Biosocial Contract

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= concept featuring in Peter Corning’s book, The Fair Society


Roberto De Vogli:

"For the last 30 years, socioeconomic policies at the national and global level have been dominated by free market fundamentalism, an ideology based on the assumption that people’s primary motivation is the pursuit of profit. In most established democracies, this doctrine has guided the macroeconomic agenda of both conservative and liberal administrations, or what Gore Vidal called “the two right wings” of the “Property Party.” It also has directed the global economic policies of international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, with disastrous social and economic effects for the developing world.

Working from the presumption that all people are inherently selfish, the proponents of free market fundamentalism have argued that their doctrine is the only public philosophy that works. It is a pity that countless studies, some of them quoted in Corning’s book, show exactly the opposite. To be sure, the science of human nature is far from conclusive. Existing evidence largely indicates that people are at times selfish, competitive, and unjust and at other times altruistic, cooperative, and fair. More important, cross-cultural research shows that our sense of fairness and unfairness is largely shaped by the social and environmental circumstances in which we live.

In the last chapters of the book, Corning proposed a “biosocial contract” to develop a fair society in the United States and around the world, which he describes as a “collective survival enterprise” able to satisfy the “primary needs”: thermoregulation, waste elimination, nutrition, water, mobility, sleep, respiration, physical safety, physical health, mental health, communications, social relationships, reproduction, and nurturance of off spring. A fair society, the author argues, can be created through policies aimed at promoting full employment, ensuring a living wage, strengthening welfare services, reforming the private sector, and developing a more equitable tax system. Corning argues that this biosocial contract can overcome the limitations and unfair qualities of both capitalism and socialism. Capitalism, he believes, is too unequal to allow poor people to meet their basic biological necessities, and socialism is too indifferent to meritocracy and innovation.

Corning’s proposal, I am afraid, is likely to be dismissed by both free market evangelists and the so-called moderate liberals. The former will judge it as an attack on their narrow conception of freedom; the latter will disregard it as a pie-in-the-sky idea. Corning’s proposal is necessary and on target, but at least two observations can be made. First, it is too reductionist to depict most human actions as motivated by what Corning calls the “underlying survival challenge.” There is more to life than satisfying our primary needs. Our existence has some deeper, more creative meaning than mere survival and reproduction.

Second, although Corning’s idea for a fair society is depicted as something new, the author admits that it is largely based on “a society that more closely resembles what already exists in countries like Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden.” Although northern European countries can be considered models of social capitalism, they are far more social than capitalist. It is curious that Corning does not address this fact. Is it too controversial to be acknowledged?" (