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The breakdown of the social contract
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The breakdown of the social contract

Major events have taken place over the past two weeks that have shaken the country — the terrorist bombings and attempted bombings in New York and New Jersey, as well as mall stabbings in Minnesota and police shootings in Tulsa, Okla., and Charlotte, NC, with the latter igniting riots.

I believe that these and similar events indicate that the social contract that built America is breaking down.

The “Social Contract” explains why people form governments. Among the philosophers who wrote about the Social Contract are Thomas Hobbes (1651), John Locke (1689), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762), whose formulations have elements in common: Individuals start with certain rights in a state of nature, and it is in their shared interest to cede voluntarily the same amount of rights to an authority to protect individuals from each other.

Under Locke’s version, a government’s legitimacy comes from the citizens’ delegation to the government of their right of self-defense (of “self-preservation”), along with elements of other rights as necessary to achieve the goal of security (e.g., property will be liable to taxation). The government thus acts as an impartial, objective agent (“neutral judge”) of that self-defense, rather than each man acting as his own judge, jury, and executioner — the condition in the state of nature.

The concept of individuals having rights in a “state of nature” was central to the philosophy of our founding fathers, who referred to it as “Natural Law.” Jefferson’s description in the Declaration of Independence of the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” was followed by these memorable words:

“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. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….”

That is the American Social Contract.

Until the 1956 adoption of “In God We Trust” as the formal motto of the United States, the de facto motto was the familiar E pluribus unum, “Out of many, one.” Traditionally, this meant that out of many states a single nation emerged. Later, the phrase took on an additional meaning, that out of many peoples, races, religions, languages, and ancestries a single people and nation emerged, illustrating the concept of the melting pot. People immigrated to the United States to become American, i.e., they assimilated.

Under the diktats of political correctness, we have abandoned the melting pot in favor of the quilt metaphor, which holds that many and varied pieces can successfully be assembled and stitched together to create a beautiful and functional whole without any of the pieces losing their distinct characteristics. This shifts the emphasis of a unified American society to groups having the same national, ethnic, gender, racial, or socio-economic characteristics. This stresses not what unites us, but what separates us into discrete demographic groups. E uni, pluri. “Out of one, many.”

The results of this thinking were the subject of Teddy Roosevelt’s last public statement a century ago:

“In the first place we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here does in good faith become an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed or birthplace or origin. But this is predicated upon the man’s becoming in very fact an American and nothing but an American.”

Americans are not happy with current trends, a sign of the deterioration of the Social Contract. On the issue of the direction of the country, for the period Aug. 28-Sept. 15, the Real Clear Politics polling average shows that 64.3 percent of Americans say that America is on the wrong track.

The presidential campaign reflects issues related to terrorism and the shootings and riots, with terrorism being connected to immigration and national security. Many articles have been written on whether terrorism is the new normal. Key is the enforcement of current laws and regulations, the core of the Social Contract. Is the government acting as a “neutral judge” on these matters, or acting on its own sense of morality? Former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was wary of the latter because it is not objective. For him, morality has nothing to do with law, as it was little more than a state of mind.

The police shootings and riots fall under a new rubric, “social justice.” Holmes would dismiss this too as a state of mind, similar to something I wrote in an article several years ago: “The operative word, justice, is subjective, not objective. One person’s justice can be another’s injustice.”

Police shootings and the riots that followed have created, on the edges, two groups, those who believe that the police are inherently biased against minorities, and those who support the police. Some in the former group use the allegation of bias as a justification for physically targeting police, rioting, looting, and eliminating crime prevention techniques such as stop and frisk; the first three, actual crimes, are incongruous with the last, which can be addressed politically. As a result, police may become more cautious and hence less effective in their role as protectors of individuals, their assigned task under the Social Contract. It’s no wonder gun sales are increasing!

On the other hand, objective police misconduct cannot be ignored.

American society is not perfect. Speaking to the House of Commons in 1947, Winston Churchill said, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” The same can be said for American society, which is why I and others believe in American exceptionalism. The American Social Contract must be preserved.

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