Hurricane Sandy and the Social Contract

Mike Appleton, Guest Blogger

The great storm that ravaged the east coast this past week brought into sharper focus than all of the presidential debates combined the central issue facing voters on Tuesday.  Those who continue to believe that we are all in this together applauded the non-partisan meetings between President Obama and New Jersey governor Christ Christie.  The ideologues on the right saw those same meetings as a cynical betrayal of conservative orthodoxy.  Alternatively, they approved the initial response of Rep. Steve King (R. Iowa), who subordinated concern over the needs of the storm’s victims to the question of  what budget cuts would need to be made before providing federal assistance.  These distinct responses accentuated the fact that the election is not about economic policy or religious freedom or the mess in the Middle East.  It is not about climate change or energy independence or immigration reform.  And it is not about abortion or same-sex marriage or the rights of public unions.  At its core, the election is a referendum on affirming or rescinding the social contract.  All the rest is committee work.

By “social contract” I mean the principles which I believe most strongly influenced the Founders, the theory of civil government expounded in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government.  A civil society is formed, he wrote, “wherever any number of men, in the state of nature, enters into society to make one people one body politic, under one supreme government . . .  .  For hereby he authorizes the society . . . to make laws for him, as the public good of society shall require . . .  .  And this puts men out of a state of nature and into a commonwealth . . .  . “

In Locke’s view, the purpose and end of government is the preservation of property interests, which he broadly describes as “life, health, liberty and possessions.”  He describes civil government as the “proper remedy for the inconveniences of the state of nature.”  Locke’s words are echoed in the Declaration of Independence with its references to the inalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  The Constitution incorporates Locke’s ideas in both the Preamble and in the division of government into separate legislative, executive and judicial branches.

The political debates over the past four years and the ideological opposition to the Obama presidency can be analyzed under many sub-headings, but taken as a whole, the arguments question the fundamental nature of government.  The following examples are illustrative:

A. The personal social contract. 

“It is not the public good that matters; it is the personal good.”

-Rep. Allen West (R. Fla.), CPAC conference, 2012

In Rep. West’s view, the social contract is unconcerned with common welfare beyond the requirements of the defense of individual interests.  The goal of government is limited to protecting one’s personal rights and, by extension, the independence of the country.  Therefore, government is a minimalist proposition.  It exists to maintain a strong national defense and the ability to prosecute and punish those who would harm one’s person or property.   The only obligation imposed upon the individual is to respect the same rights in others (or suffer the consequences) and to pay the taxes necessary for the common defense.  Although adherents to this view acknowledge the additional responsibilities of government described in the Constitution, they regard the social contract as essentially a private agreement between the individual and the state.

B. The exclusionary social contract.  

“If you’re not a property owner, you know, I’m sorry but property owners have a little more of a vested interest in the community than non-property owners.”

-Judson Phillips, president of the Tea Party Nation (quoted in Think Progress, November 30, 2010)

Although the Constitution does not address the right to vote, and the beliefs of the Founders were certainly a product of prevailing attitudes and values, the fact is that Locke considered consent an essential element of civil society. A commonwealth is formed, according to him, “by the consent of every individual.”

The history of this country has, until recently, been one of expansion of the right to vote, to propertyless citizens, to former slaves, to women and to all those deemed old enough to die in the nation’s wars.  Yet universal suffrage has been the subject of political and legislative attack in the last several years, largely, in my view, as a reaction to the election of a black president.  The lie that voter fraud compels the enactment of strict voter ID requirements has been too well debunked to warrant further comment.  The real motives are to be found in the language of the promoters of voter suppression legislation.  Florida State Senator Michael Bennett (R. Bradenton) has declared that voting is a privilege rather than a right.  “This is something people died for.  Why should we make it easier?” (quoted in the Los Angeles Times, October 20, 2011).  Writing in the American Thinker, Matthew Vadum criticized the efforts of Democrats to register the poor with the observation that “Encouraging those who burden society to participate in elections isn’t about helping the poor.  It’s about helping the poor to help themselves to others’ money.”  Gov.  Romney’s now famous comment on the 47% is a variation on this theme.  Controversial New Hampshire House Speaker William O’Brien unsuccessfully pushed legislation which would have prohibited college students from registering to vote from their school addresses, candidly acknowledging that a college student will likely vote “as a liberal.” (quoted in Think Progress, December 1, 2011).  And the Republican mayor of Arlington, Tennessee, upset that President Obama’s Afghanistan speech had preempted a Peanuts Christmas special, expressed his annoyance on Facebook with the erroneous statement that  “Our forefathers had it written in the original Constitution that only property owners could vote.  It if had stayed there, things would be different.”  (quoted in The KC  Blue Blog, December 5, 2009).  True enough.

C. The corporatist social contract.

“Corporations are people too, my friend.” 

-Gov. Mitt Romney, at a campaign rally

Gov. Romney’s assertion has legal support in the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, a case which more than any other has contributed to the dominance of wealth in the political conversation.  Of course, this definition of corporate personhood did not exist when Locke was alive.  Corporations were created solely by grant from the sovereign for specific purposes.  In the early years of the republic, corporations came into being through charters issued by the legislature.  Now they have been granted standing as persons under the Constitution, but without any of the obligations imposed upon private persons.  The notion of corporate free speech has enabled corporate interests to spend money without limitation, essentially controlling commercial political speech on the public airwaves.  And the message most prominently promoted is that the interests of capital are more important than the interests of labor, that income inequality is a function of personal resourcefulness rather than political power.

Gov. Romney approved this view when he described concern over income inequality as attributable to envy.  “You know, I think it’s about envy.  I think it’s about class warfare.  When you have a President encouraging the idea of dividing America based on the 99 percent versus one percent-and those people who have been the most successful will be in the one percent-you have opened up a whole new wave of approach in this country which is entirely inconsistent with the notion of one nation under God.” (quoted in The Economist,  January 12, 2012).

I confess to some confusion over the meaning of that statement, other than its implication that the wealthiest individuals in the world have earned a reserved seat  at the table of representative government.  In practical terms, it means that those who have most benefitted from favorable policies have no particular obligations to the commonweal.  It means that the rights of labor are subservient to the interests of capital.  It means that the elimination of unions, of pension plans and of health benefits may be justified solely on the basis of economic freedom.  It means that the accumulation of wealth is proof of civic and moral virtue.  It means that the economically powerful may continue to reduce the median income of the middle class if that is seen as  necessary to protect executive income and shareholder dividends.  And it lends support to the social darwinism perhaps best expressed by the comment of former South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer that government assistance to the poor is comparable to “feeding stray animals.” (quoted at, January 24, 2010).  It confuses jealousy with the reasoned perception of unfairness.  It dismisses the argument that the growth of income inequality is primarily a result of the misallocation of the benefits of increased worker productivity.  Most importantly, it ignores the truth that the social contract cannot be fair if the parties lack equal bargaining power.  It  converts the social contract into a corporate contract of adhesion under the myth of “freedom of contract.”

D. The Christian social contract.

“The long-term goal of Christians in politics should be to gain exclusive control over the franchise.  Those who refuse to submit publicly . . . must be denied citizenship.”

-Gary North, Political Polytheism: The Myth of Pluralism (1989)

John Locke regarded civil government as a wholly secular institution.  His opinion was explained in A Letter Concerning Toleration, in which he wrote, “Civil interests I call life, liberty, health and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, land, houses, furniture and the like. . . . Now the whole jurisdiction of the magistrate reaches only to those civil concernments . . . it neither can be nor ought in any manner to be extended to the salvation of souls . . .  .”  This principle exists in the Constitution in the form of the First Amendment, which protects both religion and unbelief.  Nevertheless, the Christian right has attempted to redefine the Constitution as a Christian covenant borne of American exceptionalism, the idea of the nation as the “shining city on the hill.”  Thus the economic theory of capitalism becomes biblically compelled and the social contract becomes a Christian-only agreement, a covenant between the nation and a Christian God.

When the polls open Tuesday morning, those who have not already cast their ballots should understand that we are deciding between starkly different ideas of government and social cohesion.  Hurricane Sandy brought many of us to our knees.  But it will serve a positive end if it also brought us to our senses.

123 thoughts on “Hurricane Sandy and the Social Contract”

  1. mespo727272

    Gene is more clever than that:

    Check out this beaut:

    “It only makes you look more like a dipstick who learned logic and political science from the backs of sugar packets at Denny’s”

    or this gem

    “All men are created equal, but not all men are created equally”

    that one floored even Me (elbow to chest..get it? Me?) . I was like, whoa, I’d better step out of this one’s way.


    PS-you didn’t just use the words political theory did you? like that oxymoron is supposed to levitate your argument or something?

  2. Dave S:

    “No one said force is wrong, I simply stated that force of the majority is wrong, so persist in your childish accusations if you must.”


    All law — every morsel of it — is backed by the legitimate force of the state that enforces it. In our case it’s majority rule. Sorry in your world that’s a foreign concept but questioning why the state can force you to do things you don’t want to do in service to the general welfare is about a childish a position as you can take. And stamping your feet while holding your breath makes a rather sheer argumentation approach.

  3. Me:

    Dave graciously told us he’s all for law and order so long as the law is subject to his consent and the order is toothless. Out! Out! Damned force. That’s anarchy by anyone’s definition but why let a little well-settled political theory interrupt your unending, unlettered questioning of why the sky is blue or why you mother is called “mom”? It’s all subject to your tortured reading of the language. Like Gene H says, get a book. Were I you I’d start with reading comprehension.

  4. You have the argument of a child against the issue of legitimacy of the use of force by governments. All those topics and more have been addressed elsewhere as directed. If you don’t understand the basic logic that laws without enforcement are mere suggestions and that civilization is not possible without out laws, then I can’t help you
    How do I argue a point that you fail to grasp? I am for law, enforcement, and the like but not for your dictates. Where is the childish argument? Again you take a reasoned opinion that govt force other than to protect person or property is a call to anarchy, perhaps you like to hear yourself speak.
    No one said force is wrong, I simply stated that force of the majority is wrong, so persist in your childish accusations if you must. I will not go away, there isnt a social compact beyond aggression against another.
    How much free time do you spend helping the poor? Or do you simply say we should make the govt do it?
    Again, you’r feeble protestations of my arguments merely show you as callous and meek.

  5. “DaveS hasn’t made any logical assertion he’s simply stated his rather simple opinion that societies aren’t necessary”

    Really, that’s what he asserted? Arguing against this faux social contract is not the same as arguing for anarchy. I just re-read the original post and NOWHERE does he say that “societies arent necessary”.

    SO take it back.

  6. Me:

    “He knows so much, but is still a snot nosed punk that knows so little.”


    Now there’s some persuasive argumentation. How’s about a retort about the relative pugilistic skills of your father versus Gene H’s?

    You’re fun!

  7. Me:

    “Not one person has countered what DaveS had to say. They think they have, but they haven’t.”


    How could they? DaveS hasn’t made any logical assertion he’s simply stated his rather simple opinion that societies aren’t necessary and that if they are he’s got an opt out clause. He’s also taken a few potshots at statists and tried to imply Gene H is of such a mindset when even a cursory review of Gene’s work here would prove just how downright silly that suggestion makes Dave S sound.

    In my view, Gene H did precisely what any person would do when faced with silliness, simplistic opinions, and ludicrous observations, he just laughed and then he followed Jefferson’s recommendation when faced with non-distinct irrational propositions,he ridiculed them.

  8. Gene = Will Hunting

    He knows so much, but is still a snot nosed punk that knows so little.

    Throwing more quotes around can’t hide you buddy.

  9. Oh brother …

    Oh well, gotta do my duty tomorrow so it’s an early night for me.

  10. Dave,

    You have the argument of a child against the issue of legitimacy of the use of force by governments. All those topics and more have been addressed elsewhere as directed. If you don’t understand the basic logic that laws without enforcement are mere suggestions and that civilization is not possible without out laws, then I can’t help you. Why don’t you go away, read a book, understand the book in context of other books and come back with an argument that’s better than “force is wrong” and “I don’t wanna be in the social compact”. Here is a fact about civilization: Force is necessary for the rule of law. This is whether you approve or not. It is simply the matter of human nature. Laws exist in part to protect the many from the evils perpetrated by the few. The use of coercion by government is how those laws in enforced. It has been that way from the beginning of civilization and it will be that way until the end of civilization and no amount of whining on your part is going to change that fact. Like it or not, the use of force by government is necessary. The only question this raises in social compact theory is rather or not a particular use of force is legitimate or not.

    Also, you are really stupid and I just call them like a see them. All men are created equal, but not all men are created equally. Seriously, I’d say get a clue, but you and a clue aren’t even in the same ZIP code.

    If it is any consolation, I don’t revel in your ignorance. “If any man is able to convince me and show me that I do not think or act right, I will gladly change; for I seek the truth by which no man was ever injured. But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance.” The only person you harm in your ignorance is yourself and that is simply as sad as watching the self-imposed decline of someone wallowing in substance abuse.

  11. Blouise

    Nothing to get mad at yet. I’ve just witnessed a couple of teenage like outbursts, some back and forth inside jokes, a cute joke about a trooper that got an oversized reaction (I mean please…hot chocolate on the screen?) and then a bunch of supposed insults that made two of the teenagers think they got even.

    Not one person has countered what DaveS had to say. They think they have, but they haven’t.

    And even then Blouise I wouldn’t get mad. I’m man enough to say when I am wrong. But besides all of Gene protestations, he has done nothing to think I am wrong (or Dave). On the contrary, I think our side is more right.

    Now back to reading the back of Denny’s sugar packets (jeez that insult was so terrible I now think Gene is pompous and a elderly)

  12. See Gene, that’s why I’m correct and your not.  You look to everyone else as if you have some implied guarantee of safety, security, health, or what have you.  It is a game you like to play with people of inferior intellect, where what you advocate is correct, and what people on the other side advocate is wrong.

    Your first fallacy is that you don’t recognize that society – a naturally cooperative endeavour – is real despite your childish notion that the individual is the end all be all unit of human organization
    So what don’t I understand Gene? You believe it’s okay to use a gun to make me do what you think is right?Or that I believe that it’s not okay?  Who said I’m not part of society? I bet I’m a much more social person than you, if you’d like to argue statism in a public venue I’ll be happy to provide my # for you.
    You have the option to opt out of the social contract. Renounce your citizenship and move elsewhere. No one will try to stop you.

    Damn. I must be stupid, because I don’t resort to name calling and slight to make my point. Justify statism however you may Gene, it boils down to you wanting to point a gov’t gun at me and not vice versa.
    Oh and when you and your social contract buddies are done laughing, perhaps you can solve my assertion that statism is circular logic. But you’d rather call me stupid and assume your superior, I’m sure other statists are clapping.

  13. good one Gene. I bet OS got a belly laugh on that one.

    OS – “Good one Gene, you showed him”
    GENE- “I sure did, “

  14. You are apparently an expert on onanism, Me. Especially the mental sort. However, make no mistake about it, we are laughing at your ignorance as well as each other’s jokes.

  15. they pat each other on the back and they laugh at each other’s jokes. it’s one big circle jerk.

  16. Blouise 1, November 5, 2012 at 8:47 pm

    Ah, the bewildered incomprehension of the home schooled.


    Blouise wins the Internets tonight. Now I have to go clean the hot chocolate off my screen. At least it does not burn as much as orange juice when snorted out the nose.

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