The COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to re-evaluate the principles or ideas that are at the heart of theories of government, that is the fundamentals of governance and public theory. What is government for, but also what should government do and how. Engaging with the crucial philosophical questions of governance is integral to building back better: going back to basics is a major step in figuring out how to prevent mistakes from happening again. The social contract is one such principle: the idea of a social contract is central to answering the question of what governments are for: explaining why people obey laws, providing answers to why we live in societies, and why we abide by social rules and norms.
Recognizing the ongoing debates, national and international, around the meaning and origins of the term social contract, this paper by Nanjala Nyabola tries to point to some of the important thinking from the south and from non-western sources and traditions that have helped shape modern understanding of social contract theory. It is not intended to be a comprehensive review, in such a short paper, but rather a selection that reflects the richness and variety of such sources and how they have impacted thinking throughout the ages.
Overall, looking at ideas of social contracts outside Western philosophical tradition reminds us that it is not just about the form of the social contract or that all political organizations must be identical. These theories also remind us that compulsion and punishment are not a strong foundation for strong systems of governance. We have to create societies that people want to live in.
Read the full analysis: It’s Time to Go Back to Basics of Governance