The Need for a New Social Contract

Posted on Wednesday, 14 June 2023
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As we meet yet another global challenge, it is important to acknowledge that despite well documented problems and challenges, Ireland is in the privileged position of having public services and social infrastructure to rely on at times of crisis. This is due to the social contract that underpins our social infrastructure. The social contract as a concept has evolved to encompass a situation whereby citizens contribute to the common good – whether economically, socially or culturally – on the assumption that the State will ensure a minimum standard of living, provision of essential social services and infrastructure, and the protection of their basic rights.

As part of this social contract arrangement in a modern democratic society, citizens may expect:

  • access to meaningful work, as well as protection from poverty at times where paid employment is not accessible;
  • a minimum floor of income and services;
  • an education system that is relevant, accessible and high in quality;
  • a guarantee that their needs will be met at times of ill-health;
  • the regulation and protection of the environment for the good of all citizens; and
  • ensured participation in civic life and in the decisions that affect them.

In return, citizens have a responsibility to contribute to society in different ways at different points in the lifecycle. This may be through being employed; through paying taxes; through engaging in caring and voluntary work; or making other contributions to the economic, social, cultural or environmental wellbeing of society.

A key part of the social contract is solidarity between generations. At different points in the lifecycle, all of us will (from a financial perspective) be either net beneficiaries from, or net contributors to, society. This differs, depending on whether we are children, adults of working age, or pensioners. It depends on whether we are in full-time or part-time education, engaged in caring work or in paid employment, or volunteering in the community. But, at almost all times, we are contributing to and benefiting from society in different ways.

We must reconceptualise the interaction of employment and work, taxation, and welfare and give serious consideration to policies such as a universal basic income and universal basic services. 

As Stiglitz notes in The Price of Inequality:

The more divided a society becomes in terms of wealth, the more reluctant the wealthy are to spend money on common needs. The rich don’t need to rely on government for parks or education or medical care or personal security.

(Stiglitz, 2012)

More equal societies are better societies. They are safer. They are healthier. They look after the wellbeing of their inhabitants. They rely on measurements, not of economic growth (or at least, not of economic growth alone), but of happiness, civic participation and societal growth. Ireland, and indeed the planet, now faces new and mounting crises; a situation where business as usual can mean only social and environmental catastrophe. Developing a Wellbeing Framework that promotes equality, as part of a New Social Contract, will help reduce the cyclical lurching from one crisis to the next (or simultaneous crises) and involve better planning and preparedness.

Social Justice Ireland has developed alternatives to existing policies and advocated for them for many years. We have reached a point where adoption of those policies is surely a necessity. Those ideas and alternatives to existing policies, ideas that would result in a fairer more just society, are contained herein.

Stiglitz, J. (2012). The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future. London: W. W. Norton Company.