Anti social contracts

The withering of the traditional state continues. Warren Buffett's $31 billion "gift" to the Gates Foundation exceeds the entire US government's annual spending on foreign development and humanitarian assistance. And Gates and Buffett's cash together ($60 billion) places the Gates Foundation somewhere between the $87 billion GDP of Slovakia and the $43 GDP billion of Slovenia. It isn't absurd now to imagine an American philanthropic organization actually acquiring a small African country in the same way as Second Life allows its members to acquire new plots of virtual land.

So what's really going on here? Instead of being taxed by the state, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are redirecting their wealth to their own private philanthropic organizations. The world is fragmenting into an ever increasingly hyperpolar place in which governments just another participant in the order of things. Some of that money I spent on Windows 2000 is now going to solving the malaria epidemic in Africa. I'm not sure whether this is a good or a bad thing. But it certainly is one explanation of why smart, ambitious people go into business rather than politics.

Such an anarchic environment lends itself to the antics of mercurial philanthropists like Larry Ellison who yesterday withdrew his $115 million committed to Harvard University because of Larry Summer's resignation from the university. Ellison's action is the equivalent of refusing to pay one's taxes after a change in government. Just as the globally minded Gates is the most acceptable face of the new digital plutocracy, so the anti social Ellison epitomizes the narcissistic amorality of too many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

The modern state arose in the 17th and 18th centuries in parallel with the social contract theories of Rousseau, Hobbes and Locke. All these theorists made sense of a social contract in the context of a geographically defined, physical community of people. But in an America where the privileged and the poor are living separate lives and where the wealth of the globalized rich eventually gets diverted via philanthropic foundations to Africa or Asia, what exactly does it mean to share a common nationality? The Hobbesian/Lockean version of the social contract is one of the most serious casualties of our descent into hyperpolarity. What, I wonder, will replace contract theory in a world where allegiance is increasingly symbolic and arbitrary.