Readers Journal     weblog/wEssays     home

Social Contracts and the Art of Survival   (Chuck D., June 28, 2008)

I want to congratulate you on a string of fine blog entries this month. Two I want to mention particularly. The first was June 6th – “Can the Market Solve the Energy Shortage/Peak Oil Crisis?” -- about the libertarian faith in the market and the concept of “choice architecture” I had never thought of it that way. As soon I I read it I saw what a wonderful analytical tool the concept of “choice architecture” is! Thanks for sharing it with the rest of us.

The other is today’s entry (June 27th) on the Art of Survival, Taoism and the Warring States. You’re right. It rings absolutely true. I grew up in what I call the suburbs of a small town (population 700). The house was my grandparents, about a half-mile outside of town. It had been built about 1911 on an acre of land that my grandmother was given as a wedding present when she married in 1909. The land between their house and what was the edge of town at that time consisted of two other farms. The road ran through them and past our place on its way to the next town. After WWII these two farms were partially subdivided along the road frontage for housing. Hence we had our own suburban development.

But it was close enough in kind to the country living that you are talking about for me to know from common sense and experience that what you describe is how life works in these places, and is what would happen to “city folk” (derisive snort) if they did what you describe.

I grew up in this small town, and have lived in both big cities and small. The social contract of small town and country life is simply different than the social contract of big city life, or suburban life for that matter. The flatlander or city person who moves to these sorts of country places has to understand this. They have to understand that when the “locals” show up ask to borrow the generator for the town dance or ask if they will contribute to the church food drive, they are being tested. How they respond determines whether they pass the test or are found wanting. And if they are found wanting, then when they find themselves wanting, there may be no one there to help.

There is a downside to this small town/country social contract that I sometimes hear: “Everybody wants to know my business.” My answer has come to be: “If I’m not doing anything that I’m ashamed of, why the hell should I care if they know my business and what I’m doing or not?” That usually gets a laugh, words to the effect of, ”That’s a good point”, and is the end of the discussion.

Besides, look at what you get in return. People quietly watch your house when they know you’re away to make sure nothing happens. They show up unannounced with food when there is a death in the family so you don’t have to worry about that in a time of stress, sorrow and haste when there is so much else you are preoccupied with. They show up and cut the grass or make repairs on your house when you are injured, or too sick or old to do it yourself. If you fall on hard times they will usually try to see you have enough food and clothing and other necessities to get by and do their best to give it to you in a way that preserves your dignity. (Of course, part of the contract is that you have to accept it in that same spirit, too.)

And all you are expected to do in return is pass the kindness on to someone else when you find them in need and you have the chance to do it. It is simply nothing more than being a “good neighbor.” To me, this and letting them fuss about “knowing your business” is a pretty cheap price to pay for what you get in return.

I think life in both small and big cities where there are still well defined neighborhoods is basically an urban replication of this small town/county social contract adapted to a denser population. It is what helps to make these cities be “liveable” to use this current fashionable term. And it is the How and the Why people in these environments will re-group themselves as you describe in order to survive and make it through the kind of tough times both of us expect are coming upon us.

The big city social contract is different. You are expected to keep more to yourself. It’s OK to push against other people to get what you think you need to have – and it makes at least some sense in this context because there are simply so many more people there that ruffled feathers are more likely to occur.

The trouble comes when these “city folks” move to the small town or the country and bring their big city mores and attitudes with them. I will leave you with two stories as examples.

My buddy the schoolteacher (who always seems to make his way into these writings) teaches school in a rural school district some distance from where we both live. It is near enough a big city that people come from it for the weekend, or to retire, and at least before $4.00 gas, live there and commute. The locals refer to them as “up heres” (derisive snort again) because they come “up here” from the big city.

A number of years ago, I got into a conversation about this subject with an attorney who has a practice in a small college town in an area that is otherwise still fairly rural. He had some people for whom he done work call him on a Friday. They had moved to his locale from Pittsburgh. It seems that one of their kids had graduated from high school or college and they had planned a big outdoor graduation party to celebrate on Saturday.

The adjoining property was an active farm. This Friday, the day before the party, the farmer had gone out and started to spread manure on his fields. Things didn’t smell too good. The people were bent out of shape – what can they do legally, how can they stop him from doing this and ruining their party – yada, yada.

The attorney simply said, “Have you talked to him about it?”


“Why don’t you go over and talk to him and see what he says?”

They did. When they explained the situation, the farmer said, “I didn’t know. I can wait till Monday before I spread manure.”

For more on a wide array of other topics, please visit the weblog.


HTML, format and art copyright © 2008 Charles Hugh Smith, copyright to text and all other content in the above work is held by the author of the essay as of the publication date listed above. All rights reserved in all media.

The views of the contributor authors are their own, and do not reflect the views of Charles Hugh Smith. All errors and errors of omission in the above essay are the sole responsibility of the essay's author.

The writer(s) would be honored if you linked this Readers Journal essay to your site, or printed a copy for your own use.


  Readers Journal     weblog/wEssays     home