The Tear in Our Social Contract

MidasMoments: Rob Slee’s Comments on the Nation

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The U.S. is facing numerous seemingly unsolvable travails. But far and away the most important dilemma is typically not even mentioned in the press. What might this be? Our social contract is torn.

America’s social contract was created from the patriotic fervor of our Founding Fathers. This country started and grew strong by relying on a few unifying themes. Aside from several interruptions, such as that major tiff over state’s rights, Americans have prospered from a shared vision. Until recently.

For such an important concept, it is hard to find a definition of social contract. Here is mine:

“Social contract is what the people, government, and business expect from, and owe to, each other.”

There’s a triadic logic at work here, such that all three stakeholders must agree and signoff in order to make the contract binding.

Let’s review the tenets of America’s existing (albeit torn) social contract. What does the government owe to the people and to business? The government is the guarantor of our collective future. It owes citizens a good education, such that they can add value to society. It is the safety net for the people, for both emergencies and for retirement. It owes business reasonable regulation and a level playing field. It owes business the resources it needs to compete. Government is the tool that creates the opportunity for people and businesses to succeed. Although unspoken, the people expect government to create a condition where each generation surpasses the prior in economic terms and in education.

What do the people owe the government and business? People owe the government an undying loyalty. They owe the government their trust. They owe the subjugation of their individual rights, if that is what is required to benefit the many. People owe business a work effort that creates value. This means that people will generate more economic impact than they receive from business.

What does business owe the people and government? Business owes people the chance to work for fair compensation, including benefits. It owes people job security if they create value.

People expect to earn enough to buy a home and a car, and to eventually earn their retirement.

Business owes government honesty, in that it will follow the government’s rules and regulations.

Several ideals helped glue our social contract together as well, such as: our collective faith in God and religion; our reliance on the family unit; our sense of belonging to a community; and our belief that hard work and faith can conquer any evil.

During the last fifty years or so, many elements of our social contract began to tear. Certainly the turmoil of the 1960s caused some shredding. Many people lost faith in the government, business and each other. Fighting inflation in the 1970s kept us busy for most of that decade – so not much to report on the social contract front during that period. The “Me” decade of the 1980s certainly added fuel to the lost-sense-of-community fire. And the “greed is good” 1990s had the effect of a running a chainsaw through the contract. The 2000s finished with a bang – meaning that it blew-up what was left of the contract.

What happens to a society that no longer has a shared vision, or in-tact social contract? An every-man-for-himself mentality sets in. Government, people, and business become thoroughly self-serving. Destructive partisanship reigns supreme. Sound familiar?

I believe many Americans are searching for a shared set of beliefs to unite us as citizens again. These beliefs must allow personal freedoms and diversity to co-exist. To get us started, we could use a dose of what John F. Kennedy was prescribing some fifty years ago when he challenged Americans to think and act communally.

One way or another, even if it requires a revolution, it’s beyond time to create a new social contract.

– Rob

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