Elgar Handbook of Civil War and Fragile States
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Elgar Handbook of Civil War and Fragile States

Edited by Graham K. Brown and Arnim Langer

The Elgar Handbook of Civil War and Fragile States brings together contributions from a multidisciplinary group of internationally renowned scholars on such important issues as the causes of violent conflicts and state fragility, the challenges of conflict resolution and mediation, and the obstacles to post-conflict reconstruction and durable peace-building.
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Chapter 5: Conflict and the social contract

Syed Mansoob Murshed


The rational choice approach has put forward two competing hypotheses that explain civil war in developing countries: greed and grievance; see Murshed (2010, ch. 3) for a survey where it is suggested that although these may be necessary conditions for the outbreak of large-scale violence, they are not, however, sufficient. There must be other factors at work, related to the institutional failure to resolve conflict peacefully. Addison and Murshed (2006) label these mechanisms as the ‘social contract’. Thus, even when capturable resource rents constitute a sizeable prize (greed), violent conflict is unlikely to take hold in states with a framework of widely agreed rules, formal and informal, that govern resource allocation and the peaceful settlement of grievances. Such a viable social contract can be sufficient to restrain conflict, and following its collapse on the road to war, reconstructing a new social contract is key to long-term conflict resolution. Turning to the history of notions of the social contract in political philosophy, Thomas Hobbes characterized the state of nature as anarchical, akin to perpetual war, with each man taking what he could and no legal basis for right or wrong (Sabine 1961). Consequently, it was in the interest of individuals to collectively surrender their personal freedom of action to a ruler (absolute monarch) in return for personal security and rule-based interactions in society. This type of social contract may be described as vertical. If Hobbes regarded war as the natural state of man, John Locke had a more felicitous view of the state of nature. Locke regarded the right to life and property (often access to common resources) as a natural right, which existed in the state of nature. These rights could not be properly enforced in the state of nature, except through mutual self-help. In civil society, it was the duty of the sovereign to enforce these natural rights; rule ought to be based on consent; society should have the right to oust a tyrant or failing ruler. Hence, Locke advocates what might be termed a ‘horizontal’ social contract. In general, political theories of the social contract base authority and the exercise of power on rational self-interest, as well as consent, and as such their aim is the avoidance of large-scale violence in a well-ordered society (ibid.).

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