Our social compact, as in the nature of such compacts, is an agreement entered into, voluntarily, by each of us with all of the rest of us. It is an agreement between and among us; it involves no one else and no thing else.
A result of this compact of ours is a government which we have created to serve our needs (chief among these being the protection of our Creator-endowed natural rights in this secular world and the protection of each of us and all of us from each other—not from ourselves—and from others who are outside of our compact). This is an important point, which many miss: our compact is not at all an agreement between us and our government.
Our government is nothing more, or less, than our creation, and as such, it is subordinate to us in every respect. In order to enable our government to prosecute those protections, to do the job for which we created it, we do, indeed, transfer from us to it a measure of authorities and powers so that it has necessary tools. However, these powers and authorities, originating in us, can be withdrawn by us at any time. Thus, the relationship we have with our government is not at all one of equals, nor is it in any way a democratic relationship. Our government is bound to do our bidding, not the other way around.
One of the things we acknowledged about ourselves in this relationship, those 230 or so years ago when we agreed to our social compact, was a duty inherent in us to replace our government when it became so oppressive, so counter to our purposes, as to no longer have our consent to govern. This acknowledgment is sufficiently important that our Declaration of Independence says it twice:
That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
When our Founders wrote these passages, they were working in a world devoid of democracy, a world containing no government that operated with the consent of the governed (however much a people may have loved its monarch). Thus, they were envisioning the only means of abolishment as being the course on which they had embarked: violent revolution. But the government they invented (and which followed on the example of various ancient Greek ideas, among others) made routine another means of abolishment and institution of new: periodic and frequent elections, through which we might recast our government peacefully and, simultaneously, renew our consent. Of course this new invention did not eliminate recourse to violent overthrow, but it made resort to that, necessarily rare (“mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing”) option, extremely unlikely.
But there is another side to this asymmetric relationship between us and our government. Of necessity, our government is subordinate to us—and so it is not independent of us. We cannot just wind it up, set it loose, and walk away. Nor can we divorce ourselves from the individual responsibilities and obligations that are part of that endowment in us mentioned earlier. As our government is bound to obey our instruction, so are we bound to provide that instruction, as often as necessary. We have a duty to ourselves, to each other, and to our subordinate government, to stay actively engaged in the politics of our time, and specifically in the activities of our government.
We must maintain active oversight of our government, working to keep it on the straight and narrow, its behavior satisfactory to our ends and not to its own. Over the flow of history, conditions will evolve, and it may be necessary for us, as the polity of our compact, to alter our government’s path to a new course better suited to the new conditions. We cannot do this, we cannot maintain course or alter it, if we do not remain actively engaged: positively schooled in the politics and economics and activities of our time, and positively interacting with our government to ensure it is serving our needs alone.
Pericles once said, “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.” Or as Plato put it more bluntly, “Those who think they are too smart for politics are doomed to be governed by those who are dumber.”