Emily Barton
Emily Barton is the author of the novels Brookland and The Testament of Yves Gundron. She teaches at Yale and in the graduate writing program at NYU.

Share on Tumblr

REASON 40: Because I love the social contract.

I'm voting for Barack Obama because I love the social contract—and I know he does, too.

You remember the social contract from school, right?

Say you’re an early human, living out on the taiga in a small clan. You’ve just killed and butchered a caribou. But with no government to protect you, your bigger, stronger neighbor can come along, conk you over the head, and take it away; he can also rape your daughters while he’s at it, and you have no means of redressing these wrongs. That’s what Thomas Hobbes calls the “Natural Condition of Mankind”—a life that’s “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes argues that, as individuals and in aggregate, we are better off if we give up some of our natural rights to governments in order to gain the security of our persons and property.

Though it might seem that “signing the social contract” was something that happened in the deep past, to our prehistoric ancestors, we renegotiate this contract every day. When we agree to obey the speed limit, or not to text while driving, these are extensions of the social contract. We’re giving up individual, and I would say “selfish,” pleasures in favor of the common good—which might even turn out to be our own good.

Right now, you may be saying: Wait a minute; whatever his other failings, I’m sure Mitt Romney supports traffic law. But the social contract is more than that: a reminder that we’re part of a society, with all the rights and responsibilities attached to that. A civil society protects all of its members, including the smallest and least powerful.

And I’m willing to admit that part of the reason I love the social contract is that I benefit from it. I’m small, and I’m a woman, so I’m glad to have the government’s protection. As a novelist and teacher, someone who lacks the political and economic sway of a senator or captain of industry, I feel fortunate to live in a democracy, in which the needs and votes of “little people” count as much as those of big machers.

But most of the reason I love the social contract isn’t selfish at all, because in protecting the weak, it helps everyone. You don’t have to be a wild-eyed socialist or a bleeding-heart liberal to believe in fire departments, for example. If your house catches fire, you’re thrilled the government thinks it’s its duty to put that blaze out. And the rest of your neighborhood is thrilled, too, since a one-house fire can quickly consume a whole block. Likewise with health insurance. If one child’s family can’t afford medical care and he gets sick, every kid in the classroom can come down with the mumps.

Protecting everyone equally may be moral; it’s also plain smart.

You can see President Obama’s practical and moral intelligence at work in many of his policies. His Making Home Affordable Program has thus far helped more than a million families (mine included) restructure their mortgages and stay in their homes even after Wall Street came around to steal everyone’s caribou. When MHA helps one family, it helps a whole neighborhood; when it helps a million neighborhoods, it keeps the entire financial system strong. The President’s Affordable Care Act now requires insurers to spend 80% of the revenues they collect on providing actual care to their customers, while it also expands health insurance coverage to more Americans. So: hulking insurance companies are no longer allowed to gorge on everyone else’s meat (though I’m sure that, just like the banks, they’d love to keep muscling around in the State of Nature), and the whole tribe stays healthier. The President has also increased the operations budget for America’s national parklands by ten percent—because he understands how important it is for all Americans to have access to fresh air and a stake in preserving our precious natural landscape.

And there are dozens of other examples. President Obama’s support of the letter and the spirit of the social contract defines him; it is perhaps the quality that makes it most important that we reelect him this fall. Here he is, in his acceptance speech at this year’s Democratic National Convention, talking about the rights and responsibilities the social contract entails: “We insist on personal responsibility and we celebrate individual initiative... But we also believe in something called citizenship—a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.” That’s the voice of someone with a conscience; someone who understands that all of us—himself included—must make sacrifices to help others, and that we all benefit from such actions, even when we aren’t the direct recipients of aid. That’s the voice of a man who’s interested in the long-term effects of his economic and social policies. It’s the voice of a patriot in a sense that George Washington would understand. And it’s the voice of a good father, someone who considers it his duty not just to love his children, but also to guide them toward becoming righteous adults. About his daughters, he writes: “I’m inspired by my own children, how full they make my heart. They make me want to work to make the world a little bit better. And they make me want to be a better man.” This is the person I, for one, want running my country.

And if Thomas Hobbes were alive? I think he’d be voting Obama in November.

Emily Barton
 Kingston, New York

Read the next essay →

REASON 10:
Barack Obama is not a robot. read essay →

REASON 13:
I LIKE WINNING. read essay →

REASON 37:
Romney is hiding millions in tax havens around the world. read essay →