One of the key concepts in conservatism is Edmund Burke’s idea of the “eternal contract.” Society, Burke believed, was not some mere temporary contrivance, but is rather “to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
In this view, society is not something to be tinkered with or flippantly disregarded, but is something to be accepted as a gift from previous generations, preserved and improved upon, and passed on as a gift to subsequent generations. This duty of stewardship is why Russell Kirk considered the primary task of conservatism to be “[r]eawakening men's minds to the eternal contract of society, which affirms that we do not simply live for ourselves, in the fleeting moment, but instead live to justify the faith and labor of our ancestors, and to transmit life and justice to our posterity."
Libertarians tend to think of these ideas as so much hogwash (and this mockery of an imaginative expression of the duty of stewardship tells us more about libertarianism than the libertarian supposes). “Why, that’s nothing but the social contract,” the libertarian says, and off he goes on his merry, scoffing way, unaware that his own perspective of society is closer than Burke’s to the social contract he derides.
Social contract theories begin with a group of individuals in “a state of nature.” That is, in a pre-political, and perhaps even pre-social condition. These individuals, what Roger Scruton calls the “first person singular,” come together and agree (contract) with each other about the rules under which they will associate with each other, and here is said to be the beginning of a society.
But immediately we find a problem with this analysis, for the very possibility of a social contract assumes a preexisting “first person plural” – a “we.” Scruton writes
The social contract begins from a thought-experiment, in which a group of people gather together to decide on their common future. But if they are in a position to decide on their common future, it is because they already have one: because they recognize the mutual togetherness and reciprocal dependence, which makes it incumbent upon them to settle how they might be governed under a common jurisdiction in a common territory. In short, the social contract requires a relation of membership. Theorists of the social contract write as though it presupposes only the first-person singular of free rational choice. In fact, it presupposes a first-person plural, in which the burdens of belonging have already been assumed.
Social contract theories, then, are “addressed to the abstract and universal Homo oeconomicus, who comes into the world without attachments, without,as Rawls puts it, a ‘conception of the good,’ and with nothing save his rational self to guide him.” This abstracted man, a “rational chooser,” freed from all social contexts is now capable of entering into society purely on his own terms, and by his own voluntary choice.
If this sounds familiar to libertarians, it’s because this is exactly how most of them view their model society. In fact, the primary (perhaps only) difference between the two is that social contract theories are said to have happened at some point in the distant past, whereas libertarian social contracts are said to happen at some point in the undefined future, presumably after enough people have read the right literature and have developed the capability to rationalistically plan their societies (a point of view that contains more than a tinge of a belief in the perfectibility of man). Ironically, then, the libertarian view of society and social contract theories are closer to each other than either is to Burke’s “eternal contract.”
Then why the libertarian objection? Because both social contract theories and the eternal contract impose limits and duties on man living in society. Specifically, these concepts impose involuntary duties on individuals (and we know how loathe most libertarians are to admit the validity of involuntary duties). Since the only duties that many libertarians can conceive as being valid are those that are voluntarily assented to (a topic dealt with here) any perspective on society in which a person is born already having responsibilities is anathema. It is only in this way that social contract theories and the eternal contract are analogous (and even here, for a multiplicity of reasons, the analogy is strained).
But does libertarian theory have a valid alternative? Say the perfect libertarian system is designed and voluntarily assented to. What happens after a generation? Do the individuals who are born into that society have to voluntarily agree to the conditions of it? Can they shout, “I never signed anything!” until they are given the opportunity to do so? And, if so, at what age, and who gets to determine that age, and who gets to say to future generations that that is the proper age to make such a determination? What’s readily apparent is that libertarian social contract theory at best solves these questions for a generation, at which point individuals find themselves living in a society in which they have involuntary duties. The strict advocates of voluntaryism have no solutions that don’t either require every man to be a “rational chooser,” or that don’t impose involuntary duties on him that he must accept non-rationally.
The first of these solutions is laughably unrealistic, and so we are left with the second, and here we are back to the eternal contract, in which not all duties are voluntary, least of all the duty to take what has been given and pass it on. Scruton writes,
We can envisage a society as founded in contract only if we see its members as capable of the free and responsible choice that a contract requires. But only in certain circumstances will human beings develop into rational choosers, capable of undertaking obligations and honouring promises, and oriented towards one another in a posture of responsibility. In the course of acquiring this posture towards others, people acquire obligations of quite another kind - obligations to parents, to family, to place and community, upon all of which they have depended for the nurture without which the human animal cannot develop into the human person. Those obligations are not obligations of justice, such as arise from the free dealings of human adults. The Romans knew them as obligations of piety (pietas), meaning that they stem from the natural gratitude towards what is given…
People settle by acquiring a first-person plural - a place, a community and a way of life that is 'ours.'The need for this 'we' is not accepted by internationalists, by revolutionary socialists, or by intellectuals wedded to the Enlightenment's timeless, placeless vision of the ideal community. But it is a fact, and indeed the primary fact from which all community and politics begin.
The ”eternal contract” is not some staid theory of legal contract. It is an understanding of our duties as individuals living in a society that is not of our creation, and is thus not subject to our wills and whims. “Conservatism,” Scruton believes, “is the philosophy of attachment. We are attached to the things we love, and wish to protect them against decay.” One wonders if, in his demand for rigidly logical society, the libertarian risks losing his ability to love at all.