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Snake Plissken and the Progressive Vision of America
by Pete O'Brien
Socrates argued it was his duty to remain in prison because he had a contract with the city. This idea, more fully flushed out by Hobbes and Rousseau, came to be termed the social contract. Simply stated, there exists a de facto contract between the individual and the government and that contract forms the basis of the society in which we live.
In simple terms the citizen obeys the laws, pays taxes, and supports the government, and the government provides the agreed upon services: security, safety, public health, public infrastructure, basic laws for living and conducting business, etc. Every society exists based upon some understanding of a social contract, whether the society is the one centered on the upper east side of Manhattan or the Mongolian Steppes 1500 years ago. And all nations today, even the most dictatorial, continue to exist based on this idea of the social contract, however the contract might be locally crafted.
The key is that there’s an exchange - value given by both sides: but at the core of this whole structure is one simple concept: public security. Survival is, after all, the most basic of our needs.
Rousseau noted, more than 300 years ago, mankind before the social contract existed in a “state of nature.” Rousseau had an idyllic view of what that was like, but the key was every man for himself. And, as you were on your own, there were no societal norms, no rules, no laws, that governed your behavior, except those you personally accepted or established.
But once people started to join together into social groups, they generated rules of behavior - the acceptable and the unacceptable. By remaining in the group you agreed to follow those rules.
This is why it’s a viable concern when one element of society stands up and says “the police are targeting us.” At that point that segment of society is stating that the social contract is breaking down. At this point there are really only a few paths forward:
1) The aggrieved can demand change to the social contract as a whole, that is, while remaining within the rules, insist on a change to the rules that would address what they perceive is the wrong that is being done to them.
2) The aggrieved element can attempt to withdraw from existing society and form their own society. This is nearly always violent.
Note that what is not particularly relevant to the problem as a whole is the question of truth. The issue of truth only matters if the intent is to remain within the social contract, that is, choose option 1. As Socrates noted, if he wished to remain within the society, he had to follow the rules. And the rules said he needed to be in prison. So, he needed to remain in prison. Later, he needed to drink poison…
As for the rioting that is ongoing in several of the larger cities across the US…
Begin with this: Mr. Floyd was a homicide victim. And, the relevant district attorney’s office, while moving slowly, has charged the police officers involved and the gears of the Law are grinding forward.
What about the slogan: “No Justice, No Peace”?
Unfortunately, if you’re waiting around for Justice you’re going to have a long wait. As Judge Holmes replied when urged to “Do Justice, sir, do justice,” by Judge Learned Hand, “That is not my job. It is my job to apply the law.” Or as a Priest once said to me in even simpler terms: “Only God knows what is really just.”
So, if justice is really beyond our reach, is the law - imperfect as it is - not enough? Are we are headed for “no peace” in our urban centers? It seems there are already elements of our society that wish to break the existing social contract. All well and good, I suppose, if they are going to accept what follows. But what follows is likely to be decidedly unpleasant.
If you “void the social contract” then, well, you void the social contract. If you assert that you will no longer be held to the terms, then you no longer can benefit from the terms. If you insist that you’re now in a state of nature, then you have removed yourself from the protection offered by the state.
Bizarre as that sounds, that might be where we’re headed, at least in part.
Consider unemployment rates in some high crime rate cities: St. Louis 11%, Baltimore 12%, Cleveland 14%, Philadelphia 16%, Chicago 18%, Detroit 38%
News reports were circulating before the riots that many businesses were already looking to move out of depressed urban centers, in particular grocery stores.
Unemployment up, more businesses leaving, grocers leaving, tax bases declining.
Now, remove the police…
We’ve already seen the police withdrawn from some sections of cities, and various politicians suggest the answer to a rise in violence is a reduction in police forces.
Where will this leave us?
If you void the social contract and leave the centers of certain cities on their own, with few businesses, high unemployment, and no police, the result will be “villages” where security is provided by the strongest gang (worked out in Darwinian fashion), whose borders will be defined by no-mans lands of burned out buildings; these areas will be devoid of most jobs, most city services, and will generate little if any tax revenue. It would start to look like John Carpenter’s dystopian New York, with neighborhoods ruled by various violent gangs, fighting each other for their boundaries.
Eventually the suburbs would push back, establish their own security, and set up barriers to contain the “others.”
But before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, and hire Snake Plissken to head up our Neighborhood Watch, it might be useful to look at the system of laws we have here. Imperfect though they may be, they’ve done a better job of protecting the rights of the individual than just about any other system.
It’s also worth noting that, public remonstrations from assorted politicians to the contrary, the violent crime rate in the US is actually quite low. That is never an adequate response to anyone who’s suffered from a violent crime, but it’s worth the consideration of those who would try to change the law; make certain that what you’re contemplating will actually make things better, not trade the frying pan for the fire.
About Pete O'Brien
Peter O’Brien has more than 30 years of successful leadership and planning experience in a wide range of organizations afloat and ashore on three continents. Mr. O’Brien’s Navy career included ten years at sea, more than a dozen years stationed overseas and multiple ...