When Do We Choose the Social Contract & When Do We Choose the Economic Contract?

We operate at various levels in our families, work, and society. We have shortcut names for these behaviors: the economic contract and the social contract.

When we use the economic contract, we have a document that lays out our responsibilities and rewards. For example, at work, we have a contract for our job that discusses salary, sick days, insurance, and much more. The work contract does not discuss the generally acceptable behaviors.

We use a social contract—at home, at work—to discuss the reasonable behaviors we all agree to. We decide how to treat each other. Can we yell in a meeting? At a person or at the whiteboard? What about swearing?

One of the reasons I think we’re having such problems with the virus right now is that the economic contract is suspended. And, we haven’t decided about the social contract yet.

I live in Massachusetts, which is just coming off its surge and will start to reopen next week. That reopening means we can restart the economic contract. And, the governor has requested we all wear masks and continue to “social distance.” (I still think that should be physical distance, but no one asked me.)

We get to choose how we treat each other, both economically and socially.

We have not discussed this enough. I’ve seen news reports from other states where people yell at each other while not wearing masks. We have data that says the virus droplets can extend feet if a person yells.

And, if the yeller is asymptomatic, and I stand in their droplets and I get the virus, I pay the price—economically and socially.

Normally when we think about the economic contract, it’s “If you do A and we don’t like that, you’ll pay B.”

When I think about the social contract, I see behaviors that reflect, “We all do A because we like the environment we create.”

Which Contract Makes Sense When?

Mark and I had both an economic and social contract with our children. We paid them an allowance every week. They got to use that allowance for what they wanted. We didn’t pay them for chores. I don’t think we ever withheld the allowance, because we wanted them to learn how to manage their money. That was more important to us than “paying them for bad behavior.” (None of us thought that.)

We had a social contract of helping to set the table, helping with laundry, helping with cooking when that all fit their schedule. Their primary social contract was around making sure they kept their grades up and sticking inside of curfew. We discussed what the curfew was and when it would change. We agreed on it.

We all kept to our economic and social contracts, with the normal fights of teenagers with their parents.

A family’s social and economic contract doesn’t quite extend to the greater society. We have laws about bad behavior—some of which do not deter said bad behavior. But, that’s the economic contract.

As we learn how to live with the virus, we’ll have to make sure we decide which contract we’re discussing. Right now, when elected officials request we use masks, they’re reinforcing the social contract. As soon as they move to fines, we move to an economic contract. We know economic contracts don’t work that well. (See What Makes People Do What They Do?)

My big problem is that “your” decisions affect “my” life. To me, that means we need a social contract, not an economic one.

And, we’re not talking explicitly about which contract we’re using: the economic or social contracts. I wish we would.

That’s why the question this week is: When do we choose the social contract & when do we choose the economic contract?

2 thoughts on “When Do We Choose the Social Contract & When Do We Choose the Economic Contract?

  1. Joe M.

    “The work contract does not discuss the generally acceptable behaviors.”

    I’ve seen no end of social policies emanate from just about every place I’ve worked, mostly designed to protect the economics of the company (i.e. from lawsuits). They’re often above & beyond legal contracts.

    Implicit economic contracts exist, many of which mirror common social contracts. They’re often stronger than public social contracts. There are plenty of goods way to get fired in many places, like yelling or swearing at your boss or other employees. And in these cases, the economic contract helps: Most people aren’t dumb enough to risk a $100,000 income with socially unacceptable behavior. I’m ok with that.

    People do things all the time that affect my life. We’ve had a strong social contract since the 80s at least around drunk driving, when MADD helped highlight the appalling annual # of deaths (20,000 or so a year at the time). They shifted rapidly to economic contracts by pushing legislation for increased penalties and lower limits. Sure, both helped, but we still have over 10,000 deaths a year from drunk driving.

    And almost every day that I’ve driven, I’ve marveled that I’ve survived due to the many oblivious and bad drivers out there. Social contracts against bad driving really don’t exist (anonymity helps too much). Economic ones are ignored because of the odds of getting pulled over nowadays are pretty low.

    WRT COVID-19, both social & economic contracts so far creates concerns about racism: see https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/14/us/coronavirus-masks-racism-african-americans.html and https://www.huffpost.com/entry/new-york-coronavirus-social-distancing-arrests-racial-disparities_n_5eb57835c5b618770ae2a9cc

    Particularly if you’re African American, you’re damned if you do wear a mask and damned if you don’t, apparently.

    Sadly, it only takes a small number of folks to ruin things for everyone. Some people just aren’t going to follow certain social contracts, for various reasons. Maybe it violates their personal morals or social contracts. Maybe they are scofflaws or people who don’t care about anyone but themselves. Maybe they don’t believe their actions are a problem. Maybe they believe the social contract creates bigger problems.

    Honesty helps. It helped MADD until they promoted a zero-tolerance policy on alcohol… many of the people they were trying to reach stopped listening.

    It doesn’t help the case for social contracts around the masks if you bury the fact that the risk for people under 40 dying is tiny, or that 80% of deaths are in people aged 65+. It doesn’t help that I need to post this anonymously, because the politically self-righteous will otherwise try to destroy me for highlighting these facts.

    It’s kind of like “just say no” without sharing the real facts around drug addiction. People start to turn you off.

    Highlighting the risks to others (“grandma”) might help, and creating a reasonable social disapproval contract around not wearing masks might help. What doesn’t help is nanny-state politicians trying to shame people with condescension, or creating economic contracts for minimally risky behavior (going on a car ride to get out of the house). Shaming in general is destructive and morally repulsive.

    I’m all for the masks. My wife is an NP. I wear a mask out of respect for her and others I encounter when walking the dog. I also respect the protestors: For many of them, the chance of economic destruction is close to 100%, while the chance of them dying is at the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s easy to judge when you aren’t facing such a life-impacting devastation.

    They should still wear the damn masks, though, and we should help them understand why it matters.

    1. Johanna Post author

      Joe, yes! HR exists to keep the company out of court, not to create a reasonable place to work. I wish companies would focus on how to catch people doing things right, rather than punishing all of us when one person does something wrong.

      I find your comment about MADD telling. Zero-tolerance barely works for anything.

      You’re correct about the data. My husband (65) and I (almost! When did that happen?) scour the data. Even while our risk is higher, we are at less risk than my 90+-year-old dad. We do have more risk than the seasonal flu. (We work to boost our immune systems so we can stay healthy at all times.)

      I also agree that shaming doesn’t work. IMO, everyone feels bad.

      I don’t want people to become homeless. I don’t want people to die of hunger. This is why I wish we could talk in more straightforward ways about the risks and what to do. That’s why I wrote How Can You Prevent Your Fear From Limiting Your Options?. We have to move from either-or to an “and” conversation.

      Thanks for writing. My best to your wife and all the other medical professionals she works with. We’ll muddle through. Not without exposing the chasms we might not have noticed before.

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