A social contract governs relations in a society, between the people and between the people and their government and other institutions. Portions of a social contract may be formal, such as a constitution, laws, and regulations, while many aspects of a social contract may be more informal such as social norms, conventions, expectations, and religious practices.
The theory is that without a social contract life in a state of nature would be as Thomas Hobbes put it solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.
This informal paper provides only a relatively brief, informal introduction to social contracts. It does not delve deeply into either formal social contract theory or the specifics of actual social contracts in the modern world.
Major elements of social contracts in modern, western-style societies are contained in two companion papers (very long):
This paper is not intended to detail a specific social contract. It is more of a framework, an outline, a template for actual social contracts.
This paper is intended primarily as a foundation for a subsequent paper which will suggest that we should review, revise, and review the social contract for the United States.
This paper is not intended to be specific to the U.S.; it should apply to most modern, western-style societies. And the general concepts apply to all human societies.
It is also intended that this paper not be limited to human societies, but also has application to the world of robots and AI, especially as the machines begin to interact more with each other and with humans as well.
Social contracts in a nutshell
Social contracts are the origin of society. Without a firm social contract, society as we know it would not be possible.
A social contract is only possible with the consent of the people.
It is a social contract that establishes the legitimacy of authority and the state over the people.
A social contract establishes the political community.
A social contract establishes civil society.
With a social contract the people trade personal freedom for social and political order.
The people do surrender some freedoms to authority, but they do so voluntarily in exchange for protection of their remaining freedoms as well as the promise of services from government.
A social contract expresses the general will of a people, their collective interests, and provides the basis for ensuring the general welfare of the people.
A social contract offers the promise of personal protection and the rule of law in exchange for giving up the natural right of personal retaliation.
A social contract defines what is expected from government by the people.
A social contract defines what is expected from the people by the government.
A social contract seeks to minimize factionalism and social unrest.
A social contract is based on the presumption that we are stronger together than we are alone.
A social contract defines what services people are owed by their government.
A social contract defines what we owe each other.
A social contract defines our shared values.
A social contract defines social norms, conventions, and expectations.
A social contract enables the rule of law.
A social contract is based on natural rights.
A social contract protects rights in exchange for the people accepting obligations to both their fellow man and to the institutions of society and government.
A social contract recognizes, encourages, and supports the better angels of human nature while moderating the less desirable aspects of human nature.
A social contract accepts and guides the human condition, including aspirations to personal power and conscience.
A social contract is needed to lift us out of the state of nature.
A social contract will only persist and thrive to the extent that its benefits to individuals exceed the benefits individuals would have in the state of nature.
A social contract provides a shared moral and ethical framework to guide conduct.
This paper won’t attempt to recite or rehash the long history of social contracts and social contract theory. The reader may consult the Wikipedia article on Social contract and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Social Contract Theory.
And of course special credit should be given to Hobbes and Rousseau for their significant work in this area:
Why a social contract?
The essential reasons that any people seek a social contract are:
- Mutual defense from external threats.
- Protection from each other when interests and values are not closely aligned.
- Stability of the community. Minimize division, dispute, and unrest.
- Greater prosperity than when individuals act alone.
We are stronger together than we are alone
The general sentiment of all social contracts is that we are stronger together than we are alone.
Otherwise individuals could get along quite nicely without a social contract at all.
A society without a social contract?
A society without a social contract would be a contradiction in terms since it is the social contract which enables and empowers individuals to aggregate their efforts to form a society.
THE social contract
The social contract is not typically a single formal document.
It is more specifically an overall belief about the respective roles of the members of society towards each other.
How exactly that overall belief is expressed, conveyed, or experienced can be all over the map.
As such, the social contract has two main forms:
- Formal documents. Such as a constitution or other declaration. And explicit laws, rules, and regulations.
- Informal values and relations. Conveyed through various cultural forms of expression. May also vary between groups or strata of society.
Social contract for each country
Generally, society is specific to a given country — each country has its own particular flavor of society.
There is no social contract for all of humanity that crosses all boundaries.
There are elements in common across boundaries and borders, as exemplified by this paper, but the specific combinations and variations of the elements will vary.
United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights
There is the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights that covers all of humanity, but even that is more of an informal, aspirational document, rather than a true contract that governs the people in any given area of the globe.
Web of social contracts
We speak generally and loosely of the social contract, as if there was one single, monolithic social contract for all people everywhere in a given society (country), but the reality is that there is a web of social contracts — plural.
There will in general be a single social contract that governs many or most aspects of society on a pervasive, national basis, but generally won’t govern all aspects of all social relationships.
Various levels of social contracts exist:
- Individual. What we expect from ourselves.
- Personal relationship. Between two people. Including marriage.
- Family relations. Between members of a nuclear family, generally living under a single roof. In fact, there are typically separate social contracts that govern the relations between parents and their children, between siblings, between siblings of the same gender, between siblings near the same age, and between older and younger siblings with very different ages. And between siblings and parents as siblings mature and as adults.
- Relatives. Between members of a nuclear family and grandparents, between grandparents and grandchildren, siblings and their respective families, aunts and uncles, cousins.
- Roommates. Between unrelated individuals living in the same household.
- Friends. Very close friends.
- Acquaintances. Friendly but not as tightly bound.
- Colleagues. Work associates. Fellow employees. Varying degrees of closeness.
- Strangers. Sometimes wary, but frequently or commonly respectful and helpful.
- Customers. Relations between vendors or business representatives and their customers, clients, and users.
- Fiduciary relations. Specialized form of customer relations where special obligations including privacy apply, such as client-attorney legal relations, financial advisers, banking, and medicine and health care.
- Neighbors. Closest neighbors.
- Neighborhood. Relatively close, but not necessarily very close.
- Community. Civic affairs, schools.
- Region within state. Shared experience and shared environment.
- Region of country. Shared natural environment.
- National. Common citizenship for the entire country. Shared national history.
- Neighboring countries.
- Ally countries.
- Bilateral international treaties.
- Multilateral international treaties.
- Global international treaties. Including the United Nations and international law.
- Ethnic. Shared heritage. Shared genes.
- Socioeconomic level.
- Social groups. Common interests. Shared experiences.
- Political parties. Shared ideology.
- Sect of religion.
Even within these categories there can be great variability and subjectivity, such as:
- Different degrees of personal relationships.
- Differences between different pairs of siblings.
- Favored and not so favored relatives.
- Closer or special friends.
- Degrees of acquaintance.
- Degrees of closeness of work relationships.
- Variations in attitudes towards strangers, especially regionally or in neighborhoods.
- Differences between neighborhoods.
- Wings of political parties.
- And of course, differences between countries.
And sometimes the rules in these different levels of social contracts can conflict. How to resolve such conflicts vary widely. Blood runs deep is a common theme, both at the family level and ethnic level.
A social contract will in large part be based on values.
One can also say that the social contract for a society embodies the values of that society.
Values determine what’s important in a society. Alternatively, what’s important in a society determines the values of that society.
Individuals, organizations, groups, and religions can have additional or more expansive or more limited values than the overall social contract.
More on values can be found in these papers:
- In Search of American Values.
- Values of Significant Groups, Organizations, and Figures in America.
- Master List of Values in America — Updated.
The point here is that any effort to draft, review, or revise a social contract should be preceded by a substantive effort to draft, review, or revise the values of that country. Both to make sure that all values are embodied somehow in the social contract, and to assure that every element of the social contract can be traced back to one or more values.
Promises, policies, and values
A social contract is not simply an expression of values. It may indeed explicitly express values, and in some cases that expression is all that is needed, but generally values show up in a social contract in the form of promises and policies, which are based on values but are not the values themselves.
Policies are a way of living up to values.
Alternatively, one can view policies as promises and values in action.
Elements of a national dream
Americans are promised The American Dream, which is a concise subset of the full social contract, but in a form that is much more readily digested.
A similar formulation should be available for any society.
The vision of the dream for the people, as exemplified by The American Dream, consists of these elements:
- Hard work virtually guarantees success.
- Few barriers to success, prosperity, upwards social and economic mobility, and quality of life.
- Success, prosperity, upwards social and economic mobility, and quality of life are not limited by social class or circumstances of birth.
- Anybody can become president.
- Live your dreams.
That formulation can be adapted to suit the specific needs of any particular society.
No society can exist without some level of trust. Whether it is trust between individuals or trust in authority or government.
That said, there will likely be a wide variety of forms of distrust in any given society.
Distrust can in fact be the basis for a wide variety of laws, regulations, rules, and even norms that make up a social contract.
To a significant degree the formal aspects of a social contract may be driven by the levels of distrust that exist. Without the distrust, the people would likely not feel as pressing a need to deal with formalizing the social contract.
Which comes first, trust or the social contract?
Is the social contract the chicken or the egg?
Or is trust the chicken and the social contract is the egg?
The drafters of a social contract likely had a significant degree of trust in one another before drafting their social contract, even if they still had some or even significant reservations.
But once their social contract came into force, it probably instilled a significant degree of trust within and across society.
On the flip side, if a social contract begins to fray and unravel, trust will decline as well. Or, maybe the social contract unravels because of rising distrust in a society that the existing social contract failed to adequately address.
In any case, a social contract is a great way to focus attention and energy on trust, instilling and reinforcing it, as well as delivering the message that trust is to be very highly valued in a society, whether it be trust in each other or trust in a powerful authority to bring and enforce the level of order and justice needed to instill trust in the system.
Consensus is the only way
By definition, a social contract is a matter of consensus. And near-universal consensus at that.
Anything less than near-universal consensus will only be a recipe for disaster further down the road.
Some parties may want more in the social contract than others. By definition, the social contract must be the things all parties agree on, the common ground. The consensus.
A social contract is not the end-all of all things for all people, but that which there is near-universal agreement on.
Federated political subdivisions with limited autonomy
If necessary, a federal approach can be taken where smaller political subdivisions can be granted limited autonomy so that they may have a partial social contract that covers their differences, so that the overall national social contract can be limited to those elements for which there really is near-universal consensus.
In the U.S. we call them states, each state having its own constitution and own state laws.
Sorry, but winning is out
Again, by definition, a near-universal consensus is needed to achieve a social contract. So by definition no individual political party can be permitted to win or prevail over the others. Consensus is required rather than winning.
Responsibility, sharing, and shared responsibility are key elements of any social contract.
Conceptually they are easy to understand, but the proof is in the pudding. The details really do matter.
Shared responsibility can be tricky. It effectively must deal with the inherent conflict between pure individualism and pure collectivism. How to balance them is key. And the significance of a social contract is to clearly and explicitly state the expected and tolerated balance between the two extremes.
The term shared responsibility itself does not refer to a particular point on the spectrum of balancing the two. Rather, it is important to explicitly state the expected and tolerated balance between the two extremes.
It should be clear how much individualism will be preserved and protected, and how much collectivism will be required or expected to be achieved.
The bottom line is that citizens should have a very clear view of what they can expect and what is expected of them.
And they have to buy into and commit to the deal, the bargain.
Without their voluntary buy-in and voluntary commitment, no social contract deal can be considered valid.
Social contract embedded in laws
Generally speaking, most elements of a social contract for a country tend to be embedded within the statutory laws of that country rather than explicitly stated in a distinct document such as a constitution.
As such, law is a de facto social contract, in lieu of a formal, explicit, separate social contract.
This makes it a lot less clear to the average citizen what the actual social contract really is. This is why an explicit constitution is so valuable. Laws can be changed at the whim of a slim majority of the legislature, while a constitution generally requires a very large supermajority of support.
Whether there should be a distinct document for the social contract separate from even the constitution is a matter of debate. I personally think there should be since the constitution focuses more attention on the structure of government rather than the goals of government and the rights and obligations of citizens.
The Bill of Rights for the U.S. Constitution is an example of a relatively standalone document focused more on elements of the social contract. Technically and legally it is considered part of the Constitution, but everybody knows it as if it were distinct from the Constitution.
The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is another example of a relatively standalone document focused more on elements of the social contract than structure of government or specific laws and policies intended to implement the contract.
Nonetheless, the reality is that to discern the social contract for any country one must sift through statutory law.
Examples of social contract elements embedded in statutory law in the U.S. include:
- The Depression era New Deal. Social Security. FDIC bank deposit insurance.
- Unemployment insurance.
- Great Society social programs of the 1960’s. Welfare.
- Civil and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965.
- Obamacare. Shared responsibility. Individual Mandate. Subsidies for lower income.
- Progressive income tax rates.
The details, policies, and regulations need to be embodied in law, but it would be more helpful to have the social contract aspects called out separately, as in the Bill of Rights and UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
Social contract in political party platforms
Some elements of a social contract may be expressed in the party platform for political parties.
That party will likely seek to instill its own desired social contract into statutory law.
Not all political parties will have the same ideas for what the elements of the social contract should be. This can result in a shifting social contract if and when political power shifts in the legislature.
It is far better to pursue changes to the social contract on a party-independent basis — true consensus. Strictly nonpartisan.
Social contract in organizational charters and bylaws
Individual organizations, whether businesses or nonprofit organizations, may have their own ideas of what the social contract should look like, either as explicit value, vision, and mission statements or embedded in their charters, bylaws, policies, and procedures.
It is permissible for individual organizations to have their own social contract which applies to their members only, provided that it does not conflict with the whole-of-society social contract, the national social contract.
On the flip side, national social contracts must take care to respect individual rights, including right to associate, and not infringe on the rights of individuals and their associations and organizations to have somewhat different value from the rest of society.
How to balance these conflicting interests is very tricky.
It is best for the overall national social contract to be as explicit as possible about this balance and the process for achieving it.
Social contract in religions — values, dogma, doctrine, and scripture
Freedom of religion is a cornerstone of most modern western-style societies. The hallmark of a religion is the social contract which is expressed explicitly or implied by the values, dogma, doctrine, and scripture of the religion.
The social contract within a religion may diverge significantly from the overall national social contract.
How to balance these conflicting interests is very tricky.
There will inevitably be conflicts. Which side wins will be an intricate dance and negotiation. There is no absolute a priori winner. Ultimately it may come down to arbitrary judgments by the courts. And such judgments may vary through time, sometimes leaning strongly one way and sometimes leaning more strongly the other way.
It is best for the overall national social contract to be as explicit as possible about this balance and the process for achieving it.
Merit of explicit, separate social contract document
A social contract is really only valid to the extent that the people accept and support it — and understand it, including all of its consequences, both rights and obligations.
This requires that the people be able to see, read, and comprehend the social contract.
The social contract needs to be fully transparent. Explicit, never implicit. Plainly worded. Easy to understand.
Hiding elements of the social contract in dense statutory law or even a legally-framed constitution interferes with transparency and ease of understanding.
An explicit, separate social contract document is well advised.
Any social contract element embedded in a law should first be recorded in the social contract
The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a good example and good starting point.
Rule of law
The rule of law is a primary function of a social contract.
The rule of law is the degree to which decisions by authority and government should be guided or even constrained by law rather than left to the discretion or even capricious whim of individual officials or civil servants.
The rule of law means applying laws and regulations as literally written, without taking context or the situation or identity of the individuals involved into consideration.
The rule of law is the notion that a country is a nation of laws, not of men, quoting Founding Father John Adams.
The rule of law is the notion of Lady Justice being blindfolded.
The rule of law is in contrast with discretion and compassion.
- Criminal law.
- Civil law.
- Contract law.
- Tort law. Recourse for harm and damages.
- Administrative law. Regulations and rules.
- National, state, and local law.
- International law.
Discretion is the degree to which government and the justice system can apply case by case discretion when making decisions, to take context and the situation and identities of the individuals involved into consideration, in contrast to simply applying laws and regulations as literally written.
A social contract may or may not explicitly express the degree of discretion that is expected, permissible, or to be tolerated, by law, the administration of justice, or the administration of government.
Compassion is the degree to which government and the justice system exercises discretion to be more lenient towards individuals who are suffering in some way, such as:
- Physical pain.
- Mental pain or distress.
- Financial difficulty.
- Past injustices or unfair treatment.
- Bad luck.
- Hard luck.
- Remorse for past transgressions.
A social contract may or may not explicitly express the degree of compassion that is expected, permissible, or to be tolerated, by law, the administration of justice, or the administration of government.
The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights was authored by a number of people, but led especially by Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin Roosevelt, based on his Four Freedoms Speech which was actually his 1941 State of the Union address. FDR’s Four Freedoms, which are in fact engraved in stone at his memorial in Washington, DC and at the FDR Four Freedoms Park on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island in New York City:
- Freedom of speech and expression.
- Freedom of worship and religion.
- Freedom from want.
- Freedom from fear.
Going beyond the basic freedoms and guarantees of the U.S. Constitution Bill of Rights, FDR’s Four Freedoms endeavored to encompass social needs as well, as exemplified by the Depression-era New Deal. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights endeavored to codify his vision in this regard.
Specific elements of a social contract
Before drafting a specific social contract for a specific country, the drafters should review and either adopt or revise the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which for example includes most of the rights granted in the U.S. Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution plus additional rights.
The social contract should cover these areas:
- Basic freedoms (see UDHR) such as life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness (right to engage in activities, engage in a livelihood, and own property), speech and other forms of expression, association, assembly, religion, press, and treatment under law enforcement and the justice system.
- Whether private gun ownership is considered a basic right or whether the state has more of a true monopoly on the means of force. Any restrictions on such a right.
- Protection from threats. The common defense.
- Any obligations to participate in the common defence. Mandatory national service? Draft? And any mandated response to threats of citizens in general. Any duty to render assistance to a person in danger.
- Law. Rules and regulations.
- Justice. Resolution of disputes.
- Expected degree of discretion and compassion under law and the administration of justice.
- Protections for minorities, indigenous peoples, and disenfranchised groups.
- Balancing majority rule and protection of those not in the majority.
- Work, employment, and income.
- Income and wealth inequality. How much inequality is okay, permissible, expected, and to be tolerated? How much is too much? What should be done when it is too much? Should it merely be discouraged, lambasted, or outright treated with punitive measures (taxes, etc.)
- Banking, savings, and investment. Protection of financial assets.
- Right to fruits of one’s labors.
- Obligations to fellow citizens.
- Obligations to the state.
- General availability and low cost for all essential goods and services.
- Food security.
- Energy. For cooking, heating, cooling, lighting, and appliances.
- Health and medical care including medical, mental, dental, aging, birth, dying, and prevention.
- Education. Approach to post-secondary. Approach to what is mandatory. Approach to what is free.
- Transportation. Streets, roads, highways, vehicles, bus lines, trains, planes, ships.
- Media. Sharing of news and information. But also providing a point of view and amplifying the voice of the owners of the particular media outlet. Role in shaping political and policy debate. Government may seek to influence the media, sometimes with success. Each media outlet will decide for itself whether its posture will be supportive of the government or in opposition. Degree of objectivity will vary — consumers and citizens can select based on their own interests.
- Internet and information services.
- Physical fitness.
- Recreation. Importance of diversions, including entertainment and sports.
- Personal growth — beyond just education.
This list is not intended to specify exactly what a social contract should guarantee or mandate, but to simply outline the areas which should be covered and specified in a specific social contract.
Essential goods and services
Some goods and services in a society are optional, vanities, extravagances, or even luxuries, but some core set of goods and services are considered essential goods and services.
What exactly constitutes an essential good or service will vary from country to country, region to region, locale to locale. It is up to the collective will of the citizens of any area to define what they consider essential.
And the definition will evolve over time. A computer or Internet connection was once quite an extravagance. A well-stocked wood pile and decent hunting rifle and supply of ammunition and a hunting knife were once considered absolute essentials.
Availability, access, and cost
Some goods and services may be available in a society without any need for government involvement. Such as goods available at your local supermarket or convenience store.
Other goods and services might not otherwise be available at all absent significant government involvement, such as national security.
Other goods and services may be available but inconsistently, either in time or in geographic distribution. Or at the whim of the weather and Mother Nature.
Other goods and services may be generally available, but without ready access by everyone.
Other goods and services may be generally available, but only at a high cost that makes them unavailable to some non-trivial segment of society of more limited economic means. Or more limited education. Or more limited physical or mental ability.
The social contract seeks to assure availability, access, and low cost for all essential goods and services.
Whole of society
A social contract won’t define all aspects of society and government.
Generally, resourceful citizens can take care of themselves.
The issue is what aspects of life are unlikely to be readily handled by average citizens. Those are the details that must be wrapped up in a social contract.
The whole of society, which includes but is not limited to the social contract is detailed in these other papers:
What’s expected from government
In order for the people to tolerate the rule of authority and the state, they expect something in return, namely:
- Protection from natural, national, international, regional, and local threats. Including natural disasters, foreign invaders, regional unrest and conflict, criminal activity, and social unrest.
- Law and its enforcement.
- Justice. Fair and equal treatment. Recourse for harm and damages.
- Services in general. Services not provided by business, religious organizations, nonprofit organizations, volunteers, or individuals. Exactly what the services will be is not established in any abstract sense — it depends entirely on the specific context of the social contract. Some countries, states, or locales will opt for more services being provided by the government. Some citizens will demand more, some less.
- Economic security. Employment and business opportunities.
- Prosperity and economic growth. Expanding the economic pie over time.
- Upwards social and economic mobility and quality of life. Your success, prosperity, and quality of life and that of your children should not be limited by your social class or circumstances of birth.
- Subsidies for goods and services that do not have consistent availability and low cost.
- Monetary system. Some way to value goods and services and store financial value over time.
- Protection of financial assets. Deposit insurance, banking, financial, and securities regulation.
- Education. Local schools and post-secondary education to some degree. Professional and vocational education and training to some degree.
- Health care. Optionally.
- Housing. Optionally.
- Responsive to the needs of the people. Times change. People change. Needs change. Aspirations change.
- Progress. Improved quality of life as time goes by. Better for individuals and better for the many forms of relationships in society.
- Respect for the people, their rights, and their property.
What’s expected from the people
In exchange for getting services and other benefits out of the social contract, the people must put something into the deal, namely:
- Obedience to law.
- Obedience to rules.
- Obedience to authority. Respect for authority.
- Payment of taxes and fees to cover the cost of services.
- Military service. Varies from draft to sufficient voluntary service.
- Civic responsibility.
- Civility. Respect for fellow citizens.
- Manage and maintain one’s own sense of self-esteem.
- Act with dignity.
- Participation in government.
- Jury duty.
- Compulsory insurance.
- Respect for the environment.
- Respect for the community.
Respective roles of government, business, religion, and civil society
The institutions and organizations in society form roughly three sectors:
- Government. Including education and essential goods and services.
- Civil society, including education, religion, philanthropies, charities, and activists.
For more on civil society, see the companion paper, What is Civil Society?
A people will need to decide what they want the respective roles of these three sectors to be, including:
- How limited or expansive they wish government to be.
- How large or small a role the want business to play in providing essential goods and services and filling gaps in services.
- How much they trust business and civil society vs. how much regulation and oversight they feel are needed.
- How much they trust government and how much checks and balances and transparency they feel are needed.
- How heavily they wish to lean on private schools and non-state higher education.
- How heavily they want to lean on religion and spirituality, including services.
- How heavily to lean on philanthropic organizations and charities to fill gaps in services.
- How tolerant and dependent they wish to be on external pressure groups to influence reform and direction of government.
The social contract should be as explicit as possible in detailing these respective roles.
Transparency is generally a good thing, but it can have its costs as well.
Secrecy, privacy, and discretion can have valuable roles as well.
Negotiation can conflict with transparency as well. Although some aspects of negotiation can be facilitated with transparency as well. It gets tricky.
The social contract should be as explicit as possible as to how much transparency is expected, from government, business, and civil society.
And from the people as well. Privacy has its merits, but some degree of public records and free speech have merit as well. The social contract should be as explicit as possible in this area as well.
Role of family and family values
The social contract should be clear, plain, and explicit as to the role that people see for the family unit in society. And family values as well — and should express those values as clearly, plainly, and explicitly as possible.
And this includes marriage, children, and the extended family as well.
Role of community and community values
The social contract should be clear, plain, and explicit as to the role that people see for the local community in society. And community values as well — and should express those values as clearly, plainly, and explicitly as possible.
And this includes neighborhoods as well.
Individualism vs. collectivism
Some societies may place higher value on rugged individualism while other societies may place higher value on collective action. The social contract should clearly and explicitly state the bias, if any, and respective roles of the two.
It should be clear to all citizens how individualism and collectivism are to be balanced, if at all.
Most societies will have both, but will have varying degrees of emphasis on the value of individualism.
The point here is not to argue for a particular balance, but to encourage the drafters of a social contract to do so, and to do so explicitly.
Form of justice system
A people will need to decide what form of justice system they wish to have, primarily to choose between:
- Retributive justice.
- Restorative justice.
They also need to decide how they wish to deal with:
- Harshness of punishment. Sentences. Fines.
- Role of discretion. Prosecutors. Judges. Juries.
- Role of compassion. Prosecutors. Judges. Juries.
- Law and order vs. social justice.
These issues need to be covered by the social contract. People need to know what they are getting themselves into. Their expectations need to be set, as explicitly as possible.
Protest vs. peaceful assembly
One area where many countries struggle is finding the line between peaceful assembly and illegal unrest. Exactly how disruptive, aggressive, angry, forceful, damaging, harmful, and even violent can a protest get before it is no longer considered peaceful assembly and freedom of speech and expression? The answer: it’s vague, unclear, and commonly a matter of discretion, leaving a lot of people confused, disappointed, and even angry.
Most constitutions and even the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights do not protect protest per se, but protect peaceful assembly instead. The two are treated as synonyms. Sort of. To some extent. Except when they’re not treated synonyms. It’s quite a confusing situation. Ripe for misunderstanding and ripe for abuse on all sides.
No sane person would read peaceful as including:
But where exactly is the line between peaceful protest and those more extreme forms of conduct?
There are also the matters of requiring permits and lawful limits on time, place, and manner of expression and assembly.
The social contract should address all of these issues as plainly and explicitly as possible so that there is no confusion for citizens, officials, law enforcement, prosecutors, lawyers, judges, and juries.
Minor violations of law made as a matter of principle and to make a point are commonly tolerated as an acceptable form of civil disobedience, at least in the U.S. In fact, civil disobedience is a time-honored tradition in the U.S. That said, this is a strictly informal portion of the social contract, at least in the U.S.
How minor or major can a violation of law be before it is no longer considered acceptable and excusable civil disobedience? Very unclear and subject to a widely varying degree of discretion on the part of all parties.
The social contract should more explicitly and plainly lay out the ground rules for acceptable civil disobedience. And even if a society does not wish to permit and excuse civil disobedience, then that should be spelled out plainly, clearly, and explicitly in the social contract.
Outright incitement is typically going to be illegal in any venue, but the border line between vigorous, passionate, and even somewhat offensive expression and clear incitement is not so clear at all. In fact, commonly it will be left to the discretion of the prosecutor, judge, and jury to decide. Confusion, misunderstanding, anger, and disappointment prevail.
Rather, a robust social contract will make more plainly and explicitly clear where the line is. It may not be an absolute bright line and still require some degree of discretion, but at least some degree of clarity is needed.
The line may vary from culture to culture. Some countries may encourage very vigorous interaction, while others may mandate a greater degree of civility.
Bounds of reason and expected behavior
The social contract is tied up with questions of what forms of expression, conduct, and behavior are acceptable. Yes, there are lots of freedoms, but there will also be lots of laws and various restrictions on freedoms.
Questions to be answered when drafting a social contract include:
- What are the bounds of reason for expression, conduct and behavior?
- What expression and conduct is expected?
- What expression and conduct is encouraged?
- What expression and conduct is permitted?
- What expression and conduct is to be tolerated even if discouraged?
- What expression and conduct is discouraged?
- What expression and conduct is not to be tolerated even if permitted?
- What expression and conduct is strongly discouraged?
- What expression and conduct is banned and illegal?
Patriotism, nationalism, and nativism
A social contract should address what level of pride in the country is appropriate. Is it:
- Strongly encouraged.
- Moderately encouraged.
- Weakly encouraged.
- Completely optional.
- Considered over the top and suspect.
When does pride, patriotism, and nationalism become a distinct negative?
When does nationalism cross the line to a form of ethnic or national supremacy or nativism which unfairly excludes minorities and others of some other ethnic or national origin?
The social contract should explicitly address these issues.
Immigration and refugees
Not every country must be equally free, open, and welcoming, but the people of a country should be clear where they stand on the matter of immigration and refugees.
Some countries may be at a stage where immigration is heartily welcomed, while other countries may be at a stage where they do not have the economic, social, or political resources to sustain an unchecked bulge of immigrants. Again, the social contract should explicitly state where the country stands on such matters.
A social contract can deal with income is a variety of ways:
- Should income be driven exclusively by free and open market economic forces?
- How much income is okay and how much is too much? Income inequality in general.
- Is a minimum wage a necessary good or inherently evil?
- What should the Social Security retirement age be?
- How should the level of Social Security benefits be determined?
- Should there be a minimum Social Security benefit for all regardless of work history?
- Rules for Social Security disability benefit.
- Rules for Social Security survivor benefit.
- Is Universal Basic Income (UBI) an inherently good thing or an evil to be avoided?
- Consider my proposal for Universal Guaranteed Work (UGW).
- Should there be a federal legislatively mandated Livable Wage?
- Should individual states mandate a Livable Wage?
- What forms of unemployment insurance should be available? What level of income? For how long?
Income inequality and wealth inequality
Existing social contracts were developed long before the relatively recent interest in income inequality and wealth inequality. New social contracts or revisions to existing social contracts should explicitly address income inequality and wealth inequality, either to explicitly deny their relevance, or to explicitly state how they will be measured, avoided, or forms of redistribution.
There are two concerns:
- Basic unfairness of inequality in general. Can lead to inequality of opportunity.
- Concern that excessive inequality will over time lead to a divided society and even significant social unrest if not outright civil war or revolution.
Entitlements can take two forms under a social contract:
- Right or service to which a citizen is entitled merely due to their being a citizen. Such as voting.
- Service a citizen is due as a result of their past efforts. Such as Social Security benefits which depend on work history. Or unemployment insurance or workman’s compensation.
Social safety net
The concept of a social safety net is inherently part of the social contract.
Each society (country, state, locale) will have to decide for itself what aspects of life will be covered in the social contract as part of the social safety net.
State social contract
Generally, the social contract is a national commitment, but there may be a secondary social contract by which an individual state may have a broader commitment of government obligations or obligations of citizens than other states in the same country.
This may result in higher taxes or fees. Or lower taxes and fees if the citizens of a state require less services or other benefits, or if the state government is run more efficiently and more leanly.
An example would be mandated health insurance. Or free or more heavily subsidized college tuition. Or a more rural state with less demand for expensive urban services.
Local social contract
Similarly, a city, urban area, or rural area may also have yet another level of social contract that further extends or limits the commitment of government to the people and people to the government.
This may result in higher taxes or fees. Or lower taxes and fees.
An example would be a city which legislates a higher minimum wage than the national or state minimum wage. Or a rural area with more self-sufficient residents.
Formal social contract
As already noted, parts of a social contract are formal and parts informal. The formal aspects appear in legally-binding documents such as:
- Constitution. National or state.
- Statutory law. National, state, or local.
- Administrative law. Regulations and rules.
- International treaties.
- International law.
- Policies and procedures.
In the U.S., we also have the Declaration of Independence.
Informal social contract
Informal aspects of a social contract include:
- Social norms.
- Social conventions.
- Etiquette and manners.
- Folklore and myth.
- Teaching and school lessons.
- Religious doctrine, dogma, teachings, and scripture.
- Civil disobedience. Degree to which the formal social contract may be violated without legal sanction.
Stories and narratives
A legalistic recitation of elements of the social contract will bore most people to sleep. Their eyes will glaze over immediately after hearing “We the People…” or “and the pursuit of Happiness.” Rather, most people need stories and narratives to gain any visceral and emotional if not intellectual sense of what the social contract is all about.
Those stories and narratives may involve notable historical figures, activists, explorers, entrepreneurs, and professionals. Or they may employ fictional everyman characters whom average citizens can more easily relate to.
Stories need to be updated as times change and people change. Every generation will need its own Horatio Alger stories.
Although there have been many successful young people in recent decades, such as the proverbial Internet billionaires in the U.S., an increasing social problem is that the success stories are too few and too far between so that far too many average citizens, even in America, cannot relate to them, or at least not so strongly as in past generations.
Promises and expectations
One way to oversimplify the social contract is to say that it does precisely two things:
- Promise things.
- Set expectations.
Generally, that’s fairly accurate.
A social contract makes a bunch of promises to the people.
A social contract sets expectations for the people. What they can expect to get. What they can expect to put into the deal (obligations) to get the expected benefits.
The main point here is that the social contract needs to be as explicitly clear as possible as to what the promises and expectations are.
And whether promises and expectations are firm commitments or may vary or are optional or may only apply in some situations or at some times or to some degree.
Application to the world of robots and AI
Artificial intelligence (AI) and robots will increasingly exhibit social characteristics in the form of interactions between systems and between robots. Social contracts are needed there as well.
The interactions between humans and machines require notions of social contract as well.
This paper will not explore those two areas in any depth, other than simply to note the relevance. And to note that much of this paper is neutral with respect to whether the intelligent entities interacting, in relationships, or being governed are human or machines.
How much of a mandate should be required to create or change a social contract?
Should a popular vote of the people be required to initially create a social contract or to change it?
Or should the social contract be a matter for a legislature or a body of elites or individuals with money or power or prestige?
Should an absolute consensus of states or regional political entities be required?
Or is 75% enough? What specific threshold if not that?
Would 75% of the general populace be sufficient? Or what other popular threshold? 80%? 67%?
There is no absolute magic answer here. It will be up to the drafters of a social contract to decide the process of adoption and change as well as the numeric thresholds.
Need for stability of a social contract
Stability is an important quality and goal for any society.
People need to go about their daily lives without worrying that tomorrow, next week, or next month will be significantly different than today. They need to be able to sleep well at night without worry that their world has a significant chance of changing dramatically while they sleep.
A stable social contract is key to maintaining stability in a society.
Minor changes to a social contract will normally be fine at any time. Unless a seemingly small change might cause a significant social dislocation.
Any dramatic changes should be refrained from until there is a clear mandate and the potential consequences well understood.
It would be best to avoid any changes to a social contract which are likely to be unstable, untested, changing frequently, or likely to change whenever political power shifts modestly to moderately in government.
What if consensus cannot be reached?
Achieving consensus is rarely a quick and easy process. It is a lot of hard work. Really hard work. It takes commitment and work.
If consensus just isn’t happening, additional steps can include:
- Try again.
- Be patient.
- Seek a more limited social contract for which there is consensus.
- Permit federated political subdivisions with limited autonomy.
- Try again. Be open to alternatives. Including reformulations of political parties and their ideologies. Question any and all assumptions.
- Be patient.
- Maybe it simply isn’t possible.
- Maybe the timing is not right. More patience may be required.
- Rinse and repeat.
- Don’t give up until there is simply no remaining political will.
When in doubt, be patient, challenge assumptions, and just keep trying again, until there simply isn’t any remaining political will to continue.
It may ultimately be the case that there really isn’t any prospect for a significant and durable social contract for a society, but then that would indicate that it isn’t a true society in the first place.
How long should a social contract last?
A solid social contract should last indefinitely, for generations and even centuries.
Still, times change and people change, so it may on occasion be necessary to review, revise, and renew the social contract for a society.
The core principles and core values of a society are not so likely to change very often, but various aspects may require occasional updating.
Laws, regulations, and policies can be more frequently and more easily updated than a constitution.
But it may also be that on rare occasion core principles and core values may shift, even if only subtly.
Changes in technology may also bring about shifts that impact previously unshakeable principles and values.
Are we now at one of those inflection points where even our core values and principles are under attack, at risk, and being questioned? Possibly.
Even if not, it never hurts to review, contemplate, and at least think about whether revisions to the social contract may be needed.
Periodic review is needed
Rather than merely letting the social contract run on autopilot until something goes wrong or engaging in too-frequent tinkering by election-oriented politicians, periodic review is advised, such as:
- 5-year checkup. Does everything seem in order? Any minor adjustments needed?
- 10-year review. Start each decade with renewed decisiveness.
- 25-year review. Once every generation. Times change. People change. Values change. More thorough top to bottom review with possibly significant changes.