Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Politics: Social Compact as Humpty Dumpty

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In a rather amusing op-ed piece in the Christian Science Monitor, William Polk makes the case that we can learn a lot about the world from the Humpty Dumpty children's rhyme:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again.
Polk makes the case that Humpty Dumpty is the social compact in a society, and all the king's horses and all the king's men is the power of the government, usually military but also civilian. He uses a wide variety of examples, from Afghanistan to Haiti, to point out that the presence or absence of a social compact--whether Humpty Dumpty is sitting on the wall--determines whether a country survives a crisis, regardless of government action.

I think Polk has made a point that is too often overlooked. The strength of the social compact is a key factor in the resilience of a country, and how well its government is able to deal with adversity. One of several key points in why Canada is recovering much faster from the recent recession than the United States is that the social compact here--reflected in both trust of government and tolerance of very different people--is stronger than in the United States. In the past, I have made similar points, but focused instead on trust in government. Even in the piece cited, though, it's clear that it is a broader issue also involving trust of fellow citizens in general, so Polk's use of the "social compact" terminology describes it better.

This is also precisely why I get frustrated when people on the political extremes try to break the social compact by portraying categories of fellow citizens--whether an ethnic group or a specific occupation (think bankers)--as the "other" that doesn't deserve the same respect accorded to members of one's "own group." (Both the left and the right do this, but the right tends to be more successful at it.) They're pushing Humpty Dumpty off the wall, whether they realize it or not, and they really don't want to see what happens when that happens. All they need to do is look at Afghanistan or Somalia and they'll get some idea.

We need more reasons to look out for other people in society, not fewer. If we don't, all the king's horses and all the king's men--read government action--won't get us out of trouble like they could otherwise. The sad thing is that this is what those on the far right seem to want--a lack of social compact and a lack of government intervention in any aspect of one's life. I'd just like them to give one example of a country around the world where that actually works and creates a nation in which they would actually like to live.

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