The Everyday Social Contract

The concept of a social contract is not a new one. Theories of society as a collective agreement between its members have probably existed since people first began living in groups. Certainly Plato discussed society’s contract, and Rousseau’s biggest claim to fame is his 1762 book The Social Contract. The big social contract takes the form of following laws and voting and supporting the military and other major responsibilities of citizenship.

But we also enter into minicontracts every day, unspoken rules or little rituals and commitments whereby we all have to play our role to make the whole go smoothly. As an example, when you get on a city bus you effectively enter into an everyday social contract to cooperate with other passengers to make the ride work.

When you get on a city bus, you start looking for a seat. If the front seats are taken, you move to the back. If you see that all seats are taken, so you’ll have to stand, you should also move to the back. We all know this, and if we forget, we’re reminded by the driver, who continually yells “move to the back.” The only way a city bus can fill up to carry all the passengers who want to ride is for standers to keep moving back. But if even one person violates this everyday social contract, the system falls apart. If one person stands in the middle of the bus instead of the back, then nobody can get past that person, and the whole back of the aisle is empty. The back of the bus is bereft of standers, while a zillion people are crowded into the front half. How many times have you been on a bus like this, or even seen it pass by you, refusing to stop because the driver thinks it’s full, when you can see room for 10 more people in the back?

There are many other examples of everyday contracts: behavior on elevators, noise in apartment buildings, driving (go fast in the fast lane, etc.) and, of course, everyone’s hottest button, using cell phones in small spaces. In some ways, we can see the larger social contract of society as being made up of all these everyday contracts. And with these everyday contracts, one violator can cause problems for every other person who signs the contract. The question is how we keep people from violating the terms of their contract. Any ideas?


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