Back when I was a student at Millville Grade School, there was a restaurant down the road in New Castle called Bud Alexander’s Cafeteria. Once in a while, after we got out of church, I was allowed to accompany my old buddy Stinky Wilmont and his family to Bud’s for Sunday dinner. We all lined up, walked down the serving aisle, loaded our plates with chicken and mashed potatoes, and when we reached Gladys, the cashier, we pointed back towards the end of the line where Stinky’s father was standing with Mrs. Wilmont, and explained that he would be paying for our meals.
And he always did. I understood that he was kind of obligated to feed his family, and I appreciated that he fed me whenever Stinky invited me to come along. I suppose he probably would have paid even if a stranger had managed to sneak into the line.
I recall the panic Stinky and I went through one time when we directed Gladys’s attention to end of the line, only to realize that Mr. Wilmont had wandered away from his post. It was our good fortune that Mrs. Wilmont located him before Gladys repossessed our chicken, but I did wonder at the time what might have happened if things hadn’t turned out like they did. I guess we could have simply told the cashier that the next person in line would pick up the bill, but I’m not sure he would have felt the same obligation to us that Stinky’s dad felt, and there’s a better than average chance that Gladys would have ended up with the chicken.
In the last several years, since I have had children and grandchildren of my own, I’ve spent a lot of time at the end of the line myself. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I figured that was part of the deal when I got married. And sometimes when we go out to eat with our children now, one of them ends up grabbing the bill. I’m not sure why, but I don’t want to offend them, so I don’t argue about it much. We never really signed a contract or anything. We’ve just kind of worked things out as we went along.
I have heard a lot of talk the last few years about something called a “social contract”. I guess it’s something that binds all people to a certain set of rules, even if you never signed it, and regardless of whether you agree with the rules or not. I’m a big fan of certain aspects of social contracts. To be sure, we are all bound, even without a contract, to abstain from initiating violence or force against another person or their property, just as we are bound to refrain from infringing on another person’s rights. But unfortunately, social contracts of today have morphed into something much more than that.
Several years ago, our government, and many voters at the time, decided that it would be a good idea to put a bunch of government managed retirement and health insurance programs into place. And, as is the case with most government programs, things didn’t work out quite as well as planned. Currently, the federal programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and hundreds of state and local government pension programs across the country, are underfunded by about $61 trillion, give or take a trillion or two, which means the people collecting from these programs are relying on people a little farther down the line to kick in enough to pay their benefits. And a lot of those people down the line never signed up to do that.
Thomas Paine, the author of colonial America’s Common Sense, stated that: “Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and generations which preceded it…Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow.”
If enough people at the end of the line decide old Thomas was correct about today’s social contracts, those of us getting ready to step up to the counter might want to start figuring on another way to take care of the bill.