Broken Contract? Changing Relationships between Americans and Their Government

By Stephen C. Craig | Go to book overview
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The Social Contract in Black
and White: Racial Differences in
Evaluations of Government


Central to all social contract theories 1 is the idea that individuals come together freely to establish a framework that will allow them to interact with one another in mutually beneficial ways. Through the contract, certain rights are reserved to individual citizens and protected against encroachment by either fellow citizens or government.

The idea of a social contract, which really represents little more than a pledge of citizens' loyalty in return for fairness of treatment, implies a joint commitment between citizens and government. Government commits to provide citizens with certain rights, services, and protection against foreign and domestic threats. Martin Luther King, in his historic "I Have a Dream" speech, referred to these rights under a social contract: "One of the first things we notice in this dream is an amazing universalism. It does not say some men, but it says all men. . . . And there is another thing we see in this dream that ultimately distinguishes democracy and our form of government from all of the totalitarian regimes that emerge in history. It says that each individual has certain basic rights neither conferred by nor derived from the state."

The "basic rights" that King referred to were almost certainly limited in number, but they were crucial in importance: the right to vote (and to fully participate in the democratic process) and civic equality, or an end to racial discrimination. The rights sought for African Americans by King would fall far short of those to which perhaps the most prominent modern social contract theorist, John Rawls ( 1971), and others would declare them entitled. Indeed, many contemporary theorists would argue that government also has an obligation to provide a social


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Broken Contract? Changing Relationships between Americans and Their Government
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