It was in the mid-1700s that Benjamin Franklin proposed that a firefighter service be established in Philadelphia. This was unique to the city at the time and was paid for eventually by the residents of the city. To overcome the occurrence of weather-related fires, Franklin also invented a device that saved a lot of lives – the lightning rod.
It took an agreement amongst the people of the society that made up Philadelphia to setup this force. It was a social contract.
Should roads be built through collective funds for collective use or should it be privately built by those who can afford to?
Should everyone have access to legal recourse?
Should the lives and property of people who live in society be protected?
Questions such as these and many others, we take for granted. We do not even think of having a police force or not, as a choice. These are institutionalised to such an extent that they are just taken for granted.
On the other hand
Should education be made available to those who can afford it or should it be made available to all?
Should healthcare be available to only those who can afford it or should it be available to all?
Should those who have lost their jobs be protected by the state to a certain extent through doles? Or is it just life?
Should we allow those who are not able to find a secure life in their countries, come to ours and build a life? Or do we just want those who will make us richer?
Should provide pension to senior citizens who have retired and worked their entire lives to grow the economy, so their lives remain secure?
The answer to these and many other questions such as these form the social contract that we enter into as societies. Most of these social contracts are then translated into laws or policies. Laws being far more binding and policies being a lot more fluid. The hope is to translate policies into law.
We vote those who offer policies that are in line with the social contract we wish our nation and society to adhere to. Often there are going to be pros and cons to each stance and as a society, we need to figure out if the pros outweigh the cons or vice-versa. Even so, we may not always agree. The problem arises when a group of people only see pros and no cons vis-a-vis another stance.
Should gay people be allowed to pursue their lives just as anyone else would?
In a discussion such as this, you will often find binary views. This is a reflection of the fact that society as a whole has not matured evenly or the views of one group of people have evolved at a very different pace to another. This can be rather dangerous and polarising in nature. This has the potential to create the – Us against them – dynamic. Even more importantly this is where the social contract breaks down.
There are far too many issues on which these kinds of conversations can be seen across the world, across political systems and spectrums. Hopefully, society can find a way to look at these issues as shades of grey rather than black and white.
This is critical for a democracy to thrive. If not, the fissures that we see today can turn into chasms.