In his book Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes discusses liberty and the social contract. According to Hobbes, liberty is defined as “the absence of opposition (by opposition, I mean external impediments of motion)” (Ch 21, p.136). He argues that this state of liberty is the natural state of man but also leads to warfare and a troubled life due to the exercise or violation of rights. To address this issue, Hobbes suggests individuals should relinquish their natural rights and form a social contract with a sovereign for order. However, it raises the question of how much liberty remains for individuals within the social contract. Hobbes explains that “The liberty of a subject lies…in those things which…the sovereign has permitted” (Ch 21, p.138).
The passage emphasizes that laws created by the sovereign limit individuals’ freedom, as they surrender their natural rights and liberty through a social contract. Consequently, subjects can only freely partake in personal activities like eating, sleeping, daily business dealings, and child-rearing. Nonetheless, after entering into the social contract, individuals face restrictions on their liberty and movement unless the sovereign has not imposed regulations or it is impractical to do so.
According to Hobbes, the main argument is that in order to escape the war-torn state of nature, we must surrender our natural rights and submit to the authority of the sovereign. In return, the sovereign establishes a peaceful society. Therefore, we enter into a social contract where ultimate power rests with the sovereign, who is not bound by this agreement but retains all their inherent rights and is accountable only to God. Why does the sovereign keep their freedom while we are only allowed what they choose not to regulate? The reason is that the sovereign utilizes their freedom for our benefit. In theory, every action taken by them can be attributed to us since we are considered as the ultimate authority behind their decisions. It serves both parties’ interests for the sovereign to act in our favor since it also benefits them.