Jefferson and the Social Contract
One of the ideas I struggle with a lot is the social contract. In a lot of obvious ways, it's a very poorly thought out idea. Put simply, a social contract is a contract that in all likelihood many of the parties never consent to. Hence, it's not really a "contract" at all. It's not a new critique, but it's a nagging one, and it's a critique that inevitably leads to the conclusion that state authority itself is illegitimate. Nevertheless, all of us tacitly accept the social contract in practice, even if it's very common to reject it in theory. Even some of the most vocal critics of the idea do this. Libertarians most readily furnish the criticism I outlined, and yet it's rare to find a libertarian that doesn't think that a minimalist role for government is appropriate: enforcing contracts, providing national defense, etc. I'm not personally clear on why the social contract "works" in these situations, but not in other situations. Why is it legitimate to cite Rousseau's fallacies and the problems with the social contract when we're talking about health reform but not when we're talking about the recognition of contracts? The only position consistent with this (valid) critique of the social contract is anarchism. The rest of us are simply getting by on various versions of inconsistency.
I was recently reading Jefferson's 1813 letter to John Wayles Eppes (here's the Charlottesville connection), originally for the purposes of revisiting Jefferson's thoughts on banking. However, what I was struck by was his opening thoughts on the legitimacy of public debt. This is where he makes his famous suggestion for 19 year limits on constitutions and debt contracts. He acknowledges and attempts to circumvent the problems with the idea of the social contract in an interesting way:
"...But what limits, it will be asked, does this prescribe to their powers? What is to hinder them from creating a perpetual debt? The laws of nature, I answer. The earth belongs to the living, not to the dead. The will and the power of man expire with his life, by nature's law. Some societies give it an artificial continuance, for the encouragement of industry; some refuse it, as our aboriginal neighbors, whom we call barbarians. The generations of men may be considered as bodies or corporations. Each generation has the usufruct of the earth during the period of its continuance. When it ceases to exist, the usufruct passes on to the succeeding generation, free and unincumbered, and so on, successively, from one generation to another forever. We may consider each generation as a distinct nation, with a right, by the will of its majority, to bind themselves, but none to bind the succeeding generation, more than the inhabitants of another country."
One thing that leaps out at you is that Jefferson finds nothing wrong with the fundamental logic of the social contract, which isn't necessarily surprising. Groups of men are considered "as bodies or corporations" and "a distinct nation". What Jefferson has a problem with isn't the homogenization of the citizens into the state, but the perpetuation of that institution over time. In other words, the most disconcerting tyranny is the tyranny of the past over the future, and not of the present majority against the present minority. This is especially notable because he is writing it in 1813, very late in his life. In the heyday of the American Revolution and (for Jefferson) the French Revolution, the radicals were not particularly nervous about democracy. Many anti-federalists and Republicans were quite comfortable with the idea of a popular unicameral legislature (ie, the House of Representatives without the Senate). It was only after the excesses of the French Revolution and the waxing power of the Federalists that suspicion of democracy thoroughly took hold. And yet as late as 1813, long after these developments and long before the inauguration of Jacksonian democracy, Jefferson is not concerned at all with the traditional objection to the social contract - he is concerned with the question of time.