The Common Good

A Call for a New Social Covenant

In the past 20 years, the world has witnessed the death of social contracts. We have seen a massive breakdown in trust between citizens, their economies, and their governments. In our own country, we can point to years of data painting a bleak picture of the confidence Americans have in any of our traditional institutions.

Former assumptions and shared notions about fairness, agreements, reciprocity, mutual benefits, social values, and expected futures have all but disappeared. The collapse of financial systems and the resulting economic crisis not only have caused instability, insecurity, and human pain; they have also generated a growing disbelief and fundamental distrust in the way things operate and how decisions are made. 

This week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, we are looking to the future and asking “what now?” At a Saturday session — “The Moral Economy: From Social Contract to Social Covenant” — a document will kick off a year-long global conversation about a new “social covenant” between citizens, governments, and businesses.

This is really “a call” for worldwide discussion about what values are needed to address the many difficult challenges and choices the world is now facing. Inequality, austerity, retrenchment, constraints, mal-distribution, growing conflicts over resources, and extreme poverty all raise questions about our values. 

The introduction to the covenant says:

“The choices made about each issue are determined by the values we hold—the values applied by government, business, civil society, and individuals. Those choices need to be self-conscious—not based on the inertia of accumulated interests. This is not merely a philosophical enterprise; it is an urgent matter that requires moral courage. The stakes are high.”

While the social covenant call acknowledges the great diversity of global values, it puts forward three that express a consensus across cultures and religions.  They are: 1) the dignity of the human person, 2) the importance of the common good, which transcends individual interests, and 3) the need for stewardship of the planet and posterity. 

“Together these offer a powerful unifying ideal: Valued individuals, committed to one another, and respectful of future generations.” 

We urgently need a new social covenant between citizens, businesses, and government. Contracts have been broken, but a covenant adds a moral dimension to the solution that is now essential. By definition, this will require the engagement and collaboration of all the “stakeholders” — governments, businesses, civil society groups, people of faith, and especially young people. 

We should discuss social covenants many contexts, and the results will vary from place to place. But they should all include shared principles and features — a value basis for new agreements, an emphasis on jobs that offer fair rewards for hard work and real contributions to society, security for financial assets and savings, a serious commitment to reduce inequality between the top and the bottom of society, stewardship of the environment, an awareness of future generations’ needs, a stable and accountable financial sector, and the strengthening of both opportunity and social mobility.

Such a covenant promotes human flourishing, happiness, and well-being as social goals, and it elevates the movement from a shareholder model to a stakeholder model of corporate governance. Such new social covenants are already being discussed in a variety of settings and countries. The discussion itself will help produce the conversation leading to the results that we need.

A moral conversation about a social covenant could ask what a “moral economy” should look like and for whom it should exist. How can we do things differently, more responsibly, more equitably, and yes, more democratically? In forums where business and political leaders meet, the conversation should focus on the meaning of a moral economy as a way to safely interrogate our present failed practices. Such a discussion could lead to new practices driving both ethical and practical decisions about the economics of our local and global households.

Lack of trust is bad for politics, bad for business, and bad for overall public morale. It undermines people’s sense of participation in society as well as their feelings of social responsibility, and makes them feel isolated and alone—more worried about survival than interested in solidarity. Because the “contract” was broken, a sense of “covenant” is now needed, fused with a sense of moral values and commitments. And the process of formulating new social covenants could be an important part of finding solutions. 

What better conversation could we have for the common good? 

I had the opportunity to co-author this new social covenant and help lead the Global Action Council on Values, which issued this new call and document. I invite all of you to read the New Social Covenant and join the conversation!

Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. His forthcoming book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good, is set to release in April. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

Image:  file404 / Shutterstock.com

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