Monday, October 17, 2011

Dissolution of the social contract

I've been meaning to point to a very cogent essay by Marmor and Mashaw on why conditions for recovery from the great depression of the early 1930's were more propitious than those that prevail in our current recession - which promises to be very prolonged.
...there is a crucial difference between then and now: the words that our political leaders use to talk about our problems have changed. Where politicians once drew on a morally resonant language of people, family and shared social concern, they now deploy the cold technical idiom of budgetary accounting...This is more than a superficial difference in rhetoric. It threatens to deprive us of the intellectual resources needed to address today’s problems.

From the 1930s to the 1960s...American public discourse was filled with references to the social circumstances of average citizens, our common institutions and our common history. Over the last five decades, that discourse has changed in ways that emphasize individual choice, agency and preferences. The language of sociology and common culture has been replaced by the language of economics and individualism.

In 1934, the government was us. We had shared circumstances, shared risks and shared obligations. Today the government is the other — not an institution for the achievement of our common goals, but an alien presence that stands between us and the realization of individual ambitions. Programs of social insurance have become “entitlements,” a word apparently meant to signify not a collectively provided and cherished basis for family-income security, but a sinister threat to our national well-being.

Over the last 50 years we seem to have lost the words — and with them the ideas — to frame our situation appropriately.


  1. I would clarify that we haven't lost the words so much as they have been stolen from us via media ethos to present "two sides" as being equivalent in salience even when one lacks facts and evidence of support. The framing of extreme positions as that is rarely accomplished, and so those given prominence become ipso facto the mainstream framing.

    What comes to mind is that infamous GWBush White House slip that if they repeat something enough times, it becomes the truth. In this case, it becomes the social and political reference point.

  2. Great piece. Well said.

  3. Anonymous9:04 AM

    How true !!

    People, citizens, are nowadays just statistical elements...

    And the political class have become a new species, predators...

  4. Anonymous3:14 PM

    Excellent points.

    And I agree with the comments so far.