Why does everyone misunderstand social contract theory?

Bryan Caplan is out today with a weird piece about social contract theory.

I remember Princeton’s Honor Code whenever I hear someone defend social contract theory. Admittedly, there are many version of social contract theory; maybe yours is reasonable. But lots social contractarians – especially Hobbes and his numerous heirs – unreasonably try to ground morality itself in contract.

This is just wrong. For some reason, libertarians especially have a hard time understanding what social contract theory actually is. Many of them — Caplan included — seem to think that social contract theory rests upon the notion that literal human beings set out to make literal contracts with one another, and that such contracts define the parameters of political institutions and morality.

For those who bother to actually slog through the texts of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Rawls, and the others, it is clear that the social contract is an expository device. It is not intended to be a description of any historical contract or a prescription for individuals to make one. Instead, the social contract device simply confronts readers with this question: if we needed to come to a reasonable agreement about the parameters of our political and social institutions, what would that agreement be?

The social contract — along with the state of nature or the original position — are hypothetical notions. They are thought experiments conjured up for the purpose of determining which political institutions are fair and just. According to social contract theorists, we can determine which institutions are fair and just by looking at the considered, reasonable judgments of free and equal persons. The state of nature puts individuals in free and equal positions, and the contract bargaining scenario forces them to make considered, reasonable judgments.

How do we know what free and equal persons would reasonably agree to? That is where the social contract arguments come in, and social contract theorists differ on that point. The important point here, however, is that the social contract is not supposed to be an actual contract that generates binding contractual obligations, as Caplan seems to think. The social contract is meant to be an expository device that helps us figure out what kind of social and political institutions are fair and just. One should submit to those institutions not because of a contractual obligation, but because justice and fairness are good things.

I am not arguing here that the thought experiment of the social contract is a good one to follow, or that it generates correct conclusions about social and political institutions. I am however insisting that those who seek to criticize it actually know what social contract theory actually is. Many, it seems, do not.