The Invisible Contract: Agreement and Convention in Social Life

28 Pages Posted: 6 Jun 2019

Date Written: January 1, 2019


The metaphors of the “social contract” and the “indivisible hand” loom large in the history of political economy and political philosophy. Nevertheless, the two ideas are typically held to be in conflict. Social contracts are “made orders,” while invisible hand processes are not. Social contracts require agreement and will while invisible hand processes work as the result of human action but not design. The tension between these two ideas, I argue creates a disequilibrium between politics and economics in modern thought: either the market or the political order must have supremacy. This tension, I argue, can be dissolved if we understand social contracts as dynamic processes of micro-agreement that are explained as macro emergent or spontaneous orders. This understanding of a social contract is more consistent with political economy and better suited for the “open society” as I describe it. This approach also helps to clarify some puzzles about spontaneous orders and invisible hand processes. In so doing, I argue, that the insights of Adam Smith, Hayek, and the social contract theorists are best understood as different aspects of a unified approach to social theory.

Keywords: Social Contract, Contractualism, Contractarianism, Conventions, Social Evolution, John Rawls, Hayek

Suggested Citation

Thrasher, John, The Invisible Contract: Agreement and Convention in Social Life (January 1, 2019). Available at SSRN: or

John Thrasher (Contact Author)

Chapman University ( email )

Orange, CA 92866
United States
7146287343 (Phone)

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