A review of The Social Contract by Rousseau

The Social Contract is Rousseau’s attempt to resolve the question of how one might submit to the will of the state while remaining a free man. It’s a good question, and one I hadn’t really considered in that light before, and Rousseau lays out the answer in short order and then dives into the particulars in this slim volume. Rousseau mentions that this was intended to be but a part of a larger work since abandoned, which struck me as a poor editing choice on his part, since this work is plenty worth on its own.

Rousseau answers the question almost straight away with the following:

Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.

According to Rousseau, in a savage state there is no right to property other than might, which obviously won’t do, so men create a social contract in order that such rights can be agreed to and enforced. We submit to the common will of the social contract as the only way we can elevate ourselves from the savage state. In making the social contract, a man at once surrenders all his possessions to the state, and simultaneously garners the rights of citizenship, including his rights to those possessions. That is how he can submit to the state and still be free, because he is the state, an indivisible part of its magnificent whole.

Rousseau3
Rousseau, in Armenian garb for some reason.

Rousseau provides an architecture for the government that the social contract gives rise to, pointing out the pros and cons of different configurations for different kinds of states. The center of teh social contract is the creation of the Sovereign, which is the collective will of the people, which rules over all, even in the case where there is a king or whatever. It is from the Sovereign that everything flows, and each member of the society is a part of that Sovereign, even if he’s the lowest guttersnipe.

Once the sovereign exists, it must exert its will, and there Rousseau breaks things into two parts: the making of laws which represent the will of the Sovereign, and the execution of those laws by the Sovereign’s representative, the prince. One voices the will of the people, and the other enforces it. Pretty straightforward stuff, until you get into the details.

Rousseau maps out the different kinds of governments at some length, talking about the reasons one might be preferable to another in different circumstances. He makes it quite clear that these states should be about 50,000 people max, so I don’t know what he’d make of the modern state, but in all other ways he seems quite amenable to different forms arising, from democracy to aristocracy to monarchy. He says that the more people and the further spread out they are, the more power the prince has, and the smaller and denser the country, the more power the lawmaker has. It’s all about how easy it is for people to talk to one another, one gathers.

Rousseau is pretty grim on the inevitability of corruption and degeneration from its founding ideals, stating flatly:

And it is by this simple means [preventing the assembly from meeting] that all the governments of the world, once armed with the public force, sooner or later usurp the public authority.

Again, I couldn’t help wonder what he would make of the mess in Washington. Happily, Rousseau makes it clear that it is will within the citizen’s rights to dissolve the state, regain his natural liberties along with all his possessions, and take his chances in the natural world.

Overall, it was a good read, and nice to get a taste of political philosophy, whetting my appetite for some of the founding fathers materials that are on my list. But overall, it seems like the whole thing boils to an incredibly simple and basic proposition: we create the state so that people can’t steal our stuff. Seems like it ought to be more complicated than that, but I’m not at all sure that it is.

 

 

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