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Shaky Social Contracts

LONDON – “Enrich yourselves,” China’s Deng Xiaoping told his fellow countrymen when he started dismantling Mao Zedong’s failed socialist model. In fact, elites everywhere have always lived by this injunction, and ordinary people have not minded very much, provided that the elites fulfill their part of the bargain: protect the country against its enemies and improve living conditions. It is this implied social contract that is now endangered by economic collapse.

Of course, the terms of the contract vary with place and time. In nineteenth-century Europe, the rich were expected to be frugal. Conspicuous consumption was eschewed. The rich were supposed to save much of their income, as saving was both a fund for investment and a moral virtue. And, in the days before the welfare state, the rich were also expected to be philanthropists.

In the opportunity culture of the United States, by contrast, conspicuous consumption was more tolerated. High spending was a mark of success: what Americans demanded of their rich was conspicuous enterprise.

Societies have also differed in how wealthy they allow their elites to become, and in their tolerance of the means by which wealth is acquired and used. One dividing line is between societies that tolerate self-enrichment through politics, and those that demand that the two spheres be kept separate.