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The Social Contract Needs To Be Rewritten

The social contract needs to be rewritten


COVID-19 pandemic has had an adverse impact on the lives of people on a massive scale and its disastrous and catastrophic impact has been felt beyond the disease itself.

Apart from the health sector, the COVID-19 has hit hard the economic and political spheres too.

While governments across the world have tackled the COVID-19 crisis in their own different ways with varying degree of success. This editorial analyses the response of modern governments to COVID-19 crisis and suggests suitable steps.


  • Governments around the world are clueless about dealing with the pandemic, especially concerning the problems and hardships being faced by the poor and marginalised sections due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • A few geographically small countries have been able to successfully contain the COVID-19 and its impact but these claims are hollow and short-sighted as all these countries are wealthy nations and their response to the pandemic is sealing their borders.


3.1 The Social Contract Theory

  • Somewhere is the course of evolution, humankind’s ancestors came up with the concept of social groups and as a result, certain rules were decided which everyone would abide by.
  • This is the most elementary form of what today is called the ‘social contract theory’.

3.2 Social Contract in Monarchies

  • With the rise of monarchies and associated empires, the concept of social contract became more tangible and understandable viz. to obey an identifiable sovereign, who in turn was deemed to be god’s representative on earth.

3.3 Social Contract in Democracies

  • In democracies, the elected governments have not been able to derive the same legitimacy as monarchies with absolute power (god’s representative on earth).
  • With the birth of the concept of individual rights and fundamental freedoms, especially those of speech and expression, unquestioning obedience to governmental authority began to fade.
  • Some governments yearn for this 'unquestioned obedience’, which is also the holy grail of every autocrat.
  • Modern societies and modern governments also use the social contract theory as a base to derive legitimacy for their actions but rely more on the theory as expounded by Hobbes and Rousseau.

3.4 Two Agreements in Social Contract

  • Thomas Hobbes believed that man in the State of Nature was “solitary, nasty and brutish”, while for Rousseau, in the State of Nature man was “born free”.
  • However, despite their different interpretation and description of human behaviour in the state of nature, both agreed that the social contract comprises of not one but two distinct agreements.
  1. People come together and reciprocally renounced the rights they had against one another in the unconstrained state of nature thereby establishing a civil society
  2. People agree to confer upon one or more among themselves the authority and power to enforce the initial contract
  • Hence, the basic premise of the social contract is people coming together and agreeing to live under one common law and on judicial enforcement of those common laws.

3.5 Social Contract in Modern Governments

  • However, the philosophy of the modern day governments goes a step further. They believe that society is best served if a government or other type of institution takes on executive or sovereign power, with the consent of the people.


  • Modern Governments try to use the power democratically invested in them to decide what is in the best interest of the people.
  • There is a general trend across all modern democracies to bend individual free will towards the collective will.
  • The irony, however is that most leaders constantly invoke “the will of the people” when consolidating executive power.
  • Political analysts and experts are of the view that modern governments use social contract to legitimise the greater aggrandisement of power in the hands of the sovereign, under the garb of “public good”.
  • Some political analysts even go on to state that when the future historians will look back on the events taking place today, they would have an impression that people across the globe voluntarily surrendered their individual rights and basic freedoms to their governments, who exercised these powers with discipline and benevolence.


5.1 Two Indias under COVID-19

  • There are two Indias under the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Access to information about the COVID-19 pandemic, access to resources to avoid the disease as well as access to treatment of COVID-19 has not been equal.
  • First India is of those sections of the citizen who observe social distancing and take all precautions and largely obeys governmental directives about COVID-19 prevention.
  • Second India crowds railway terminals to travel long distances to come back home in the time of this distress and when failed by the government on all accounts, ultimately takes the drastic step of even walking those hundreds of kilometres, defying all governmental directives.
  • For second India, the impact of COVID-19 is disproportionately adverse and has almost nothing to do with the disease.

5.2 Response of the two Indias to the COVID-19 epidemic

  • The first, more privileged India responded with zest to the stirring call of “CVOID-19 prevention”, "flattening the curve" and took pride in observing the directives of covering face and hands, "Social distancing" and went about their daily lives.
  • Second India comprises of lakhs and lakhs of less privileged Indians who are already living in unhygienic, clumsy and ill-constructed hovels and slums in close vicinity.
  • Observing the mandated social separation of “6 feet” was and still is an impossibility and ‘social distancing’, an abstract concept.

5.3 The notion of “we are all in this together”

  • The slogan of “we are all in this together” was often used to express solidarity to the doctors, victims of COVID-19 and the underprivileged who are the worst sufferers of COVID-19 induced pandemic and stir a sense of brotherhood, but it is hardly so.
  • First India does not share the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic with the poorest of Indians who are voiceless.
  • Professor H.L.A. Hart once said, “Freedom (the absence of coercion) can be valueless to those victims of unrestricted competition too poor to make use of it; so it will be pedantic to point out to them that though starving they are free”.


6.1 COVID-19 and equality

  • The COVID-19 induced crisis has revealed that the governmental methods to deal with a crisis largely come to the aid of only those with a voice.
  • A perfectly egalitarian society is a utopia and all societies have some measure of inequality.
  • However, in highly unequal societies like those where the Gini Coefficient is above 0.4, different strata of society will have very different needs to deal with a crisis like COVID-19.
  • The COVID-19 experience tells us that societies that have lower Gini Coefficients (more egalitarian societies) deal with the crisis far better because a uniform approach works perfectly when society is perfectly equal.

6.2 A decentralised response

  • In the distressing times of a COVID-19 like crisis, the citizens look to the state for guidance and a safety harbour and consequently some sections of society seek a strong response from a strong leader.
  • However, when the source of power in an unequal society is centralised, the response to the crisis will result in unequal relief to different strata of society.
  • Hence, a centralised response will do very little to placate the needs of all the strata of society.
  • Societies that are more unequalrequire more decentralised response for effectiveness.

6.3 Need of a new Social Contract

  • The Social Contract Theory that gives leads to a centralised sovereign with overreaching powers has fared poorly to address the COVID-19 crisis and most probably will always fail against such a challenge.
  • The centralised sovereign will work well against a mighty external aggressor, but not against a microscopic pathogen.
  • Apart from a decentralised approach, also required is a state, which is sensitive and responds not only to the needs of those who cry out for help but also meets the requirements of those who are voiceless.


Thomas Hobbes described the mighty state as a “Leviathan” which rules with an iron first by the will of the majority. Hobbes argued that once a sovereign is chosen, citizens lose all rights except those the ruler may find it expedient to grant.

No democratically elected government would publicly espouse such a position but it is the unwritten premise underlying every rule and diktat, which is issued.

While the Leviathan has its own uses like in times of war or in a fight against terrorism, but the novel coronavirus cannot be defeated by a Leviathan. Only an empowered citizenry can defeat the coronavirus.

The social contract requires to be rewritten not by drastic violent methods of a revolution or anarchy but only by fundamental introspection and rethinking by the governing classes including bureaucrats.


Social Contract Theory

  • A Social Contract is an act by which individuals agree to form a government
  • According to social contract theory, governments are established by the people who combine to achieve some goal
  • Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were a social contract, theorists
  • They hypothesized the existence of a state of nature prior to any government

Effects of Social Contract


Source: The Hindu