2.3.2 Agreeing to Support Governance

It is assumed here that almost everyone in a society would see some governance and public services as being necessary, but that opinions will differ about their scope (2.2).  John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice, acknowledged that a society cannot choose how to govern itself in an actual negotiation between everybody involved, but he argued that:

“… a society satisfying the principles of justice as fairness comes as close as a society can to being a voluntary scheme, for it meets the principles which free and equal persons would assent to under circumstances that are fair”. [Chapter 1, section 3]

This might be called a ‘contractarian’ belief in the value for a society of defining and complying with an agreed form of governance, following in a tradition from Thomas Hobbes onwards, as described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on ‘contractarianism’.  This thinking has been brought up to date in Minouche Shafik’s book, What We Owe Each Other: A New Social Contract, which provides a justification for people’s agreement to a modern system of governance.

That word ‘contract’ is problematic, though, because anybody can claim not to have signed one.  Recognising the impracticality of everyone in a society negotiating a contract between them, this book examines the more feasible concept of ‘negotiability’ – as described below (2.4).

Life in a society entirely without governance would be, as vividly described by Thomas Hobbes in chapter 13 of his book Leviathan, “nasty, brutish and short”.  Each society establishes a set of power relationships for a point in time, but these never satisfy everybody and they continue to evolve.  In a society that at least meets the minimum standard for acceptability, people can maintain stability by complying with the current arrangements – even while they are negotiating to change them.  Chaos is bad for everybody.

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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/232b.htm