Suppose I cut down a tree.
I am keen to get the benefit from the wood at my feet. The tree trunk is enormous, raw, and not in any shape to be used. It needs to sit and dry out. Then I can fashion it into beams to repair the roof of my rondavel.
But the tree is far from my house. I cannot watch over it until it is dry. I have hunting and gathering to do, and maize beer to drink by the fire.
So I leave the tree where it fell.
My neighbour also needs to repair his roof. He could steal my tree trunk while I am not looking, but he doesn’t because we agree with what tradition tells us.
A tree felled belongs to he who felled it.
Everyone in the tribe knows the rule and agrees to abide by it. Break this agreement and there are consequences from the chief and his many wives.
Society is built on this type of contract.
Called the social contract in moral and political philosophy during the Age of Enlightenment — an actual or hypothetical compact, or agreement, between the ruled or between the ruled and their rulers, defining the rights and duties of each — it originated to give legitimacy to the authority of the state (tradition and the chief) over the individual (me and my stone axe).
Through the social contract, individuals surrender some of their freedoms and submit to collective authority in exchange for protection of their remaining rights and maintenance of the social order.
It is easy to forget how critical the social contract is to our well-being and the opportunity for personal success in modern times.
Personal and societal safety, efficient education, security of business contracts including the exchange of time for money, ownership of goods and legal entities, access to health care and expertise, all happen through the contract. Everything that makes modern societies wealthy and safe comes from our collective agreement to follow the rules.
That is not to say that everyone is always happy.
There is a constant tension in the social contract as it ducks and weaves its way alongside the development of societies.
A critical source of tension is the actual or perceived fairness in the rights and duties, especially in the difference between how they are defined and how they play out in the real world.
For example, the government decides, on advice from health professionals, that the best way to manage a pandemic from an infectious airborne virus is to tell people to stay at home. House arrest for the masses. I am no longer at liberty to go and find another tree to cut down even though I have a permit from the Agriculture department to cut one.
No problem. It is in the interest of public health, which is a crucial benefit of the social contract.
The pandemic, fake news, authoritarian regimes, and even social media put tremendous strain on the contract even as neoliberalism persuades people to expect less from governing authorities in exchange for greater civil liberties, including individual, political and economic freedom.
The contradiction is enough to do your head in.
Society is so much more complex than it was in the days of the stone axe. But the importance of the social contract grows with it.
Only to protect the benefits, we have to be vigilant. The rulers cannot ignore the rules any more than we can and must not act unilaterally and claim the authority of the state to justify their self-interest.
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