Skip to main content

Stream every public session from the 27th annual Global Conference right here on our website.

Renewing Social Contracts for a Shared Future

Power of Ideas
Renewing Social Contracts for a Shared Future

Two years from now, liberty bells will be ringing throughout the land as America celebrates its 250th anniversary. It’s an occasion potentially overshadowed by the relatively recent regression of democratic norms. The Economist Intelligence Unit has, for the last eight consecutive years, ranked the United States as a "flawed democracy," highlighting the erosion of democratic principles and values as the principal cause. Coupled with Gallup’s annual polling that shows a consistent decline in overall confidence in US institutions, it’s clear that Americans’ dwindling faith in its institutions threatens the very stability of our nation.

The collective responsibility for stewarding public trust lies not with any single entity but with all those in positions of power and influence. Institutions, be they governmental, economic, commercial, philanthropic, or social, wield significant control over resources and shape the contours of societal discourse. Creating a shared future that is marked by collective prosperity, equal rights, and a functioning democracy, requires them all, not just the political forces, to examine the ways we contribute to the growing crisis of trust.

There must be a willingness to challenge longstanding beliefs and norms that no longer serve the common good.

It’s Time for a New Contract

Central to this discussion is the concept of the American social contract—the implicit agreement between citizens and institutions, wherein the former entrusts the latter with the facilitation of prosperity in exchange for their talents, labor, and resources. For many, that contract is long in breach. There are whole generations of disillusioned citizens who have only ever experienced American institutions through the lens of failure and unfulfilled promises: collapsed markets, unlivable wages, retracted rights, data leaks, mass shootings, and so on.

Even now as Congress considers forcing the sale of ByteDance to American investors, it does so from a position of low credibility among platform users. The significance of a foreign-controlled entity that was able to, with one simple message, reach half of US citizens and motivate a significant portion of them to action against their government cannot be overstated. Except for the Arab Spring, there hasn’t been a comparable quick-fire mass mobilization like it in our time; a clear signal that our US institutions are losing critical influence.

New Contractual Expectations

To get to a collective future, institutions must forge a new social contract with society; one that resets the relationship and revitalizes the American Dream. This contract should promote mass civic engagement while safeguarding individual rights. It should prevent corporate exploitation and excessive profits at the expense of citizens, curb manufactured inflation, and promote social justice and economic equity. Further, it should reject the notion of private-industry bailouts, instead encouraging responsible management and adaptation reflective of 21st-century markets.

Institutional practices that erode trust, such as ineffective governance, consumer gouging, and monopolistic behavior, must also be addressed head-on. We cannot afford to ignore these issues or project blame on external-facing solutions without looking inward at peer institutions that prioritize profit over people.

Moreover, the dichotomy between tradition and innovation must be transcended, with institutions embracing the spirit of change while upholding fundamental principles. Take, for example, the news industry, which has struggled to adapt to the rise of digital media. The value of free-flowing information to inform citizens is the primary objective to uphold, but the medium in which that exists can, should, and must change over time without losing its intrinsic value to society. Clinging to outdated models or 100-year-old institutions out of legacy is far less impactful for society than investing in new ideas.

Likewise, we cannot be afraid to challenge structures of democratic institutions created before technology and globalization completely altered humanity. Congressional apportionment, court sizes, term limits, political party systems, and the like cannot be off-limits for discussion. There must be a willingness to challenge longstanding beliefs and norms that no longer serve the common good.

Institutions Must Decide for Themselves

Ultimately, the path to shaping a shared future lies in redefining the role of institutions as drivers of progress rather than guardians of the status quo. This requires a paradigm shift—a willingness to challenge entrenched institutional norms and embrace the imperatives of the present moment. By fostering a culture of accountability, transparency, and innovation, we can collectively rebuild public trust and chart a course toward a future marked by prosperity, equality, and justice for all.