We cannot find the social contract in the National Archives or the Library of Congress, but most citizens acknowledge it through day-to-day respect for the social order. Yet, because the social contract exists in our cultural consciousness, and not in written form, its terms will always be elusive.
The differences between conservatives and liberals over wealth and class demonstrate this ambiguity, and nowhere are these as stark as in the views of Elizabeth Warren, the leading Democratic candidate for Senate in Massachusetts, and Republican presidential candidate and current tea party favorite Herman Cain. But does either of them offer a realistic version of the social contract?
Ms. Warren gained a great deal of attention several weeks ago for stating that "there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own," and citing roads, schools, and law and order as the taxpayer-funded social context of individual achievement. Using a "factory owner" as an example, Ms. Warren argued that the wealthy use the social infrastructure that "the rest of us paid for" and benefit from "the work the rest of us did," and in doing so made clear that she believes the rich get more than their fair share from the social contract.
Ms. Warren made no mention of inherited wealth or privilege, however, so did not qualify her argument based on the possibility that the factory owner had an unfair advantage. Rather, she implied that the owner, no matter how modest his beginnings or productive his enterprise, benefits disproportionately from the social contract simply because he is rich.
This is wrong. Taxpayers, who include the owner and worker, share the cost and the benefits of the social contract. Ms. Warren's argument that taxpayers collectively pay for the roads that the owner uses to transport goods is true but applies no less to the worker, who uses to the roads to get to the factory. Nor does Ms. Warren recognize that in most cases, the social contract provided both the owner and worker with opportunities for economic success. It does not follow that because the owner has made better use of the opportunities and achieved more, he now has a moral obligation to pay more. In fact, his productivity could justify a reduced tax burden.
Yet it is Ms. Warren's unwillingness to acknowledge the superior contribution of the owner that is at the heart of her misplaced vision of the social contract. It suggests that Ms. Warren's position is not so much collectivist, as some critics have stated, but relativist, in that she does not distinguish between the value of the worker and the owner.
Ms. Warren is not alone in offering a distorted version of the social contract, however. Herman Cain recently declared that Americans who are unemployed or in poverty should blame themselves for their economic condition. This is the opposite of Ms. Warren's position, with Mr. Cain claiming that achievement — or failure — solely rests with the individual. While Ms. Warren fails to see that in most cases the owner and the worker share the opportunities of the social contract, Mr. Cain fails to recognize that sometimes this is not the case. Some, even in better economic times, cannot reverse their dismal economic circumstances without help. Why? Because they have not had access to the infrastructure, schools or security needed for high achievement. Mr. Cain's rhetoric does not account for the fact that society sometimes breaks the social contract.
Ms. Warren and Mr. Cain offer versions of the social contract that are foreign to the experience of most Americans. In the real world, people are not so foolish as to believe that they are somehow responsible for the success of strangers and therefore entitled to the fruits of that success. Likewise, individuals expect to rise and fall on their merits, yet they know that our communities affect our success — positively and negatively.
Anthony Marcavage is a labor attorney for Bon Secours Health System Inc. in Marriottsville. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.