Social Contract

… a core concept in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100


John Locke, 1632-1704

Concept description

Encyclopaedia Britannica (reference below) defines social contract as “an actual or hypothetical compact, or agreement, between the ruled and their rulers, defining the rights and duties of each.”

The authors note that:

“… social-contract theories had their greatest currency in the 17th and 18th centuries and are associated with such names as the Englishmen Thomas Hobbes and John Locke and the Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau. What distinguished these theories of political obligation from other doctrines of the period was their attempt to justify political authority on grounds of individual self-interest and rational consent. They attempted to demonstrate the value and purposes of organized government by comparing the advantages of civil society with the disadvantages of the state of nature, a hypothetical condition characterized by a complete absence of governmental authority. The purpose of this comparison was to show why and under what conditions government is useful and ought therefore to be accepted by all reasonable people as a voluntary obligation. These conclusions were then reduced to the form of a social contract, from which it was supposed that all the essential rights and duties of citizens could be logically deduced.”

Malcolmson and Myers (reference below) describe how the logic of Constitutional Laws draws on the social contract theory of John Locke:

“Locke’s theory of government begins with the argument that since no one has any natural title to rule over anyone else, government can be legitimate only if it is based on the consent of all those who are governed. In saying this Locke does not mean that all political decisions have to be made democratically. He means only that the regime has to meet with the approval of its citizens. Locke suggests that this approval comes in a two-stage process, which he called the “social contract.” In the first stage of the contract, human beings who are naturally free and equal decide to come together in “civil society” and establish a political regime to govern themselves. In the second stage, they establish the ground rules of the regime by majority vote. They can vote to set up a democracy, but they also have the right to institute an aristocracy or even a monarchy. It is not the institutions that have to be democratic for government to be legitimate but the underlying contract that establishes them.

“According to Locke, once the people have put the social contract in place, they turn the process of governing over to those who fill the offices established by the contract. But this government is not free to act in any way it pleases. It is always limited by any conditions stipulated in the social contract, because it is on that contract that the legitimacy of the government’s very existence depends. If the social contract says that the government may not tax citizens without obtaining the consent of their representatives, then a new tax which has not been approved by the representatives of the people would be in violation of the social contract and hence illegitimate.

“In conceptual terms, what we mean by a “constitutional law” is very close to what Locke meant by a “social contract.” A constitutional law is a kind of fundamental pact emanating from the will of the people, which provides the foundation for the entire regime. It is therefore of higher status than ordinary laws – statutes adopted by legislative bodies – because those bodies owe their very existence to it. A constitutional law is thus a kind of “super-law,” the supreme law of the regime, and this means that any action or statute inconsistent with it can have no validity.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Constitutional Framework (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.


Encyclopaedia Britannica (2014), Social contract, at, accessed 10 August 2016.

Patrick Malcolmson and Richard Myers (2012), “The Constitution,” in The Canadian Regime: An Introduction to Parliamentary Government in Canada, 5th ed., page 19-20, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 20 September 2016.

Image: John Locke, oil on canvas by Herman Verelst, 1689, in the National Portrait Gallery, London, at, accessed 10 August 2016.