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  • Victor Bolles

Trust in the Social Contract

Here is the second excerpt from my new book, the Edifice of Trust.Here I try to show how trust hold together the Social contract. As always, I appreciate your critiques and comments. VCB

Trust in the Social Contract

The entire concept of the social contract is based on trust. In a Hobbesian natural world there is no trust. Its every man for himself, kill or be killed. Life in such a natural environment would be, according to Hobbes, “nasty, brutish and short”. In Hobbes’ mind this fearful alternative justified obedience to an all-powerful sovereign (a Leviathan) who would have the power to impose order.

Hobbes’ natural world probably never really existed. People are social animals and like other primates our primitive ancestors probably gathered into small bands and familial groups for comfort and protection. But trust did not extend very far beyond this small group. Life back then was brutal. Archeologists have confirmed that the bones of our prehistoric ancestors often showed evidence of violence and even early forms of warfare.

Coming about forty years after Hobbes, John Locke had a different view of human society. He felt that humans living in a state of nature had natural rights. That when humans came together in groups they had to give up some of their natural rights when they conflicted with the rights of others. It takes a certain level of trust to give up natural rights. It is the trust that others in the group will not assert their natural rights after you have given up some of yours. The Lockean natural world was, like Hobbes’, also a thought experiment rather than reality.

So we are left with two versions of the social contract. In the Hobbesian version, an all-powerful sovereign imposes the social contract on his or her subjects in order to overcome the distrust among the subjects. In the Lockean version, people voluntarily choose to associate with each other by including the other people within the edifice of trust among citizens. This, in essence, is the principal debate in the 2016 election: which vision of the social contract to pursue. Unfortunately, the two major party candidates have both chosen the Hobbesian version of our social contract. In one party the all-powerful sovereign is a classic populist strong man while in the other party the all-powerful sovereign is the federal government.

This Hobson’s choice is inflicted upon us because of the apparently intransigent social problems that the country faces. We are beset by racial tensions, uncontrolled immigration, rising crime, gender issues, demographic changes, generational divides and unaffordable healthcare for our aging population. But these problems exist because of a lack of trust. Many in America feel that the social contract does not operate for everyone but rather for a special few. Trust is the mortar that holds together the edifice of our nation and our mortar is crumbling.

The Hobbesian version of the social contract does not rely on trust. It relies on power. Power to overwhelm distrust without dissipating it. But it is a facile choice. Distrust is crushed, not resolved. Without resolving the distrust overweening power must be applied continually for order to be maintained. This was how Saddam Hussein maintained power over the fractious factions and sects in Iraq. And this is why Iraq has seen unceasing violence since his overthrow. Our policy makers in Washington naively thought democracy, in and of itself, would resolve centuries of distrust. We are still paying for this miscalculation.

Actually resolving differences and building trust is much harder. It requires dialogue not force, although some force may be required temporarily if the alternative is violent confrontation. That is why president Eisenhower called out federal troops to counter efforts to block the integration of black students into Little Rock Central High School in 1957 following the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision on Brown vs. the Board of Education.

In 2016, I hear a lot of angry voices but very little dialogue. There are people in our country who are in a lot of pain from injustice and discrimination. It is the pain that Senator Tim Scott expressed on the Senate floor in his speeches on race relations. But after catharsis we must rebuild the edifice of trust among us. That will take reasoned dialogue and honesty rather than acrimony and insults. In this conversation we do not have all evil on one side and only good on the other. All stakeholders have their valid points that must be addressed. Will the end result be something that will make everyone perfectly happy? That is unlikely but that is not the purpose of the social contract. The purpose of the social contract is that we can live together, not that we agree on everything.

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