Has the Government Broken the Social Contract with the American People? → Washingtons Blog
Has the Government Broken the Social Contract with the American People? - Washingtons Blog

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Has the Government Broken the Social Contract with the American People?

In a provocative comment to an essay I wrote, Kevin de Bruxelles argues that the government has broken the social contract with the American people, and discusses the ultimate meaning of such a breach of contract:

One only needs to consult Hobbes to see where the answer lies.

In Leviathan, Hobbes contrasts two states for human society. The first being a state of nature which is described as perpetual war between individuals. The moral logic of the state of nature is that there is no right or wrong: “To this war of every man against every man, this is also consequent, that nothing can be unjust. The notion of right or wrong, justice and injustice have no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law: where there is no law, no injustices. Force and fraud, are in war the two cardinal virtues.” (13.13) And then Hobbes goes on to describe the moral logic of the state of nature: “And because the condition of man is a condition of war of every one against every one; in which case every one is governed by his own reason; and there is nothing he can make use of, that may not be a help unto him, in preserving his life against his enemies, it followeth, that in such a condition, every man has a right to every thing, even to another’s body. (14.4)

In order to transcend the state of nature, men accede to a social contract with each other to submit to a sovereign and in the process establish a civil society. To Hobbes (later diminished by Locke) the sovereign is almost all powerful. His job is to keep the peace, to install laws and justice, and to coerce the population to live within the limits he sets. But the one of the few limiting factors on his subject's duty to submit to the sovereign is “The obligation of subjects to the sovereign, is understood to last as long, and no longer, that the power lasteth, by which he is able to protect them. For the right men have by nature to protect themselves, when none else can protect them, can by no covenant be relinquished.” (21.21)

What is clear is that in the United States, where the sovereign is the elected government, an elite segment of society, namely bankers and other extremely wealthy individuals, are playing by the old rules, the rules of the state of nature, and they are grabbing as much of the pie as they can. All this while the sovereign has at best lost the ability to resist this crime, or at worst, is actively complicit. But the vast majority of citizens are sitting by idly still thinking they live in a commonwealth with laws and justice.

There are two ways out of this mess. Either the sovereign must start playing his role and start enforcing the law and justice for all, or alternatively the citizens must stop submitting to this sovereign, overthrow this system government, and start all over again to find a sovereign since living in a state of nature is not an option.


  1. Quote from The Declaration of Independence that reinforces what is said here today:

    Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government

  2. Excellent post. Wars of Aggression based on lies, torture, trillions to the banksters, Military Commissions Act that strips habeas corpus (and applied to Americans), 25% of the Pentagon's funding unaccountable on their own books. The facts, accelerating over time, make the case clear "that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men" is in violation of their end of the deal.

    I agree what you previously argued: Truth and Reconciliation is our best policy argument short of revolution. The lies are so deep, so pervasive, that the liar/criminals in charge of both parties will not surrender for fear of our retribution.

  3. This is yet another silly argument that makes a dubious appeal to authority, if Hobbes can be considered an authority, and it draws a conclusion that is a non sequitur.

    First, anthropologists that study this sort of thing have shown that Hobbes no reason to believe the assertion Hobbes makes about prehistory, and they give a number of reasons to suspect it wasn't that way at all. Natural selection favors people and groups that can cooperate.

    Secondly, social contract theory is a philosophical position that is contested. Back when, David Hume called it fictional.

    Arguing that the elite are engaging in a state of war and violating the supposed social contract is therefore a huge stretch.

    Moreover, there is abundant historical evidence that the elites of the past were far more powerful and brutal. The idea that the US elite has suddenly gone back to the state of nature before a social contract is just ridiculous.

    Research does reveal, however, that fairness is a trait that begins to develop at least at the primate stage and may be more primitive. By the time humans appear on the scene fairness is more highly developed.

    Fairness is a fundamental human value that lies at the basis of what might be called a social "compact." This compact is enshrined in the Preamble of US Constitution in the opening words, "We the people ...." This constitutes a legal contract that all natural citizens implicitly accept and which naturalized citizens explicitly agree to. Did the bankers violate the Constitution? Well, no, although some may have broken some laws.

    People in a free society cooperate voluntarily for mutual benefit, although they do not formally contract to do so. A foundational value of this compact is the fairness principle. In political theory it underlies the idea of equality of persons, e.g., equality before the law and human rights. In political economy it is called distributive justice, for example.

    Progressivism is about fairness. What is going down now is obviously a rip-off. Bankers who made the mistakes (an committed the crimes) that landed them where they are, are being bailed out, while the rest of the people get bupkis, or maybe some handouts like cash for clunkers. The perception of how unfair this is leading to social unrest, presenting progressive with a political opportunity — if they don't let the crazies of the right highjack it due to rising anger being whipped up by Fox and friends.

  4. The social contract scrapped at the beginning of the Cold War era, when the leaders of American industry and the intelligence community and military thought it would be best to let the American people indulge in their fetishes and entertainment, while the grown ups would control the management of government. It was scrapped when JFK was assassinated. And the subsequent cover up showed what the criminals in power thought of the average American. It was scrapped when the American media was transformed into a propaganda outlet.

    People have no political sovereignty when they're wishes and grievances are not respected.

  5. "Arguing that the elite are engaging in a state of war and violating the supposed social contract is therefore a huge stretch."

    So instead you use the term RIP-OFF?
    You switched from your Anthro/Philo argyument in to street lingo?

    So tell us: Is a rip off an actionable offense to your progressive sensibilities?


  6. Mr. Washington,

    Thanks for posting my comment!


    Hobbbes was not trying to describe an imagined prehistory; his observations of a state of nature had occurred during the English Civil War. Certainly 14th century France would have also qualified as a state of nature.

    Today one only has to look at ghettoes around the world or third world countries (The Congo, for example) to see different examples of humans living in a state of nature. It is true that even in a state of nature many-most people will try to cooperate (Betas) but there will always be a certain percentage of Alphas that will try to impose their will on the group. If they were actually powerful enough to do so they could become the sovereigns, but normally they do not possess enough power to dominate all.

    It is also true what you say that elites (at least in the US) have from time to time dominated the society. But I would say that each time the government responded by eventually reigning them in. The huge difference with today’s situation was that up to recently the US was a country on the rise and so some temporary weaknesses in the sovereign's control of elites was tolerated due to the rising sea of prosperity. Set against the background of the US in decline however, the lawlessness of our elites along along with the government’s impotence to control them will be thrown into very sharp relief.

    Kevin de Bruxelles

  7. Both Hobbs and Locke are right, for they unwittingly said -exactly the same thing.

    Hobbes said, men are inherently evil, and that they must be corraled. Locke said, men are inherently noble and must be liberated.

    Both Hobbes and Locke noted the same problem, but from different angles.

    The problem is not justice, which is a crude attempt to mollify the queries of each man. No. Justice begs the question, What is justice?

    The problem is morality, -as morality resolves the question of free will. -Justice is nothing absent free will.

    Both Hobbes and Locke noted, humans lack free will; Hobbes -because men are brutes, and Locke because men lack freedom.

    Both Hobbes and Locke say the same thing, just from a different angle.

    Here is the problem: men would always act morally, were they to know how, -but-, they do not know how.

    So, they have no free will -then- if they cannot effectively act as how they would wish, -which is -morally-.

    Hobbes is right, men are brutes. Locke is right, men lack freedom.

    In order to transcend this very really problem, Kant developed some of the -talking points- of something he adroitly called the Categorical Imperative. Kant's talking points were meant to liberate the brute.

    Kant however, was himself an unliberated brute. Kant did not know what the Categorical Imperative is, just some of its coloring.

    Kant was only able to explore some of the style lines and attributes of the Categorical Imperative. Kant was the proverbial blind man feeling an elephant.

    Before Kant explored the Categorical Imperative he wrote "A Critque of Pure Reason" a wholesomely tedious epistemological treatise very few people have ever read, beginning to end.

    In "The Critique" (as it has come to be known with bitter disdain by students of philosophy) Kant says, almost idly, some day someone might be able to give a better turn to an ultimately succinct moral statement.

    Kant was right. Here is that statement.

    The moral imperative of life is to live a life that detracts not at all from the lives available to those who will follow us into this world.

    Hobbes was also right. Men are brutes who would violate the moral imperative at every turn absent knowledge of it. And Locke too, he was right, men need to be liberated by giving them an understanding of their moral responsibilities in this lovely world.

    This is the only open door to free will.

    Before you open your eyes to see this elephant, -let me warn you-. This is a very big elephant.

    Justice is irrelevant absent a firm understanding of just how big the moral elephant is. When you open your eyes to see the moral elephant, you will find him so large, you cannot see very much of him, only enough to realize, he's much bigger than you thought.

    Humanity will be a thousand years fathoming how large the moral elephant really is. The moral elephant is categorically large, meaning he's larger than anything you will have ever experienced before.

  8. Tom,

    Which leader of the progressives should I rally behind?

    Which leader of the progressives in Congress has confronted Obama and his continuation of the Bush/Cheney corporatist/internationalist economic agenda? Which ones were there blocking the confirmation of Rubin's protege Tim Geithner and calling out Obama on letting Larry Summer's run his economic team? Which of them have shouted on MSNBC that Obama should let Volker out of the basement and wants to know in which closet have they hidden Elizabeth Warren.

    The anger is not just being whipped up...it is very real. But, the "progressives" in Congress cannot see past their latest donation from the financial services lobby and thus are silent. Glen Beck is popular because he is giving a voice to a public that is confused, dazed, and very angry. Angry that Obama, Pelosi, Boxer, Dodd, and Frank are at this very moment looking to enshrine Too Big Too Fail as permanent policy and are busy handing out more cash for cul-de-sacs for the NAR and the ABA.

  9. "an elite segment of society, namely bankers and other exremely wealthy individuals" - This is a decidedly inaccurate description of the segment which has captured the soveriegn government. The segment certainly includes banks and certainly includes some wealthy people. However, the segment also includes distinct groups of people - within which none of the group members are individually wealthy (in fact the individuals may all be individually poor) but yet the group is very wealthy and powerful. Examples, include Unions, and other single interest-focused groups like ACORN and other PACs. To really deal with the domination of the interest groups of our government, one must be careful to keep ALL of them from power not simply turn power over to new interest group.

  10. Which leader of the progressives should I rally behind?

    The one that is willing to put everything else aside and immediately work to pass strong legislation, or a constitutional amendment if needed in light of SCOTUS, to get the money out of politics. Otherwise, as the Vietnamese say, "Dung heap remains the same, only the flies change."

    The most powerful progressive committed to this who has taken action is Russ Feingold.

  11. Kevin and Anonymous,

    My post was more about procedure than substance (about which we agree). I made it strong purposefully because that's a good way to stimulate debate. It worked. :)

    While I am sympathetic to philosophical arguments, they are not easy to sustain because arguments rest on premises that must be justified, and the history of philosophy shows that no single philosopher or philosophical school has ever done this compellingly. There is no overarching universally philosophical explanation as there is a scientific one in the hard sciences. (Orthodox neoliberal economics is an ideology dressed up with numbers to look like a science.) As Anonymous notes, the history of philosophy develops dialectically.

    I would recommend stating a position and attempting to defend it on its merits instead of appealing to so-called authorities when the work of all philosophers remains controversial with out empirical justification. These merits come down to facts and values. The job then is justify the facts with evidence and persuade others to accept values on reasonable and pragmatic grounds, unless one is committed to an absolutist (categorical in Kant's terms) approach. The problem with categorical approaches is that they are pitted against opposing categorical approaches, and that's were argumentation ends in fundamental disagreement.

    For example, I recommend reading George Lakoff's political works, such as Don't Think of an Elephant and The Political Mind for contemporary advice from the perspective of a progressive cognitive scientist instead of "continuing to live in the 18th century," as he puts it. Progressives don't need to preach to the choir. they need to change the minds of the nation and world, using the most advanced contemporary knowledge.

  12. Now regarding substance. While I did not take this approach in criticizing Kevin's argument as weak (I called it "silly"), being based on authority, what really concerns me about using Hobbes in a progressive context is this. The presumption of Hobbes is that man in the state of nature is bad. While Hobbes was a non-believer (in a time when that was unpopular if not dangerous), believers read his state of nature as the condition of man after the Fall. This is precisely the view that progressives are now opposing as the enemy, because it lies at the basis of the authoritarian rationale.

    Authoritarians argue that since human nature is flawed, human freedom tends toward excess and defect. Hence, behavior must be controlled. Just as children are controlled by a strict father, so too, citizens must controlled by a strict government. This presupposition based on religious belief and a dark view of the world is the basis of social conservatism. See John Dean's book Conservatives without Conscience on the authoritarian personality in US politics.

  13. Tom-

    Your common buckshot approach is noted like a blue-eyed son -in a sea of blue-eyed sons. Your aspirations are noble, -for an adolescent -perhaps.

    Let me cite my own works -A Critique of Pure Science- and -The New Epistemology of Morality and Truth- as more authoritative in the philosophical realm than anything you will have found previously.

    I am the discoverer of the moral imperative of life cited above. You should note, I only discovered it, in 2006. It makes other notable human discoveries like Relativity Theory or Evolution -read like CrackerJack box slogans.

    In your final firing of your various rounds of Buck Rogers buckshot in this thread (I know these were not necessarily aimed at me) you state, "Authoritarians argue that since human nature is flawed, human freedom tends toward excess and defect. [...]"

    Human nature is not "flawed". Human nature is an -unyielding given- unless you foresee a coming age of universal chemical lobotomy arising from some scientific religious fanaticism in the nearby future.

    Your arguments -all- fall apart -when given against the backdrop of an easily cognizable infinitely-complex-reality. Your observations read like someone who says it is "windy" -while there is a hurricane going on.

    That rather obvious notion of an infinitely-complex-reality is the great hill over which none of your empirical arguments -will ever leap, and, which will forever presage their downfall.

    Science -of even the most bland and imprecise sort-, like economics, is but an approximation, which leads to cut-corners,ill-conceived conclusions, and often lethally-dangerous jagged edges.

    Categorical Knowledge (which arises from the moral imperative) is the great challenge that will yield up free will, and corral a sustainable future, if such a thing is possible -given human nature, and, the known and unknown excesses of empirical science.

    The empirical way is clearly suicidal -regardless. I have a proof of it, should you require it.

    I don't think anyone is capable of justifying the suicide of the human race -by or for- science. But I will grant you space here to try.

    Now, Tom, there has been philosophy more dominant than any empirical belief for many thousands of years. You cannot be proposing that empiricism will supplant this, -are you?

    All empirical beliefs require an animism (the hand of some kindly, guiding god) to establish and maintain any belief in the cogency of their path -because of the infinite complexity of reality.

    The state of nature, Tom, before science, was nearly infinitely sustainable. But again, should you like to replace it with something more-better, be my guest to explain with what, when and how.

    Life is good, Tom. Do not believe any of the lies about the Zeit Geist, or the Ubermensch.

    Life it too good to be such a dullard, and far too short to care about the fable of progress.

    As for the Ubermensch, -were there an empirical solution so simple it could be found on a comment board like this, it would have long ago been tried. In fact, that is the history of empirical solutions, and they have all failed.

  14. Great subject! Great comments!

    Minor quibble only:

    This one part is wrong --

    "What is clear is that in the United States, where the sovereign is the elected government..."

    No, the sovereign is the people. Power is held by the people and legally delegated to the politicos, who were supposed to be little more than the hired help who kept the sidewalks swept and mail delivered. Obviously, the people lost their sovereignty but HOW?

    Fingering the Cold War as a ploy to divide Americans from their country (turning their country thereby into something barely recognizable to what the Founders had in mind) is spot on. Truth Excavator's comments are commendably profound. The US Governent either turned on us or was captured by a hostile force. Reinhard Gehlen at Fort Hunt? Red Diaper Babies from the old OSS? However, the US of the Founders and even the US of Warren Harding is no more.

    Still, the people could have at least looked out for each other better. No outsider could have destroyed our old Industrial Middle Class by war or decree; Americans quite willingly declared neutrality vis-a-vis their own fellow citizens and anyone on Earth who could outbid them. Even when American bankers were FUNDING American worker displacement.

    People power is a nice phrase for an ideal that is fundamentally absurd. People's power is exercised through their own government by their voluntary consent or they have no power. Americans must first confront their powerlessness, however brutal it might be to contemplate.

  15. Categoralists (absolutists) still have to justify their claims unless they just state them and leave it at that. Leaving them at that implies that such claims are postulates or ideological norms, which in the end boil down to subjective preferences.

    In the universe of discourse that provides the rule of contemporary debate, one has to provide justification in terms of criteria that are publicly available if one hopes to be taken seriously. The one thing that virtually people agree on is facts, based on evidence that can be rigorously checked. No other criterion has shown itself to be able to compel universal assent.

    Sorry, the intuitionist (or self-evidence) argument won't work to convince many people. I'm not down on intuitionism. I happen to hold it myself. My work is in the field of mystical spirituality (http://www.corespirituality.com/), so I know how difficult intuition is to defend as a criterion of truth, let alone establish it as a universal criterion sufficient to compel assent. Ranting doesn't cut it.

  16. Tom-

    Without assenting to it, you have clearly stated you deny the intuition upon which you base your faith in empirical and spiritual solutions.

    I said, "Life is good."

    You have then said, "Prove it. And prove it cannot be made better by [your] intuition either empirical or spiritual."

    I say, "You talk in circles without ever looking behind yourself to see where you might be heading."

    The moral imperative springs effortlessly from the cogito, Tom.

    It is both inclusively and exclusively a categorical truth.

    There are no other such categorical truths you can cite, -nothing empirical, and -nothing spiritual.

    You may attempt to divine an exception to the moral imperative of life -either by your empirical or spiritual intuition, but you will not find one.

    I have spent nearly four years wrestling with the moral imperative. You have read it perhaps once or twice, while allowing your shadow Ubermensch to discount it as "absolutist" without ever stepping inside it.

    Four years is a long time. It is just long enough for me to know how long it will be before Categorical Knowledge is sufficiently fleshed-out we can think ourselves modestly proficient with it.

    And I know this from it, science is dead. I reserve a later opinion about the spiritual, as I am not sufficiently versed in it.

    Without taking those two philosophic steps though, the cogito and the moral imperative -we can know nothing completely.

    It turns out though, every question is a moral question.

    There is however, always a very well founded doubt about the intuition required to believe in the empirical and the spiritual.

    Of truth, we can only know when we have found its path.

    There are no facts, as you assert, by seeking them from me. All the "facts" you think you might recognize are merely aspects of the "subjective".

    If saying -because I have stated I have found the path toward truth that we are all seeking, is ranting, then ranting shall have to cut it.

    I am no genius. I just got lucky.


  17. Social contract *theory* is a "fiction," therefore we must reject it.

    Lest we risk living in the 18th century, we should replace those idiots with George Lakoff.


    I'll take the reformation, we're just not up to the revolution. The reformation is good enough for me.

  18. This is not about preaching to the choir. It is about convincing or persuading a large enough number of people to accept a proposal to make a difference. That means that it is necessary to approach them in terms of what is generally understood in their universe of discourse and its familiar context, and on the basis of criteria that are convincing to them. Otherwise, we are just talking to ourselves, a problem and challenge endemic to doing philosophy.

    It's fine to engage oneself or with a coterie of cognoscenti on a recondite subject, but to have a social and political impact, as most moral, social and political philosophers aim to have, it may be necessary to adopt a different strategy with broader appeal. Unlike the 17th, 18th, and even 19th century, people in general could care less about what philosophers have to say, let alone act on it.

    This is especially the case in the US and UK where thought is essentially Humean (empirical), although, of course, most people have never heard of Hume and don't identify how they think with his writings.

    I sincerely wish you well in getting your views widely recognized and seeing them become influential in people's lives. Given the history of thought and culture, however, I think you might find greater success in Europe or Asia, which are more open to the role of subjectivity and where many regard subjectivity as primary.

  19. People in the US and UK are "empirical"?

    Nonsense. In politics, the populace respond to absolutely fradulent abstract constructs like "equality" and "liberty." As "fictional" as social contract *theory.* As "fictional" as the bible (hence, the reference to the reformation, essentially a return to biblical commitments).

    Vis a vis politics, that's your "enlightenment." Empiricism had nothing to do with it then, hasn't entered into it yet, and won't any time soon.

    How else do we explain the enthusiastic support for that cipher, Barack Obama, intoning absolutely nothing in the cadences of a Martin Luther King? How do we explain the commitment of Tea Party participants to a Constitution they've likely never read?

    They love their civil religion. No one in politics is effectively operationalizing their extant commitments.

    Now, why is that? That's what needs addressing.

    Many people are scared to death of adressing those commitments--and I can see why.

  20. Yup. From my experience too, that's empiricism alright, or the best that will ever pass for empirical thought anyway. The economists are all off trying to make themselves the first trillionaires, and the scientists are all off trying to make a bigger bomb.

    Dr. Spock we're not. Leonard Nemoy we might be.

    (The show would have been far more realistic, had when Spock did his fantastic mind-meld, if he had placed his hands some woman's breasts.)


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