Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Social Contract

Sorely lacking from the chattering class' discussions on national politics is the concept of the Social Contract. There have been different takes on it throughout history, but the basic idea of creating a fair society, one 'ruled by laws not men,' of checks and balances on power, and of shared, basic prosperity, was central to the founding of the United States. The plutocrats, Randians and neo-feudalists preaching today about the pressing need to give more money to the super-wealthy, to cut regulations on powerful corporations and to slash the social safety net seem to have forgotten that the United States began by overthrowing a monarch.

America's origins are far from perfect of course, given our history of slavery and conquest, and the long denial of voting rights to women and minorities. But as E.J. Dionne wrote for Independence Day, 2006:

...The true genius of America has always been its capacity for self-correction. I'd assert that this is a better argument for patriotism than any effort to pretend that the Almighty has marked us as the world's first flawless nation.

One need only point to the uses that Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. made of the core ideas of the Declaration of Independence against slavery and racial injustice to show how the intellectual and moral traditions of the United States operate in favor of continuous reform.

If you were to create a fair society from scratch, what would it look like? What mechanisms would you put in place to keep it fair? How would you encourage it to self-correct or progress, as Dionne describes? What rights would be guaranteed, how would abuses and excesses be curbed, and what resources would be shared? What if you didn't know what class or position you'd have in this new society? How might that change your design? How would you help the least fortunate? (Build on the ideas of your favorite "Social Contract" philosopher, or imaginative author, or dip into anthopology if you like.) John Rawls approached these questions by way of the "original position" and the "veil of ignorance," nicely discussed by driftglass and Blue Gal in one of their June podcasts. But there are many ways to approach these issues.

If we try to visualize what this might be in America – a Social Contract for a fair, sustainable, dynamic system - I think we get something like this:

In this model, individuals, groups and companies have an enormous amount of freedom, but there are certain common sense parameters. The U.S. is a democratic republic, and in theory at least, we have majority rule, and the governing approach should benefit the majority of Americans. However, there are certain fundamental rights such as due process that all Americans possess, and the majority cannot strip these from any minority group or individual (again, in theory for all of this). Companies can pursue their goals, produce goods and make profits, but they face certain restrictions and can't infringe unduly on the public good. For example, marketing a dangerous, unsafe product or massively polluting public air and water might boost a corporation's bottom line, but harms the public. That's a bad, unnecessary tradeoff. Meanwhile, the American Dream rests on the idea that the U.S. is at least partially a meritocracy. If one works hard and plays by the rules, one can achieve some basic prosperity. If one's particularly talented and industrious, one can excel. Not everyone will start with the same resources, opportunities and support, but everyone deserves some basic tools, otherwise the promise of "freedom" rings hollow. Society as a whole benefits from investment in basic prosperity and opportunity, in public works and services, such as basic education, public libraries, public parks and public roads and transportation.

It's possible to be extremely individualistic (or even personally misanthropic) and still see the value of public goods such as basic education, after-school programs and a city fire department. Public works and services generally exist for moral, practical and economic reasons. For instance, universal health care tends to deliver better results and be much cheaper than other systems, leads to a healthier workforce, and greatly facilitates job changes and entrepreneurship. (Also, fewer people die unnecessarily.) In some arenas, private enterprise might work better, or coexist well with public equivalents. This model allows for all of that, and for initiative of all sorts. But only individuals of royal wealth could afford to own the equivalent of a national park, the public library system of a major city, the art collection of a local museum, or a state highway network. Public access to these clearly benefits individuals, communities, and the nation as a whole. (It's also silly to extol Wall Street profits as a the pinnacle of human achievement, de-fund scientific research, the arts and humanities, and then complain about a lack of creativity.)

The model above stands in stark contrast to the hierarchical model of feudalism or modern authoritarian regimes, where any degree of freedom, justice or prosperity depends almost entirely on the whims of those in power. However, this diagram represents more a philosophy of governing than a socioeconomic pecking order. There's also room for considerable debate within its framework. (What's the right level of regulation? What's the right amount of infrastructure investment? What civil liberties are essential?)

I'd say most modern democracies follow something like this model, even if the execution or mix varies significantly. It can work extremely well. America has employed some version of it, and we still have some vestiges, but obviously many of the principles behind it have been under assault in this past decade, and really the past 40-some years. As explored in much greater depth in "Attack of the Plutocrats," America has staggering income and wealth inequity. Progressive taxation, social spending and other factors (represented by the red and blue parts of the diagram) helped close those gaps from the New Deal up until the onslaught of Reaganomics. Since at least Reagan, those gaps have widened again, and now income and wealth inequity are back to Gilded Age levels. Meanwhile, it's disturbingly common to hear rich pundits express disinterest in or active disgust at the idea of helping their fellow Americans. This isn't a coincidence. As Bill Moyers puts it, "Plutocracy and democracy don't mix."

There's really nothing that new about that diagram – half the point is that these are very old principles. It's just that these days, it's not uncommon to hear the red, blue and even gray elements attacked as radical, socialist or un-American. The Social Contract in America has been badly torn by incompetent and corrupt governance, by selfish and reckless ideology, and by plutocrats eager to destroy any social safety net for their fellow Americans. Randians and neo-feudalists have no interest in the "self-correction" or improvement mentioned by Dionne. Some aggressively seek to impose a more regressive system on America, while others simply pursue personal gain and power, damn the consequences. Given this situation, restoring, honoring and improving the Social Contract is kinda the height of patriotism. After all, the concept is intrinsic to our origin as a nation.


Some Social Contract philosophers were suspicious foreigners with funny-sounding names like you might find on some artsy TV show, and unlikely to pass muster with the flag-wavin' Texas State Board of Education. However, America was founded with basic ideas about core rights and balancing principles in mind. Let's start with the gray foundation of the diagram. On the rights of individuals, and the potential tyranny of the majority over the minority, Thomas Jefferson stated:

All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.

Moving on the red part of the diagram, in terms of regulations and restrictions, Thomas Paine asserted that "government even in its best state is but a necessary evil," but also that:

Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices.

James Madison expressed similar thoughts in The Federalist No. 51:

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. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

This also speaks to the "freedom" section of the diagram. A key concept throughout all these passages and most of the founding documents is balance. Freedom is the overall goal, but realistically, this requires a balance of power, sometimes countervailing forces, and often wise judgment. Liberty and equality can clash at times, and how do you balance one person's freedom with another person's rights?

When it comes to basic prosperity and opportunity (the blue part of the diagram), the Founding Fathers and later generations of Americans have argued about the details, but most have supported the general concept. The Declaration of Independence's most famous words are probably: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." The preamble to the Constitution includes the term "promote the general welfare." Thomas Jefferson, who founded the University of Virginia, was a fierce advocate for publicly-supported education; he saw it as an unqualified good. First, it was a basic right:

I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain itself in strength: 1. That of general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom. 2. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be within reach of a central school in it.

Second, it was a means of spurring activity and innovation:

The object [of my education bill was] to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries.

And third, an educated, informed electorate is a necessity for a healthy democracy:

...Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.

Jefferson also assumed that local governments would care for the poor in some manner. Later Americans have fleshed out the idea of public works and support. Teddy Roosevelt was a champion of national parks. Eisenhower created the national highway system. Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced the New Deal and Lyndon Baines Johnson had his Great Society. Activists such as Dorothea Dix, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther King and many others worked both to secure fundamental rights for all Americans and to let them share in some basic prosperity.

Some of these measures have more contentious than others, of course. But in terms of finding "common ground" with one's opponents, I feel it's possible to work with people who differ on the details but agree with this basic model, who believe in a social contract and actually want to run things well. The wonks and sincere, responsible adults have plenty to discuss within this basic framework.

Recent History and the Current Day

Unfortunately, if we limit discussion today to those who "want to run things well," it disqualifies some politicians from one major political party, and almost everyone in the other. As Misty at Shakesville recently pointed out, the Republican Party platform of 1956 expressed many of the values espoused above, but as Digby's pointed out, they'd be denounced as socialists by today's GOP. Paul Krugman shows in The Conscience of a Liberal that during most of America's post-war boom from the mid 40s to about the mid 60s, the Democratic and Republican Parties were far more bipartisan than they are today in terms of voting on each others' measures. However, this wasn't blind Broderism; it was because they generally were working together on shared goals such as investing in the middle class and national infrastructure. (Not coincidentally, this more "liberal" economic approach was highly successful, and a huge improvement on the approach of previous eras.) Eisenhower, a Republican, made his peace with the New Deal and built on parts of it rather than trying to repeal it. The New Deal worked, and it was popular, so why not? Of course, not everyone shared in that national prosperity or had the same freedoms, particularly women and minorities. Thus, the Civil Rights Movement hit its full stride in the 60s out of necessity. With LBJ pushing civil rights legislation, Nixon developed the Southern Strategy in response, and the party of Lincoln started exploiting racial resentments to win elections. Reagan further perfected the conservative shell game, telling voters that it was minorities and the cultural elite who were oppressing them, rather than the wealthy elite. He then cut taxes to give massive amounts to the super-rich and ramped up military spending, making the deficit and debt skyrocket. His attacks on unions and business regulations didn't help, either. He might have seemed avuncular to the middle class citizens who voted for him, but he was screwing them over.

During the Bush administration, Dick Cheney remarked privately that "Reagan proved deficits don't matter." It's this statement, this attitude, that encapsulates movement conservatism and the modern Republican Party: Who cares about running the country well if we win elections? Who cares about the country as a whole if we can enrich ourselves and our donors? Thom Hartmann provides a good brief history in "Two Santa Clauses, or How The Republican Party Has Conned America for Thirty Years," but the conservative approach results in spending huge sums of money to give tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans and to increase military spending, all while attacking social spending. It's not exactly a secret, but you'll rarely hear Beltway reporters put it all in context. Meanwhile, certainly no one could have predicted that crony capitalism, horrible governance, fantasy-based policy, abandonment of the rule of law, a drowned city and two wars under Bush would make things disastrously worse.

The Republican Party has not been run by responsible adults for decades now. Their leaders have no interest whatsoever in running the country competently. They don't give a damn about the consequences of their reckless decisions – deficits are things to be balanced during Democratic administrations, if at all. The same goes for ending wars and any of a number of other problems. Conservative pundits - who cover politics for a living, after all - get paid for pretending not to notice any of this, most of all their own side's damning culpability. (While the Democrats aren't stellar, at least they occasionally do things for their average constituents.) None of these dynamics will be revelatory to political news junkies. For just one glaring example, check out Talking Points Memo's piece "It's Unanimous! GOP Says No To Unemployment Benefits, Yes To Tax Cuts For The Rich." Read the piece, and you'll see, for the umpteenth time, leading Republicans spout outrageous falsehoods about important matters. Some of them may know better and are lying, some may be zealous true believers, but as a whole, it's that they simply don't give a damn whether what they say is true or not.

Realistic Models versus Dogmatic Demands

National political news would benefit immensely from fact-checking, but also from some degree of nuance. Issues are also often framed in an overly simplistic, prejudicial and sometimes downright juvenile way. Consider regulation, covered in the red part of the diagram above. Continuing our theme of balance (and not in the "he said-she said" reporting sense), regulation can be visualized like this:

(Update: Here's an alternative graphic.)

Looked at one way, "regulation" itself is a public good that requires balance and good judgment. Looked at another way, "regulation" itself is neither good nor bad, it's a necessity. The sweet spot of regulation is optimal, while on either side, overly restrictive and dangerously permissive regulations need to be adjusted. If, for example, a specific financial regulation is silly or ineffectual, get rid of it or rework it, but eliminating financial regulation altogether makes no sense.

This is a simple, pretty common-sense model, with the aim of running things well. But many politicians and pundits, especially among conservatives, reject any model this accurate or complex in both their rhetoric and their voting. Newt Gingrich isn't interested in making government effective, or as Bill Scher puts it, "representative, responsive and responsible." Gingrich isn't aiming to make government as large as it needs to be, but as small as possible. He only wants to shrink government (often by privatizing or eliminating effective public services). Grover Norquist isn't interested in finding the optimal tax rate. He's working hard only to lower taxes, regardless of the circumstances, and eventually to eliminate taxes altogether. John Boehner and many other Republicans aren't trying to find the right level of regulation. They're aiming to halt regulations, or eliminate them altogether.

In the same vein, libertarian John Stossel can, like Rand Paul, argue that private businesses should be able to racially discriminate. The idea of good or necessary regulation, or finding a balance, seems to be entirely beyond his vocabulary (whether for cognitive or profitable reasons, or both). In any case, Stossel can also decide to ignore the near collapse of the world economy from lack of financial regulation, to argue instead that the main problem with government is – it over-regulates. His proof? Ayn Rand decried regulation, and banning fish pedicures is silly! (Seriously, that's about all he's got. Follow the link.) Therefore, all regulation is bad, or something. Never mind about the global financial meltdown, or any of a hundred other examples! If you merely ignore world events and human nature, and instead cherry-pick minutia and cite really crappy fiction, you, too, can become the proud, smug, intellectual giant that is the dogmatic libertarian. (To be fair, Stossel has a point - when fish pedicures are outlawed, only outlaws will get fish pedicures.)

For freedom to really flourish and society to function – and not in a fantasy realm or feudal state - there needs to be some sense of balance and some sort of healthy social contract. Anonymous Liberal summed this up nicely in a piece on Rand Paul's views:

While libertarians claims to be driven by a goal of maximizing freedom, what they mean by "freedom" is not what most people take that word to mean. To a libertarian, the only freedom that really matters is freedom from government intrusion. But often, meaningful freedom can only be created through government intervention.

Take education, for example. The existence of a public school system greatly enhances freedom by giving everyone the opportunity to get at least a basic education and opening the doors that go along with that. Similarly, without a social safety net (government programs like Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, unemployment insurance, etc.) people would literally starve or die of from lack of medical care and extreme poverty would be epidemic. This isn't conjecture. This was the reality before these programs were put in place. That's not "freedom" in any meaningful sense.

Indeed, in the health care context, I am continually perplexed by the suggestion that universal health care somehow inhibits freedom, rather than enhancing it. How liberating would it be to know that you could do whatever you choose from an employment perspective and not have to worry that you or your family will be denied access to health care? How liberating would it be to know that there's no risk that illness or injury will unexpectedly derail your dreams and bankrupt you? Even if the only freedom you care about is entrepreneurial freedom, how can it be denied that lack of universal health care discourages people from taking entrepreneurial risks, that there are people out there who would love to quit their jobs and start a business but can't because they would lose access to affordable health insurance?

Similarly, government spending on roads, transportation systems, and other infrastructure increases our physical freedom to move around and enjoy our physical environment. Government spending on law enforcement reduces crime and enhances our freedom from a physical security standpoint. Government regulation of industry keeps the air that we breath and the water we drink clean and the food and drugs we ingest safe. It gives us the freedom to enjoy our physical environment and partake of the myriad of products and services available to us without fear and without significant risk to our well-being. These are all very liberating things. I don't know about you, but my conception of freedom is not a world where I can't get a breath of fresh air, can't swim, fish or enjoy the outdoors because of pollution, and am constantly playing Russian roulette every time I go to the grocery store.

I realize there are tradeoffs with everything, that in exchange for these freedom-enhancing benefits, I have to pay a little more in taxes and deal with a little more red tape if I want to do business. But libertarians seem to deny that there is any tradeoff going on; they seem to think that freedom is only a factor on one side of the equation. The reality is that lawmaking involves balancing freedoms...

Yup. That's well put, but the core ideas are pretty much common sense.

For some issues, it might be useful to modify the original diagram:

Here, government and major forces are in the frame versus outside it and implied. And better models can certainly be devised, but one virtue of the first diagram is that it depicts a healthy society and good governance as a balancing act versus using an overly simplistic, black-and-white paradigm.

Competing Icons

One last way of looking at the Social Contract is through competing political icons.

We'll start with Ronald Reagan. In his successful 1980 presidential campaign, he said, "Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago?" In one sense, it was a fair, basic question, and Reagan did mention unemployment and other national issues. However, Reagan was also presenting the election as a referendum on Carter, not really as a contrast in policies and governing styles, with true evaluation of the consequences. Reality-based conservative Andrew Bacevich, no fan of Carter, nevertheless finds fault in Reagan's pitch:

Reagan did not call on Americans to tighten their belts. He saw no need for sacrifice. He rejected Carter’s dichotomy between quantity and quality. Above all, he assured his countrymen that they could have more...

To call Reagan a hypocrite is to miss the point. The Reagan Revolution was never about fiscal responsibility or small government. Far more accurately than Carter, Reagan understood what made Americans tick: they wanted self-gratification, not self-denial. Although always careful to embroider his speeches with inspirational homilies and testimonials to old-fashioned virtues, Reagan mainly indulged American self-indulgence.

Reagan ignored the energy issues Carter highlighted, and that was just the beginning. George H.W. Bush called Reagan's policies voodoo economics; Reagan was always selling a fairy tale. Rather than asking "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" or "Am I not better off today?" Reagan could have have asked, "Are we better off today? Is America? What do we need to improve it, and fix these problems?" But Reagan didn't, nor was this accidental. The Reagan method is one approach to governing, and we've seen its harmful effects over the past 30 years. In a similar vein, after 9/11, rather than issuing a national call to service, or fostering a new sense of community, or working toward energy independence, Bush told Americans - to go shopping. (Oh, and also to attack Iraq.)

In sharp contrast, John Kennedy famously said, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." (He continued, "My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.") This sentiment absolutely hinges on the idea of the Social Contract. (Predictably, the speech disgusted Ayn Rand.) Kennedy's plea rings hollow if the government is oppressive, if society gives nothing to the individual, and if public institutions don't fulfill their part of the contract and provide basic rights, basic protections and basic opportunities. Government should be "representative, responsive and responsible." However, if one is given these things, what's the rationale for opposing Kennedy's words? It's a stirring call to action. Don't most human endeavors that don't screw over one's fellow human beings contribute in some small way to the nation as a whole? Doesn't doing something well, and fairly - running a small business or a medical center or a school or a library or a community center or creating a work of art - make the world a better place?

Zealots like Ayn Rand see the world in black and white, in paranoid terms of domination and submission, as a zero-sum game. Control and power are their aims, not running things well. They cannot truly grasp any idea of balance, equality or sharing of power. Nor can they acknowledge the value of public goods, or that investing in basic prosperity for everyone has a positive ripple effect throughout the entire nation.

The same dynamics hold true for Glenn Beck and his teabagger groupies, screaming about "taking our country back." Taking it back from whom? The party that fairly won the last two major national elections? Their fellow Americans? (And were they comatose for the past decade?)

Meanwhile, Michelle Malkin could hear 12-year old Graeme Frost speak about how a government health care program for kids helped save his life and his sister's after a horrific accident. Malkin's response was to say, How dare you presume that I would care about a fellow human being! I refuse to, even for a child! What America really needed, in her view, was the launching of a spiteful War on Compassion. The Social Contract is a fool's game, you see. Not acting like a complete and total asshole would play right into the liberals' hands.

"Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Ayn Rand saw this as a threat. She couldn't hear its poetry. That's sad, but it's okay. There's plenty of room in the country for those who can't hear America singing, or can't sing the body electric, or those who churn out 2000 plus pages of tedious agitprop grunting out "the song of myself, and only my glorious, superior self, you goddam moochers." It's just that such people can't be trusted with power. There are far better ways to run a country that the Randian, plutocrat or neo-feudal models. There are more wonderful things in America and humanity than are dreamt of in Rand's dogma. Kennedy's words were never about some ridiculous, absolute self-denial or martyrdom. They were a renewal of the Social Contract, an invitation to cooperate, to work together to improve the America we all share.

Slightly revised for clarity. Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.



Anonymous said...

The german government will cut social welfares, and so punish the people who became unemployed because of the crisis. Instead of this, the greedy bankers and gamblers should finally be forced to pay for the mess they have caused ! Our opinion here:

driftglass said...

And "boom" goes the dynamite :-)