The Social Contract (Politics 1/4)

Not too long ago, human beings were mostly ape-like creatures who lived in tribes or villages and stayed alive through a combination of growing crops and raising animals.


The picture you will find above is wrong on a few levels:

1. Such houses (with windows) did not exist in the time when humanity was at the tribes and villages stage.

2. The pig does not look like a pig. (The pains of Microsoft Paint.) I wrote pig on it to tell you that it is a pig. I am also not sure that humans brought up pigs at the tribes and villages stage. It was more likely cattle, or sheep.

3. I do not know how to draw rice stalks. Anyway, the mass of black lines is supposed to represent crops. It could be rice, maize, or a whole range of other stuff that humans grew once they discovered agriculture about 12,000 years ago.


Politics back then was much simpler. The leader of the tribe or village was a chieftain, who was often a burly, rather old and scarred guy (depending on the kind of tribe you’re in, this guy could be a medicine man, a voodoo priest, the strongest warrior, etc). He had the utmost say over just about everything. If he thought you sorta looked more handsome than him, you just might get your head chopped off.

How did we get from there, to modern society, where we have governments and presidents and prime ministers and political parties?

This is a difficult question to answer. Ever since this time, mankind has undergone developments after developments at an increasingly fast pace. But first, let’s take a step back to take a look at the basics of politics.

Let me introduce you to Bob, a member of the tribe. He was always a little different compared to the rest, and couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong about the tribe. One day, as he watched the chieftain go around giving orders and being chieftainly, he asked himself a question:

“What is the role of a leader in a society?”

This sounds like a simple question. Yet it is also a question that people have been grappling with for centuries. To answer this question, we need to dig deep into our understanding of where society comes from, and why it needs a leader.

What is the role of a leader in society?

This is Bob.


Bob 2

Bob is a human being, so he has a few basic concerns: food, water and shelter. At some point in time, before the tribe came together and existed, Bob was all alone. This meant that in the jungle/rainforest/desert/savannah/plains, Bob had to take care of these few concerns by himself. This could have been the breakdown of Bob’s typical day:

  1. Wake up
  2. Fish for food
  3. Cut wood/find material for fire
  4. Eat breakfast
  5. Cut more wood
  6. Find stones and sticks to make tools; e.g, hunting spears, fishing rods
  7. Fish/hunt for food
  8. Eat lunch
  9. Maintain shelter made from woven branches
  10. Make clothing from leather in case old clothing wears out
  11. Fish/hunt for food + gather food
  12. Eat dinner
  13. Sleepz (as it gets too dark for anything)

Clearly, this isn’t the ideal way to live. Apart from the complete lack of technology and luxuries, the more pressing issue is – what happens if Bob suddenly wakes up one day and is terribly sick? Or, what happens if Bob breaks his leg while hunting and basically can’t do anything? Or a tree falls on him in the forest? So on so forth.

To solve this problem, Bob struck a deal with Jane. Jane is another human being who has similar concerns. In fact, her average day is pretty much identical to Bob’s. But here’s the deal: Whenever Bob gets sick (or temporarily disabled), Jane will take over dealing with all the concerns over food, water and shelter – she would hunt for Bob and ensure that he is sheltered and safe until he recovers. And vice versa; when Jane is temporarily out for the count, Bob takes over. Pretty simple so far.

But as they work together, they discover more things. Bob finds that he is way better at cutting wood than Jane is, while Jane discovers that Bob sucks at hunting and she can kill deer 2 times faster than he can. They make more bargains. Instead of both of them doing both jobs, Bob does all the woodcutting, Jane does all the hunting, and the fruits of their labour belong equally to both. By doing this, they actually produce way more wood and food (haha rhyme) than before. They share and realise this is a system benefits both of them. (They also realise that they can procreate and ensure continuity of their species, but I’ll leave that from this post.)

Bob and Jane

This still isn’t a perfect system, Bob thinks. What if Jane and I BOTH get hit by some virus? … We need more people.

Bob and Jane explore the area and find other human beings (who also basically have the same concerns as them) and eventually are able to strike a deal with most of them. They begin to live together. And amazingly, they find a person who is great at making clothes, another person who is awesome at crafting weapons for hunting, a dude who is absolutely talented at fishing, and even a woman who knows how to take care of sick people … so on. The same thing happens – they delegate tasks, and those who are best at what they do, does it for everyone instead, and everyone benefits when they help each other. In fact, because now only the best people are doing all the respective tasks, things get done so fast that people begin to have more free time in their average day.

They’ve become a tribe.

One day, something happens. A man in the tribe slaps a woman over some petty argument. After things calm down a little, the tribe gathers in a clearing to have a discussion.

The woman says, “Ugh, how could the man have slapped me! He deserves to be punished in some way. Let’s banish him from the tribe.”

Some other person says, “That’s a little unreasonable isn’t it, for just a slap? How about we whip his ass with a stick 10 times?”

Another person: “How about 20? It’s a nicer number.”

Another another person: “13’s my favourite.”

This goes on for a while until a very large and burly man steps up. He says this:

“Okay, I have an idea guys. How about we feed him psychedelic mushrooms and leave him to hallucinate about balloons growing out of trees?”

Woman: “That’s an absolutely terrible idea.”

At this point some other people were starting to speak up but the large and burly man casually rolls up his sleeve to show him humongous bicep. This makes everyone shut up for a few seconds, and he says: “Okay, so psychedelic mushrooms it is.”

The man who slapped the woman is fed psychedelic mushrooms and hallucinates about balloons growing out of trees. He is visibly traumatised, and people are happy. The burly man, whose name is Chieftain (to make things easier), now takes on a new job, which basically is to make decisions about what to do during disputes. If you think really carefully about it, what this actually means is that his job is to make decisions on behalf of the society, because as his decisions is representative of the greater whole, it becomes final.


So this is the overriding Extremely Important Role of the Leader: Make decisions on behalf of society.

This actually entails way more than you might think. Let’s split this very huge role into three smaller roles:

  1. Make laws
  2. Decide ad hoc stuff
  3. Ensure essential services

So the first thing he does after the psychedelic mushrooms incident is to make a set of rules in the tribe – otherwise known as laws. Now this makes things whole lot easier because he doesn’t have to make decision EVERYTIME some dude slaps another guy, insults another person or steals something, especially since all these situations are very different. So he makes up a set of guidelines to deal with this situation, like – he who steals something will have to eat 5 up to 30 psychedelic mushrooms, depending on how much he stole. In fact, if the Chieftain knows what he’s doing, he’ll even set up a little group of people whose job is to decide just precisely how many mushrooms must be eaten every time someone steals something. More on this in another post.

The second thing he needs to do is to make decisions that cannot be covered by the law. There are basically an infinite number of problems that are going to befall society, which will cause many people to have many different solutions to the problem, but the Chieftain needs to decide which is best and implement it before the problem gets too bad. For example, let’s say another tribe settles in an area near them and begins to take up a lot of resources. They cut trees and hunt food, and worst of all, Tribe 2 has a nasty reputation of attacking nearby tribes in order to get more resources. Once the people of Tribe 1 know about this, they have a few choices; they could run away, send ambassadors to talk with Tribe 2, prepare an army, so on.

Chieftain decides to form an army; he tells the weapon makers to make sharper spears than can pierce human skin, and he tells some of the hunters and other strong folk to begin practising attacking with a spear. Whenever anyone disagreed with him, Chieftain would show his humongous bicep, which usually stopped any dissent. This became a very important decision because when Tribe 2’s warriors eventually attacked, Chieftain’s army managed to fend them off and protect everyone from danger.


The third thing that happens would happen a little later in the future, but it nonetheless would be a very important part of what a leader/government does. Essentially, the system which the tribe works on at the current moment goes something like this: a person’s work and produce (the wood he chopped, food he hunted etc) is put into a central pile in the clearing, such that there are piles of wood, food, clothes and weapons, and every person in the tribe is entitled to a small and equal portion of every pile, so that everyone gets what they need. (Basically, Communism.) In summary, many people are going to criticise this system as society grows larger, preferring instead a capitalist system (perhaps where people have to trade away their stuff to get food, rather than be entitled to a portion from a central pile).

However, society (and therefore their leaders) usually would make a decision about some Central Piles which are TOO important to be taken away, and which everyone needs. For example, the society might decide that the Medicine Woman who is able to heal people (her product is her service in this case, so a physical pile doesn’t actually exist) is going to available to everyone, and people don’t have to trade her anything to be healed when sick. How does she survive then? The leader makes sure that everyone gives a little amount of food/clothes throughout the year to the Medicine Woman to keep her going. It may not just be Medicine Woman; it could also be the Teacher or the Police Officer whose services that society decides is too important and must be given to everyone in society. As the leader made the decision to keep these services as essential services (e.g healthcare, education, police force), these are under the leader’s purview, and it is the leader’s job to ensure that these important people are kept alive and well fed. However this is also an extremely debatable topic, so we’ll talk about it in a separate post.

So far so good.

Let’s summarise everything that’s happened so far.

  1. Society is formed by a mutual need to survive.
  2. Society is kept moving along by making decisions.
  3. Leaders help to make decisions.
  4. Leaders usually make rules, make decisions in new situations, and also set up essential services (sometimes)

If you look very carefully at this flow of things, you’ll see that while our short answer to the role of a leader could be to make decisions on behalf of society, the higher cause that leaders actually serve is to make sure that society moves along and is able to solve its problems. And if you look even more carefully, you will realise that society is formed and kept alive because all human beings essentially want to stay alive, and we sort of mutually recognise that and help each other out. Therefore, the Highest Cause that leaders really serve is to ensure that all human beings stay alive. This is very important to their thinking, and whenever leaders make decisions, they usually are keeping in mind the safety of their people and what’s best for their people (or at least they’re supposed to. There are some very bad leaders.)

But of course it isn’t even as simple as all that.

Let’s take a time machine to about 18th century France. About this time, France was a rather messy soup of rich people, religious people, and people who wanted to revolt (in fact the French Revolution happened around then). And amongst this mess, around the early 18th century, was a man named Jean-Jacques Rousseau who wrote a book and brought to the world the idea of the social contract. (Partially causing people to want to revolt.)   Social Contract

Essentially, the social contract goes like this: people give up some of their rights to a leader (or their leaders, or government), and in exchange, these leaders make decisions that protect the people and their rights.

This is a little bit more sophisticated that what we had earlier, although it is pretty much the same. Let’s take a look.

Just now:

  1. Society is formed by a mutual need to survive.
  2. Society is kept moving along by making decisions.
  3. Leaders help to make decisions.
  4. Leaders usually make rules, make decisions in new situations, and also set up essential services (sometimes)

The Social Contract:

  1. Society is formed by a mutual need to maintain people’s Basic Human Rights (e.g life, but also more than that – plus things like choice, freedom of speech, happiness)
  2. Society is kept moving along by making decisions.
  3. Leaders help to make decisions, which people must agree to abide by.
  4. Leaders usually make rules, make decisions in new situations, and also set up essential services (sometimes).

The key differences are clear. Firstly, leaders now serve a different Higher Cause – it isn’t just to make sure everyone survives, that’s too primitive – leaders now need to make sure that everyone has Basic Human Rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and hence a decent standard of living. Secondly, people have to play a part as well – they have to agree to let the leader make decisions, and recognise the legitimacy of these decisions. Technically, this system was already present even in the tribe, when Chieftain’s right to make decisions was recognised because of his humongous bicep – and Rousseau is simply bringing this unspoken deal out into the open.

If you think about it, the very idea of a leader sort of contradicts these rights of freedom and choice. Having a leader means people have to obey, and that also means some people aren’t going to get the freedom and choices they want, but rather have to be ordered around by another person, or be restricted by laws which dictate what they can or cannot do. But in a way, a good leadership is the Most Essential Service of all, because it ensures that society can continue existing rather than being torn apart into shreds from the inside. And by ensuring society can exist, it also ensures that the people of that society has a decent standard of living, as per the contract. So if people have to give up a little bit of their freedoms, in order to achieve a pretty good life, this is simply a fantastic deal. The alternative is to have absolutely no guarantee that they can survive – think back to Bob before he met Jane.


Let’s summarise this once more by going back to the example of the tribe and the chieftain. Bob swears allegiance to the chieftain, and now the chieftain has the right to force him to join the hunting wing of the tribe, or the military arm. But in return, Bob has the benefits of being provided with food by the tribe, or being protected by the tribe’s spearmen – and his life is preserved. If he doesn’t contribute, he will probably be punishable by tribal law – maybe they’ll whip him or throw him out into the forests.

Of course things are very different nowadays. Tribes were perhaps a hundred-strong – now countries have millions of people. With so many people the system is slightly different, but the concept in itself has remained. Bob is now a citizen of a country, such as perhaps the United States of America. As he is a citizen, the government has the right to force him to pay taxes (give up his money!!), or in other countries, to join the military and be conscripted for a couple of years. In return the government runs numerous essential services – for example, healthcare, education, a police force, the army – using the money from taxes to ensure national security, and that people can maintain their lifestyles. If he refuses to pay taxes, the law can punish him by fining him, or even jailing him.

Tax is not the only thing that people have to give up, although it is one of the major ones. People also have to abide by laws set by their government – and by choosing to do so, by agreeing that everyone should follow a common rule of not murdering/stealing from anyone else, by giving up a little bit of their own individual freedoms – they create a better, civilised society.

So in essence, the people agree to do what the government wants, and in return they are given their rights to life, choice and property through public services – services that aim to help everyone – as well as the decisions that the government makes. And what the government decides to do with their power has thus been called policy, and is where the idea of politics has come from. This is essentially the role that leaders play in society. By agreeing to do what the leader wants, people – and society – empower him to make stronger decisions and take stronger action, leading to a common, greater good for everyone.


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