The Social Contract (aka "Haman's Gallows")
No one knows history anymore.
I don't mean those man-in-the-street interviews shaming commoners for not knowing who won the Civil War or which President gave the “I Have A Dream” speech. I’m talking a basic understanding of why we have society.
Western Civilization 101.
You may remember Thomas Hobbes, 17th century political philosopher. If not, you’ll probably at least recognize his oft-cited claim that life in a “state of nature” was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Before civilization, he argued, every man had "perfect freedom." We could all say and do anything we liked, go anywhere we wished. Every individual was sovereign. Hallelujah.
In practice, however, this mostly meant a paranoid scattering of ooga-booga people: me with my dead squirrel and pointy stick, you with your onion and bangy rock. When we encountered one another, I’d shake my pointy stick, and you’d threaten with your bangy rock, and we’d go our separate ways.
Complete freedom is chaos, and extremely limiting, when everyone has it. Nothing lasting can be accomplished because we’re all too... free - and selfish in our freedom.
So, Hobbes argued, men agreed to “lay down” some of their individual rights and give power to a single sovereign, who would make and enforce laws circumscribing a peaceful society. This “social contract” allowed individuals to partake of a wider range of “natural rights” - stuff like life, liberty, and property - and to specialize their interests, now that they could put down their pointy sticks.
Some became hunters, others craftsmen, etc., and they’d trade as needed. Economies of scale enable some members of society to invent instruments and create music, tell stories for entertainment or edification, or even establish an educational system.
Not everyone does the same thing, and not everyone benefits in the same way from every other person’s trade or function. Sometimes when we’re meeting our collective obligations, it feels like we’re doing it for others - but fundamentally we’re doing it for ourselves, so we can have onion with our squirrel while listening to some jazz.
Ultimately, it helps each of us when we find a place for all of us. On the whole, it’s good for each of us when we learn to value all of us.
John Locke’s version of the “social contract” was similar, but had some important distinctions you might recognize…
He agreed with Hobbes that the difficulties associated with the “state of nature” required a social contract to assure peace, but Locke argued that natural rights such as life, liberty, and property already existed in that state of nature, before society or government. They may not always be honored in practice, but they could never be taken away or even voluntarily given up - they are “inalienable” (sound familiar?)
Governments, operating by consent of the people, should be dedicated to enforcing and protecting these natural rights, he said. If a sovereign violated them, the social contract was broken, and the people had the right to revolt and establish a new government.
For those of you who slept through history class, Thomas Jefferson borrowed heavily from Locke when he wrote our Declaration of Independence.
In practice, our Framers’ initial realization of the social contract was limited. Pragmatic. But the words they chose weren’t pragmatic - they were idealistic. The Declaration they issued wasn’t practical, or economically biased, or racially segregated - it was striving for something bigger than any of them could have conceived would ever be possible.
If the Constitution is about setting up laws - like, say, the Old Testament - then the Declaration is about Platonic ideals and reaching above the logistics - like the Gospels and the Letters of Paul.
For those of you who didn’t go to Sunday School (tsk tsk!), the Old Testament is about taking care of US - the CHOSEN people, the GOOD people. It’s rather harsh for most everyone else - the OTHER, the UNCLEAN.
The New Testament is about treating everyone like they ARE the GOOD people; it’s about setting aside what’s immediately best for the CHOSEN in order to bring everyone into the US.
It’s delusionally idealistic in the bestest possible way. Its centerpiece involves God’s own perfect offspring dying at the hands of the unwashed - a “loss” by mortal standards. But in “higher reality,” it’s a win - a model for setting aside our own temporal gain for the good of others.
Do that, and it helps you in the long run as well - or so proclaims The Book. Weird, right?
The New Testament may be TRUE, but it’s far from PRACTICAL. The most devout aren’t interested in pragmatic compromises; they’re committed to IDEALS.
People of faith and Americans of conscience face a similar question: Do we want to accept what’s pragmatic, or do we want to BELIEVE?
Do we want to settle for compromises and logistics, tweaking via Amendment or reinterpretation from time to time, as we’ve done with our Constitution and (to a less-admitted extent) our scriptures; or do we want to strive for the ideals that are the ENTIRE REASON for either document to exist in the first place?
American history, for all its sin and hypocrisy, is a stuttering surge towards equality - a messy quest for “all men are created equal” and “unalienable rights.” Along the way we’ve repeatedly stopped to wrestle with our social contract.
I don’t like music. Do I still have to put down my rock and share my squirrel?
I don’t drive on that highway. Why does my gas cost more to maintain it?
What if I have private insurance? Why should I pay more to help that craftsman who doesn’t?
What if my economic success is based on someone else’s lack of freedom? Why should I suffer just so she can have ‘unalienable rights’?
What if my kids don’t go to public schools? Why should I contribute to the well-being of the whole if I’m not utilizing this one particular service?
Aren’t you punishing success to coddle the bottom feeders?
Sometimes, yeah. But most of the time we’re trying to maintain the social contract. The one where we each give up some freedoms and take on some responsibilities for the good of the whole.
It may feel like we’re doing it for them. We start to believe we’re sacrificing - with or without our consent - for the UNCLEAN. That the basic rights and freedoms of the US, the CHOSEN, are being TAKEN to serve the OTHER.
Except we’re not doing it for them - we never were. Ultimately, it helps each of us when we find a place for all of us. On the whole, it’s good for each of us when we learn to value all of us.
Katniss Everdeen warned President Snow that fire tends to catch: “If we burn, you burn with us!” She was absolutely correct - when the bell tolls, baby, it tolls for thee whether thou intendeth it or not.
But the converse is equally true - a healthy, productive, educated populace is of benefit to all.
We shouldn’t need to choose who gets access to books and who doesn’t, who deserves health care and who doesn’t, who can obtain employment and who can’t, or who receives equitable treatment under the law and who doesn’t. These things aren’t scarce natural resources; they’re conditions in a properly structured society with an effective social contract.
When we forget this, we start believing we’ve somehow earned our status and comfort, completely outside the social contract and without reference to past sacrifices of others for the common good. We deny history and faith in an effort to re-establish the CHOSEN US.
When we start looking for ways to cut loose “dead weight,” those “holding us back” by “taking advantage,” we deny the social contract and the ideals of both our nation and the religious faith proclaimed by its majority.
In the short term, it gives US more choice, more power, more comfort. In the short term, it allows US to feel CLEANER.
But in the long game, it makes us savages - you with your pointy stick and me with my bangy rock, ready to defend my squirrel at the cost of your blood.
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