The theory of a social contract originated in antiquity but blossomed in the Age of Enlightenment as a model for the legitimacy of government authority over the individual.
The name derives from the title of a 1762 book by French philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
The concept is a person gives up some of his or her individual rights and freedoms to a larger group or government in return for the protection of his or her remaining rights and freedom and the maintenance of social order.
The social contract is in contrast to “natural order” where a person’s actions are only constrained by each individual’s personal power and conscience.
The idea of social contract is so embedded in our culture we do not think of police or fire protection as examples, or banding together to build roads open to anyone for travel and greater economic opportunities. From the Age of Enlightenment to this day, the social contract concept is a cornerstone of government and of societal and moral order.
The Magna Carta and the shift from tribalism and feudalism established human and religious rights versus government but the social contract put the guardrails in place or provided structure.
From the fields of Runnymede to the halls of the State House, the concept of freedom within a protective society has remained in place more or less.
The social contract has enhanced the greater good resulting in advances in medicine that ended centuries of deadly diseases, sent men and women into space and introduced the world to technology we only dreamed about a century ago: self-driving cars and instantaneous communication around the world.
Those innovations would not be possible unless people were willing to give some of our earnings to the government to fund the research and development that is too risky or not profitable for private industry.
What has been developed with government backing has benefited everyone and been a good investment.
However, the model social contract that allowed the world to progress exponentially over the last century, is beginning to fray.
Over the last few decades, the rise of individual rights over the greater good has begun unravelling the interconnectedness of the social contract.
The last two years in the New Hampshire legislature is indicative of what is happening nationally and in other parts of the world as well.
For the past two years the world has been in a pandemic resulting in the deaths of an estimated 15 million people including one million in the United States.
Using all the governmental tools of a social contract, a vaccine to prevent or at least lessen the harms of COVID-19 was developed in record time and distributed — maybe not as equitably as possible — throughout the world to begin reigning in death and disrupted lives.
However, unlike 60 years ago when the polio vaccine was developed, not everyone flocked to be vaccinated. Instead many held to the concept that individual rights or the natural order trumped the greater good and refused to be vaccinated.
The concept of individual rights used to be that your individual rights ended when they impacted another’s individual rights or “you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater when there is no fire.”
So for many in this world, the greater good is no longer enough to entice social or even moral behavior. If this had been the philosophy in the past, the world would still be trying to contain polio, smallpox, measles or any number of other deadly diseases.
The use of face masks to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus met much the same push back as the pandemic was politicized.
It was not about health issues, whether you wore a mask or were vaccinated became a political statement.
And some went so far not only to refuse to be vaccinated but attempted to stop others from doing so as the New Hampshire Executive Council became the battleground for several months over federal money for the state’s vaccine program.
Laws have been passed that prohibit health care providers, government or private businesses to “discriminate” against anyone due to their vaccination status and allowing health care workers to refuse to perform medical procedures due to their conscience.
It is hard to see how any of this provides protection to the majority of people in the state who have opted to be vaccinated.
One of the tenets of a social contract is protection, that can be seen through regulation.
There is a reason financial institutions are regulated, as is the food industry and health care workers and medicines.
Without regulations, banks would be able to use your money any way they wanted no matter how risky, and there are snake oil salesmen who will sell you sugar cubes for medicine.
But this week the legislature passed House Bill 1022 which would allow pharmacies to distribute ivermectin, a drug approved for treatment to kill parasitic worms or lice, but not for treating COVID as some claim, without a prescription for two years. The governor will have to decide if he will sign it.
That kind of fraying of the social contract may not be as obvious as vaccine refusal or vouchers, but the damage to society is just as great.
And the damage is not only financial, it is just as harmful to our collective morality.
Garry Rayno may be reached at [email protected]
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries.
Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.