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THE SOCIAL CONTRACT NEEDS TO BE REWRITTEN

Focus: GS-II Governance

Introduction

Professor H.L.A. Hart once said, “freedom (the absence of coercion) can be valueless to those victims of unrestricted competition too poor to make use of it; so, it will be pedantic to point out to them that even though they are starving they are free”.

Social Contract Theory and Democracy

  • There is a view that mankind’s ancestors, in the course of evolution, formed the concept of social groups and resultant rules they would abide by. This is the most rudimentary form of what is known as the ‘social contract theory’.
  • When monarchies and empires prevailed, it was easy to understand a social contract — to obey an identifiable sovereign, who in turn was deemed to be god’s representative on Earth.
  • But democratically elected governments have found it more difficult to derive the same legitimacy.

The social contract comprises two distinct agreements:

  1. People agreed to establish society by collectively and reciprocally renouncing the rights they had against one another in unbridled nature.
  2. The people agreed to confer upon one (or more) among them, the authority and power to enforce the initial contract.

In Modern day governments the idea is that society is best-served if a government or other type of institution takes on executive or sovereign power, with the consent of the people.

The case of two Indias

  • During the Pandemic, the access to resources to avoid the disease has not been equal.
  • The first is an India that observes social distancing, buys its groceries and provisions by observing all precautions and largely obeys governmental directives about COVID-19 prevention.
  • The second is an India that crowds railway terminals to travel long distances, sometimes for days, to get back to native towns, and when that fails, decides to resort to the drastic step of even walking those hundreds of kilometres, defying all governmental directives.
  • There are still lakhs of Indians less privileged and living cheek by jowl in hovels and slums, for whom the mandated distance of separation of “6 feet” was and still is an impossibility; an abstract concept.

Inequality and dealing with the Pandemic

  • However, in deeply unequal societies (where the Gini Coefficient exceeds 0.4, for instance) different strata of society will have very different needs to deal with a crisis of this nature.
  • We have seen societies with lower Gini Coefficients deal with the crisis far better, because a uniform approach works perfectly when society is perfectly equal.

Conclusion

  • In moments of crisis, people look to the state for guidance and taking them to safety.
  • The social contract which imbues a centralised sovereign with overreaching powers has clearly failed on this occasion, and will continue to fail every time a similar challenge is posed.
  • What is required is not just a decentralised approach but also a state which is sensitive and responds not only to the needs of those who cry out for help but also meets the requirements of those who are voiceless.

-Source: The Hindu

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September 2022
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