Rethinking the Social Contract

Rethinking the Social Contract

Expanding the safety net is consistent with American values, writes Eric Meslin, director of the Indiana University Center for Bioethics, in a new paper coauthored with Aaron Carroll, Peter Schwartz, and Sheila Kennedy.

Are conservatives wrong to see modern social programs -- most notably, the Affordable Care Act -- as a violation of America's foundational principles? We recently spoke with Meslin to learn more. The conversation has been edited for clarity.


What is the "social contract," and what political message does it convey?

The social contract is an implicit understanding between people and the society in which they live about how society should be organized, how benefits are distributed, and how shared responsibilities are defined for all citizens. The beauty of the social contract is that it conveys many messages, not a singular one. It conveys the message of shared decisionmaking, but equally it conveys a political message of accountability and responsibility.

So, for example, a very liberal interpretation of the social contract is one that Rousseau talked about, in which society organizes itself according to the expectations that people have for human flourishing. Alternatively, the old Hobbesian social contract conveyed a political message of limited rights and freedoms. So, both the beauty and the frustration of using social-contract speak is that it can convey political messages across the entire spectrum, from the most conservative to the most progressive.


In the paper you say, “too often, a meritorious proposal [for social reform] is defeated by attacks portraying it as a violation of individual rights or a deviation from the foundational principles of U.S. society.” Alternatively, how can expansion of the social safety net, by methods such as welfare programs and taxation, serve to complement the social contract by advancing American values?

I think there are underappreciated but accepted American values that people should not be left to suffer, that people should not be placed at a disadvantage through no fault of their own, and that, as a community of caring people, we should be outraged when the basic necessities aren't guaranteed. I think over the last 20 or 30 years, maybe even the last 40 years, there has been both an erosion of the recognition of those important values and also a substitution with another set of values -- values that are much more harsh and economically driven and that do not presume that the people, or the public, should not be placed in positions of vulnerability. The collapse of the safety net -- even if the dollars spent on social services have remained unchanged, the number of people in need has increased in recent years -- has gone against fundamental U.S. values.

As for expanding the safety net, something like the Affordable Care Act is a dramatic expansion, but it's not an expansion of government per se -- it's actually an expansion of perceived American values, and recognizes the need to provide the public with what is undeniably an important welfare good: access to health care. What concerns me is the misperception of Obamacare as an exclusively government-run program, when in fact what it relies on is access to the private market.

So, expansion of the social safety net is not limited to the government's responsibility. I think that there is a responsibility of the private sector to expand it as well, and the way that this relates to the social contract is really to rethink what it means for society to engage in the practice of deciding how it wants to live and how it wants to look after the most vulnerable. Most importantly, society must recognize that there are opportunities for economic development, opportunities for prosperity, which can accrue when we reopen for negotiation that social contract. The private sector, quite frankly, has as much an interest in insuring the social safety net works as the government does. They want to have people who are healthy enough to work and buy their products, they want people who are not leaving work because they have health conditions, and they want to keep employees working happy and prosperous, just like the government does. I think the expansion argument is not limited to some kind of expansion at great cost to the private sector -- it's an expansion that is in everyone's best interest.


Why is a reexamination of the values promoted by the social contract so necessary? In other words, how is the current, widely accepted interpretation stifling political movement?

There are two answers, and they're complementary. The first is: It's useful from time to time in the course of a country's history to revisit what those fundamental values are that we believe, that we think we know, and that we have adopted, but that we have never really challenged. They become almost carved in stone, but there's a bit of a broken-telephone problem that I think the reexamination helps to avoid. If people keep uttering the same interpretations of a 17th-century Lockean philosophy and haven't updated it for the present time, then not only is it a bad idea to talk about the social contract, but it could also be dangerous. It's always a good idea to revisit fundamental values that we think we hold dear, and that we think helped frame the country, but may need updating or contemporizing.

Secondly, the metaphor of the social contract is that it really is important for people to be thinking about civic literacy and public engagement in ways that are active and impactful. The social contract shouldn't be limited to voting every four years, and the ways that you engage in public deliberation should not be limited to whether you vote or don't vote, or who's running or don't like who's running. The idea of reimagining, rethinking, and renegotiating is as much about reenergizing civic literacy and reenergizing public engagement as it is about the social contract itself.


In what ways could improvements to civic literacy -- what you define as "a more informed appreciation of the origins of America's legal framework and culture by the general public" -- help alter perception of American values to be more accepting of reform?

I have to believe that if more people were more informed about how government and society works, then we would be more likely to be both satisfied with the election results that we get and satisfied with the policies that follow from those election results. I don't just mean the public -- our own elected officials could stand for a dose of civic literacy.

Ironically, if that happened, even if the person that you wanted to see elected didn't get elected, you would at least be in the position to say that "the best person won," because the process was fair, the public understood what the issues were, and the majority happened to select this person or that policy.


How could the social contract uphold or promote the Affordable Care Act, and why would some, primarily conservatives, argue that it does the opposite?

There's nothing politically left or right about the social contract, and no one should be afraid of it, because it's not being imposed by anybody. The ACA -- the public engagement, the awareness about the needs of society, and the fact that the law is currently the best available method for meeting the greatest number of needs -- is a demonstration of how the social contract can and should work. You had Congress that permitted it to occur -- we can debate how many people did or didn't favor it. You had the public sector and the private sector all actively engaged, and I suspect that when President Obama leaves office and his replacement is elected, there will be changes to the ACA. Those changes will work best when there's an open and informed debate. That open and informed debate is really the heart of what social contracting is all about.


Christina Breitbeil is a RealClearPolitics editorial intern.

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