Revisiting The Social Contract In The Age Of Delta

Editor’s note:

The following short article was originally published May 27, 2020, on Identity Element. More than a year and three vaccines later, tens of millions of Americans refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19, arguably in violation of the social contract to which all citizens are party.

In many cases, the unvaccinated justify their position not by reference to any health concerns, but by reference to a woefully misguided conception of ‘liberty,’ apparently oblivious to how liberty is typically defined and delineated in the context of social order and civic responsibility.

You’ll note that the piece references one of 2020’s most infamous episodes: The viral images from a party in the Lake of the Ozarks. Just three days ago, the very same bar was profiled in a Politico article called “Why People at America’s Hardest-Partying Lake Are Not About to Get Vaccinated.”

“A year ago, Backwater Jack’s made national news after photos went viral of partiers packed inside the pool area, ignoring guidelines to avoid crowds and keep a distance from others,” Politico’s Natasha Korecki wrote. “Today, as revelers laugh and toss back drinks in shallow pool water, some 600,000 deaths later, they aren’t just forgoing masks, they are forgoing the vaccine.”

Nothing has changed. And so, the following is even more relevant now than it was when it was first published.

Freedom and Security in the Age of Coronavirus

by Identity Element

I’m not so fanatical a worshipper of liberty as some of my radical or conservative friends; when liberty exceeds intelligence it begets chaos. — Will Durant

Freedom is a tenet ingrained into the psyche of the American people – it is specifically detailed in the Constitution’s First Amendment (freedom of speech) and is implicit in other rights and liberties bestowed upon us. While many Americans value their freedom immensely, there are very few who look to exercise freedom at its logical extreme – in essence, acting in complete autonomy.

Thomas Hobbes grappled with this idea in his essay Leviathan. In it, he asserts that humans agree to a “mutual transferring of rights” – known as a social contract – by which we sacrifice certain natural freedoms to create social order. Rather than trust every human to abide by their social contract with every other human, we have opted to “to surrender some of [our] freedoms and submit to the authority in exchange for protection of [our] remaining rights or maintenance of the social order.”

Consequently, freedom is at direct odds with security. Citizens sacrifice certain freedoms to governments that curtail their ability to act in absolute autonomy; a society without some basic level of social order would be prone to disarray. Yet, governments walk a thin line when it comes to the imposition of laws or other restrictions in freedom. This line differs across sovereignties: In the United States, many individuals value personal freedom over social order and security – the opposite can be said for many Eastern countries. Thus, the response of each country’s population is markedly different as it pertains to similar restrictions in freedom.

This appraisal of freedom is propagated into a country’s economic system. The United States has welcomed capitalism since its formation as a country because there is an inextricable link between capitalism and the tenet of freedom. Indeed, capitalism simply maps our personal freedoms into the economic landscape, espousing the ability for individuals to operate in their own economic self-interest. Examination of this function reveals that restrictions in certain personal freedoms have economic consequences, for these encroachments are mapped into the plane of capitalism. Additionally, individuals who elect to abuse their personal freedom, thereby harming society’s collective security, map this harm into the economic plane as well. Thus, a delicate balance exists among our personal freedoms, collective security, and the economic landscape.

In our current paradigm, reductions in citizens’ personal freedoms have affected their ability to act in their own economic self-interest. This curtailing of freedom initially occurred through the imposition of lockdown orders – the coronavirus manifested itself “as a social crisis with economic consequences.” [1] Several demonstrations have been organized to express the growing discontent surrounding reductions in personal freedom, and consequently, economic freedom. Dave Portnoy, the founder of Barstool, stated that he would rather “die of corona” than lose his business during the outbreak. This sentiment is clearly echoed by other Americans – it is readily apparent that many are willing to die to protect their economic self-interest.

While many are willing to take the risks associated with reopening their businesses, that does not mean they must carelessly place themselves in harm’s way. If coronavirus cases are closely monitored and citizens wear facial protection, reopening can happen successfully. Yet, given the inadequacy of United States test and trace capabilities, in conjunction with individuals who elect to not wear masks, those re-entering the front lines of the economy are gambling with their lives, and/or the lives of others.

To further demonstrate some Americans’ indifference to facial protection, look no further than the Lake of the Ozarks on Memorial Day weekend. This incident was a social event devoid of any personal economic implications for those in attendance, thereby illuminating the central conflict of this piece – the delicate balance which exists between the exercise of personal freedom and the security of the collective.

Those who attended the Lake of the Ozarks without wearing facial protection potentially exposed themselves to the coronavirus, thereby increasing the probability of a second wave of infections. This violation of The Contract – the social contract which states that we will sacrifice certain social freedoms to limit the transmission of coronavirus – could lead to prolonged economic hardship for more Americans. Each violation of The Contract compounds the negative effects of the virus, as misuse of personal freedoms harms our collective security, with the harm manifesting itself in the form of economic hardship. The social damage caused by misuse of personal freedoms is mapped into the economic plane.

If Americans continue breaching The Contract, business re-openings will introduce localized contagion risk. To prevent widespread transmission, nationwide travel should be curtailed — yet another restriction in individual freedom, but one that will increase national security. Irrespective of travel restrictions, any local increase in infections will necessitate lockdown orders once again. If a lockdown is not imposed by the government, these measures may be self-imposed by local populations – in any event, The Contract will likely be enforced.

Herein lies the core flaw of lockdown measures – lockdown cannot be viewed as a solution itself. Rather, it is a way for society to buy time to develop an effective mechanism for reintegration. Specifically, it creates a vacuum that prevents transmission of the virus at the expense of curtailing economic growth. If a second wave occurs after an economic re-opening, it will uncover significant flaws in the government’s handling of the disease and/or reveal the indifference of individuals who elected to breach The Contract. The remedy for avoiding this adverse outcome would be to abstain from any unnecessary socializing or to participate in social settings by wearing a mask. Both actions abide by The Contract and circumvent any unnecessary economic hardship.

A second round of lockdowns would ignite more discontent among the American population. This discontent will be expressed as frustration with the government since it is difficult for us to internalize the idea that our mask-less neighbor helped contribute to the economic destruction we are witnessing.

[1] The Unconditional Moments as Portals of Social Change

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4 thoughts on “Revisiting The Social Contract In The Age Of Delta

  1. So depressing.
    I always want to believe that better education will lift all, but the reality is that only works for those few who actually want to be educated.
    My kids went through public schools with 50/50 white and Mexican kids. I was always willing to tutor, but the kids would not even show up, even tho they had scheduled a session. This was true across both race/ethnic groups.

  2. There are many benefits to not taking the vaccine.
    1) Possibility of extensive sick leave
    2) Possiblity of death of a family member
    3) Loss of a breadwinner in a family
    4) Darwin awards 2021 certificate at the funeral.
    As a great man once said “forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

  3. H – I am surprised this post did not generate additional response. But you are a busy guy. You create a lot of content and you’re very productive, which I appreciate. Thanks for your ongoing presence, and your work. But I have to share my thoughts about this article in regard to people that breach the Social Contract.

    I’m feeling we ought not to focus only on our home-grown Leviathan. We ought not to speak only about people willfully bypassing the vaccine. They’re a nuisance and distraction. Yes, I’m concerned that Thomas Hobbs’ Leviathan grows in veracity and volume as we speak. Here’s an example of the gun-toting Large Boys hubris from a USA Today story this morning:

    In noting this, my point is not that we ought to be talking about the many Americans with many guns. General Mark Milley has noted that any armed US insurrection could easily be quelled. Though sad to realize that a bunch of goofs with guns may want to rise up and show us what they’ve got, they don’t have much in the eyes of General Milley. I trust his judgement. While we gawk at internal anomalies, we do little about the looming presence of China, its growing impact on our economy, its growing arrogance, and its autocratic desire to bully not only its own people but other countries.

    China, to me, is a greater issue than intimidating, wannabe guys with guns. And addressing the challenge of China needs to move forward on many fronts and by a variety of methods.

    Sure, the Chinese have the market now, which we encouraged them to develop (back in the 70s). We need to encourage and actively support broader manufacturing sources. Why not sign trade agreements, like the TPP? Why not buy more from Taiwan and Japan? Even Russia? How about helping to develop the manufacturing capacity of Guam? Bulgaria? Rumania? Ukraine? Finland? And India? I don’t care where alternate sources are provisioned. Alternate supply chains need to be developed for western countries. Granted, the Chinese are educated and have learned how to mass-produce good products and deliver them. But India also does a good job of educating its people. Can we do more to help them develop their manufacturing capacity?

    China manages the global manufacturing playing field, gaining leverage in part by undervaluing the Yuan. Damn the Yuan at 15 cents. I don’t care how inexpensive it is. We need to develop alternative manufacturing sources. It may cost more. It may require further manufacturing innovation. But it’s worth keeping our democracy and telling the Chinese where to go. We can’t just go on sourcing from China a 20% proportion of our manufacturing.

    I hope Joe Biden is considering these questions. I believe he is like-minded but we don’t really know the scope of his thoughts about this. In the meantime, alas, there are the country-agnostic money men behind the likes of Trump. Significant, moneyed, anonymous donors that care more about their money than about democracy or country may likely be influence on our China policies too. No, thank you.

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