A little over a year ago, I attended a sort of entrepreneur’s bootcamp in Chile called Exosphere.  During a morning session we were introduced to a short story called “The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas”.  For those of you who would like to read it yourselves, you can do so here.  Its only about 6 pages long.

For the rest, I will give a brief synopsis.  For half of the story, possibly more, the author describes Omelas and the summer festival that we are witnessing.  Happy children, horse races, music, art and a perfect environment are all described in painstaking detail.  The specifics are not all that important.  The festival and the culture involves whatever you would consider an idyllic town – sports, architecture, science, high tech, low tech, even orgies in the streets if that’s your thing.  The point is that this is place of happiness, and the pinnacle of civilization, however you would imagine it to be.

But this society has an open secret.  In the darkness of one of the basements below Omelas there is a closet sized room that contains a child.  This child was taken at a very young age, and must live the rest of its life alone in the torturous conditions of this dirty basement room.  Everyone in the town knows about this, as they are shown or at least told about the child in early adolescence.  They are told that the near utopia that they live in is all dependent the on the child’s suffering.  If the child were ever allowed to go free, Omelas would be lost.  That is the contract all of the residents of Omelas are aware of: the child must live in misery if we are to keep our beautiful civilization and way of life.

The reaction most have to this revelation is anger, disbelief or shock.   But most simply move on with their lives after accepting what they have been told as truth.  Apparently the knowledge of this contract causes them to savor their ideal life, as if demonstrating what gratitude they can for the sacrifice of the child that keeps their happy town alive.  But not everyone has this reaction.  Every once in awhile a citizen of Omleas – usually an adolescent or young adult – witnesses the child for the first time and simply…walks away.  They just start walking, leave the city limits and are never seen or heard from again.

This story resonated with me.  Hard.

You see, about a year prior I had left the United States for South America with no intention of returning.  I left with very little explanation, as I found any attempt to truly discuss the issues I was dealing with to be futile.  In short, I had come to realize that there was a massive disconnect between the version of the US that I had been told about my entire life, and the truth about my country that I had recently discovered.

So why did the story resonate with me in this situation?  It is worth noting that with any good artistic piece like this, the author is not necessarily telling us what it all means, allowing the reader to fill in their own interpretation.  Many who read this story interpret it as the horrors of capitalism, consumerism or something similar.  I however take a different approach.  Never in my life have I read a story that is a more perfect allegory for the idea of the social contract.

“They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness… depend(s) wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”

Notice that never once in the story is the veracity of this contract explained, let alone proven.  There is no written contract, no indication of who the parties are, no proof it even exists.  But the people who live there just know that it exists.  Where are all of the terms?  Who originated it?  Who signed it?  Who knows.  But surely it must exist!

But is the modern idea of a social contract so brutal?  Is ours nearly as immoral and unthinkable as the secret of Omelas?  Let us dive into some specifics.  About a decade ago, I believe the door to our child in the basement was thrown wide open with the advent of Youtube.  Slowly over time, more and more videos of blatant police brutality began to accumulate for anyone paying attention.  Today we have a smorgasbord of documented horrors.  Kelley Thomas beaten to death at the hands of Fullerton Police.  More recently, Eric Garner was choked to death.  Both incidents were documented with cameras.  In both incidents, the cops involved faced no real consequences.

But what does this have to do with social contract?  Surely its proponents would condemn these incidents, I have no doubt.  But nonetheless society as a whole is accepting these incidents as part of the contract whether it is realized or not.  For some clarification, I should bring up the typical responses or mantras that come out of the woodwork when incidents like this hit the news.  “Not all cops”.  “A few bad apples”.  “A single incident”.  You’ve heard them before.

But I say no.  I argue that the issue at hand is not whether the individuals involved are generally good or bad.  The root of the problem is that there is a belief that we must have an institution of men that protects a small number of people from the consequences of initiating violence against others.  The political class and its enforcers operate with a set of moral rules that are essentially the opposite of those the rest of us live by.  The very idea that some human beings must be allowed power over others is the Omelas contract.  If you still have doubts, let me break it down.

The commonly held belief is that we must have a small number of people (government & police) that have special powers over others.  Without this institution, society as we know it would cease to exist, so we must accept it.  But lets take that argument and consider what we know about humanity.  We know that a very small percentage of society is made up of psychopaths.  And thanks to the Stanford prison and Milgram experiments we also know that upwards of 60% of your fellow man is comprised of sociopaths that will torture you to the point of murder if a perceived authority tells them its okay to do so.  So the logic works out as follows:

  1. Proposal: We must have a government police force or society as we know it will cease to exist.
  2. Fact: a small percentage of people are psychopaths, and most are potential sociopaths.
  3. Fact: Cops are people, but face no consequences for the ordinary initiation of violence, and rare or laughable consequences for extraordinary acts of violence.
  4. Statistically at least 1, and likely many more cops are violent psycho and/or sociopaths.
  5. Conclusion: At least one person will be abused, tortured or murdered by police.
  6. Alternate phrasing: At least one person must be abused, tortured or murdered by police or society as we know it will cease to exist.

Are you beginning to see the child in the basement?  I can shorten the proposal to “In order for us to live in a free and prosperous society, Thomas Kelley must be beaten to death”.  Is it bothersome that I gave the statistic a name?  Does it make it any less true, or horrible if I remove the name?  The reality is that every victim that suffers injustice at the hands of state agents is the child in the basement.  Sure, people can argue that they are against police brutality and condemn these incidents.  But if someone still supports an institution that is specifically designed to protect agents of the state from the consequences that you or I would face for initiating violence , then they are no different from the people that cry and rage when the first see the child, but take no action.  They are accepting the contract of Omelas as valid.

That is something I was not able to do.  It was not the fact that these incidents occurred.  People do evil things, and state agents tend to get away with it, I understood that.  But what I could not handle was the deafening silence of those around me.  I could not handle the the excuses, or the cop apologists.  The society that surrounded me was infested with the superstition that we must accept the infliction of unjust violence on a few or society would collapse.  So I left.  Like the story I simply….walked away.

But does it matter where I went?  Doesn’t every country have a political class, and enforcers?  Yes, its true.  But not every country claims to be Omelas by touting American Exceptionalism.  Not every country pretends to be an ideal to look up to.  And not every place on earth has absurdly militarized police, with child-in-the-basement victims on display, hitting the news on a regular basis.  Has the Omelas you live in become obvious?  Has it become too extreme to ignore?  Consider walking away.  Look at projects like Fort Galt.  Consider moving abroad.

Perhaps you have walked away from your Omelas philosophically, but can’t physically.  I definitely sympathize, and if that is too much, look at New Hampshire and the Free State Project, or perhaps other like-minded people in your state.  Do what you can to find a like minded tribe.  Build communities with others that reject immoral, and vague social contracts.  If you can’t leave, remember that walking away from Omelas is not about the physical act.  It is about rejecting a popular superstition that corrupts humanity.