Our Broken Social Contract


I find it exceedingly difficult to think about flourishing or sustainability under the immediate circumstances, but I have a gnawing sense that it is very important to maintain my focus. Life in the US has come to a halt, not in the sense of everyday activities, although the shutdown of government has clearly stopped some people’s lives in mid-stride. As it so often happens, some other unrelated event has accentuated my concerns here. Synchronicity at work once again. My wife and I are part of an informal group that meets from time to time to discuss what is upon our minds. We try to pick “large” topics that bear on today’s world. This month the topic we chose is “The Social Contract.”

I haven’t thought seriously about this since my freshman year at MIT when I took a course on the history of Western thought leading up to our contemporary civilization. I pulled out my textbook for the course, which I have carefully saved to use in such situations as I am in right now, and scanned the chapters on the Enlightenment thinkers from whom this idea came. It’s primarily a reader containing extracts from great thinkers with a little commentary. I, like so many others, have grown intellectually very lazy and am loath to spend the time it takes to read the original documents and tease out the core ideas. So I went to the Internet and, presto, was inundated by wondrous interpretations of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, the men from whose works this idea took shape. I am not going to parse through these here, but use them as the context for a few comments on the stalemate in Washington.

Historians are pretty much of a single mind that the origins of the American system of governance sprung directly from these thinkers’ products. The three giants here spoke quite differently about the topic, but touched upon a number of common ideas: consent of the governed, protection of private property, rational human beings, adjudication of disputes without going to war, the need of some sort of sovereign (Locke thought this would be unnecessary because the power of human rationality would produce a peaceful result by itself), and a few other foundational beliefs. All three used the concept of a “state of nature” prior to any made contract. The privileges (rights) afforded in coming to a social contract were balanced with a set of obligations to act according to the moral implications created by such a contract. Socrates anticipated the Enlightenment thinkers arguing that, since it is the polis that creates the conditions for a good life, its rules must be obeyed. and thus eventually drank the hemlock he was ordered to.

We are perilously close to returning to a state of nature and may already be getting there. So how have we gotten into the mess we are in? It is, indeed a mess. A very complex and debatable question, but I will try to hit a few reasons. Fundamental to all these thinkers was the notion of rationality; humans were driven by an internal mechanism that would figure out the best course under the immediate situation. This was Hobbes’ concept of human nature, mirroring Newton’s work on finding the rules governing natural processes. Hobbes saw this mechanistic nature as serving one’s self-interest and also as insatiable. So in cases of disputes over property, for example, it was rational to create and legitimate a “sovereign” to resolve such disputes as an alternative to killing one another. This idea came following a long historical period in which war was almost universal. These men differed over the form of the sovereign; whether is should be a single person (monarch) or a representative body. Given that the early Americans were fleeing the dominating power of a Monarch, it comes as no surprise that they selected a representative body as the sovereign. Locke added the notion that all humans were equal and deserved an equal shot at the available resources. The notion of power was only implicitly addressed and was tempered by the presumption that rationality would counter attempts at domination.

The first thing that comes to mind it that we are not quite the rational beings they thought. Modern game theory, with it’s Prisoner’s Dilemma, has shown that we fail to maximize our utilities under certain circumstances. The failure of rationality has opened the door to power as the means by which arguments and disputed are settled. No surprise, but surely a factor in what is going on. The model of our Congress is that of a deliberative body, one where decisions emerge from rational argumentation. I suspect that Congress never operated that way, certainly not fully, but at least honored the concept. Not so today. Debate is a sham. Decisions are made by applying raw power and since money has become power, by the force of moneyed interests. In the absence of a sense of a contract with the all the people, some losers in these “debates” completely fail to see the broad social interest being served and go away mad.

Further in this economically driven society, money is the ultimate symbol and measure of one’s self-interest. Rational arguments, which necessarily involve other factors of human well-being, are virtually impossible. Appeal to reason simply won’t and doesn’t work any more. Adam Smith’s view of human beings was that of empathetic creatures who measured well-being by the nature of relationships. Clearly a much better ground for a social contract than the mechanistic model of Hobbes that however won.

The sovereign in all the models has a responsibility to all the people, an idea engrained in the seminal document of the USA, The Declaration of Independence. Again, this critically important notion has become lost. Parties revolve about separate sets of ideologies but must be willing to negotiate in all the people are to be served. These ideas have always been debated; recent scholars have found racial and gender biases in the writing of these men. But, by and large, they have worked.

But our immediate crises (quite a few) signal, I believe strongly, that we have reverted to a state of nature where the previous contract needs to be severely redesigned, not merely tinkered with, if we are to maintain peace within our boundaries. I am deeply worried that the peace that has lasted since the end of the Civil War is in trouble, especially given the vast quantities of arms in the hands of those moving into the state of nature. Tribal warfare captures much of the headlines everyday. Is is possible here in the US that we will fight among the several socially and politically diverse tribes? I am no Prophet of Doom, but I believe this threat is rising. Not only is the presence of so many guns an issue, but the concentration of money power in a very small number of people adds to the instability. The Enlightenment thinkers were not only concerned with the protection of property by the sovereign, but with the inequality and unfairness of its distribution.

So what to do? A central theme of all my work on flourishing and sustainability is that our problems are unintended consequences of a cultural machine that is based on the wrong root beliefs and cannot be made to work effectively until we get at and change those root causes. It is imperative to take a systems view going all the way to the roots. Tinkering with the system without getting at these roots will not change much, except perhaps by temporarily mitigating a few of the immediate breakdowns.

The avoidance of domination by the powerful was central to these thinkers. Their concerns reflected centuries of such domination by the Church and by those claiming some Divine legitimacy for their domination. These particular circumstances are no longer with us (in the West), but have been replaced by an uncanny and ominous parallel. Compared to their time, we have a new and different kind of God in the United States, private property and particularly money or wealth. And those with an inordinate amount of money have declared themselves “kings” with the right to impose their wills on the people as a whole. This analogy gives me the shakes even as I write it down; it seems so clear. And of course, Citizens United, gave even more legitimacy to these new kings’ claims of speaking for the God of money and power.

If any or all of this makes sense, then it is time to renew the contract and reconsider the sovereign structure of government. Rewriting the Constitution would be much more difficult than creating it in the first places. Periodic calls for a Constitutional Convention to fix even a small part of it usually come with a warning that we might be opening Pandora’s box. So be it. Tinkering won’t work here any more than it will in bringing us flourishing. It may boil down to this path or to a call to ramparts. No matter how the first course is fraught with both positive and negative possibilities, it is much better than the second. One has only to look at the violence in the world today. We must all become systems thinkers.

(Image: John Locke)