Theories of the social contract vary according to their purpose: some were intended to legitimize the sovereign's authority, while others were intended to protect the individual from oppression by an all-powerful sovereign.
The idea of a social contract has been used in many cultures and times to explain how individuals come together to form a community or society. The concept is often traced back to the writings of French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), but it has also been attributed to other philosophers such as Heraclitus, Giambattista Vico, and Thomas Hobbes.
According to Rousseau, when people come together in a state of nature, without a government to rule over them, they are forced to make a deal with each other. People promise not to invade each other's privacy or steal from one another if everyone else does the same. This agreement is called the "social contract". By entering into this contract, people give up their natural freedom and liberty to live according to their own will. They surrender their right to do whatever they want, including harming others, to ensure peace and security within the community. In return, they are granted membership in the community and access to its benefits.
People throughout history have interpreted the social contract differently depending on whether they were rulers or ruled, citizens or subjects.
Early modern thinkers—the most well-known of whom are Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, Samuel Pufendorf, and John Locke—introduced the social contract as an account of two things: the historical origins of sovereign power and the moral origins of the principles that make sovereign power just and/or legitimate. These early social contract theorists also proposed alternative accounts of these same phenomena.
Locke was the first to publish his ideas on the subject, in 1690. He argued that in order for society to function properly, it needed some kind of agreement or contract between its members regarding their relationship with one another and with other groups or organizations within which they were involved. This contract would serve to establish the boundaries of authority within society and determine how individuals and groups could expect to be treated by others.
Locke used three main arguments to support his view that humans came together to form states and governments through mutual agreements: first, that people need organized protection from other people if they are to have any chance of achieving their economic goals; second, that without such protection people would not cooperate with one another for long; and third, that even when people do agree to share resources, this usually does not happen unless they can expect something in return (such as payment or service) from each other. Based on this last point, he concluded that human beings produce law and governmentality only because they believe they can benefit from doing so.
The social contract asserts that "reasonable people" should trust in organized government, and this idea heavily inspired the writers of the Declaration of Independence. He felt that in the eyes of the government, every citizen was equal. Therefore, we are all responsible for keeping our community safe and healthy. This also means that we should share power with our leaders, since no person is capable of fulfilling these roles alone.
Locke proposed a system of government where the people give their consent for acts of authority by their representatives. For example, if they decide to hire a police officer, they would grant him or her authority over themselves by signing a contract with the officer's department. This contract would outline the role of the officer and what he or she can do with his or her powers. If an officer breaks this contract by acting unlawfully, they can be sued for damages caused by their actions.
This idea of a contract between citizens and officials is called "lockean liberty." It means that we have the right to free ourselves from agreements with other people, but only those contracts that haven't been agreed to by everyone involved. For example, if I sign a contract with a company, I can't just leave them if I change my mind about working there. They have the right to demand my continued service after the contract has been signed, because it's in their best interest that I stay.