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?