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At the heart of representative government is the question: “What makes government and its agents legitimate authorities?” The notion of consent as a social contract between the citizen and his government is central to this problem. That contract allows the government to rule over the citizen and to exact obedience from him in return for certain protections and goods he needs.
While few quarrel with the broad outlines of this “liberal” doctrine of governing, questions arise about the limits of consent and of contract. What are the functions of public authority? What are the people’s rights in a self-governing and representative state? It is at this point that Patrick Riley’s new book enters contemporary debate with a comprehensive historical analysis of the meaning of contract theory and a testing of the inherent validity of the ideas of consent and obligation.
Riley’s distinctive contribution is in making of “will” the foundation of consent and promise and thereby of political obligations. His is the first large-scale study of social contract theory from Hobbes to Rawls that gives “will” the central place it occupies in contractarian thinking. He uncovers the critical relationship between the act of willing and that of consenting in self-government and shows how “will” relates to political legitimacy.