When I add my experiences in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden to those in other developed countries, it’s clear to me the social contract in the United States is different.
In the US, the social contract puts the individual before society. America is where rugged individualists pull themselves up by the bootstraps to become self-made men who play by their own rules and do it their way. (I’m sure you can add a few clichés of your own.) And wow do you get in trouble for suggesting otherwise. Remember the grief Obama took for his “you didn’t build that” speech during the 2012 campaign? It proved Michael Kinsley’s contention that “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth — some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”
The obvious truth is that we are contextual creatures, and our context is the society we live in. All of us depend on others for substantial stretches of our lives: childhood, old age, periods of sickness and disability. We also depend on others for our basic well-being. To take just one example, unless you’re a farmer, someone else produced the food you’re eating today.
But if Americans remember anything from the Declaration of Independence, it’s the phrase about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s all about us! From billionaires to homeless people, we expect others to bend to our will — or at least to get out of our way.
The social contract is more balanced in the developed countries I’ve visited. For the most part, those societies grant the same civil liberties. But they also expect — perhaps insist is a better word — that you not harm or annoy others while chasing your bliss.
I first realized this on a ferry ride in Auckland, New Zealand in 2009. To enjoy the wind, sun, and view, we clambered to the top deck. Several people joined us, including a mom and dad with two young girls, one of whom had Down Syndrome. The sisters were running and screaming all over the place until a ferry employee chided the parents.
In America, the parents would have bellowed “don’t you tell us how to raise our kids!” and after disembarking would have run straight to a law office to file a disability discrimination lawsuit. Instead, the mother took the daughters aside and firmly scolded them, and they sat quietly the rest of the trip.
The lesson was reinforced a couple of days later on a bus ride. The bus was mostly empty when a teenage boy stepped on, strode straight for the seats in back, and laid across them. The driver, a woman of about 50, stopped the bus and said “Sit up!”
In America, she’d have kept her mouth shut because she’d have feared he had a gun. In New Zealand, he promptly sat up.
I witnessed this same type of social contract enforcement in Scandinavia. One example: I was lingering in the Mariatorget, a park in Stockholm with a wonderful fountain of Thor’s Fish, while The Fabulous Wife scoped out a yarn store. A couple of college-age men sat on the bench next to mine. One of them began smoking. An elderly woman sitting across from us upbraided him, mostly in English, saying his smoke was disrespectful to others and unhealthful for him. (I was upwind and unaffected, so she wasn’t doing this for my benefit.)
I braced for his contemptuous response, which is what would have happened in America. But it never came. He let her have her say until she left. When he finished his cigarette, he and his friend got up and left too.
The message across these cultures is consistent: think about the impact on others before indulging yourself.
And it works. In Scandinavia you go through the day largely free of the vulgarity that besieges you every time you leave home (or tune in the TV or radio) in America. Yes, there are street people in Scandinavia, but they’re not aggressive. Yes, there’s graffiti, but sometimes, such as on the concrete barriers that block truck attacks on pedestrian streets, it adds to, rather than detracts from, the scenery. Yes, there are drug addicts, but they’re treated as medical rather than criminal cases. And yes, people act selfishly, but almost always in minor ways, like smoking in public.
Of course, something’s lost by discouraging extreme behavior, which does occasionally lead to something spectacular. Great art, for instance, is often transgressive when it first appears. I think much of the reason Scandinavian art suffers by comparison to ours is because Scandinavians are more content than we are, so there’s less need for that kind of consolation.
Would I prefer to live in a gentler but blander society? Given how selfish and crude America has become, living in a culture of consideration is super-tempting. But I wouldn’t move to Scandinavia. A month or two into my first winter I’d transmogrify into the Ugly American of their nightmares, and for the good of the many they’d have to pack me onto the first flight out.