First aside, on social contract and the economy. Thinking this over I realized why “the economy” is what politicians talk about all the time. Democracy brings blessings! This is the needed stand-in for a political theory of the good. If the economy is expanding and jobs are being created, we must be doing what is right. Think about Bill Clinton’s famous in-house campaign slogan: “It’s the economy, stupid!” The test of any sitting president (or party) seems to be his “handling of the economy”. At the end of George W. Bush’s presidency the hot topic changed dramatically from our ongoing wars to the economy, and many believe this proved decisive in the election of Barack Obama. Last week’s Economist opined that the economy will probably make the next presidential election as well.
In effect, the economy is a stand-in for God, or at least for natural law. Its judgment is the final word. A social contract that brings wealth not only represents my good (because it is a social contract) but also the good (because prosperity is a transcendent gift). That is the subtext of neoconservatism and the reason American leaders think that “what we have” can and should be exported (by force, if necessary) to other parts of the world. And the reason that “the economy” is a litmus test for a statesman: if the blessing of wealth is pouring out, the statesman must be serving “the good”; if not, he is failing in his quasi-priestly duty.
An interesting side-effect is that politicians can’t find it in themselves to properly criticize coercive but economically prosperous regimes – notably China. Some of this certainly comes from an unwillingness to irritate trade partners and creditors. But some of it reflects a theoretical problem as well. How bad can a country be if it “works”? After all, what truly damned Russian Communism were the bread lines and Ladas, right?
My second aside is for people familiar with the Covenanter tradition of political dissent in the British Isles and in the United States. The Covenanters and their heirs probably mistook biblical covenant-making and covenant renewal for social contracts (see 2 Chronicles 15:12; 29:10; 34:29-32; Nehemiah 9:38). Biblical covenants were both less flexible, since they continually returned to God’s revealed will, and more flexible, since they adapted to changes in polity and social needs, than Western social contracts like the U.S. Constitution are. Writers like Sam Brown Wylie baptized social contracts and dubbed them covenants. The result has been two centuries of heartburn over political involvement and covenant thelogy turned to hash.