On the nature of a social contract

I recently read a book called ‘Chasing the devil’ by Tim Butcher, in which he recounts a journey he took on foot through Sierra Leone and Liberia. One of the main characters in the book is his guide, Johnson. Johnson’s circumstances in post-conflict Liberia lead the author to muse on the essence of the social contract. Johnson had done all that was expected of him by society, he was educated, dedicated, intelligent and driven. But yet he was struggling, without work and without many avenues from which to choose to change his circumstances.

We make contracts all the time; with employers, with insurance companies, with banks, with tour companies. But we are also surrounded by all manner of more subtle contracts; those we make with society, with other people and with ourselves. Democracy is essentially a two way contract; we vote in a government, we fulfil certain requirements as citizens, and in return we expect our government to meet various requirements; provision of services and infrastructure, protection of law and order and protection of the citizenry, especially the most vulnerable. The reality is quite different. Not all citizens keep their side of the contract, in fact in some way we all probably stretch the terms of the contract from time to time. I have written before about civic pride and its role in creating a cohesive society, and I do believe this is one of the most important aspects of our part of the social contract.

But what of the second party involved? In Ireland, some of the most vulnerable people in our society have been neglected by the government; children, vulnerable adults, asylum seekers. Ireland is not the only place where this happens, without a doubt, governments all over the world neglect the needs of their citizens. But here in Ireland in recent times, it feels like the social contract has dissolved. Even if you fulfill your side of the deal to the max, you may not get the same in return. You find yourself carrying an extra financial burden, regardless of your own personal circumstances.  You find your children in larger classes with fewer SNAs,you find the cost of healthcare rising and rising and the quality dropping. And it is hard to shake the feeling that you have no control over any of it.

Whether in Ireland or Liberia, America or France, if a system is failing the people living within it, and if those people feel powerless to change it, the social contract has been damaged. The reason any of this matters is that at the center of all of this are people’s lives. At the center of every political campaign, every election, every economic crisis, every economic policy decision to resolve that crisis, every decision about childcare, education, foreign policy, social policy, healthcare, lie the lives of thousands upon thousands of people. As citizens, regardless of what box we tick in the polling booth, we spend most of our time caught up in the aftermath of decisions taken on our behalf. The individual story gets lost.

Perhaps the first step we can take towards promoting a healthier and more robust social contract is to refuse to have our, and other peoples stories, swept away.