The Social Contract: Theories and Practice

Vietnam Case study: reflections on the role of the State

Reflections[1] on international standards in education is an ongoing process among Vietnamese educators as the country opened its economy and needs competent managers and workers to serve the economy. The most urgent priority is to align with international standards, starting with the role of the State in society and its role in the economy. Under the assumption that Vietnam has fully integrated into the global system of governance as defined by the UN Charter and abides by international standards and norms set by different UN agencies, we propose to review different theories of good governance that were the premise of what today’s world should be. In this essay, we have limited ourselves to the literature that discusses the ‘Impact of State interventionism in the Economy’.

[1] Anh Tho Andres, Doctoral Thesis. Restructuration des entreprises publiques au Vietnam, Paris 2018. English translation of exerpts by Anh Tho Andres (2021)


The literature review on the theories of the “Social Contract” lays the basis for reflections on the rights and obligations of the Citizen towards the State but also those of the State towards the people who elected him. Good governance is essential to defend sovereignty and ensure the economic prosperity of the country. It also includes the art of governing and the justification of the role of the State in the economy. Similar to other post-colonial nations, the question on the role of the State (understood by the Vietnamese as the government) in the new configuration is a debate that has shaken many generations of Vietnamese until today.

Reading theories on political philosophy on this topics may help to set the standards to justify the historical turning point that led to the political schism in 1954, dividing the country into two distinct nations, liberal South Vietnam, and socialist-oriented North Vietnam. Post-75 ideological schism continues with re-unified Vietnam under the control of a unique Party, the VCP, and the Diaspora of over 5 million who are relocated in different countries, mainly in Europe, America and some parts of East and Southeast Asia. While the official political line of the ruling Party is pretty clear, the diaspora political sentiments are still scattered between the two trends.

Rousseau (5) introduced the concept of “social contract” as a principle of political law. His idea was taken up and developed later by economists and theorists in political philosophy: Liberal thinkers like Smith (6), Keynes (37), Sen (7) and Rawls (8) introduced other principles related to the role of the state in the economy and its social responsibility. On the other hand, interventionists and Marxist thinkers often using force to control the population. This trend is represented by Hobbes (9), Hegel (10), Machiavelli (11), and in particular, Marx (12) whose theory will be applied by communist regimes in the Soviet Union (13) or other totalitarian regimes described by Arendt (14).

In liberal economies, several political parties coexist and contribute to the management of the economy through institutions provided for in their Constitution. The principle of pluralism is accepted and practiced in the majority of democracies. At the state level, the tripartite principle according to Locke (3) and Montesquieu (4) allows a balance of legislative, executive and judicial powers. This principle of tri-partite balance of power laid the foundation for the principles of ‘democracy’. In a State which adopts the ‘rule of law’ principles, democratic rights operate on the principle of the separation of powers: political parties can express their opinions freely through the press or through a referendum as in the case of Switzerland. People with voting rights express their confidence by voting on the deputies who represent them. 

In totalitarian economies, to stay in power, the authorities surround themselves with a very effective repression apparatus which dominates the population with terror. Any attempt at opposition (whether written or oral) that contradicts the official discourse can lead to arbitrary arrests, without possible recourse to justice, according to Werth (15). The principles of ‘tripartite separation of powers’ advocated by Locke and Montesquieu are absent in the Constitution of these regimes. The principle of ‘freedom and human rights’ promoted in  the UN Charter got its root from the debates between the two trends.  

Classical authors like Confucius (22), Machiavelli (11), Hobbes (9), Locke (3), Montesquieu (4), Kant (19), and Hegel (10) laid the foundations of ‘Justice and the role of the rule of law and ethical governanc’  based on respect of human life and moral principles. On the other hand, Rousseau (5) and Marx (12) raised awareness on political issues resulting from social inequality and laid an important foundation for the study of the social sciences and the organisation behaviours of the State.

Apart from the role of the State as a political entity, the debate on the active role of the State in the Economy between, on the one hand, liberal thinkers like Smith (6), Ricardo (17), Hayek (31), Friedman (34) and on the other, defenders of State interventionism such as Keynes (37), Marx (12), etc. has generated a great divergence between theorists and the practice of their theories. In 21C, contemporary economists such as Friedman (34), Hayek (31), Piketty (33) focus more on the role of Capital applied to  global governance. 

To govern the World in an efficient manner, international standards and norms are set up on the basis of mutual understanding and consensus. The UN Charter laid out the fundamental values that govern the behaviours of nation-states who are members of this organisation. The governments of these nation-states must learn to abide to the standards set by different Councils in various sectors such as Education, Environment, Health, Security, Defense, Space Control, etc.

The Role of the State in Society – The Social Contract

The ‘social contract’ concept has been the subject of studies by social thinkers and economists on the role of the State and its obligations towards the People and vice versa. According to Pufendorf (18), the fundamental concepts of natural law revolve around the concept of the raw state of nature where all men are equal. Subsequently, the idea of the social contract or contract of association between men of the same community who unite to fight against external dangers was born. Among the major philosophical contributions on this subject, we retain three major trends: the contract of submission or the absolutism of the State represented in  Hobbes (9), Machiavelli (11), Confucius (22) works, while the principle of sovereignty and the social responsibility of the State towards its citizens is important for Hegel (10), Kant (19) and Rousseau (5).

The Principles of the Philosophy of Law

The epistemology of the philosophy of law is important in the understanding and interpretation of the development policy of modern states. On the relationship between the State, Ethics and Morality, Hegel (10) considers that “The State is the means by which individuals integrate their role in the ethical life of society, as part of a larger whole. If morality aims at the transformation of individuals, ethical life is present in all of their daily activities on the three important levels of social life: the family, civil society, and the State.” 

Kant (19) left an important legacy on the question of morality. His project on the theme of perpetual peace was  ‘To bring States out of the war of all against all’. “To make the association of states possible, [he suggested…] reforming the states from within by making them adopt a republican constitution which allows the principle of the separation of legislative power and executive power. […] From this reform of the States, an alliance between sovereign States can be envisaged which would collaborate in peace because they are dependent on each other. Thus, the spirit of commerce will be possible between peoples and allows war to be avoided”.

On another continent, while European philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment were still seeking inspiration on questions of ethics and the responsibility of the Monarch towards his people, the Sages of India had already – before the birth of the Buddha – advocated ontology through the worship of virtues guiding monarchs in their administrative function. In terms of  moral teachings, they also left behind a significant cultural heritage: La Bhagavadgita (20) and  the Upanishads (21) are philosophical works which seeked the supreme truth and focused on the conquest of oneself. Centuries later, Gandhi embodied these philosophies in his policy of non-violence to settle differences among his fellow citizens of 834 million voters (speaking twenty-eight national languages) to unite against the Anglo-Saxon imperialists. 

Thus, contrary to the European opinion of Persian, Chinese, Japanese or Indian empires, that Asiatic despotism resulting from “the absence of any political structure, any institution, and any moderation” was  characteristic of the time, the literature of the Asiatic Sages shows that, five hundred years before Christ, Confucius (22) had already laid the pillars of the principles of governance which are still in force today, according to Anne Cheng (23). 

One example of such advanced thoughts was ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu (24), the first treatise on military strategy, written six centuries before the Christian era. In this treatise, the reader is introduced to the five elements to be taken into account in the development of a strategy, namely, the ‘Tao’, the climatic conditions, the ‘Yin’ and the ‘Yang’, the conditions geographic, ‘Feng Shui’, the art of governing and mobilizing people, ‘leadership’, as well as the organization of society and people or ‘governance’. Like the teachings of Confucius (22), The Art of War argues that the harmony between these five elements is a prerequisite for a successful campaign. It shows how reflection can lead to victory, and how the analysis of the enemy’s weaknesses can form the basis of a tactic if one knows how to exploit them and even aggravate them. It emphasizes the psychology of combat and the importance of cunning and flight. Levi (24) noted that “winning or losing a war does not happen by chance, nor by the intervention of gods or spirits. It is a question of method and strategy.”

Similarly, already in the Edo period, the Samurai received from an early age an education preparing them for Bushido (25), or the “way of the Samurai”, a code of honor and traditional morality governing the duty of loyalty to the Emperor who embodied Yamato, or the soul of the country, according to Frédéric (25) and Fukuyama (27).

However, Western curricula on philosophical studiest refer more to the wisdom teachings of Aristotle, Plato and Marcus Aurelius and the Greco-Roman civilization that forms the foundation of Western civilization today. Thus, the themes on the state-citizen relationship and the art of governing have been taken up by authors such as Machiavelli (11) Hobbes (9) and Montesquieu (4) whose writings are still relevant today. The influence of Machiavelli (11) is still very present among the great politicians of our time. The political model he recommends is based on political realism and the art of governing, because 

“The Machiavellian Prince must be endowed with moral and political virtues (based on cunning and force), he must master the art of war, the sole object of power. The Prince must always win the sympathy of the people and rely on the powerful. Reason of State must take precedence over respect for morality.” His famous statement on  ‘Divide and Conquer’ is still often used in political discource of  some realist  politicians and strategists.

Hobbes (9) exposes his conception of the state-citizen relationship in these words: “The State […] is created by man for his own defense against the state of nature […] Due to the insecurity of the state of nature, the social contract which founds the state of society is a tender contract. In other words, the Hobbesian theory advocates that citizens owe obedience to the state in order to gain, in return, the security and protection of their property. In a way, Hobbesian theory joins the Confucian principles which recommend absolute obedience to the Monarch, which partly justifies the behavior of certain States qualified as totalitarians in the recent past such as Nazi Germany, the Soviet Gulag, or the dictatorships of Latin American or African countries.

The Principle of the Division of Powers

Locke (3) declared that “man in the state of nature enjoys two powers and a fundamental right: the power to ensure his own conservation, the power to punish anyone who threatens their life and the right of ownership limited to what is necessary for its conservation. On the state-citizen relationship, he advocated that through the conditional submission contract, individuals give up on condition their power to preserve themselves and the power to punish for the benefit of the body politic, [and that] the rule in civil status is that of the majority and not [that] of the absolute authority of an all-powerful body. This reasoning lays the foundations of the democratic state, which functions on the principle of the ‘division of powers’ [legislative and executive]. However, it should be noted that Locke did not distinguish the power to apply the law [properly executive power], from the authority to punish the offender [the judiciary].

Montesquieu (4) also contributed to the concept of the division of powers by drawing inspiration from the model of the English monarchy. For him, the function of the legislature is to create laws and that of the executive is to enforce a law, while that of the judiciary is to enforce the law in the name of Justice. This constitutional principle has been adopted by many constitutions of modern democratic countries as the best guarantee against the abuse of power. It makes it possible to protect the natural rights of the citizen on the basis of the social pact between the State and the Citizen developed by Rousseau (5). Montesquieu advocates that the laws should allow a people to live in harmony on the principle of respect for values and mutual interests because of the diversity between people, cultures and the geographical and climatic conditions of each country.

Rousseau, Rawls and Sen have contributed to developing the concepts of equality and justice in the articulation of the principles of Human Rights, a theme taken up by the Charter (16) of the United Nations. Rawls set out two first principles of justice, namely that, “each person must have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic freedoms for all, compatible with the same system for all, [and that] economic inequalities and social policies must be such that they are to the greatest benefit of the most disadvantaged and that they are attached to functions and positions open to all in accordance with the principle of just equal opportunities.”

These remarks sparked a debate among his contemporaries including Walzer, Nozicz, Sandel, and Nussbaum, among others (26). In particular, Nussbaum used the capacity approach, i.e. real opportunities based on personal and social context, unlike the approach using GDP as a measure of the wealth of countries according to the modern concept of management. On this point, she is of the opinion that the value brought within a community is not only made by counting on material achievements, but it is also necessary to count the cultural and spiritual values which are important in the Japanese, Tibetan,  Egyptian or Greek societies.

This is also Fukuyama’s (27) message where he claims capacities (or values) were already found in the time of patriarchal societies where family ties were still important. Anthropological studies have shown that there is a link between the social virtues and the prosperity of these communities without the too rigid intervention of the law and its institutions. The priest or the monk of the village played the role of civil society nowadays, which is to ensure that the principles of Justice, Equality and Freedom are in harmony with the rules of life within a community. The goal of peace between the different communities was to share equitably the common resources to live better together while enriching each other without destroying each other’s social ethics. His essay “The End of History and the Last Man” written during the fall of the Berlin Wall has been considered one of the most important essays of the end of the 20th century, marking the ideological victory of liberal democracy on other political ideologies. For his part, Aron (28) noted that the achievements of civilization are not achieved overnight but require a long period of learning to live together according to standards and rules accepted on both sides in a community, whether it be in a village or in a country.

The Social Pact between the State and the Citizen

On the relationship between the State and the citizen, Rousseau analyzes the contractual relationship between a legitimate government, elected by the people by consent, according to which principles of justice and utility are articulated in order to achieve the natural harmony of wills and the interests of individuals, known as the principle of liberal individualism and democracy. Questions of inequality and property and questions of freedom and sovereignty are dealt with so that society and legitimate laws, founded on a ‘real contract’, represent the agreement of wills by the voting system, and that the “social contract implies a total and unconditional surrender by each individual of their own natural rights in order to obtain the rights associated with citizenship. In the light of these ideas, active participation in political life by exercising one’s rights as a citizen while respecting the laws issued for the protection of the well-being of responsible citizens. The confidence of the people is a vital element in the idea of representative democracy, and the rule of law is an ultimate expression of this delegated democracy.

To be continued ./.


Published by Anita H.

Expert in Intercultural Communication, navigating between 4 cultures and 5 languages which I use daily for work and leisure. Author of blogs on wordpress and blogspot on SBI Training Solutions Projects: vietnamhoc, yourvietnamexpert, yourvietbooks,

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