A video, or several actually about one event, making its rounds on the Internet has CEO Peter Schiff, a self-described member of the “1%” arguing with protesters on Wall Street. In it are many remarkable statements he makes but probably the most profound of which is when he denies all ties and responsibility to society by claiming he never signed the so called “social contract”. This degree of unrelenting individualism, this extreme form of libertarianism, is common place in today’s society and there are a great many Americans who believe that this is a reasonable, fair, and tenable position to take; it is not.
The social contract theory is a model for understanding how and why people form societies. At a fundamental level, between individuals, it is the implicit agreement that we won’t immediately kill each other on sight. Without such an agreement being made one would have to walk around at all times, armed to the teeth, ready to instantly assassinate anyone in visual or audible range. The reason for this is quite simple, if you can’t know they won’t kill you the best strategic move for survival is to do it first. This is obviously a quite uncivilized state to live in.
At a wider level we are subject to this contract in our every day lives when we agree to abide by the rules of the road, to pay our taxes, and to share the many resources we all depend upon by giving some members of our society the responsibility to govern those resources and make sure they are used to the best and/or fairest means possible. We pay taxes, we get roads. We drive on the right side of the road rather than the left. We flip off the assholes or ignore them…we do not shoot them. How this governance occurs, who gets what, what is fair vs. what is not, and how do we balance competing freedoms are all questions that remain debated and unanswered, but that we live in this state of agreement cannot be unless we want to live in The Congo rather than a civilized, governed society that even has the option of freedom.
Mr. Schiff seems to believe that his individual right to freedom trumps all other considerations, including his implicit agreement to abide by the social contract. He wants us to accept that he is not required to “sign” this contract and can do what he wants without regard to any agreement society wishes to make with itself and impose on its members, but this flies in the face of all reason.
When someone provides you a service that you did not want, you do not have to pay for it. If, however, you watch and wait for them to finish giving it to you and then say, “I never agreed to pay for this,” you can and should be held liable to pay for the service. If you say, “No, please stop, I do not want this,” then you are under no obligation, but if you know the person is providing a service, know they expect to be paid, and let it continue then you are. This is not only reasonable and fair, its how our laws work.
This is the state that Mr. Schiff finds himself in. He made use of society’s service the minute he stepped out onto a public road and exercised his right to speak to protesters without fear of being murdered on the spot. The “99%” did not kill him, did not force him back into his castle. In fact, our society continues to provide Mr. Schiff with a great many services that he has been able to use to quite a lot of advantage. Every time he makes use of government services to protect his assets and allow him to do business under the protection of corporate shield he is taking advantage of the social contract he is a part of.
Many people counter this line of reasoning, that by existing as a member of society you are implicitly required to abide by its contract, by claiming that contracts cannot be imposed after the fact on people. We’re not allowed to say, “Hey, don’t use our roads then,” because this is an unreasonable imposition upon their freedoms. I can’t say I disagree with that assessment, but it also doesn’t matter. Anarchy is the perfect free-market and free-market rules apply. This means that those who have are at a distinct advantage over those who don’t. New members to society are forced to agree with the contracts simply to survive just as slaves and serfs are in a market without regulatory forces that keep people from gaining such power over others. The lucky thing here, with those fortunate enough to be born Americans or become them, is that we have a fairly functional contract. Not all are.
The contract is constantly under negotiation. Non-functional contracts result in negotiation through violence. When enough people have to resort to uncivilized means in order to survive, the system breaks down. Although the real danger is a long way off, this is the state we begin to find ourselves in right now. While one small group of people in our society seem to have all the cards, get to make all the decisions, and can commit rampant fraud at the expense of investors and tax payers without penalty, a great deal of the rest are struggling to have the basic luxuries our society should be able to provide them…and some don’t even have that and are struggling just to live. This represents a flawed and unbalanced contract, even if it is currently functional enough that our leaders and people like Schiff are not being dragged out into the street and shot.
Into what form we need to negotiate the contract in order to fix it remains unclear. His question, “How much should I be expected to pay,” is a reasonable one. It is quite clear though that disowning this very important contract under the guise of individual freedoms is not a fair response. Freedom does not trump responsibility and it never has for honorable people.
I didn’t choose to be born in this world. If I had my pick I might choose a world that didn’t have resources that can be hoarded. I would pick a world where food was like information and the giving of it in no way diminished the resources of the giver. This isn’t the world I was born into though, and lamenting this fact would be about as useful as screaming at the wind that it offends me. Mr. Schiff may not like the world he’s been born into either, or being born into a contract that he did not “sign”. But he was, he’s taken advantage of that contract when convenient, has long had the power provided by massive wealth to negotiate that contract in his favor…he can’t disown it. He’s accepted the service, he must accept the price.