A New Social Contract

Time Magazine recently ran an interview with a top global economist, who has authored a book about what humans owe each other–in other words, about a new or perhaps renewed social contract. Several of her concerns mirror my own; as readers of this blog are aware, my last book, Living Together, was focused on the same question.

The notion of a social contract was first introduced by John Locke and his formulation became a foundation of American law and culture. The U.S. Constitution was heavily influenced by Enlightenment philosophers like Locke, who rejected the divine right of Kings in favor of a belief in a theorized “contract” in which citizens grant government an exclusive right to the exercise of coercive power in return for an obligation to provide for their safety and welfare–the “law and order” required for civilization. Citizens could revoke government’s authority if government failed in its mission or breached the bounds of the contract.

Most European nations have subsequently adopted social contract theories that are considerably more expansive than the version embraced by most Americans. Those versions interpret government’s obligation to provide “social goods” broadly,  including access to healthcare.

Several years ago, I collaborated with colleagues in  on an article intended to probe America’s limited view of the proper role for government in social welfare, and to demonstrate that the Affordable Care Act–and for that matter, single-payer health insurance–really was consistent with Locke’s view of a social contract. (We noted that a deficit of civic knowledge poses a significant barrier to efforts to revisit social contract theory–revisiting a theory is impossible for those who have never visited that theory in the first place.)

Take the contemporary debate over healthcare reform. This fight cannot be understood without recognizing the continued potency of the country’s foundational assumptions, and especially the continued relevance of social contract theory most directly attributed to John Locke. In this paper, we echo arguments made by historians and legal theorists like Daniel Boorstin and Louis Hartz who noted that Americans who may never have heard of Locke or the Enlightenment, have nevertheless internalized Locke’s philosophy in ways that make social inclusion and extensions of the social safety net particularly difficult. In a very real sense, John Locke doomed more comprehensive healthcare reform, at least in the short term, and made it far more difficult to extend unemployment benefits, increase payments under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or raise the minimum wage. If we are to have any success in changing the long term prospects for these and similar reforms, we will need to go beyond the academic, moral, and fiscal arguments, no matter how persuasive some of us find them, and directly engage the need to update and expand our basic understanding of the social contract.

We were writing during the initial debates over the ACA, which we noted was yet another iteration of America’s deeply embedded conflict between Social Darwinism and the Social Gospel.

No matter how logical or effective, programs requiring extensive government involvement, or that include “mandates” of any sort, trigger an almost visceral reaction in those who tend more to Social Darwinism, a belief that “productive” people’s rights are thereby violated, and that such approaches are contrary to freedom, to “real” Americanism. In other words, at a basic—perhaps unconscious—level, many people believe that government involvement in healthcare, or government intervention via provision of a social safety net, is somehow un-American and therefore must be rejected. It does no good to point out how deeply government is already involved in providing a social safety net through Social Security, or in providing health care in particular (e.g., the Veterans Administration which is the largest integrated health care system in the country serving more than 8.75 million Veterans each year) — the issue is emotional, not factual. The passage of Medicare generated cries of socialism, and the New Deal—even in the midst of the Great Depression—was aggressively opposed. It is the rare social program that hasn’t had to contend with accusations of incipient communism.

Our article explored the reasons for that “emotional” response, and those of you with time and temperament to wade through its scholarship can agree or disagree with our analysis, but I think it is fair to say that the underlying issue has become considerably more salient.

Humans around the globe are faced not just with a pandemic, but with the existential threat posed by climate change.  Individuals are powerless to address those threats. Collective action is required, and government is our mechanism for collective action.

A workable social contract requires government to protect individual autonomy, provide a supportive social infrastructure and take decisive action to protect the common good.

I’m convinced John Locke would agree.


  1. A return of civic education , and not just as a one semester class, seems essential to this endeavor. As you say, we can’t reconsider a social contract easily if most were never aware there was one in the first place.

  2. “A workable social contract requires government to protect individual autonomy, provide a supportive social infrastructure and take decisive action to protect the common good.”

    Blocking the way to any form of “a workable social contract” at this late date began in 1973 when Nixon and his Republicans repealed the law preventing health care from becoming a for-profit system. That led to the nationwide corporate health care system today. If that weren’t enough; Citizens United turned our government over to the wealthy in this country who could afford to buy elected officials to maintain their hold on the economy and widen the division between the “haves and the have nots”. Just as there was no “common good” for the slaves on the auction blocks, there is currently no route to the “common good” for the working class of Americans today.


  3. I do not understand why an awareness of our social contract is not woven into every child’s basic curriculum from preschool on so that weather we study a novel or geography we are all asking how does/did this decision affect the common good.

  4. It seems that what we have today is an anti-social contract. We have government being directed by a small cadre of vocal, rabid individuals who use threats to move their agenda forward. Last night, the local school board had to have many of them removed from the room as they re-instated the mask mandate that they were cowed into removing just two weeks ago.

    Our local school systems have hundreds of children and teachers in quarantine and the local children’s hospital is overwhelmed by COVID sufferers. In other words, these parents would rather their children die than ask them to put a piece of cloth over their mouths while they are in school. The only reason for this that makes any sense is that they must own the libs. This won’t end well.

  5. I’m not sure I want the existing Democratic Party negotiating a new social contract either, but that is due to my awareness that both parties have sufficiently been co-opted by the oligarchy.

    Any new social content will have to take place outside our oligarchy-controlled institutions, which won’t be easy to do, although globally, efforts are underway to do just that.

    Before I “negotiate” with someone, the very basis of a negotiation between two parties is trust. If you trust that either party will work on behalf of the people’s best interests, you haven’t been paying attention for the past 50 years.

    During a Twitter exchange about Afghanistan, someone commented that they don’t trust Biden, but they trust our Military. I was in jaw-dropping, eye-rolling awe!

    How do you construe a social contract which truly benefits people in this country whose level of comprehension and understanding is so incredibly off the charts low? People who distrust the contents of a vaccine but will ingest an animal drug used to treat roundworms in horses?

    As a society, we have an economic system that assumes that both parties are sane and rational agents. But, unfortunately, a big chunk of the USA is neither sane nor rational.

    Have you listened to MTG or Louie Gohmert, who represents thousands of voters?

    These people shouldn’t even be free to walk the streets. And a lot of them have firearms who would most likely shoot themselves if they ever had to pick them up and use them.

    Do you laugh or cry at this point?

    A Canadian residency is looking pretty good right now.

  6. There are some who understand and agree with John Looke’s social contract theory but there are others who don’t. Some of them understand and agree that if you want to score how effective an institution is you hire accountants.

    Many policy prescriptions, fortunately, do well against both views. Take socialized medicine. We, as a country competing in a global economy, cannot afford the private health care nonsystem that we have now. Too much of our GDP is invested every year in health care and that is reflected in the price of all of the goods and services that we try to sell overseas and in our ability to favorably compete in markets that can be supplied by other countries.

    We have a huge example of competitive right under our noses; Medicare.

    Accountants and social theorists can confirm this.

  7. Maybe we should make the social contract like a HOA ? In order to live in this neighborhood, you have to behave appropriately. Like that? Jk

  8. AgingLGirl – spot on…”America, believe in/live by our principles/values, or leave it” Offer passage to Poland, Hungary, etc..

  9. The classroom work in civics is toast as long as Republicans keep stacking the school boards with religious ideologues. Republicans are paid by corporate/banking America to create a consumer class that is just barely able to read labels and follow the 6th grade vocabulary on TV commercials. That’s it.

    These money-mongers care not a whit about social contracts that favor the governing of the people. THEY want to do the governing through their greed and cockeyed understanding about “freedom”… a word that will soon be reduced to four letters.

  10. I’m currently near the end of the book “Caste – The Origins of our Discontents” by Isabelle WIlkerson who was also the author of “The Warmth of Other Suns” about the great migration between 1905 and 1970 that saw 15 million POC (People Of Color) move from the South to the North and West. Because MLK visited India, saying at his arrival, “To other countries, I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim.” During his time there went to a Dalit (India’s lowest caste – the untouchables), school where he was introduced with the statement “I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.” He was shocked by the intoduction, but as he thought about the people he was fighting to help and the situation in the US, he realized and accepted that in the US, POC are the “untouchables”. He recognized caste as existing in US. Knowing this story led Wilkerson to an investigation of caste in comparison with Race that led her to realize that what we have here in the US is actually a Caste system with POC as the lowest level, the untouchables.

    Where this is going is that in a Caste system, as in the United States, each level is a negative definition of the level above. So a large part of the identity of poor whites, the thing that largely defines them is that, while they may be poor, they are’nt n****rs. The implications of this is that POC moving up and becoming more successful does not just derive from disrespect for POC, but from the fact of POC moving up above poor whites being a visceral threat to their very identity, a threat that, if POC move up the ladder ahead of them, then they become the bottom of the heirarchy.

    It’s a fascinating book! I highly recommend it!

  11. The GOP has always supported the idea of rugged individualism as opposed to the interdependence of the social fabric of our country. It would be interesting to hear a debate between a conservative and a progressive on John Locke’s social contract.

    The wealthy oligarchy think they can survive by their wealth alone. I don’t think so. Who generates the wealth and how much of it is just numbers on paper? Without essential workers the wealthy would not have their luxuries. They just do not understand that when one person is homeless, addicted, isolated, it affects the whole social fabric in a variety of ways. They sit in a comfortable silo thinking they are safe and immune from the suffering,poverty, illnesses of the 99%. You would think the pandemic would wake them up, but it has not done so. And unlike the Buddha, they won’t leave their comfort zone even when they become middle aged.

    I would so like to see us follow the wisdom of other countries with socialized medicine and better social safety nets.

  12. So this question comes to mind. What needs to be done for the future generation to understand and adhere to a workable social contract? Parents have a vital role in demonstrating and teaching their children to value the common good. I don’t believe schooling alone can bring that about. When parents are unwilling to abide by a sane mask regulation we have a clear example of them forsaking the common good. I don’t foresee us as a nation agreeing to a workable social contract for the next two generations.

  13. Peggy @ 8:50 am – Good Comment on our situation. I saw an interesting comment and Meme on Face Book recently concerning the yahoos and yo-yo’s that are breathing fire and brimstone protesting about wearing masks in schools. There doesn’t seem to be slightest concern that our school children now have their version of “Duck and Cover”.

    Today’s Duck and Cover is not about Soviet Nukes in bound but mass murdering shooters armed with military style weapons. School children are now taught the techniques that in the past only the police and a combat soldier would learn. Besides the armed guards now in schools, some want the teachers to be “locked and loaded”.

    The last time I went into a public school (years ago), I felt like I was going through Airport Security. This is all accepted as the goal is to protect students and staff.

    Protect the students and staff by Wearing a mask in school – Hot Damm – these anti-mask parental yahoos are just willfully, aggressively ignorant. They would rather sacrifice the children (hopefully someone else’s) than practice common sense hygiene.

  14. I was unavailable when the Florentines came up with the Enlighenment or when Locke formulated his social contract, but I would give odds that their efforts would look differently today if they were here among us. From their then efforts it’s not too much of a stretch to believe that they would not be Social Darwinists but would rather be more in favor of an expansion of social goods to citizens in exchange for their continuing agreement to be governed.

    Some among us cry socialists or communists at every opportunity in resisting any expansion of social goods as amendments to the Lockean contract, amendments based upon old Greek-based majority rule in democratic states. The greatest anti-poverty legislation for the most vulnerable population we have ever concocted, to wit: the Social Security Act of 1935, was met with hues and cries of socialism by Republicans during the depths of The Great Depression. My response > What do we care what “ism” it may be called if the result is beneficial to all and redounds to the common good? No es importa!

    However, words and framing matter in influencing public perception and adoption of bills into law by Republicans whose design is to capture the polity’s attention either for or against such bills. Take the phrase single payer,” for instance. That phrase has been equated with socialism and various other epithets by Republicans when in truth a single payer piece of legislation would be the second greatest piece of anti-poverty social legislation ever passed by the Congress. (Factoid > At my last count, 41% of all bankruptcy petitions are based on unpayable medical bills.) The medical industry retrieves such losses by simply increasing their fees and other such charges among those who can pay and their insurors while propagandizing the rest of us with the horrors of socialism etc.

    What to do? Let’s pass a single payer bill and take a page from the medical industry’s framing. Let’s call it “The Good Health For America” bill.

  15. I makes sense that “the freedom to sabotage public health” or any other part of society that looks like an impingement on “my freedom” could be partially traced backed to a poor or twisted understanding of the basic ideas of the social contract.

    As has been discussed on other days, that other factors, like racism, and generally economic inequities are all at play.

    The NY Times had an editorial that proposed that there is link between people that fall for snake oil salesmen and right wing extremism. I am not sure I buy it, but it could be just one more facet of the personality that seems like they are out to sabotage good government.

    Here is the link: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/30/opinion/covid-misinformation-supplements.html

  16. “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Shakespeare
    While this is oft misinterpreted, for today’s argument, we can use it at face value. We are in an enormous divide of “haves” & “have nots” in terms of education, wealth, understanding of civics, levels of tolerance. It no longer matters, at this moment, if the leader is Democratic or Republican if that leader does not have the full support of Congress. We are MIRED in papers, think tanks, and red tape. Over EVERYTHING.
    Want people to understand civics a little? We are going to have to force an issue and make a rule that ALL driver’s licenses and ID issued must have a passing grade on a 10 question civics test.
    Want people to vote? It has to be a law that your license or ID will be suspended wi 7 days IF you don’t.
    Want manufacturing back in this country? (because not having a solid job has made a lot of this discontent possible) THEN, explain loudly to Hanes, Fruit of the Loom, Nike, etc that every prefab item coming into the US will have a %100 tariff added.
    Want climate change addressed and fossil fuels on the way out? Take away the subsidies. In 60 days.
    Does it sound radical and awful and too fast? yep. Chit-chat is over. We have Q-Anon people in Congress elected by people who don’t know any better. We need, truly need, radical movement or this place is gone.
    I work with 16-35-year-olds and they are not as lazy or kumbaya as folks portray them. They KNOW that the Genx & Boomers have screwed up their futures over money and they are hot mad at the corruption that runs rampant in Congress, they are leaving or never entering any form of standardized religion except Wicca, they are mired in school debt, they cannot get a manufacturing job because there are no factories, they just went through a pandemic that is STILL going on, etc.
    They see inequality, racism, sexism running rampant AND OLD people doing nothing but wringing our hands. They understand “collective good”. WE no longer do nor do we have the guts to do anything about it.

  17. Melody – amen, amen…per my comment above – don’t like these things, leave….

  18. There is an excellent article in today’s Counter Punch on line magazine. I will copy some of the salient points:

    “Fake news, disinformation, hate speech, post-truth, conspiracy theory, various forms of denialism, and the barefaced lies of politicians all come together as something like the ideational hallmark of neoliberalism. There are many lies, of many kinds, but there has to be a container where they all coexist comfortably. And this is neoliberalism’s enormous lie that, if we make “the” (as if there were only one) market free, it will run everything.

    Law trammels the freedom of the market as does the idea of a social contract. A contract requires that the parties tell the truth, and the idea of democratic government implies that those elected by the people to represent them won’t lie.

    But government, such as it exists, serves “the market” of rich and powerful individuals, corporations, and media outlets, white elites whose wealth supposedly demonstrates their superiority over historically marginalized groups. When people are monads (in the philosophy of Leibniz an indivisible and hence ultimately simple entity, such as an atom or a person) whose freedom is restricted to consumption patterns dictated by profit, public responsibility is subservient to private interest.”

    There is the Legal Contract of every American is born equal. The Social Contract is where the break down occurs. The wealthy elites can use the system to advance their off spring- most things are within their reach – education, health care and connections. Countries in Western Europe recognize this and provide a Social Contract with Social Net to climb up or catch you if you fall. Not here in America, we are all supposed to be like the pioneers of the 18th or 19th centuries living off the land and rarely needing anyone’s help – At least that is Myth.

  19. Thank you, Joanne, for mentioning one of my favorite dead horses, those I like to beat: Nixon! He was motivated, I believe, by nothing other than wanting to do a favor for a “friend,” Permanente, if I recall it properly.
    Anne, the book is not available in either of my local, Florida libraries.
    As I commented here,recently, I prefer Rousseau’s version of social contract to Locke’s, but this is not a time to split hairs!
    With the likes of Rep. Cawthorn literally screaming for violent uprising (why he and his cohorts have not been arrested for conspiracy I do not know) it is obvious, too much so, that Democracy is
    in danger of succumbing to the barbarians within the gates, we are coming closer to a version of “Lord of the Flies” ungovernment, because of the lack of understanding of “Social Contract.”

  20. Having been on “governing committees” of communes in the Stoned Age of America, I can tell you that ignorance of the Social Contract is hardly a recent occurrence.
    My opinion of this lack is the Hell the Parents went through in WWII and Korea made them very prone to immediate gratification and unwilling to risk any delay in it, because, as my Marine son says, Life is very Uncertain, and it sticks with you. Vietnam damaged many others.
    It occurred to Many that America, the Social Contract, is no longer a Reliable Tribe. Best build your own, however incompetently.

  21. I suspect that the concept of the Social Contract, while well known to the “elite” that we call the founders of this country, was not something that the average American ever understood. We also have had competing ideas.

    I am no sociologist or political scientist, so I won’t pretend to know how much this has affected the American ethos, but the predominant religious culture was protestant, with less hierarchical control and more emphasis on individual merit (or grace, not under our control but not to be argued with). Our other major religious culture is the worship of Capitalism.

    If I recall, Adam Smith said the England’s economy was stagnant and if one wanted to elevate their economic condition through hard work, one went to the colonies (i.e. here). The 19th Century had its Horatio Alger stories and to the wave of immigrants coming over from Europe, the streets were “paved with gold”. Even looking at that most American of schools of philosophy, Pragmatism, their language was business based. The beneficial outcome was called the “Cash Value”. I can’t remember the other terms used, but they had a similar sound.

    With this competing notion of individual merit, making it on your own, and ‘rags to riches’, the social contract is much too complex for us. We like plain and simple, even if wrong.

    Aging Girl reminded me – when I ran my Condo Association many years ago in Illinois, I had a simple social contract, but I doubt that anyone thought of it that way. The assessments were higher than most people wanted, but each year, in addition to repairs, there was some new cosmetic improvement. Also, our Reserve Fund was properly funded and when it came time for a Special Assessment, it was a tiny one because I was able to talk a bank into issuing us a line of credit based on our financial plan that was only possible because of our policies.

    On the other side – I do remember a former coworker coming into work screaming “Communism, communism”. He was very upset and ranted for at least 15 minutes. The problem was his HOA. They wouldn’t let him do something with his home that he wanted to do (I don’t recall what it was, but it sounded normal to me at the time).

  22. Per Jordan Peterson, too much emphasis on rights, one side of the social contract. and responsibilities, the other side.

    I teach my kids the Golden Rule, the basis for social contracts.

    On American History, which didn’t begin with colonies, when our Federation was set up, your Tribe was your local village. Union was a weird concept then, and smacked of global England. cf Civil War.

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