Posted on April 5, 2013 by Colin

Social Contracts

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As I walk along the sidewalk, I can afford to daydream.

I’m able to do this partially because of laws that say cars can’t drive on sidewalks, but also because we — as citizens of countries with governments that have traditions and folkways — have common goals that are best achieved by doing what we can to avoid harming each other.

This social contract is never officially signed, but it’s very real. Every time we stop at a red light or stand in a queue — despite there being no law-enforment official there to lock us up if we don’t — we’re adhering to mutually beneficial standards of operation. If I do X, other people will also do X, and Y (the consequences of not doing X) will not be something we have to worry about.

In the above example, I can walk down a sidewalk because everyone in this country has agreed that we won’t drive our cars on them. By restricting our actions in one sense, we free ourselves in another. Such is the nature of good laws and good social contracts.

Unfortunately, there are circumstances where these contracts subtract more than they add to our lives, or subtract freedoms for one portion of the population so that another portion will gain. Those who prefer to drive on sidewalks obviously lose out in the above example, and those who enjoy hunting suffer when national parks are made off-limits for sport. In the tradeoff, though, pedestrians gain and so do the animals who might otherwise be shot and eaten.

None of us sign a contract that brings us into the cultural and governmental fold. None of us are given the option to support some laws and not others, because doing so would reduce the positive consequences of those laws — of those social contracts we have with each other. Like religion or accents, we tend to pick them up at a young age, before we know the difference and that there are, in fact, other ways of worshipping or speaking or organizing society.

It’s interesting to see at what point different people will stand up and declare that something is fishy in government. That something being done is not right, and that they intend to break the law as an act of protest, or to enjoy a freedom that was taken away.

We love protesting in the US, and though a raised voice may not accomplish anything, the act itself seems to be quite therapeutic for those involved. Elsewhere, protests are less common, but more effective — when it happens, it’s serious, as those involved stand to lose a great deal for their disruption of the status quo.

There are a lot of decisions made by politicians and the lobbyists who pull their strings that I don’t agree with, but in most cases it’s still worth my effort to adhere to those rules when possible. Not because I believe in them, but because taking a stand on every little thing reduces the impact of my words. If I were to raise a rallying cry over every travesty the government commits, not only would I shout myself hoarse, but the people who listened to me initially would soon tire of my voice.

Much better — I feel — to save my shouts for core issues vital to my long-term happiness. I have a policy to obey the law most of the time. Doing so allows me to continue walking down the sidewalk, daydreaming, while also allowing me to save my voice for when it’s most desperately needed.