If he exists, I certainly have no knowledge of him.
… This constitution is capable of being applied to all human communities from China to Geneva. But a constitution which is made for all nations is made for none: it is a pure abstraction, a school exercise whose purpose is to exercise the mind in accordance with a hypothetical ideal, and which ought to be addressed to Man, in the imaginary places which he inhabits…
What is a constitution? Is it not the solution to the following problem: to find the laws that are fitting for a particular nation, given its population, its customs, its religion, its geographical situation, its political relations, its wealth, and its good and bad qualities? Now, this is problem is not addressed at all by the constitution of 1795, which is concerned only with Man.
Science itself stands in defiance of the social contract as basis for society. Even assuming that the pre-society state of nature existed as imagined by the classical liberals, those individuals who created that first contract couldn’t have done so had they not spoken the same language (presumably a happy coincidence as far as the classical liberal is concerned). As it is clear that the same rights are not owed to all men everywhere by their mere virtue of being alive, so it becomes clear that the fiction they are cannot be a sound basis for government, neither protecting or respecting local peculiarities and traditions nor, as Burke prophesied, providing any real protection for true ordered liberty, or the freedom of thought, property rights, and political dissent which libertarians claim to hold so dear.
A true constitution is not a mere legal contract that can be drawn up by a group of intellectuals sitting around a table. It is the very real collective history and experience of a people and polity. British Liberty is an ordered liberty. That order is provided by the British constitution; an inheritance shaped by a unique historical experience, a series of cultural peculiarities and events rooted in the aristocratic traditions, both Saxon and Norman, of the English race.
By denying the true origins of liberty and choosing abstract myth which places the individual and his “rights” as the foundation for political authority, classical liberals inadvertently opened the gates to hell. As Nicolás Gómez Dávila brilliantly observes, “doctrinaire individualism is dangerous not because it produces individuals, but because it suppresses them. The product of the doctrinaire individualism of the 19th century is the mass man of the 20th century.”
Echoing Dávila, Christopher Dawson did not call classical liberalism a mere stepping stone from Christendom to totalitarianism without good reason. In a traditional organic community which respects hierarchy, right authority and tradition, the individual is protected by the various voluntary associations of his daily life – religious orders, the church itself, guilds, military allegiance, etc. Moreover the government and ruling elite, whether it be by monarch or aristocratic republic, are far less likely to view the society which they govern as a toy with which to play, a blank canvass on which to paint a vision of utopia. That is a purely post-Enlightenment, democratic phenomenon.
In a truly traditional society the state is an inherent part of that society. It does not exist in opposition to society, nor does it attempt to control society, but rather it is just another part, different in function but equal in importance, of an organic community. This reality is reflected in another of Dávila’s brilliant observations: “In medieval [read traditional] society, society is the state; in bourgeois society, the state and society oppose one another; in communist society, the state is society.” Substitute any modern totalitarian “ism” for communism and the truth of description remains intact.
Libertarians, not to mention many so-called conservatives today, may balk at the idea that “society being the state”, as Dávila describes it, is a good thing, but this is because they fail to understand the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism and mistake such things as democratic participation for actual liberty. Aware of the implications of classical liberal ideas, Samuel Johnson famously said that “the first Whig was the Devil”. The modern libertarian’s pathological aversion to authority is so great he sees no difference between a socialist dictatorship and a traditional Christian monarchy, but the difference between the two could not be greater.
It is the difference between being nothing more than a cog in a machine, a faceless part of a soulless system that does nothing but feed the growth of government or industry, and a musician in a symphony orchestra, a voluntary member of something greater than oneself, creating something more beautiful and meaningful than one man could ever achieve on his own. It is blindingly evident to anyone with even the faintest understanding of the past two hundred years of political history that an egalitarian, meritocratic society governed by a representative popular government is in absolutely no way a particularly good bulwark against tyranny or an effective protector of life, liberty, and estate, in most cases actually facilitating the destruction thereof.
In ignoring the organic nature of society and aristocratic origins of liberty, classical liberals unleashed the leveling rage, opening the door to basing government on political abstractions and paving the way for the atomization of the individual, its bedfellow mass democracy, and their demonic offspring: political totalitarianism, itself a reaction to the dehumanizing results of industrialization and the predatory capitalism that stalked its landscape, both inconceivable without classical liberal ideas. The libertarians’ suggestion that their ideological snake oil could cure modern society, its sickness rooted in the very disease they created, is laughable.