Hobbes has two social contracts: the commonwealth by institution (ch. 18) and the commonwealth by acquisition (ch. 20). On the face of it, they differ in the following ways.
Hobbes maintained that the two social contracts are essentially the same despite these apparent differences. We discussed the cogency of his reasoning.
One theme of absolutist political theory was that sovereigns are not accountable to their subjects. One of Hobbes’s arguments for this conclusion was that sovereigns are not parties to the social contract (18.4). So what happens when the sovereign is a party to the social contract?
The trick for Hobbes is to show that the sovereign in the commonwealth by acquisition wouldn’t be rendered accountable to the subjects or that the sovereign’s hold on office is subject to conditions laid out in a social contract. That’s what he wanted to achieve by saying that the sovereign isn’t part of the social contract in the commonwealth by institution. If he can reach the same result with the sovereign’s participation in the social contract in the commonwealth by acquisition, then he’s OK. Otherwise, he’s got a problem.
Is the social contract in the commonwealth by acquisition signed under duress and hence invalid? It certainly looks that way.
Hobbes’s answer was that the social contract in the commonwealth by acquisition is no worse than the social contract in the commonwealth by institution. Both are motivated by fear. The only difference is that in the commonwealth by institution, the parties to the social contract are afraid of one another. In the commonwealth by acquisition, they’re afraid of the future sovereign. He reasoned that if fear of death shows the one contract is invalid, it should have the same implication for the other. Since he also thought it was obvious that it has to be possible to form a social contract, he concluded they are both valid.
Tena disagreed. She thought there is a big difference between making a covenant with the person who is threatening you and making a covenant with someone in response to threats from a third party.
Eliot wasn’t persuaded either. Hobbes’s strategy was to start with the thought that the commonwealth by institution contract is valid. Then he used the premise that they’re fundamentally the same to show that the commonwealth by acquisition contract is valid. But Eliot thought it should go the other way around: the contract in the commonwealth by acquisition is invalid, the two contracts are fundamentally the same, therefore the contract in the commonwealth by institution must be invalid too. If that means the state can’t be established by consent, then what follows for Eliot is that the state must be established with something other than consent.
In addition to arguing that the process of forming the social contract is the same in both cases, Hobbes argued that the rights given to the sovereign would be the same as well. Sovereigns have absolute powers regardless of whether they came from the commonwealth by institution or by the commonwealth by acquisition.
Most people say that the commonwealth by institution story is the primary one for Hobbes. I disagree. I think it’s the commonwealth by acquisition story that is the real story of the origins of the state. It’s just so much more realistic: “there is scarce a commonwealth in the world, whose beginnings can in conscience be justified” (Review and Conclusion, ¶8).
So what is the commonwealth by institution story doing? Hobbes presented both social contracts to argue that the sovereign would have absolute powers even if the process had been peaceful, as in the commonwealth by institution. Consequently, those living in actual states, which were formed by conquest or fraud, should not think that they would have more freedom or rights if the state had different, more palatable origins. The commonwealth by institution story is meant to show that even a highly idealized social contract would give the sovereign absolute power. So the two alternatives, according to him, were absolute government or the state of nature.