Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the great 18th-century Genevan philosopher, wrote in The Social Contract the processes to establish a political institution. The bedrock idea put forth in his writing is that there are two parts to society: the sovereign and the government. The sovereign consists of the populace, and develops an infallible “general will,” the collectively held desire that strives for the common good of the society. Moreover, to form the sovereign, the people must devote themselves to each other through conversation and debate. Therefore, since it is an introspective assembly, the sovereign must find “some way to be assured of their fidelity.” This is the government’s role. In trusting the government to conduct applications of law, the social contract set by the sovereign can ensure their safety and protection.

Certainly some of that trust was broken when a shooter by the name of Devin Kelley shot 26 people and wounded 20 others at a Texas church on Nov. 5. In 2012, Kelly escaped from a mental health facility. From 2010 to 2014, as a member of the U.S. Air Force, Kelly was imprisoned for domestic abuse against his wife and step-child —  which he would be eventually discharged for on bad conduct. He had also tried to carry out death threats against his superiors and snuck guns into his Air Force base in Holloman, Texas.

Yet, even after all his previous incidents, Kelley was still able to purchase multiple guns. Sadly, a number of laws and regulations were already in place in order to prevent this from happening. When Kelley escaped from the mental health facility he was never entered into the department’s missing or endangered person’s database, as was protocol. Moreover, the U.S. Air Force had two opportunities to stop Kelley from purchasing guns but they failed to enter him into national criminal databases used for background checks, which would have disqualified him from owning a gun. Subsequently, he went through multiple background checks and still received the weapons.

Rousseau wrote that if the government exceeds its boundaries, or is not abiding by the contract, the people have the right to demand a new government. However, what happens when political laws are set into place, assuring the safety of the citizens, and the laws do not work as intended?

Is this an individual or an institutional error? Is the “sovereign” an institution?

It shouldn’t be a surprise that most Americans want stricter gun control measures. According to Rousseau, this majority will of Americans is always correct. Therefore, when the U.S. Air Force made multiple errors in carrying out currently existing gun regulation law, they certainly did not carry out the general will of the sovereign. According to Rousseau, we have the right to demand reparations and a change, which in my view is a significant part of our own government today.

However, when reading about the many errors the U.S. Air Force made, I wondered how much of this is due to a few bad apples as opposed to a larger institutional problem. This is important to differentiate. If it were an error by a few individuals, that would mean that the institution shouldn’t need to change, but rather that the individuals who made these errors need to be removed. Moreover, I think that this issue yields the larger question of what should be considered “institutionalized” issues — for example, sexism in Hollywood or police brutality — and what should be the responsibility of select individuals involved in the specific incidents. In a time where the norms and institutions of our country are being tested and questioned, how do we deem an institution corrupt?

Firstly, we need to ask the question of whether the Air Force members prior to this shooting should be judged by their individuality or if they are a part of a larger problem. In considering the Air Force, if only a few people in its history have made errors such as these, it would make more sense to reprimand these few individuals rather than the institution as a whole. Nevertheless, in this case, I question whether you can clearly define when individual problems within the Air Force administration cross over and become institutional problems. And if you can, can we even calculate it? For example, how do we tangibly measure that 50 percent of the people in an institution are deemed corrupt?

Secondly, how much complacency is considered to be the institutionalized issue? In the time of the late-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, the Jim Crow laws were obvious institutional measures against a group of people. Today, we see this obvious measure again with the Rohingya Muslims and other groups for which there is an institutionalized effort to enforce discriminatory policies. But today’s issues are highly nuanced, and not entirely clear. There are clear measures to try and combat issues such as the shooting in Texas, but they fall through the cracks. Therefore, how much error on the part of the Air Force makes the Air Force a corrupt institution?

With these issues, I find that accountability is the most important part of making the contract work. Rousseau states that the contract, in terms of power, should form a “one-to-one” ratio between the government and the sovereign. I stand that the Air Force is not a corrupt institution, but rather there were many issues with some people within the organization. For this reason, I find that with Rousseau’s logic, that the institutions support and develop policy, but errors made within institutions policies are due to individual actions. Moreover, I deviate from Rousseau’s philosophy slightly, where I think the sovereign’s only use is for accountability.

As citizens, we must do our due diligence to ensure we understand as many of the policies outside the influence of social pressure and then come together to discuss our differences before creating the general will. It is also important to recognize that the general will only exists through compromise. Though it is difficult, given the complexity of our governmental policies, I assure you that holding individuals tasked with maintaining our contract accountable will ensure more safety in the future. 

David Kamper can be reached at dgkamper@umich.edu.

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