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.
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.