The Social Contract and the Pandemic

The life of the spirit has taken a terrible beating these past few decades. From teaching MBA candidates that “Greed is good” to the hyper-politicization of moral stances for purposes of attracting votes and onward to the monetization of, well, everything, integrity and ethics have been downgraded in importance and denigrated as superfluous. In fact, some argue that having business ethics condemns integral people to lower incomes and worse prospects. As a result, the bond between the letter and the intent of laws, principles, and proclamations has come under ever expanding assault. The concept of the social contract, the spirit of the public square, has been abrogated.

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The pandemic is a good (which is to say, appalling) example of what happens when the Social Contract is broken. The corruption of the social contract was laid bare when the first wave of the pandemic rushed into New York City. The call was for a “shelter in place” order, a demand that all individuals lock themselves in their domiciles, emerging only for necessities when delivery was impossible. NYC became a ghost town as wisps of essential workers made their way to and from work with trepidation. The social contract was that if everyone sheltered in place, government would use the time to put in place protocols such as personal protection equipment, and implement initiatives, especially contract tracing to extinguish the spread. These steps would ensure that when everyone emerged from lockdown, economic, cultural, and social life would be able to restart safely, albeit slowly and carefully.

If the government response is an abrogation of the Social Contract, there are also examples of the broken contract at the individual level. Compare the Covid19 response to the easiest to understand functioning social contract: the obligation of the shopping cart. The spirit of cooperation between those who patronize the same store obligates the patrons to return the cart for other shoppers to use, who in return will do the same. Returning a shopping cart to the corral or abandoning it in the parking lot is a choice where there is no reward or punishment. Those who cannot honor the social contract without threat of punishment are bad actors.

Wearing a mask in public is an equivalent social contract. Currently, there is no exercised punitive government-sanctioned penalty for not wearing a mask in public places; owners and managers of venues make a choice to expel the unmasked. The reasons given for defying the mandate of wearing a mask ignore or even deny the existence of a social contract. The excuses do not mention any obligations that the community adopts. “My rights” trumping the social contract of wearing a mask is a clear case of the broken bond between the letter of the mandate and the spirit of the mandate. The same malignant dynamic plays out when gun-toting individuals mass in front of state capitols demanding the governor open businesses. Their demand of “their rights” is a repudiation of participation in social contract between fellow inhabitants of the land.

The social contract during this pandemic has not been fulfilled. Too many politicians and bureaucrats failed to accept and act on their responsibilities. Individuals and certain politicians decided their response to the pandemic would be based on politics and economics when the social contract obligated them to respond with science. Over 100,000 U.S. citizens have died thus far, and tens of thousands of them unnecessarily. The counts will continue to rise.

Social Contracts are not theoretical constructs; they are statements of human integrity. They are valid, powerful, and necessary components for any human endeavor. When such contracts are broken, institutions and communities are weakened and sometimes broken. In rare cases such as a pandemic, people die because of the breaking of the bond between letter and spirit.

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