I'm trying to get this down to 500 words. Harder than I thought. About 325 to go.
Is there a 'social contract' in America?
We live in a world of competing interests. Always have, always will. It's the nature of the universe. Two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time. In the animal world, size matters. And strength. And desire and craftiness and persistence. If two bears want the same spot they don't call for arbitration. They fight. One wins, one leaves. Sometimes both die. Nature.
As Homo sapiens evolved, society emerged. Life could be better if some rules were put into place. The rise of agriculture led to the need for property rights. Nobody wanted to plant, grow and harvest a crop and then watch helplessly as marauders stormed through and stole the produce of a season of labor and diligence. With rights came the need for laws, with laws the need for enforcement. All of this depended upon cooperation, a sense of society.
Early on 'might' still made 'right,' most of the time. The need to protect the food supply is a beginning but there is more to a social contract than that. Skip ahead to the 17th Century. People had been living in societies for centuries. Still, society could be improved upon. Why should a handful of people live in luxury while millions did all the work and barely survived? Locke and Rousseau exposited that all people were born free. In the newly emerging United States of America Jefferson and Madison ran with this idea and with many allies created a new Nation, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
The new Constitution set up a government of, for and by the people, taking us further away from the idea that might makes right. America would be ruled by law, not by the mighty, with a tripartite government legislating the will of the people into law and then enforcing the law. Enter the ‘social contract.’ We agree to give up any idea of absolute liberty in order to create a workable society.
Alexander Hamilton foresaw that America would eventually face an old European problem: not enough land to support an ever-growing agrarian society. The solution would be an industrial, capitalist society, which he believed would best serve the needs of a free people. Still with the foundation that all are created equal. So whether a man was a landowner or not he would be an equal partner in this experiment in democracy.
Yet 'might makes right' continually had to be contended with. We saw an age of 'robber barons,' a 'roaring twenties' when might made right on Wall Street, followed by a Great Depression, in response to which a bold President led us into a new era, characterized by a New Deal between the people and their government. This New Deal once again asserted that it's actually right that makes might and right is defined by what is good for the most (not the fewest).
For nearly fifty years America prospered. The rich got richer, but only by being innovative or by making smart investments. Capital flowed to where it could best be utilized. Workers prospered because in addition to progressive taxation labor unions flourished, enabling workers to get a healthy share of the fruits of their labor. Beginning in 1981, however, and the Reagan Revolution, we again began to see the 'rights' of the few being exalted at the expense of the common good. Tax rates began to come down, especially on high incomes, very especially if the income derived from investments rather than from work. The rights of labor began to erode. Wall Street regulations were relaxed. It's OK, we were told. This will benefit everyone. As 'impediments' on business were removed capital would be 'free.' As tax rates on capital gains came down capital would become more liquid, flowing all around the economy at such a high rate that prosperity for everyone would ensue.
Thirty years later, prosperity for everyone has not followed. Instead we see income inequality as high as ever seen in a modern industrialized nation. More people now live in or near poverty than at any time in our history. Might makes right is back with a vengeance. We have a Congress completely in thrall to very well heeled special interests. NO! we can't raise taxes on the super rich. Not even the super duper rich. The ones with so much money they don't even know what to do with it all except hoard it. No! we can't revive unions and push membership back up to pre-Reagan levels. No! we can't strengthen Medicare or Social Security, perhaps by removing the caps on the income that gets taxed to fund it. No! we can't have single-payer health care, or even a 'public option.' No, no, NO! Might makes right, baby.
Is that really the way it’s going to be? Might makes right? No social contract? Why? Why do the wants of the few trump the needs of the many? It’s time for a new New Deal!