America’s Social Contract has broken down

Currently, America is marred by deep divisions and political conflict. This is largely the result of the breakdown of the Social Contract between the government and the people.

The legitimacy of governmental authority rests in the consent of the governed. In a democracy, that consent is based on an often fragile consensus of the populous about what power we cede to the government and what resources we are willing to give to the government to accomplish the tasks we have specifically given it.

Today, there is little consensus. We have no widely accepted agreement about what tasks the government ought to undertake on our behalf and who ought to be the recipients such largess. There is no agreement on what resources we ought to give to the government and who ought to do the giving.

Perhaps, I overstate my case. There certainly is agreement on some overarching concepts. For instance, most would agree that the Federal government ought to provide for the “common defense.” However, even here there is significant divergence of views.

Should we be involved in foreign wars? Does our security require us to remake the world in our image? How much personal freedom and privacy should we give away in the protection of our interests? Who gets to decide how much security is enough?

Moreover, how much of our national wealth should we allocate to our defense?

Because the actual numbers are so huge, there is a bit of voodoo economics and sleight of hand at work. The actual defense budget is close to $600 billion, but that doesn’t include the cost of wars and the money the Department of Energy spends on nuclear weapons, nor does it include the cost of homeland security or the billions we give away in “security assistance” to other countries. All in, we currently spend almost $1 trillion dollars annually on our collective defense, a truly staggering figure.

Surely, our domestic priorities garner more consensus. It would seem reasonable that we would educate our children, provide for the financial and medical security of our seniors and tend to those less well off.

While there is some divergence on the principles (Why should home-schoolers pay for public education?), we might generally agree on the intent. However, there is deep disagreement about the method.

Do welfare programs protect the poor or propagate intergenerational poverty? Where does personal responsibility end and collective obligation begin?

Even locally, I feel that the reciprocal contract between government and the people has broken down. There are many that believe the constant increase in taxes and fees is disproportionate to the services we receive in return. Moreover, it is unclear that some of the “service” provided are even the appropriate role of government

Our government officials have pushed the envelope by granting, not the citizens, but private businesses, the benefit of taxpayer resources. It is incontrovertible that the tax increment financing done by the cities inevitably requires the residents to shell over more resources. This is an unacceptable infringement on the social contract.

We tolerate the gross mismanagement of our money (yes, tax dollars are our money, not the government’s). We would fire a financial advisor that handled our investments the way government handles our resources.

We tolerate inaction, sometimes incompetence and even downright corruption from our elected official in Washington. We would fire an employee who acted thusly.

Why do we abide this near collapse of the fundamental relationship between government and the governed in our society? Is it because each of us gets just enough (our garbage picked up or a Social Security check) for us to imagine that government really is doing our bidding? We have been bought off.

In theory we are in control of the outcomes…we get to vote our leaders in or out of office. The reality is that we are either too apathetic or too overwhelmed by the ability of money to sway the outcomes to be engaged.

Locally, we are both. We could not even recruit a second candidate in Kingsport’s last mayoral race. Perhaps, the $40,000 spending price tag to win that office has become too big a hurdle to overcome. Maybe it really is all about the money, even in our home town.

Whatever the reason, there is a collapse in both the perception and reality of the social contract between the government and its citizenry. Perhaps some form of “universal service” requirement, be it military or something like Teach for America, would tie people to our country’s purpose and give them a stake in its collective success. Until then, this breakdown is pulling our country apart.

Our national motto, “E Pluribus, Unum” (out of many, one) is becoming, “Ex Uno, Plures” (from one, many). Or, perhaps more concisely, unity becomes division.