The idea that society has a claim on its members is one of most pernicious ever conceived.
The late anthropologist David Graeber traces this idea to ancient antiquity and associates it with the evolutionary development of formal governments. His theory is that debt obligation is the original excuse for one part of society controlling the remainder. Oversimplified, the legitimacy of government boils down to, “You owe us.”
The idea, in other words, is just a coercion, a trick of psychological warfare. Like other illusions the idea falls apart under scrutiny.
You can’t prove that society has a claim on its members because society can’t speak for itself either to make or defend such a claim. And since society cannot speak for itself, the idea can only be put forth by some person who pretends to know the secret will of society and to be able — like a priest in a mystery cult — to represent society’s interests to anyone who will listen.
There is, however, a sense in which it makes sense to talk about society’s claims on the individual. All of us owe debts to others, whether debts of kindness or debts of animosity. Because these “micro debts” exist, it is conceivable that they add up in some way to “macro debts.”
Problem is, no individual can pay off macro debt. Just as society has no voice with which to claim the sum of all debts it is owed, neither is any individual capable of paying off such a claim. This paradox cannot be resolved.
The whole concept is unworkable, except that it works nicely for aspiring tyrants.