The social contract

My wife was pregnant when we went to sign the rental contract for our prior apartment. She was due to give birth during the term of the lease. Our rental agent suggested that we include in the contract a clause that severely limited or prohibited the landlord from showing the apartment to prospective tenants or buyers. The last thing we’d need is a revolving door of strangers and the pressure to suddenly clean up the place if a showing was scheduled.

A clause to this effect was included in the lease, and everyone signed.

Several months later, we got an email from our landlord. He decided that he wanted to sell the apartment at the end of our lease, so he let us know he was making plans to show the apartment on a regular basis. We reminded him that the contract prohibited showings. The landlord, apparently not understanding what a contract is, called me exasperated. He said: “But I need to show the apartment. The circumstances have changed.”  I replied, “I understand your circumstances have changed. That’s why we have a contract.”

If I had lost my job and could not pay the rent, I am sure the landlord would have been equally inflexible when I called him and said, sorry, my circumstances have changed. His answer, correctly, would have been that my emergency does not alter the terms of our agreement. That’s why we have a contract.

The same principle applies to the coronavirus. Anyone who says that the threat of a virus — even a dangerous one — justifies the violation of human rights, doesn’t understand the nature of a contract. In this case, it’s the social contract between a government and a free people. Contracts exist because we can’t see the future. We maintain a civilization by requiring both parties to fulfill their obligations, regardless of whether the circumstances have changed.

If the terms of an arrangement can be changed on the fly without consequences, you don’t have a contract. You have an understanding based on trust — which now, is shattered.

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