Tu Bishvat: Rousseau’s Social Contract and the Carob Tree

Our obligations extend to both past and future.

Almost all modern societies are based on variations of a single concept: the “Social Contract”. Around the 17th and 18th centuries, thinkers and philosophers, starting with Locke, Rousseau, and others challenged the notion that sovereigns (kings or despots) had a God- given right to govern. Instead, they said, The People is “the sovereign” and the government emerges from and responds to a series of voluntary agreements within society itself and between the rulers and the governed.

It’s hard to understate the importance of that conceptual development. Without it, there would be no modern liberal democracy; no Bill of Rights; no separation of powers; no representative government; and, probably, no modern capitalism. In fact, on a deep level, Rousseau’s Social Contract transforms the individual into a “sujet de droit”; a “subject of civil rights”, rather than a subject of the king.

But seeing society as the result of a series of contracts among citizens who are, essentially, “subjects of rights” has a series of side effects which Locke and Rousseau did not predict. The Social Contract they envisioned is focused on the present, and, for all practical purposes, concerns itself only with those living today. True, Rousseau drew much meaning from his mythic (and unrealistic) ideas of humanity’s distant past, the “state of nature”. But he engaged that vision as a source of explanation for the present situation, not as anything implying a valid moral claim of other times upon our choices today.

One can forgive the fathers of the Enlightenment; after all, they were trying to free us precisely from a tyranny of the past, and the oppressions of a system that promised servitude now and rewards in “the world to come”. The focus on the present was an antidote to oppression and a guarantor of rights.

But it also tacitly determined that the future has no vote. Now, 300 years later, we can see the limitations of that model.

You may be wondering how all this relates to Tu Bishvat, the holiday that celebrates the “new year of the trees”.

For Judaism, trees are often metaphors. Quotes abound: “Man is a tree of the field” / “Is a tree of the field a man?”; “He will be like a tree planted by a stream of water”; “The just will flourish like a palm tree”; etc. But there’s one particular parable involving trees from the Talmud (Ta’anit 23a) that links trees with intergenerational relations.

One day, Honi Hame’agel was walking along the road when he saw an old man planting a carob tree. Honi said to him: This tree, after how many years will it bear fruit? The man said to him: It will not produce fruit until seventy years have passed. Honi said to him: Is it obvious to you that you will live seventy years?  So how do you expect to benefit from this tree? He said to him: I found a fruitful world because others had planted it. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I, too, am planting for my descendants.

This well-known, beautiful story has, I believe, a deeper sense: one that challenges or, rather, adds a dimension to the modern idea of the social contract. For Judaism, the social contract is a more textured idea than a pact between the individuals and their government. For us, the notion is that of a pact, a covenant, not just among the living, but between generations. “I am making this covenant… not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day,” i.e., with future generations, says Deuteronomy 29:13-14. In our tradition, we have a responsibility towards past generations and we also have a duty towards those that come after us. We can't wantonly obliterate our heritage and we can’t refuse to plant that carob tree simply because it’s not for us. Our obligations extend to both past and future.

In light of the world we are leaving to the next generations, we are obviously failing to keep our end of the pact.

The obvious implication, especially on this tree-centric holiday, concerns the environment. Because our social contract only cares about the present, we are sticking the next generation with the bill for the effects of climate change and a radically degraded environment. Guess who’ll pay for the anti-flood barrier that Miami and NY will need to build? And guess who will pay more for food once the drought in California becomes permanent? And guess whose taxes are going to be raised to beef up FEMA’s budget?

But when I say we are failing to observe our pact with other generations, I don’t only mean environmental destruction and climate change, though I certainly do mean that as well. I actually refer to an entire social and economic construct that puts young people at a gross disadvantage.  

For starters, we are complicit in cementing stories and assumptions about young people that are generally negative. The young are “entitled”; they are “gadget-obsessed”; they are “asocial”; they have “bad work ethics”; “apathetic”; “unaffiliated”; “nihilistic”; and “self-centered”. Oh yes, and they’re Tinder-addicted, notorious for their promiscuous behavior. In the Jewish community, our notions about Millennials are, in some cases, paternalistic (college students are naïve and need to be told what to think about Israel) and condescending (we need to do just “parties” for programming, because kids have no attention span).

These assumptions betray—besides a patronizing attitude—a basic lack of knowledge of the issues, problems, and challenges that the young generations face. Issues and problems that are, in most cases, of our own making.

Young people were told, “Study hard and you’ll succeed.” They indeed fulfilled their part of the bargain; they are the most educated generation in history. Yet they are seeing their income decline in inverse proportion to their education. College tuitions have increased an average of 196% above inflation, whereas salaries for graduates have decreased. On top of that, students are expected to do “internships” with no pay, which, in fact, represents a transfer of training costs from the employer to the employee. In other words, when this generation goes to school, it knows that it will need to study more and harder; that competition will be furious; that they’ll need to work for free; and that after that ordeal, if they manage to land a job, they’ll earn less than their parents did, while being strangled by inescapable student loans. We dangle the examples of a few young people (á la Mark Zuckerberg) who “made it”, but generally fail to explain that those stories are one in a million.

In macroeconomic terms, the erosion of salaries for young people is ultimately paying for our excesses. And because G-d forbid we cut them some slack, the USA just approved a $1.5 trillion addition to the deficit that the young will need to pay with their hard labor and with the loss of entitlements and social benefits. The dismantling of the safety net, both social and economic—the breakdown of the legal and social scaffolding of the post-war era—makes them the least secure generation since the Great Depression. While every family is unique, there’s a new paradigm of generational selfishness that changed something basic in the American ethos: we moved from saving for the next generation to “spend now and leave the debt to the kids”.

We have contradictory expectations for our young—we want them to be independent but we are “helicopter parents”; we criticize their “safe spaces and trigger warnings” but we made them grow up in risk-free environments. We say that they have no social skills, but we restrict them to carefully-regulated social interactions; we let salaries fall and then we criticize them for still living at home. We tell them that they have to be daring, innovative, and risk-taking, but if they post something stupid on Facebook at 16, we tolerate a world in which it follows them forever. In Jewish and other religious discourse, we say they are “unaffiliated” to institutions, but we’ve systematically destroyed the legitimacy and reputations of those institutions. We decry their use of devices, but we use those same devices to control them and, later on, submit them to a 24/7 workweek. When these stressors generate anxiety, we respond by medicating them and sending them to mindfulness classes instead of addressing the objective, structural causes of their distress.

The disparity between what we, as a society, promise to young people and what we deliver is staggering. As the writer Nicholas Sparks said, “Youth offers the promise of happiness, but life offers the realities of grief”.

This attitude towards the future is certainly not what Honi Hame’agel wanted to teach us with the parable of the carob tree. In a way, as a society, we have become more Rousseauian than Rousseau: by making it all about us and all about now, we have forgotten to preserve the legacy of the past and we have foregone our responsibility towards future generations. What are the carobs that we are planting for the future besides inequality, staggering deficit, unfulfilled promises, and contradictory expectations?

Trees—the main character of this holiday—are both the victims of our recklessness (every country in the world except Israel has fewer trees today than 100 years ago) and a metaphor for the cyclical nature of life, of both the ephemeral and transcendental natures of our lives.

Maybe they can also be the model for us to rethink our “social contract” and transform it into a pact between generations—a covenant that obliges us both to preserve the past and to protect the future; a contract that entitles us to come into a world full of beautiful, lush carob trees and obliges us to leave even more of them for those who will come after us.