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Janet Bufton: Tear up the social contract. It was only a fairy tale, anyway

Commentary

Rudyard Griffiths observes that the pandemic has put a strain on Canadians’ satisfaction with the social contract with our government. 

Good.

The idea of a social contract is an old one, going back to John Locke, who believed we are born with rights, but we agree to obey the laws of the government in return for security and prosperity. We can be held to our end of the contract, which is why we can be punished when we break the law.

If the government doesn’t hold up its end, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

This is a familiar idea to Canadians because, as the excerpt above suggests, it’s the idea behind the United States’ government. But we should remember that by the time the United States declared independence, the British tradition — Canada’s political history — had moved on. With good reason.

Two great Scots, David Hume and Adam Smith, weren’t convinced that social contracts make governments legitimate. Hume observed that none of us have done anything like signing a contract, so it’s silly to believe that’s why we have faith in the government. We obey the law because having a government is usually useful. Adam Smith observed that people treated governments as legitimate before Locke and did so when there was nothing like a social contract to explain it. There is no defence of social contracts in Smith’s 1776 Wealth of Nations.

It’s fine, you might be thinking, that all these dead guys thought this stuff. But the past year has probably shaken your faith in governments. It feels as though there’s something to the social contract thing.

If there is a pervasive feeling among Canadians that a social contract with our government has been broken, then there most definitely is something to it. Our shared understanding of the legitimacy of our government is the basis for the legitimacy of our government after all. But that understanding isn’t fixed — we can change it. We should adjust our thinking towards the British tradition. 

The past year has probably shaken your faith in governments.

Let’s bring someone who’s still breathing into the mix. Jacob T. Levy, of McGill University (from whose work, especially here and here, I’m drawing heavily), argues that the social contract dresses up the reality that we live under government to make it seem better than it is. 

The social contract encourages us to expect too much from our government and too little from ourselves. If we obey the laws not because the government is unquestionably legitimate, but just because it’s normally a useful thing to do, our political institutions aren’t shaken when the government disappoints us. And because we haven’t actually agreed to obey no matter what, there’s room for pluralism and disagreement. When things go wrong, we can dissent. 

Dissenting citizens talk to friends over drinks and coffee. We read the news — in our best moments, in an effort to understand all the options. We write op-eds. We start fundraisers and nonprofits. We volunteer. We rally. We figure out what it is we think is right. We encourage others, and eventually politicians, to support what we think is right. When it turns out we’re wrong, hopefully we learn and do better. These things aren’t imaginary. They really happen.

A social contract imagines something like a single, shared political agreement.

In Griffiths’ piece, he says Canadians’ imagined contract with our government is one of  “risk mitigation over dynamism as the governed look to the governing for…’peace, order and good government.’ We have chosen to forgo exploring some of our full potential individually and collectively to instead privilege moderation, equality and incrementalism in our politics and society.”

If such an agreement exists, then a social contract can, too. And if a social contract exists, a government that holds up its end is therefore legitimate. Your end of the bargain with a legitimate government is to obey the law. If, on the other hand, the government doesn’t deliver, the government becomes illegitimate. You can ignore its laws. When a contract is broken, it’s broken. That’s why it’s so unsettling to think of a social contract disintegrating.

But of course, there is no such shared agreement. We all know people who have spent the last year holed up in their homes and others who largely ignored public health advice. And we don’t act as if there’s a contract, either. When the government didn’t deliver safety and order, we didn’t start ignoring all of its laws. 

We might feel as though a contract has been broken. That’s the influence of the political dream of our neighbours to the south. But we act as though it’s useful to carry on under an imperfect government. That’s the observation of our British political ancestors that’s stood the test of time. 

Our government isn’t as pure or solid as the social contract. But social contracts aren’t just solid. They’re brittle. Pluralistic, imperfect, flexible democracy is messy. But its flexibility also makes it resilient. 

Mistaking reality for a dream shakes our faith in real institutions that really matter. If we think of Canada’s governance as the result of imperfect democracy, it’s less shocking that the pandemic response was also deeply imperfect. We weren’t under the sacred stewardship of an inherently legitimate state. We’re all just people, muddling through. 

Tear up that social contract. Go for it. It was only a fairy tale, anyway. If Canadians are so unhappy with our political reality, then we’ve got a lot of work to do.

Here’s why the best rosé isn’t actually a rosé

Commentary

Here is the story of how the very first rosé isn’t one at all, except it’s the best. I refer to Tavel, the name of the wine and of the small town in the South of France where it is grown and made.

Tavel lies on the right (east) bank of the Rhône just north of Avignon, and opposite its left bank twin, the much better known, Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The two towns, and the wines they are famous for, form a kind of ying and yang of the Southern Rhône. They share the same climate, the same soil types and are made with the same combination of grapes, with Grenache usually acting as the dominant one in the blend.

They also have a history of papal patronage going back to the middle ages, not just at Avignon but also in Rome. But while the wines of Châteauneuf have always been coveted for their brooding dark fruit, Tavel has always been a red wine made in a clear lighter style. It’s just that no one thought to call it rosé until the last half of the 20th century.

The colour of a wine depends partly on the grape variety, or varieties, used to make it. But while you can’t make red wine from white grapes, you can make orange wine from them, and you can certainly make white wine from red grapes.

This is because the way to extract colour from grapes, that have begun to ferment into wine, is to leave the juice that has been pressed from the fruit, in contact with the skins. In Champagne they make Blanc-de-Noir, a white sparkling wine, by separating Pinot Noir from its skins right away.

Some red wines might be left to “macerate” on their skins for several days, and if the winemaker wants to intensify the process, she might “bleed” some of the juice off of the skins. Bleeding red wines is, in fact, a way to make rosé with the juice that has been removed, though it’s not how they make Tavel.

The rules for making Tavel are ancient and as clear as the wine: contact with the skins will be for the one night after the grapes have been pressed. This is enough to make Tavel a deep pink verging on ruby red.

In the two decades that I have been writing about wine, I have watched rosé go from a niche product to an established one. In the warm weather months, it’s become unremarkable to be offered a glass of rosé in the backyard of a friend.

The style of rosé that is predominant here and around the world is ‘Provençal’: a crisp with a light coppery or salmon hue. This colour would have come from very limited skin contact. Generally speaking, I like these wines fine, but for the nearly always present note of strawberry, they may as well be white wines.

There’s no structure, nor weight on the palate. Lacking complexity, they strike me as being designed to be drunk quick and cold on a warm evening. The Provençal-style rosés serve their purpose, but there are very few of them that could carry a diner through a meal.

Tavel is almost always recognizable on a store shelf, in part because of its distinct tall and skinny clear bottle, but mostly for its deep pink colour. The colour is the clue that the wine will have some tannic structure and weight from being on its skins overnight. Those skins provide more than texture, they also provide flavour. Beyond strawberry are the red fruit flavours associated with Grenache, like cherry and raspberry. Tavel wines really do show more like a very light and racy red with a line of acidity that will take them through from aperitif to a main course of grilled meat.

In 1936 Tavel was named as one of France’s first Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, demarcated by a small area of land around the town, and given the restriction that only “Tavel” (in other words, rosé that’s not really rosé) could be made there. This has had the effect of keeping the production and the number of producers small.

There are only about two dozen producers, and maybe the same number of growers that sell grapes to the Tavel co-operative or one of the big houses of the Rhône Valley like Guigal or Famille Perrin.

In the past couple of decades, when faced with competition from the Provençal rosé the producers decided to double down on their tradition of making a ‘vin gastronomique’ instead of changing the way they make wine to follow fashion.

Unfortunately this means that Tavel has become pricier than most rosé, usually within $25 to $30 a bottle. Fortunately, though, they’ve kept their audience and seem to be growing it steadily, as Tavel wines are widely available, especially now that it’s the season for them.

As a small appellation with strict controls on production, the quality of Tavel wines is fairly uniform and consistent. The producers below are in most markets in this country and make wines that I have enjoyed very much.

Château d’Acqueria: aqueria.com

Château de Manissy: chateau-de-manissy.com

Domaine LaFond Roc-Epine: roc-epine.com

Domaine Maby: domainemaby.fr

Domaine de la Mordorée: domaine-mordoree.com