The social contract is an agreement between the government and the citizens. In other words, between the rulers and the ruled. While numerous Ancient Greek philosophers weighed over the problem, it fully emerged in the Age of Enlightenment. That is the 17th and 18th centuries.
The primary concept is simple. People are born into a “state of nature.” In the state of nature, they do not have any associations and obligations with politics. Hence, some partially link it with anarchy. Some see the natural state as a “happy” state, some as “unhappy.” However, this soon changes.
To create a working society of law and order, people give up some of their rights. This act can be voluntary or involuntary. Thus, the presumption of the existence of a state or government is this social contract. Besides describing the rights of the ruler, the social contract also establishes moral and political rules.
Different views on the social contract
Of course, different political philosophers have different views on the social contract.
In his “Leviathan,” Thomas Hobbes sees the natural state as a war between everyone. That is because everyone has a right to do anything. Thus, the primary idea behind the contract is safety and justice. The ruler must prevent anarchy. People find the contract reasonable and agree to it.
In “Second Treatise of Government,” John Locke agrees with Hobbes that people want to establish a contract. However, he believes people would not harm each other in the state of nature thanks to moral reasons. Influenced by the idea of a constitutional monarchy, the ruler has boundaries that he must not exceed. Otherwise, people could overthrow them. The contract offers a place for liberty and private ownership.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau has a different view. In his aptly-called work “The Social Contract,” he describes the idea of the general will. According to Rousseau, people were only moral in the natural state. To create an equal society, people must give up all their natural rights. That results in the general will, the common will of all people.