Sunday, June 10, 2007

Frontiers and Social Contract Theory

It's an old and obsolete notion, but the Frontier was a defining trait of the United States from its colonial days to, really, around the 1890s.

The frontier was always an option for people who wanted less government, and while the mild, untamed lands have a certain appeal to them, its really the absence of serious legal authority that tended to make the place work.

This was the Social Contract Theory at its finest - if you want less of the controls of government, you can go where there are less controls. This means that you're giving up the protections offered as well. Here is a system where the social contract is variable by region, and where it is possible to exist in the same nation without having to have "one size fits all" trade-off of protections gained and liberties lost.

Thats been for a hundred years before I was born, but it's an interesting notion.


John Fleck said...

So while I was in California, I was reading Joan Didion's "Where I Was From," about California's transformation from "frontier" to what it is today. She offers a fascinating description of the literature - diaries, letters, and other written accounts - of people leaving for the frontier. Inevitably, she posits, the description of their departure is very much like the description of a death. They were literally leaving people they would likely never see again. (This was wagon train trips, before the train.) So the desire to go to the frontier had to be extraordinarily strong.

Kelsey Atherton said...

I think Frontier Theory (as it was explained to me one day of US History last year) was that it was more the availability of the Frontier, the "if things get bad enough, if things are dire enough, I can leave.

It's an escape and it's a change in life. The desire would have to be strong for an individual, but Frontier Theory has, as part of it, the fact that because the option was there, it helped define the characteristics of the US.

More research will be done to see if this exists, and to see that Mr. Papp wasn't just pulling my leg

Christine Robinson said...

Perhaps the distressed portions of the inner cities "war zones" are the new American Frontier.

Kelsey Atherton said...

Perhaps. It wold explain "going to New Orleans" as, to a degree, akin to "going to the west" for purposes other than individual gain/escape from the law. It is that "I will teach out West because it is a good and noble calling" which the Frontier certainly had.

Inner Cities don't exactly seem like a place to escape from the law and start over, though. The law is present and the legal structure cannot be ignored. The Frontier was, in many ways, lawless, and not just because the law was being ignored - with territorial governments, it didn't exist, beyond federal law and provisional police forces.

There is no "I'm leaving society but not the country" escape, really.

Territorial Islands, maybe?

Nora said...

How about the internet? People have a very different social contract with the homepage of Yahoo as opposed to Conservapedia or Digg.

Kelsey Atherton said...

That's interesting - I hadn't expanded social contracts to include legitimate social contracts not involving the government.

The internet, at least as much as I am aware, seems to be very similar, at least in the US, to a minimally-regulated and haphazardly enforced area of government control.

I suppose services used online would have a set relationship with the people using them, and that the relationship doesn't carry over from site to site.

I think the difference between homepages may have more to do with view of the internet as a social service thing, and not as a social-contract thing