Selfishness Isn't Freedom

America needs a new social contract

We've heard a lot from politicians and pundits in recent years about what sort of society Americans ought to be striving for, which rights and freedoms matter, what is tearing at the country's social fabric and what might repair it. Meanwhile, evidence abounds that whatever ails America is boiling over—rioters so intent on proving their interpretation of reality right that they are ready to kill and die, lawmakers more focused on the individual freedom to go maskless than the collective need to put this virus to rest, mothers being forced into poverty by an economy that demands their free labor, a climate destabilized by the very companies that suggest perhaps individual consumer choices are both the problem and the solution.

As currently interpreted and applied, the social contract in America requires that individuals take personal responsibility for both the impacts of systemic problems, and for developing solutions to them. You’re poor? You aren't working hard enough, or perhaps you just lack talent and brains. You’re discriminated against? You should have been more polite, dressed better, worked harder. Worried about climate change? Better have zero carbon footprint or you can't talk about it at all. Struggling to balance work and parenthood? Maybe you shouldn’t have had kids, or a career (depending on your race and gender). Can’t afford healthcare? Should’ve gotten the right job. Can’t afford to retire? Shoulda saved! Recently, Texas governor Greg Abbott said Texans should take personal responsibility both for the failure of the state’s grid (itself a great example of how well going it alone works) and for protecting themselves from Covid. It's a neat way around government or corporate accountability, but as we've seen for decades with issues ranging from climate change to parenthood, and can now see in such stark relief with the Covid-19 pandemic, this approach leads to broken systems that ultimately fail all, even those who have historically benefitted most from them.

The solution lies in improving and strengthening the social contract in America, but to do so we have to understand how we got stuck with the current mutant in the first place.

Namely, the Enlightenment. No country was more shaped by this period (spanning from the late 17th century to the early 19th century) when scientists, writers, and philosophers began to mount a fierce intellectual opposition to aristocracy. The Enlightenment introduced the idea of equal rights to the Western world, and proposed that "anyone" (any white man, preferably land-owning) should have access to a public life and influence over the society they live in.

The Enlightenment also birthed the idea of the social contract as a theory for understanding how and why humans had formed societies and governments in the first place. The general idea is that people either explicitly or tacitly give up certain individual rights for the benefits of living in a society, benefits that can include everything from physical protection to shared resources. This idea was so central to the founding of America that Thomas Jefferson even cribbed quite a bit of the Declaration of Independence from the writings of English Enlightenment philosopher and social contract godfather John Locke. While Jefferson may very well have intended for America to embrace the social contract, and many Americans since have praised Locke and his contemporaries, what we have in this country is a truly warped misinterpretation of the thing.

And it was warped from the jump. In order to justify slavery and indigenous genocide while building the first country ever founded on the basis of equal rights, the founding fathers had to do some real mental gymnastics, which twisted America's version of the social contract before the country even officially existed. Subsequent generations further stretched and warped the meaning of "natural rights" pushing the American social contract further and further toward an agreement that protects a select few, yet obligates all, that places the individual above society in every meaningful way.

Now those who speak out most passionately against any form of government are the very same who benefit most from societal power structures. Even John Locke, who at one point owned stock in a slave trading company and truly loved the idea of private property, would be deeply annoyed. For all of his flaws, Locke felt strongly that no society could work if individualism weren't balanced by efforts to protect the common good.

So what does a government owe its people? What do citizens owe each other in a society? Where does individual freedom bleed into unbridled self-interest? These are the questions we need to be answering in the weeks and years to come. Locke himself ultimately denounced slavery and espoused a balance between private property and the commons. He believed God had given all of mankind the Earth, but thought private property was helpful as a sort of reward for hard work and talent. Locke argued for limits, though: people should only own as much property as they could make productive, and they ought to leave "enough and as good in common." In other words, there should be just as good of resources left to the public trust as private owners.

It's possible that there are simply too many opinions that differ too wildly about what individuals owe society and vice versa, what "freedom" really means, for America to ever make good on its original promise. But times like these, when so much has been stripped away, offer us a choice: do we craft a social contract that all can live with, or do we revert to being individuals, alone in the wilderness, every man for himself?

That’s the question I’ll be exploring in this newsletter. Well actually, it’s what I’ll be researching for who knows how long and every week-ish, I’ll share what I learn. Things you can expect to see here: random thoughts about The Enlightenment and the impact it had on the formation of America and American identity, how that all intersects with the construction of race and gender, how it all flows into climate change and other social issues. I’ll also be looking at how the idea of a social contract evolved in other countries. Some weeks I’ll read books by well-respected rightwing thinkers to get a handle on the conservative and libertarian views of the social contract, others I’ll read socialist and Marxist thinkers on the subject. We’re gonna do the reading together, and maybe we’ll learn something about how we got here and where we might go next.


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