I was once told that contracts exist not because of a lack of trust between the parties of a contract, but as a statement of the trust between the parties.
Strange, but it seems true.
Let’s imagine you’re entering into a business relationship with someone who emphatically promises you that you don’t need a contract because they’re fully trustworthy and that it would only complicate the relationship. You may see immediately where this might be problematic, but let’s pretend it’s not obvious.
If you don’t have an employment contract, for example, then your salary and benefits may be subject to hearsay and the hope that the courts will enforce a handshake deal. It happens, but hope is not a strategy. If you don’t have a financial contract with a broker and records of the transactions, who’s to say that you actually paid them anything at all or that you even have a financial relationship? If you don’t have a governmental contract with the people who dictate your rights, taxes, and general quality of life, well… you don’t, at least not really.
What does that say about how much trust exists in our relationship to the political system? We have a Constitution which, for all intents and purposes, was a somewhat one-sided contract at least created in good faith with the people of the nation. However, it’s a fungible contract and functionally, at least in practice, only alterable by the side that issued the contract.
What’s more, it is realistically impossible for a normal person to know all the terms and conditions of said contract (which does not require your consent or signature to be in effect, by the way) without having dedicated their lives to the study of the law, and even among those who have done so, it’s certainly not the majority that know the law in full.
The average person breaks the law without knowing about five times a week, something like 260 times per year. Thus, everyone is in breach of a contract that they do not understand, have reasonably limited access to the full text of, and as a result, everyone is a criminal waiting to be prosecuted by the side of the contract that has the power of the institution that issues the contract on their side.
Here’s a thought experiment that you can use to imagine whether this contract bears any semblance to legitimacy:
In a free market, people have the ability to choose things like their school, their profession, their home, and so on. The degree to which our markets are free is a topic for a different discussion, so we’ll refer to our market as a free-enough market. One generally does not get assigned housing by the government, you’re not forced into a trade, and while a decent amount of the educational system is based on regional assignment, there’s some degree of school choice, especially at the highest levels of academia.
Compare this to the government- at best, you can decide to move to a different state with more amicable laws, but as a result of things like the Interstate Commerce clause and the general expansion of the Federal government since the New Deal, the substantive differences between states has been decreasing.
Consider the government in relation to an employer. If you don’t like an employer’s management structure, you’re free to find a new one. I won’t debate the difficulty in finding new employers here, so whether it’s easy to do so isn’t the point- there’s not (yet, at least) a Directive 10-289 making it illegal to quit your job. If you really want to find a new job, it can be done. However, there is no such freedom in finding a new government, and unlike in business, creating your own is about the most illegal thing conceivable. You can go to another country through much effort and pain, but there isn’t much of a competitive market for styles of government- most in the western world are close enough in nature, and because of the interoperative layer of global political alignment (compare loosely to Interstate Commerce,) the differences between at least western countries will continue to diminish.
One recalls the notion of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” as a thought here- if there’s nowhere else to meaningfully go, then we may as well attempt to change the government we have.
Here’s another thought experiment for you, and believe it or not, it works regardless of your feelings about either of the subjects:
Consider the elections of President Trump and President Biden.
By the account of most people, Donald Trump is a Washington outsider, and depending on your political leaning, either a brilliant businessman or a narcissistic idiot.
By the account of most people, Joe Biden is a career politician, and depending on your political leaning, either a highly-effective legislator or someone actively in the throes of dementia.
The average person likely believes either the first Trump point and the second Biden point, or the inverse. It’s been my experience, however, that my readership consists of very intelligent and thoughtful people, so perhaps you see more nuance in your positions on these statements. Fortunately, I don’t particularly care what your opinions are on this thought experiment for me to make my point!
The thrust is thus:
One tends to believe either that the system has to be changed with someone from the outside or the inside. We have and have had, in recent times, one of each. If neither a savvy insider nor a high-functioning outsider can change the system, who can? If a fool and a senile old man can be elected, how does the system even work?
No one person can comprehend the entirety of it, the best that people can do is understand enough of it to leverage some modicum of power for their own benefit and the benefit of their financiers, constituents, and base. Thus, either no one can change the system or no one is willing to change the system.
It’s not a novel metaphor, but the nature of a system that grows without restraint and is resistant to change and all attempts to halt its growth is easily likened to metastatic cancer in the body.
In more simple terms, there are two enemies afoot here:
Because we have a government based on a one-sided contract written in good faith, the contract is ripe for exploitation, either by ignorance or by malice. Good-natured idiots can unknowingly break the rules, and bad-natured manipulators can twist them for their own gain. What is needed isn’t the naive hope that someone can fix the contract, but a new contract that is actually designed to protect the weaker party in the arrangement.
If only there existed a system of contracts that didn’t require trust to execute…