A societal social contract may be thought of as a community whereby everyone is, in no small way, responsible for the health and welfare of everyone in that community.
Rousseau wrote in 1762, as a political statement, in the “Social Contract:” “In this desired social contract, everyone will be free because they all forfeit the same number of rights and impose the same duties on all.” And, “an implicit agreement among the members of a society to cooperate for social benefits, for example by sacrificing some individual freedom for state protection.”
I believe that Rousseau’s sentiment can be expanded, “impose the same duties on all,” to the duty of every citizen is to affect positively every other citizen. In the social contract, every citizen is an indispensable part of the whole. Yes, because no one is an island, apart from the main.
The COVID-19 issue states clearly to me, among other issues in present-day society, why the social contract in America is breaking down. The recent videos by certain policemen speak to this problem: “Freedom is about choice.”
Let me give an example of why the rationale of these policemen is misdirected and the antithesis of the social contract. The efforts to contain the virus are no different as to why we have stop signs and traffic lights. By exercising the rights they claim re the virus, they also must have the right to run stop signs and traffic lights and maim or kill people. Or the right to pollute. It goes on.
One does not have the right to harm others. These policemen believe they have the choice, the right to violate safety measures “according to the Constitution.” In no small way, they are saying I have the right to harm you.
Another depreciation of the contact is by large corporations. The shift in corporate loyalty evolved from developing satisfied workers who had pride in the product to “maximizing shareholder value.” After World War II, American companies were revered; we were innovative, caring for our workers by treating them according to merit.
Today, corporations relish minimum wages which have contributed to enriching shareholders while workers scrap for food and housing. Recently, Kroger, the national grocery chain, and Amazon rescinded the heroes pay of $2/hour while the pandemic is not declining but spreading.
For me, if anything states that America’s social contract is broken, it is littering. Those who litter, from cigarettes at bus stops to Bud Light on thousands of miles of roadsides (on which I have observed while bicycling 125,000 miles for the past 22 years) do not respect their country, their environment, their fellow citizens nor themselves. These are selfish acts without concern for others. The fact that these actions are illegal does not phase as long as no one is looking. This is a prime example of why Americans nor any society cannot be self-governed.
Historically, America has never had a social contract. Beneath the surface and now on the surface, racism and bigotry infected society. This will be the greatest challenge for us. Until we accept all Americans as brothers and sisters in humanity, the contract will never be solidified.
Economist William Lloyd described in 1833, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Simply stated, this is where someone with an advantage (e.g., wealth) pursues their own interest at the expense of others, as corporations are doing today by focusing on shareholders rather than workers.
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary,” — Federalist No. 51 (1788), James Madison.
Americans today are not angels. We are overly competitive at the expense of others, the poor, people of color and even our peers.
The American tragedy now, a nation divided, is that self-interest is revered, no matter how one earned it, your wealth or position matters over who you stepped on to get there.
A recent PBS program was about a mountaineering team climbing a mountain in Greenland that no one ever had. One of the members stated: “Everyone is responsible for everyone else and if someone falls the others must use their strength to save them.”
That is the social contract America needs going forward.
Terry Marasco, Salt Lake City, is a businessman and community activist.