The Social Contract

By: | April 18, 2017

The America we live in today was built on a long tradition of democratic practices, but the origin of these principles was not all sunshine and roses. In fact, democratic traditions arose out of oppressive European societies that deprived people of their basic human rights and freedom of religion. In the 17th century Europe, only aristocracy had any rights, everyone else was the royal’s subject and therefore had to do what his majesty commanded or face very harsh punishment.

In a fortunate turn of events the revolutions that established the first modern democracies, such as the French Revolution, overcame the power of royal mandate and established a new society based on three founding principles: liberty, equality, and fraternity. The idea of the Social or Political Contract first emerged as far back ago as ancient Mesopotamia, however the concept did not gain wide interest or attention in society until during the European Enlightenment in the early 17th century. By the end of the 18th century, it was a dominant political concept among revolutionaries who were involved in rebellions such as the French Revolution. The Social Contract concerns itself with the question of the origin of the society and the legitimacy of the state’s authority over the individual. Kant, Rousseau, Locke, and many other historically important philosophers argued that all human beings have “natural rights,” however each philosopher defined The Social Contract in different ways.

Despite all the efforts to control the state’s limitless power, governments around the world have abused and are still abusing the power entrusted to them by their citizens, making the social contract theory an ever important topic of discussion and examination.

Short history of inequality

The harsh truth of human life is that our world has never known real or sustained equality in material or even ethical sense. As George Orwell wrote in his allegorical novella Animal Farm, “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” The early period of industrialization was accompanied by a constant struggle of the working class to win decent working conditions and fair pay. Long working hours, terrible working conditions and children working as many hours as grown-ups were just some of the harsh realities that the middle and lower working classes of many nations experienced during the nineteenth century and the first few decades of the twentieth century.

Workers’ struggles to gain their rights in Western countries have resulted in better terms in the social contract for the generations that followed, and much has changed for women as well. In most countries, women had the right to work, but they didn’t have the right to vote. It was only after the First World War in 1920, that American women gained the right to participate in political life and have a say in deciding who is elected to run their country.

The world after the Cold War

The Second World War brought about a major redistribution of power and influence in the world. The United States had become the most powerful country on the globe, with only one other superpower that could challenge them: The Soviet Union. The USSR presented an existential threat to the American way of life and American values because it had a completely different social contract. The peoples of the USSR believed that all property belongs to the people as a whole and that the state was merely helping them to manage it, in complete contrast to the citizens of the United States who believed in individual ownership, free enterprise and private property rights protected by the power of the state.

These two colliding worldviews were undergirded by fundamentally different social contracts about how society should be organized. The clash between these differing systems brought the world to a brink of nuclear war, while the workers of both countries remained underprivileged and exploited. After the fall of the Berlin wall, the confrontation between these two different systems of values disappeared, but the social contract, to which we all agree, was still very much in effect.

The system’s reluctance to change

The only true measure of a good society is its quantity of happy and productive citizens. At this moment The United States imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world, a truly staggering statistic. In October 2016 4.9% of the population in the United States was unemployed and according to data from 2015 13.5% (43.1 million) of American citizens are living below the poverty line.

These are obvious signs that the citizens need a new social contract, one that will keep them out of poverty and debt while guaranteeing the protection of their basic rights. The system’s reluctance to accept the changing needs that our time requires can have disastrous results. As Michael Moore said, “good education, a good penitentiary system, social equality, paid vacations or free health care are all very American values.” How come they are being neglected?

In order to live in a more prosperous and humane society, we need to look back in history and remember what our ancestors had to endure to claim their freedom. We then need to apply that spirit of tenacity and wisdom to today’s social and economic reality in drafting a new and improved social contract that suits today’s citizens’ lives. A new social contract that will make sure that the system is not neglecting or oppressing its citizens. Systems that provide for citizens’ basic needs may be inevitable, the bigger question is whether we get there by evolution or revolution.

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