It’s election season in America once again, and while this is normally a catalyst for a quadrennial depression as I watch the level of political discourse sink to new, yet hitherto considered unsurpassable lows, there has been a bright spot. Elizabeth Warren, a senatorial candidate in the state of Massachusetts, uttered the magical words “Social Contract” in a stump speech. This theme was then picked up by ultra-distinguished economist and writer Paul Krugman in his recent op-ed piece of the same title in the New York Times.
It’s good for America to be reminded of these two words, even if Warren and Krugman are misusing or corrupting them to some extent. Social contract as a concept refers to our collective willingness to be governed, to submit to a rule of law that places certain reasonable conditions and limits on our individual liberties, in exchange for a safer, more stable society in which to live. We – well, most of us – agree not to commit acts of violence against others , seize their property or otherwise negatively affect their existence, in the trust that the same courtesies will be extended to us.
Americans as a people generally hold dear their personal freedoms and resent any limitations on them as a matter of principal – not unreasonably, since the focus on the individual in the US has given rise to one of the most robust, innovative economic engines in the world. Yet there are abundant concrete examples of the benefits of some limitations beyond those relating to basic rule of law. In the US, driving on the left side of the road is forbidden, because it would disrupt traffic and threaten other drivers’ safety. Most states have enacted broad smoking bans in public places, so non-smokers don’t have to suffer the adverse effects of second-hand tobacco smoke. The Canadian appreciation for social contract might also explain why Canadians are as likely to own firearms as Americans….but are far less likely to use them.
Perhaps this last point is key: maybe it’s more about attitude than it is about binding legislation. Our social contracts weren’t signed and notarized 200+ years ago, but are constantly being negotiated and renegotiated, formally and informally, in response to the times in which we live. Governments govern by our grace alone. A simple awareness of the right to negotiate , of a viable alternative, might be sufficient to enable bi-partite discourse, to change a culture with consensus rather than through the forcible contract rewritings witnessed in recent years.
Social contract isn’t the brand of socialism espoused by Chávez involving nationalization of industries and regulation of domestic markets; if anything, those policies in conjunction with endemic corruption have severely exacerbated social conditions in Venezuela by deepening wealth disparity. But Enlightenment-era social theory is a luxury of the developed world. What Chávez promised (as opposed to delivered ) sounded better than what Venezuela had.
It’s the next generation of Venezuelans who might negotiate a different contract: an emerging critical mass of young people who, thanks to having held a seat in an orchestra, are intellectually and empathetically armed to navigate a philosophical midpoint between dog-eat-dog and top-dog. Yes, there’s fierce competition for a seat in the Símon Bolívar Orchestra, but despite the high entry bar no one is ever left behind, no one is cast out for failing to make the grade/pass the audition. The Hobbesian orchestral context may not be the perfect analogy for just, balanced social contract, but el Sistema as a whole is.
Both Warren and Krugman used the term social contract as a justification for increasing taxes on the wealthy. I’m not certain that such usage is correct, at least in the democratic context of the words as espoused by the English philosopher John Locke (not the guy from the TV show Lost) . Locke’s position was that both value and right of ownership of property derived solely from the investment of labour, suggesting that to separate owners from any of their property after their efforts to give it value was unreasonable, if not unethical. Writing in his 17th Century agrarian/cottage industry-based society, Locke used the words “property” and “labour” quite literally, referring to “land” and “physical toil,” but the concepts are generally transferable. What’s my personal opinion on taxing the wealthy? When I start a political punditry blog, I’ll let you know.
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