“Men are born free, yet everywhere are in chains.”
The Social Contract & Discourses
What do Fortnite, New Year’s Day, and the USA have in common?
They all exist because we believe they do.
Political theorists call this kind of communal belief a “social contract.” According to Rousseau, that’s the mechanism by which we trade individual liberty for community restraint. Similarly, Thomas Hobbes said this in Leviathan:
“As long as men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in the condition known as war, and it is a war of every man against every man.
“When a man thinks that peace and self-defense require it, he should be willing (when others are too) to lay down his right to everything, and should be contented with as much liberty against other men as he would allow against himself.”
In Fortnite terms, life is a battle royale: everybody against everybody else, with only one left standing. As Hobbes famously said, that makes life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” As a recent version put it, “For roughly 99% of the world’s history, 99% of humanity was poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick, and ugly.” A social contract suggests we can do better.
Can we really create something out of nothing, by mere belief? Yes, of course — we do it all the time. My daughter can’t figure out why New Year’s Day is a holiday. “It’s just a day!” she says, unmoved by my explanation that it’s a holiday because everyone thinks it is. Same with Fortnite — as 125 million enthusiasts know, it’s not just an online game, it’s a worldwide reality. And same with the United States — the Colonies’ deal with England grew long on chains and short on freedom until the Founders declared a new sovereign nation into existence:
“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.”
The new nation was conceived in liberty, but there would be limits. Once the Revolutionary War settled the issue of sovereign independence, the Founders articulated a new freedom/chains balance:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
That social contract + 250 years of history = the USA. We are a nation borne of imagination and belief, continually re-defined and updated through interpretations and amendments to the terms of our social contract.
Our economic system works the same way. Adam Smith’s capitalism survived the trip to the new world, produced astonishing quality of life improvements in the 19th and 20th Centuries, and then was recast into the neoliberal framework that powered the world’s recovery from WWII. That version of our economic social contract thrived for three decades, but began to falter in the face of several unforeseen developments:
- the democratization of knowledge in the information age;
- accelerated automation, mass production, and eventually robotics;
- software that at first only did what it was told but later morphed into machine intelligence; and
- globalization, which shrank the world, homogenized culture, opened international trade, and recast national borders.
Neoliberalism couldn’t keep up. Tensions rose until the year 2016 became a worldwide referendum on the social contracts of democracy and neoliberalism. New social contracts would have required a new freedom/chains balance. 2016’s response was, “Not on my watch.”
That’s the context into which universal basic income would now be introduced. For that to happen, the American Dream of independence and upward mobility fueled by working for a living must give way to a belief that basic sustenance — job or no job — is a human right so fundamental that it’s one of those “self-evident” truths. As we’ve seen, that radical belief is slowly changing the North Carolina Cherokee Reservation’s culture of poverty, and has caught the fancy of a growing list of techno-plutocrats. As Mark Zuckerberg said, “Now it’s our time to define a new social contract for our generation.” Law professor James Kwak makes the same point:
“We have the physical, financial, and human capital necessary for everyone in our country to enjoy a comfortable standard of living, and within a few generations the same should be true of the entire planet, And yet our social organization remains the same as it was in the Great Depression: some people work very hard and make more money than they will ever need, while many others are unable to find work and live in poverty.
“Million if not billions of people today hunger to live in a world that is more fair, more forgiving, and more humane than the one they were born into. Creating a new vision of society worthy of that collective yearning … is the first step toward building a better future for our children.”
To be continued.
 In Hobbes’ terms, social contracts end the battle royale. Ironically, they often also create war as ideals of one contract conflict with another’s.