Our social contract is something that has seen a lot of straining lately with the change in presidential administrations. Not many people even realize its connection to what they are debating. Are we keeping the ACA or dumping it and is that a contract to pool risk with all of society? Is defunding public schools and restructuring education in America also a revision of our social contract? Our social contract is an invisible thing, very much like the public good, and we interact with it very much like DFW’s famed fish; what the hell is water?
Society requires participation and a lot of unwritten stuff gets agreed upon and lived by. Sometimes it gets written down such as do unto others… and a lot of what is written is the philosophical arm of the public good. Membership to a democracy is a little more specific than merely society and citizens get perks while non citizens do not, even when they often fund the perks by paying taxes. The rules get spelled out and formalized a little more. Taxes get paid, charity is given out, and disputes get settled by rule of law. A well agreed upon social contract keeps us from descending into murderous anarchy. And when we do descend, it keeps us from engaging in barbarous irregular warfare. No one has been burning down the unoccupied summer homes of GOP politicians because our strong social contract says you should not, and yet the GOP is trying to weaken it.
Higher quality more thoughtful social contracts can be designed to spur investment, produce culture, reduce inequality and basically be the high tide that lifts all boats. Single payer health care is freeing entrepreneurs to go off on their own and start new companies. Improving the social contract requires optimism. Pessimism is the erosion and slow opting out of the social contract into every man for himself. Pessimists just can’t see the value of living without need of a gate. They think backing off into armored cars and into a guarded compound is somehow saving them money on taxes and making them freer.
Lets wrap this up quickly. We could quote some Thomas Hobbes, John Locke or Rousseau, but the concept to be able to summon and hold on the tip of your tongue is that of taxes versus charity. “Betsy Devos is trying to take away free school lunches for needy kids.” That is what we hear and we are outraged (think of the children, we cry!), but that is not what is happening. Those kids will get their lunch, but who pays for it will change and that is where the outrage should be.
Currently those lunches are funded by taxes because enough of us believe they are necessary to have them legally embedded into our social contract. Devos change is to force charity to take over (and it will). The change is also the weakening of our social contract where some people are allowed to opt out and back away from their obligations as members of the same society.
The way the numbers historically add up, the burden will disproportionately move to the poor because the money is most likely to be raised locally where it is needed. Communities that need the most will pay the most even though it is hardest for them to do so.
We have this illusion taxes are going down, but only formally. The vast majority of people that do not want to break the social contract of feeding children in need will certainly pay up. The freedom sought by the pessimists is merely to avoid a commonly held sense of responsibility.
Tenets of the social contract, like feeding hungry poor kids, should be absolutely basic and fulfilled with disinterest as opposed to interest. Pessimists seeking freedom to optionally skirt the contract often participate in charity in very high numbers, but with interest. Large donations have names attached and come with leverage and egotistical satisfaction that does not belong there if the social contract holds that tenet as absolutely basic.
Sometimes contractual shifts are nefarious and sometimes they are not because few people can articulate these properties of the social contract (I learned it mostly from John Ralston Saul). There is often a gravity to these shifts, a path of least resistance, and a lot of it has to do with globalism and tax erosion.
We need new strategies for combating vindictive threats to cancel tax funded programs like the National Endowment for the Arts. We shouldn’t only be saying, but art is important!, but the amount is so small! We should be in command of the theory behind the policy change and its relationship to our social contract. Pessimists want to opt out and we either shouldn’t let them or need to convince them why it is so naive.
The right to health care is possibly the biggest renegotiation of our social contract we’ve seen since the civil rights movement. Burdens too often taken up by charity or failing to be met altogether were entering the tax code. The Affordable Care Act took us pretty far and now it is moving backwards, possibly because we did not invoke the language of social contracts. If enough participants in this democracy believe health care should be a right, we should all set a course to pool our risk together reducing the costs for as many individuals as possible.
As the wealthiest large nation, such an improvement to the benefits of being a member of society should not be out of the question. Actually, what are other benefits of being a member of society? There should be some easy to enumerate resources to pursue happiness. There is enough public land to traverse and escape to, to keep a well rounded mind. Somewhere formally it states that when we borrow water we return it clean so it can be re-used without fear (but some are trying to opt out of that responsibility). Our contract states that we are not allowed to be at the mercy of a monopoly and we are allowed to bust them up. Our contract goes on and on.
If an interest group messes with the countless tenets of our social contract they can unlock a lot of money and that is why there is large incentive to do so. The staggering breadth of the contract is why we must know its theory. If we go specific by specific we will become exhausted. We should also not be put in a position for experts on specifics to discredit our intuition, strong common sense should be enough to guide us (though that seems rare these days).
Money unlocked from weakening our social contract is not the creation of prosperity, but merely a transference of burden. It benefits the few at the expense of the vast majority. This is very much similar to how wealth can be robbed from the public good by privatization. GOP plans to lower taxes are often attempts to skirt responsibility veiled as freedom. Our ability to pursue happiness depends on the quality of our social contract. Tearing it up is pessimistic, selfish, and naive. As our nation grows wealthier, we should optimistically strive to strengthen our social contract and be ready to summon language to defend it against inevitable attack.