Monday, July 31, 2000

Week of 07/31/2000

The Dissolving Of The Societal Contract
- by David Matthews 2

"Every change in conditions will make necessary some change in the use of resources, in the direction and kind of human activities, in habits and practices. And each change in the actions of those affected in the first instance will require further adjustments that will gradually extend through the whole of society. Every change thus in a sense creates a "problem" for society, even though no single individual perceives it as such; it is gradually "solved" by the establishment of a new overall adjustment." - F.A. Hayek

Not too long ago, USA Today held asked its readers why we are so short-tempered. The newspaper certainly did not suffer from a lack of examples of rage:

  • In Hollywood, Florida, a father is arrested for slugging an umpire during his son’s high school football game.
  • In Reading, Massachusetts, a father beats a youth hockey coach to death after an argument over the rough play of their sons.
  • In Weston, Connecticut, two people have a fistfight over who should be first in a newly-opened checkout land.
  • In the airways above us, one man was arrested for trying to storm the cockpit of an Alaskan Airline flight; while a woman was arrested in a Continental Airline flight after she threw a beer can at a flight attendant and bit into the first officer. Airline officials now refer to these instances as "air rage", and say such incidents have gone up from only 66 in 1997 to well over 500 in 1999.
  • And just this past week, a woman was found beaten to death after she and her ex-husband and his new wife appeared on the Jerry Springer Show. That event has renewed the criticism of talk shows in general especially after the brutal death of one guest of the Jenny Jones Show by another.

So one has to wonder just what the heck is going on with us? Why are we snapping faster than dry tree limbs in an ice storm?

Well, the experts all point to ourselves and blame us for being too selfish, or not caring enough about other people. They blame us for working too hard, or spending too much time with our children, or sometimes not spending enough time with our children. The moralists blame the things in our world, from the simple pleasures we enjoy to the tools that help transport and protect us. The theocrats all beat their chests, and then beat their bibles, and then proclaim that we as a society need to turn to their God and to their religious beliefs for salvation. The politicians decry it as the failed policies of their political counterparts, and then offer their own little pet project as a solution, that all too often eats more tax money and takes away what precious little individual freedom is left.

Let’s get brutally honest here… all of these people - the so-called experts, the theocrats, the moralists, and the politicians - have no idea of what is really happening. All they can do is guess and then try to offer solutions that will echo their particular pet program or philosophy. Quite often they lack the big picture, the understanding of why things are happening that go beyond the incident of the day.

So what is really happening?

Simply put, we’re facing the inevitable end of the great societal contract.

You didn’t know you were in a societal contract, did you? Well, some people claim we enter into that contract, but truth be told, we simply inherited it. We inherited this contract from our parents, and from our parent’s parents, and from their parents before that. Passed down like some collective heirloom, or last year’s Christmas fruitcake.

No, there is nothing explicitly written that spells out what our roles are supposed to be in this contract. There is nothing that we can take to a lawyer and then take to a court to claim that one side or the other has not lived up to their part of the deal.

Even the word "societal contract" is but an exaggeration of what this is. Perhaps a more accurate term would be a pact, or a non-verbal agreement, but in today’s overly-litigious society the word "contract" sounds just as appropriate as any other.

But make no mistake, this contract does exist. It exists in the laws our legislature passes, and in the philosophies that forge those laws and social programs. It exists in every speech uttered by a politician, and every sermon spoken by a minister. It is reflected in every action by special interest groups, and seen with every judicial decision. As with all contracts, it has a starting point, and, inevitably, an ending point.

The current societal contract was forged in the 1800’s to both replace the old contract of the Feudal Society and to reflect the growing Industrial Society. The arrangement was a simple one.. you work for the greater machine, and the machine will provide for you. It didn’t matter if that greater machine was government or the workplace, the symbiotic arrangement was there.

The transition between the Feudal Society and the Industrial one was not easy, nor did it happen overnight. It involved a long series of bloody revolutions that spanned from the American colonies to Europe, and eventually to countries like Russia, India, and China. Those conflicts existed because the old system did not want to be replaced. Those noblemen and women who enjoyed the fruits of the old system did not welcome the changes, and, in fact, fought those changes at every turn. In time, though, the old Feudal Society, and the non-verbal contract that bound the people to the rulers and the rulers to the people, was replaced by one that reflected the rise in the Industrial Society, and the greater machines that power them.

You can see evidence of that current contract in the New Deal that President Roosevelt enacted, and in the "Great Society" programs of President Johnson. It was the reason behind both Prohibition and Social Security, and even today’s push for universal health care is but a reflection of that societal contract. It created big monopolies, both in industry and in government, which could be seen in the two dominant political parties. It was an arrangement that was forged in the time of mining towns, and eventually led to suburbs and subdivisions and shopping malls.

And now, that contract is breaking down.

It’s breaking down because those greater societal machines are breaking down.

The great societal workforce is now considered to be expendable. The emphasis is no longer on the physical company, but rather on the administrative machines that run it. The people and the buildings can be replaced and relocated easily. Even the owners and chief administrators can be rotated about like musical chairs, so long as the administrative machine itself remains intact. The end result is that we can no longer rely on business to hold up their end of the societal contract and provide for us, even though we are asked to dedicate more and more of our time and effort to that machine.

The great government machine is also breaking down. No longer can people rely on their leaders to provide for them like they used to. Part of it is because of the changes in our attitudes, but part of it is also because of their lust for money and power.

This week, the Republican Party will have their Presidential convention, but what you will see on television and read about in the newspapers is pure smoke and mirrors. The candidate was chosen long before the first primary was even held. The party’s platform was agreed to just one week before the convention. What you will see for that week will be pure showmanship, no different than watching dinner theatre. The real dealings for that party will happen away from the cameras, at fund-raisers sponsored by large corporations and special interest groups, where the money will fall into the coffers like manna from the heavens. All of it, by the way, completely legal. And don’t think for a moment that the Democratic Party is any different. They, too, will have their big charade in Los Angeles, all the while hobnobbing with the money-makers underneath our noses.

Alternatives are plentiful, but their voices have been silenced by the two dominant parties, and by the money-makers that support them. How can people become aware of those alternatives if the message is being silenced by the biases of a supposedly "objective" media? It’s like having someone try to play a harmonica over a full symphony orchestra and expecting people to listen.

Is it any wonder, then, why the voting public feels so helpless, and thus are not encouraged to vote?

Take a look at air travel. I’m sure those of you who travel on a regular basis will realize that travelling by air is no longer the comfortable ride that it used to be. There are too many people flying now, and not enough airways, airlines, or personnel to handle them all without cramming them in like sardines, and holding them to rigid schedules that are so strict that it would make West Point look like Berkeley in the 60’s. Add to that the crowded parking spaces at the airport, the paranoid security procedures set by airport security and our government, and the sometimes unpredictable weather conditions, and you have a system that is held together by the thinnest of threads. It’s no wonder why people suffer from "air rage".. you would too if you were treated like a common criminal for just wanting to get from point A to point B. The only difference between air travel and prison are the shackles, the liquor, and the prison jumpsuits… plus the prisoners have better meals.

Keeping up with the Joneses has been transformed into a contact sport that is one part Machiavelli and two parts Social Darwinism. We want to exceed, yet at the same time we’re obsessed with keeping everyone else at the exact same level as we are. This has led to a viscous streak of schadenfreude, where we can only take pleasure in the misery (or better yet CAUSING the misery) of others. If we’re not allowed to excel, then we’ll make sure nobody else can excel either. That’s why we’ll watch professional wrestling and confrontational talk shows on TV. It’s why we’ll get upset when someone tries to cut us off in the breakdown lane of the highways; or shoves a cart full of groceries into the express isle and then try to pay for it all with a check when the signs clearly say "12 Items or less, CASH ONLY".

Are we stressed out? You bet we are! We’re playing by rules that are no longer in effect. On conditions that neither government or private industry feel they are bound to honor, and on expectations for ourselves that - quite frankly - we can never meet. For the first time in generations, we feel that we will not be able to outdo our parents. That’s pretty scary!

But here’s the good news… there is some hope. What we are going through now is something that is necessary, but also not permanent. This is not the way of things to come, but rather it simply marks the transition from one society to a whole new one. We quite frankly need the breakdown of this societal contract so a whole new one can be forged, one that our children will inherit, and our children’s children after that.

So what can we do? Well, for starters, we are going to have to stop relying on the old system of things. The days of business or of government automatically providing for us are coming to an end. We need to start thinking of ourselves not so much as cogs in a machine, but rather as free agents looking for contracts. It doesn’t matter if you’re an up-and-coming executive or just a mailroom clerk, once you consider yourself to be an independent agent instead of just a part of the larger whole, you begin to think of yourself with more importance, and are more concerned with doing good.. not for the sake of the business, but because it will help you. Relying on ourselves will hasten the transition, and make the coming Society move in that much quicker.

As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, "Though madness, there be method to it." We need to see the chaos not as the problem itself, but rather as the side-effects of things yet to come. Once we realize that, then we will be able to determine just what course those changes will take us.

Now that’s something our parents were not able to do!

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