By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
The theory of a social contract originated in antiquity but blossomed in the Age of Enlightenment as a model for the legitimacy of government authority over the individual.
The name derives from the title of a 1762 book by French philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
The concept is a person gives up some of his or her individual rights and freedoms to a larger group or government in return for the protection of his or her remaining rights and freedom and the maintenance of social order.
The social contract is in contrast to “natural order” where a person’s actions are only constrained by each individual’s personal power and conscience.
The idea of social contract is so embedded in our culture we do not think of police or fire protection as examples, or banding together to build roads open to anyone for travel and greater economic opportunities.
From the Age of Enlightenment to this day, the social contract concept is a cornerstone of government and of societal and moral order.
The Magna Carta and the shift from tribalism and feudalism established human and religious rights versus government but the social contract put the guardrails in place or provided structure.
From the fields of Runnymede to the halls of the State House, the concept of freedom within a protective society has remained in place more or less.
The social contract has enhanced the greater good resulting in advances in medicine that ended centuries of deadly diseases, sent men and women into space and introduced the world to technology we only dreamed about a century ago: self-driving cars and instantaneous communication around the world.
Those innovations would not be possible unless people were willing to give some of our earnings to the government to fund the research and development that is too risky or not profitable for private industry.
What has been developed with government backing has benefited everyone and been a good investment.
However, the model social contract that allowed the world to progress exponentially over the last century, is beginning to fray.
Over the last few decades, the rise of individual rights over the greater good has begun unravelling the interconnectedness of the social contract.
The last two years in the New Hampshire legislature is indicative of what is happening nationally and in other parts of the world as well.
For the past two years the world has been in a pandemic resulting in the deaths of an estimated 15 million people including one million in the United States.
Using all the governmental tolls of a social contract, a vaccine to prevent or at least lessen the harms of COVID-19 was developed in record time and distributed — maybe not.
as equitably as possible — throughout the world to begin reigning in death and disrupted lives.
However, unlike 60 years ago when the polio vaccine was developed, not everyone flocked to be vaccinated.
Instead many held to the concept that individual rights or the natural order trumped the greater good and refused to be vaccinated.
The concept of individual rights used to be that your individual rights ended when they impacted another’s individual rights or “you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater when there is no fire.”
So for many in this world, the greater good is no longer enough to entice social or even moral behavior.
If this had been the philosophy in the past, the world would still be trying to contain polio, smallpox, measles or any number of other deadly diseases.
The use of face masks to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus met much the same push back as the pandemic was politicized.
It was not about health issues, whether you wore a mask or were vaccinated became a political statement.
And some went so far not only to refuse to be vaccinated but attempted to stop others from doing so as the New Hampshire Executive Council became the battleground for several months over federal money for the state’s vaccine program.
Laws have been passed that prohibit health care providers, government or private businesses to “discriminate” against anyone due to their vaccination status and allowing health care workers to refuse to perform medical procedures due to their conscience.
It is hard to see how any of this provides protection to the majority of people in the state who have opted to be vaccinated.
But the pandemic is not the only battleground.
Perhaps one of the most successful ramifications of the social contract is public schools.
Since their beginnings early in the country’s history, they have provided the backbone of our democracy producing an educated workforce, citizens with critical thinking skills, an appreciation of the arts and sciences and athletic opportunities for students of all backgrounds and economic standing.
But today the public education system is fraying with the help of those favoring individual rights over the greater good.
For two decades, the New Hampshire legislature has had bills that chip away at the public school system, from the recently approved “education freedom accounts” to politicians deciding what can and cannot be taught.
In recent sessions, what was once unthinkable, is now law, using public money to pay for religious and private schools as well as buy textbooks that advocate one religion.
Public funding of education has been the state’s most unsolved significant issue for decades and pulling money away from public education is not a solution, it speeds the fraying of the social contract.
One of the tenets of a social contract is protection, that can be seen through regulation.
There is a reason financial institutions are regulated, as is the food industry and health care workers and medicines.
Without regulations, banks would be able to use your money any way they wanted no matter how risky, and there are snake oil salesmen who will sell you sugar cubes for medicine.
But this week the legislature passed House Bill 1022 which would allow pharmacies to distribute ivermectin, a drug approved for treatment to kill parasitic worms or lice, but not for treating COVID as some claim, without a prescription for two years.
The governor will have to decide if he will sign it.
Businesses once were left to decide what is best for their employees and customers, but this year the legislature approved or nearly approved several bills that would reach into businesses and tell them who they can and cannot employ.
The same vaccination issues would allow someone fired for refusing to be vaccinated to negate a non-compete agreement or to allow someone to collect unemployment, which would raise the employer’s unemployment tax.
Another example of a successful social contract is non-profit hospitals.
While most industrialized nations have national health care programs, the United States does not, but non-profit hospitals have to treat patients whether they can afford the services or not.
That is an example of the greater good, as those who can afford to pay, pay a little more to cover the cost of those who cannot.
Last week, the House decided one of its priorities was a bill that would allow member-only hospitals. The bill passed the House but was sent to interim study by the Senate.
Member-only hospitals change the funding equation for non-profit hospitals by cherry picking the most profitable services and procedures.
However, services like emergency rooms, clinics and maturity services are not profitable but still have to be funded. Without the profitable services in non-profit hospitals the cost of other services will rise for those who cannot afford to belong to a member-only hospital.
The idea of member hospitals is to lower the cost of their services by removing the subsidies for the loss-leading services everyone needs.
It is cheaper and better health care for the wealthy while the cost goes up for everyone else.
That kind of fraying of the social contract may not be as obvious as vaccine refusal or vouchers, but the damage to society is just as great.
And the damage is not only financial, it is just as harmful to our collective morality.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.