7/7/2006

The Social Contract

Filed under: — Bravus @ 3:04 pm

This musing actually started when we were filling up the car in California. Both places we did that required you to go inside and pre-pay for the fuel before filling up as a precaution against drive-aways. We’d never had to do that in Canada, and certainly don’t have to in Australia – fill up, then pay up.

The pre-pay thing was a pain in the neck, especially with a rental car that has to be returned with a full tank. I guess it’s always possible to pre-pay more than you need and then go inside after filling up and get a refund, but that’s one extra trip, and one extra possible line-up… So we tended to try to guess what it would take to fill the tank.

It’s just more of a hassle for everyone concerned, including the staff at the service station. I guess it must be worth it on balance in terms of preventing the stolen fuel, but it’s at a massive cost in terms of convenience. One more example (like the person breaking the $200 car window to steal $10 worth of change) of where the bad actions of a few have consequences for everyone.

But it made me think a bit… surely the people of America are not innately more criminal than those of Canada and Australia? I mean, as the Poms never tire of reminding us, Australia was founded with criminals, so if there was any overall genetic predisposition to fill and run… So what is it that makes pre-paying necessary in California (I’m being careful not to generalise to the whole country) but not in Oz and Canuckistan?

I think it’s about the ‘social contract’. Basically, by allowing someone to fill their car first and then pay, there’s an implicit contract: “I trust that once the fuel is in the car, you will come and pay me for it, not drive off”. By extending that trust – and by being worthy of it – everyone’s lives are made easier. When that social contract breaks down, trust is no longer extended, with the accompanying consequences.

That just extends the question to ‘why has the social contract broken down in that way in California?’ I’d argue that it’s got to do with a whole raft of expectations and beliefs about society, individuals, roles and responsibilities, and could describe those and their consequences in more detail. But I’m interested in what you think… why? And are there solutions?