Friday, September 23, 2011

A word about the Social Contract

On the heels of Elizabeth Warren's viral video--wherein she hammers the "rich" for profiting on the backs of everyone else and ignoring the social contract--the erstwhile Paul Krugman has entered the fray with a cleverly titled op-ed, "The Social Contract."

Apparently, both believe that the Social Contract is essentially an obligation all have to pay as much taxes as the government decides they can afford. Really, I can glean no other meaning from the use of the term by Warren. What she said:
There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you! 
But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that maurauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea — God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. 
But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
There's no question that taxes need to be paid, that the government needs to be funded in order to do the things it is empowered to do. But the Social Contract--the basis of of our republic and concept of citizenry--is not "pay it forward." The concept is being abused, terribly abused, and it's really a shameful thing that supposedly intelligent people like Warren and Krugman have such a flimsy grasp of what it actually means, how it actually works.

The source of the theory is Thomas Hobbes, who Hannah Arendt termed "the first philosopher the bourgeoisie could rightly call their own," and for very good reason. Hobbes argued that in the state of nature, life was solitary, nasty, brutish, and short for man. To overcome that, to gain security, men form a society by willingly ceding their own power to a sovereign authority. The Founders utilized this idea in the creation of the American Republic--influenced somewhat by John Locke's related thinking--but rather than empowering a person or persons as the sovereign, they empowered a document: the Constitution.

And that is the Social Contract: the agreement of people--now citizens--to abide by that document, via the government established therein. But the Constitution is a limiting document; while it is the sovereign authority, the powers of government are clearly spelled out and just as clearly limited. The government has the authority to spend, to build highways and the like. And citizens are obligated to pay their share for such, via the taxes the government is allowed to collect.

But there is no obligation from citizen to citizen in the Social Contract, aside from following the law. None. Zero. To be clear, I owe you none of my income, my property, whatsoever. Locke established this element and it was restated clearly in the Declaration of Independence: an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is true that the factory owner uses the public goods paid for by taxes from all (well, most all). But the factory owner paid those taxes to. And continues to pay them. The factory owner is not in debt to the rest of the public because he/she was willingly to assume the risk of building a factory. Nor is the rest of the public in debt to the factory owner (too big to fail), even though the factory provides jobs, creates wealth, and sustains other businesses. Both viewpoints are wrong-headed in the extreme.

The Social Contract provides security and a basic structure of society to allow citizens to live their lives, to take the risks they want to take, to earn a living, to accumulate or not accumulate wealth as they see fit, within the rules established and enforced by government. It's nothing more than that. It's not a mandate to level society, to redistribute wealth, or the like. Exactly the opposite. It's an agreement that--per the Constitution--this won't happen, that property is the individual's and cannot be arbitrarily confiscated.

Should everyone pay into the system? Absolutely. But insisting that one group can be targeted to pay more, whenever it suits the government's needs, is not consistent with the Social Contract. It's simple class warfare, nothing more.

Cheers, all.

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