Why Hobbes’ Social Contract Now Matters More Than Ever

Why Hobbes’ Social Contract Now Matters More Than Ever

Today’s discrete silos of news, lifestyles, and preferences create and reinforce the echo chamber in which we are becoming ever so firmly ensconced. We eye each other with suspicion from our respective bubbles, convinced that we possess the moral high ground. Some have even angrily broken up with friends and relatives since the inauguration.

The unrelentingly chaotic and crisis-ridden presidency has tested my own patience. I struggle to stay dispassionate in the face of dissenting political views, and to remember that we can disagree with our friends. My circle of contacts represents beliefs from all across the political spectrum, and I aim to keep all of my friendships intact, no matter who voted for whom.

Generosity of spirit is a key to fostering friendships and indeed all positive human interactions. Last summer, I spoke at length with an old friend about why he was going to vote for the current president. I was truly curious to reconcile a person I like with a choice that was reprehensible to me. My friend calmly expressed how both parties had disappointed him over the years, and that his candidate was ready to disrupt business as usual. I vehemently disagree with the idea that radical disruption is the answer for our nation, but I understand that my friend’s top priority is change. We traded a few barbs about our political persuasions and ended with a laugh. I think of this amicable discussion whenever I encounter a supporter of the new administration.

In my conversations I discovered that we all share a common hope for better governance. Our enduring challenge is to work together. The long Supreme Court Justice fight is emblematic of our inability to do so. Perhaps Thomas Hobbes, the political philosopher, is right. Humans are stuck in a relentless cycle to satisfy their desires and quiet their fears. We are always in conflict with each other as we seek safety and prosperity. He famously writes in Leviathan that the natural state of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The solution he proposes is a social contract, a voluntary adoption of a compact for peace by forming a commonwealth.

He further advises that the population give up some of its freedom to a sovereign power in order to compel the adherence to that social contract. Hobbes is open to the sovereign being a monarchy, an aristocracy, or a democracy. The structure of the government is secondary to the compact among the people. Once the contract is entered, we are all in it together. Hobbes is clear that those who voted for a representative, and even those who did not, “shall authorize all the actions and judgments, of that man, or assembly of men, in the same manner, as if they were his own, to the end, to live peaceably amongst themselves, and be protected against other men.”

Our covenant is first and foremost with each other, peer to peer. The social contract requires both good governance and civic engagement. The United States is presently experiencing a remarkable uptick in the latter. Relative newcomers are running for office, such as in the special elections in Kansas and Georgia. Ordinary Americans are actively taking part in the political dialogue. They are showing up at town hall meetings, passionately voicing their concerns that range from their dependence on affordable healthcare to the investigation of the president’s Russian ties. In addition, they are calling, faxing, and tweeting their elected officials. Subscription rates to reputable news outlets have risen in search of truthful reporting. Conversely, the forces of tribalism remain strong in parts of this country and portend more divisiveness in the future. The practice of shouting at each other from opposing sides of the aisle continues. While this can feel disheartening and unsafe, there is a silver lining in direct public discourse.

Openly discussing how policies and politics affect our lives is a healthy start towards achieving a harmonious society. The current level of public engagement signals that Americans care to be true to the ideals of the social contract. Our needs for safety and peace are universal.

Mila Atmos is a columnist whose work has been featured by The Huffington Post, Quartz, and Medium.

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