Observations of an Expat: The Social Contract

May 6, 2016 OPINION/NEWS


Tom Arms

It is probably one of the best known sentences in the world: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Thomas Jefferson—inspired by the 17th century English philosopher John Locke, would have preferred the word “property” at the end of the sentence. However Ben Franklin, being a bit of a womanizer and a jolly sort, successfully pressed for “pursuit of happiness.”

But the key is that this incredible American document put into words—and practice—a European philosophy which was all the rage in 1776. It was called “The Social Contract” and it has been at the heart of Western governments since Jean Jacques Rousseau coined the term and the start of the great American experiment. This contract appears to be breaking down around the world, and at so many levels.

So what is the Social Contract? To put it simply: It is a deal between the rulers and the ruled. The ruled give up certain rights such as the right to drive their cars at whatever speed they want or play loud music at 5am. In  return the rulers—aka “The Establishment”– set up a system which provides “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” And, as the Declaration of Independence made crystal clear, if the rulers don’t keep their side of the bargain then the ruled have every right to boot them out.

That is exactly what is happening .

The victory of Donald Trump is a perfect example. In the eyes of so many voters The Donald is the epitome of an anti-establishment figure. He is crude, rude and socially unacceptable. He has never held public office. He has never been tainted by association with the Washington establishment with which American voters are fed up. They are fed up because the Establishment is perceived to have failed  to deliver.

The Donald case is not restricted to American shores. It is being mirrored around the world. The Arab Spring of 2011 was directly related to the Arab government’s inability to deliver a better life to their populations. If Arab pockets had been full then they would have put up with their lack of political freedoms for a lot longer.

There are other more current signs. Thousands  recently stormed the Iraqi parliament shouting “Down with all politicians.” Why? Because the Iraqi government is the second most corrupt government in the world. Somalia is number one.

In Turkey a mass brawl broke out because President Erdogan proposed to break his deal with the Kurdish minority by removing immunity from Kurdish members of parliament. In Austria, the Czech Republic, Romania, Hungary, and Poland, right-wing populist politicians have come to power with dangerously simplistic solutions after post-Cold War governments failed to deliver.

In Britain, the election of left winger Jeremy Corbyn to the Leadership of the Labour Party was a clear message from the party faithful to its parliamentary establishment that that contract had failed. Staying with Britain, the forthcoming referendum on British withdrawal from the European Union  is being held because many Britons feel that they have ceded too much power to Brussels and received too little in return.

BREXIT adds a new dimension to the Social Contract debate. When Jefferson put pen to paper he was thinking in national terms. Today we have to think globally. Ever since the post War Bretton Woods Agreement there has been a social contract between America and the rest of the world. It is simple: Trade in dollars and use our economic system and we will protect the world economic order. America’s mounting current account deficit makes it difficult for Washington to deliver on that promise. Lack of cash generally makes it difficult for all governments and supranational organisations to deliver on Franklin’s “pursuit of happiness” pledge.

So the social contract will continue to unravel until a way is found to restore it. And it must be restored, because as Thomas Hobbes, another 17th century English philosopher wrote,  the alternative is lives that are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”





Tom Arms broadcasts on world affairs for a number of US radio stations including WTKF at http://www.wtkf107.com/. His Weekly Viewpoints discussion programme can be heard at 1830 EST on Wednesdays and his LookAhead at the next week’s main events on Fridays at 1800.


LookAhead Radio World Report for week commencing 9th May:





Tom Arms

I am a journalist, entrepreneur and historian with extensive experience in print, web and broadcast journalism. I started as a diplomatic correspondent, wrote several books (The Falklands Crisis, World Elections On File and the Encyclopedia of the Cold War), and then in 1987 started my own business (Future Events News Service, www.fensinformation.com) which over 25 years established itself as the world and UK media’s diary. Our strapline was: “We set the world’s news agenda.” I sold FENS in December 2012 but retained the exclusive broadcast rights to all of FENS data. To exploit these rights I set up LookAhead TV which produces unique programmes which “Broadcasts Tomorrow Today” so that viewers can “Plan to Participate.” LookAhead has appeared regularly on Vox Africa, Radio Tatras International, The Conversation and Voice of Africa Radio.

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1 Comment

  1. Rupen Savoulian May 06, at 07:34

    Interesting article, and one that raises important questions about the nature of political power. Just one disagreement - Trump is hardly an outsider, or an anti-Establishment candidate, even though he and his supporters portray him as one. A semi-fascistic populist, he makes appeals to the working class all the while advocating policies that support the financial elite. Le Pen in France has done the same; the Austrian and German far-right parties make loud denunciations of the big banks, but end up promoting financial measures that reinforce economic practices that enhance the riches of the ultra-wealthy: http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/05/05/pers-m05.html Interesting that you refer to Thomas Hobbes - I think he was wrong, but his theories are being somewhat recycled by psychologist Steven Pinker. Will think about Hobbes a bit more, and write some comments later. Cheers Rupen Savoulian


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