The thought had come to mind before, but I distinctly remember one evening in May over thirty years ago. Those were the days of the Cold War, when there was still an East and West Germany and the Berlin Wall; the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact still faced off against NATO and the US; nuclear war was a real prospect; and I was putting up hog fence at a neighbors. Most of the community was there; a tornado had hit his farm earlier that day, the funnel passing between him and his home, and along with the other damage it had torn down his fence. Hogs were running loose, and I ended up on the fence repair crew, and we waded through the mud and repaired the fence enough to pen the hogs. Some years earlier it had been our farm hit by a twister, and the man we were helping had come to our aid, helping scoop up our grain and cutting our way out through downed trees so we could haul it to his grain drier and not lose it. And while working, I was thinking that the popular survival mem of that day, the individual completely on his own, didn’t square with the reality. Oh, you could do that, and some always have to limited degree. But that evening brought home that every disaster I’d seen, recovery was a community effort.
That was, unfortunately, wasn’t uncommon. When you’re in a rural environment, you and your neighbors are the first responders. That covered everything, from vehicles stuck in bogs to medical emergencies to major disasters. You had to, because it took time for official assistance to arrive, and time was a luxury you didn’t have.
It was on one of these errands, when I was still young , I asked my father why we were doing it. His answer “Because next time we might be needing help,” stuck with me. It was just what you did. You had to as a simple part of survival.
That was an unwritten social contract of community. We commonly think of the theory of social contract as related to governments. Simply put, the idea of social contract is that the individual surrenders certain liberties for his own greater good. The idea is that the “natural man” is restricted only by his own abilities and his own conscience. In the absence of laws, if a man decides to steal and none can cannot stop him, then he steals whatever he wishes. On the other hand, another man may do the same to him. In the theory of social contract, each man in the society cedes the ability to steal with the understanding that all other members will do likewise, and those who steal will be punished by society. In giving up the ability to steal what he can, he gains some security of his property. In other words, all members of society have formed a contract in order to belong to that society.
This also applies to aiding one another in a community. The unspoken contract of rural life is you help others, as you yourself may one day need help. Those who were able but didn’t were considered mighty low folk, and might not find people as willing to come to their aid.
That’s what’s known as “paying it forward,” except we didn’t call it such. We never called it anything at all. It was understood as something you did.
Another term for this is “giving back to the community.” Unfortunately, that’s been misused in recent years, like a teenage boy’s “You will if you love me,” with hopes for the same outcome. In its most perverted form, it holds that all wealth comes as a result of community action. This was the idea in Obama’s infamous “You didn’t build that” comment, in which he argued that since the wealthy were part of the community, they were able to build their wealthy only through the community. The flaw in this argument is that companies already pay for all those things, just like everyone else in the community. The streets used by a company are the same as those used by the workers, the poor, the unionizers, and the politicians; the law enforcement and firefighters who protect the company’s property also protect the tenement dweller’s. All reap the same benefits, which is exactly what you’d expect in a social contract.
In arguing that some are required to surrender more for the same social contract, the unspoken assumption is that the social contract is not an equal agreement. A demand for some to pay more for the same services has the unspoken assumption that the community values them less. That’s corrosive to the entire idea of a social contract, where all in the community contribute equally.
The abuse of the term “give back to the community” leads to the backlash of “I owe the community nothing.” This is uncomfortably similar to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, where the highest moral aim is the pursuit of happiness. That’s just as corrosive to the social contract as the desire to loot another in the name of “giving back to the community.” If each of us owes nothing to the community, then the social contract is rendered void, and we’re right back to each restricted only by their own ability and conscience. Growing up in a rural environment where we had to rely on each other, the entire idea is repugnant . Of course, all members equally owe something to the community, just what is owed is less than what some demand.
I think – and hope – most who boast they owe the community nothing still retain a sense of social contract, maybe masquerading as charity and compassion, though arguably charity is over and above what’s required in the social contract. As one observed, she was not advocating a “lone wolf” philosophy, which is precisely what you get when you reject the social contract of community. Those I’ve met who really had no sense of the community all came from urban environment where emergency services were just a phone call away, and maybe that had something to do with it. That attitude will prove disastrous out in the boonies.
Just as it will if we one day have colonies in space. That’s going to be as far out in the boonies as anyone has ever been. And when you have no one to rely on but each other, anything that erodes the social contract will spell disaster.