Status v. Contract
I read a passage from Jennifer Burns’ recent biography of Ayn Rand that really got my brain going. In the passage, Burns elaborates on the friendship between Rand and her conservative mentor Isabel Paterson:
Like the other libertarians Rand met during this time, Paterson drew from an older tradition to make her case for limited government and individualism. Spencer was one of her favorites, and her column brimmed with references to his ideas. She was also taken by the concept of the status society versus the contract society, an idea first set forth by the British jurist and historian Sir Henry Maine but given legs by Spencer and later Sumner. According to this theory, Western society had evolved from a feudal system, in which relationships between individuals were determined by their status, to societies in which relationships were determined by contract.
Perhaps this has been a concept in widespread use for a long time and I have simply caught up with it long after the fact, but I found it to be nevertheless very profound. The Soviet Union and other hard-line socialist states (such as Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela) have identified people by status. They are perpetually identified by their class, and thus the poor are serfs of the state, not by choice but because that is seemingly their fate.
In the West, however, people are not born with a fixed status. Society is governed by a contractual expectation that if you do x, you will receive y. This explains why those who are always seeking more in life achieve much, while those who resign themselves to status achieve very little.