While driving down the street the other day, I heard an ambulance siren behind me so I pulled over to allow it to pass. In my rear view mirror I saw multiple cars doing the same, and ahead of me the people also were pulling over.
I actually choked up just a tiny bit because it struck me what a significant thing those little acts of social behavior represent. Those tiny acts of selflessness (I will incur a bit of inconvenience, a monetary delay, for the common good) were actually momentous commitments to the social compact: A member of my tribe, another human being, is in need of help. I will render what assistance I can, speed in some small way those going to his or her aid.
The very existence of the ambulance, the medics, and the 911 system behind them (all significant commitment of resources) is tangible evidence of our civilized impulses and the desire to help and be there for each other in times of need, with the understanding, belief, and trust that they will be there for us. This is the essence of the social contract.
I think often of the social contract because I believe it needs more attention in our national mindspace. We talk a lot in America about the benefits of competition and, yes, I believe in competition because I see first hand how it can spur on people, organizations, and entire societies to efforts and achievements beyond what they thought they were capable.
However, the social contract, the benefits of cooperation, could use a better press agent. Many of my best business interactions and relationships have more of a cooperative tone to them than an all out, no holds bared, bare knuckles, free market competition.
Perhaps the best long-term business relationships are like a strong marriage: Both parties are aware that (at the extreme) they have alternatives yet both are committed to making it work.
This is a classic from the NSC Blog archive. Originally posted January 23, 2008.