Believe in the social contract

By Matt Hutchison, Columnist

Something odd has been happening to me over the past few months…I’ve been meeting more and more people with anti-democratic views.

I’m not ignorant; I’m aware that our country (and many countries) have become increasingly polarized over the past few decades. Many views exist on what the ideal government ought to look like and what its priorities should be. However, encountering such perspectives in the flesh feels very different from reading about such perspectives in textbooks.

My past discussions have always revolved around critiquing democracy; I have never seriously considered what ought to replace democracy. I believe in the social contract.

The social contract comes in a variety of flavors; for my purposes here, I am thinking of the social contract in its most basic form. The Oxford English Dictionary provides this definition: “A tacit and implicit agreement between members of a society to cooperate for social benefits, usually by sacrificing some individual freedom in return for state protection.”

You might think this definition is vague — you might even think that it has nothing to do with democracy, as members of a society can agree to have a monarchy or technocracy. I am resting on the premise that the best form of government is based on the consent of the governed, and that free minded and rational individuals are able to engage in debate and elect officials who are to honor the social contract.

Obviously, this can and often does go awry. Politicians are often self-serving, greedy, prideful and their power is easily corrupted. And, if we’re being honest, the electorate is prone to the same. This is why the government is divided into three-branches, and why it’s so important that the function of each branch is respected. Do the executive or judicial branches try to act as the legislature? Does the legislature violate the social contract when they act in the name of powerful interests and not the people? Sure — but these are problems to be fixed, not reasons to look for another system altogether, especially one that isn’t based on the consent of the governed.

Democracy isn’t efficient or expedient — the modern world tends to value these two adjectives above all else, so I sympathize with those who have grown oppositional or apathetic towards American democracy. But American democracy does value the idea of political equality rooted in rights, and many have died to protect and advance these ideals. It’s been a slow and painful process and there is still much more to be done, but I’ll take such a process over one where the people are denied agency and must hope that enlightened rulers will act in the interest of the people.

I admit that democracy is fragile and relies on engaged citizens for its survival. Our modern world constantly entices us to ignore the social contract in the name of living in our own increasingly complex and convenient little worlds. This is not a new worry, just perhaps a more pressing one; in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States before publishing his insights on the American flavor of democracy and the type of society he thought it created.

Ultimately, the greater questions are “Where has democracy gone wrong?” and “Why have we become so fragmented?”, not why a democracy rooted in the social-contract is to blame.  

Matt is a junior in Media.

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