This is not about whether there is such a thing as a literal social contract. The phrase has always been a metaphor, and an imprecise one since it was first invoked by Enlightenment-era thinkers trying to sort through a rationale for collective practice of some sort.
It’s easy enough to regard the social contact not as explicit but implied, evolved, and organic to the public mind. At the most intuitive level, we can think of it as a widely shared understanding of mutual obligation, a tie that binds, and also the exchange relationship between society and state. The bare minimum idea of a social contract is to seek out widespread security, thriving, and peace for as many members as possible.
No matter how narrow or broad you understand that phrase, it includes most fundamentally the shared expectations of what government should and should not do. Above all else, it means protecting the public from violent attack and hence defending the rights and liberties of the people against imposition on person, public or private.
The reality today is that the social contract is broken in nations all over the world. This concerns the widespread failure of social welfare, health systems, and sound money. It includes the medical conscription called vaccine mandates. It impacts on mass migration as well as crime, and many other issues as well. Systems are failing the world over with ill health, low growth, inflation, rising debt, and widespread insecurity and distrust.
Let us consider the most shocking case in the news: the mind-boggling failure on the part of the Israeli government to protect its citizens against hostile elements just across its border. A revealing news article in the New York Times explains the aftermath. It includes:
“a total breakdown of trust between the citizens and the state of Israel, and a collapse of everything Israelis believed in and relied on. Initial assessments point to an Israeli intelligence failure before the surprise attack, the failure of a sophisticated border barrier, the military’s slow initial response and a government that seems to have busied itself with the wrong things and now appears largely absent and dysfunctional.”
Moreover: “Public fury at the government has been compounded by Mr. Netanyahu’s refusal so far to openly accept any responsibility for the Oct. 7 disaster.”
Nahum Barnea, a prominent Israeli commentator, put it this way: “We are mourning for those who were murdered, but the loss does not end there: It is the state that we lost.”
True, there has been very little discussion of this terrible topic and understandably so. Israel at its base, as a project and history, is a promise of security for the Jewish people. That is the core of it all. If it fails here, it fails everywhere.
After all, the attacks from Hamas were extremely well planned over two or perhaps three years. Where was the famed Israeli intelligence? How is it possible that it could have failed in so many ways that end in unspeakable mayhem and murder, even to the point that Israel itself is hamstrung in its response by the existence of so many hostages?
It’s utterly heartbreaking, not only for the loss of life but also for the loss of shared trust that this nation depends on so foundationally.
So what is the answer? Part of the answer is that 3.5 years ago, the Israeli government turned its attention to chasing down a virus as a national priority. It wasn’t only social distancing and business closures. It was contact tracing, mass testing, and masking. The vaccine mandates in the country were some of the most coercive and universal in the world.
Almost immediately at the onset of the crisis, the Israeli government maxed out stringencies, going further than the US. Nearly a year later, they grew even tighter, only relaxing a full year later.
As Sunetra Gupta pointed out early on, this was already a near-universal violation of the social contract on how to handle infectious disease. In nearly every nation, we had rules of isolation to protect workers in some classes while workers in other classes were shoved in front of the virus.
This contradicted all modern public-health practice, which had long eschewed dividing classes this way. The theory of the past is that infectious disease is a burden shared socially with special efforts to protect the vulnerable – based not on class, race, and access, but on traits of the human experience shared by everyone.
The warnings poured in from dissident scientists from the very onset – even dating back a decade and a half earlier – that anything like a lockdown would wreck trust in public health, respect for science, and confidence in government institutions and those allied with them. That is precisely what has happened the world over.
And it was only the beginning. The mandates to get a shot hardly anyone really needed or wanted was next-level crazy. It required an “all-of-government” approach, and it became a priority that trumped all others.
Every national experience is different in the particulars but the theme in all nations that attempted extreme measures of virus control neglected other concerns. In the US, every other concern was shelved.
For example, during these years, the immigration issue became paramount in people’s lives, particularly those in border states that had long lived with a delicate balance of friendly relations and controlled flows of the human population. During the Covid years, this was blown up.
It was obviously true with educational policy too. Decades of focus on educational health and outcomes were thrown out in favor of full school closures that extended a year and longer.
It was also true with economic policy. Suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, no one could be bothered with the age-old warnings against too much expansion of the money stock and public debt. It’s as if all the old wisdom was put on a shelf. Surely the gods would reward a nation that controlled the virus by not allowing them to reap the whirlwind stemming from outrageous levels of spending and printing. Sure enough, all those embedded forces of nature came anyway.
The idea of closing nations and economies to focus on virus control was millenarian in its ambitions. It was sheer fantasy. Time doesn’t stop. We only pretend to stop it. Societies and economies always move forward with time, like seas embedding and flowing with the rotations of the earth. No government in the world is powerful enough to stop it. The attempt produces calamity.
It’s been three and a half years since this grand experiment began, and now a plurality of people the world over are only now fully realizing the extent of the damage and who caused it. After all, we do have the Internet to document what happened, so it does no good for the pushers of lockdowns just to pretend like nothing happened. When given the chance, voters have begun driving these people from office, or they are escaping before facing humiliation.
Over the weekend, this is what happened in New Zealand, one of the most locked down states in the world during the Covid years. The prime minister from those years, who claimed to be the one source of truth, has found sanctuary at Harvard while the politics of the nation have entered the upheaval stage.
Each nation has a story of failure and tragedy but the one that grips us most is perhaps the Israeli one. I’m writing in the aftermath of the bloodthirsty attacks on innocents which occurred during a national crisis, the response from which will inevitably unleash new forces of violence and blowback. The questions about the security failings that led to this are not going away. They are growing more intense by the hour.
A nation like Israel, geographically young and fragile, depends foundationally on a government that can keep its commitments to its people. When it fails so spectacularly and with such enormous cost, it brings forth a new moment in national life, one which will echo far into the future.
Less spectacularly, other nations are dealing with a similar crisis of confidence in leadership. All the reminders that “We told you so” do not fix the underlying problem we face the world over today. There are crises piling on crises, and analysts warning that we are in a 1914 moment seem to be speaking a truth we don’t want to hear but we should.
The idea of the modern state was that it would be better than ancient states because it would be accountable to the people,the voters, the press, the private-sector watchdogs, and above all to do the one job it was assigned: defending the rights and liberties of the people. That is the very center of the modern social contract. Bit by bit and then all at once, the contract was shredded.
If we really are looking at something along the lines of 1914, history should absolutely record what immediately preceded these awful days. Governments of the world turned vast resources and attention to the grand project of unprecedented scope: the universal mastery of the microbial kingdom.
We were only beginning to process just how spectacularly the central plan failed when we are dealing with the most egregious fallout that not even the most pessimistic among us could have foreseen. The social contract is shredded. Another one of a different sort must be drafted – once again, not literally but implicitly and organically.
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