The Social Contract

Rating: +

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

I picked up this book a while ago since it seemed like something that I should read to be educated, and I finally got around to reading it (it was shorter than a lot of the other stuff I am planning on educating myself with...). I actually had a lot of fun reading this book. It's basically a long essay about, ethically speaking, how can a group of people decide to become a single nation and end up committed to that decision, and one they have done that what type of government should they have and how should they go about creating and maintaining it. The basic conclusion boils down to saying that a nation can only be created when the entirety of the people want one to be created, and that furthermore that nation has to be governed by the general will. Given these principles, arguments are then made as to what types of government best fits groups of people of different sizes and inclinations (there is no single right answer, though in an ideal world democracy would be best).

The biggest problem that I had with this book was that, because it was really just four essays it left a lot of questions unanswered and even when it gave answers the reasoning behind the answers seemed to be vague. I came away with a sense of what Rousseau thought a government should look like, but I didn't really feel convinced either way.

To go into more detail on what Rousseau actually thinks, his basic premise is that everyone who is a citizen of the nation has to be a citizen on the same terms. Rousseau spends a long time explaining why this is necessary and why it is possible for this to happen and nobody to be taken advantage of, which I wasn't really convinced by but wasn't able to spot any flaws in his arguments either. The upshot is, everything has to be done based on what the general will dictates. Given this, he says that the form of the government (democracy, aristocracy, monarchy) will be determined by trying to balance the desire to have the general will be reflected in all aspects of the government as accurately as possible (which in the extreme means every individual citizen voting on everything) and having the nation be as strong as possible (which occurs under a monarchy because all decisions can be made without the need for deliberation and balancing). Finally, Rousseau says that every nation is destined to disintegrate and that all one can do is build as strong a nation as possible that will last for as long as possible.

There were a few points that Rousseau made along the way that I thought were interesting to think about, particularly in comparison to the system of government in the US:

For example, Rousseau ends up arguing that the three branches of government in the US, though possibly in different forms, need to be part of any government. The judicial branch is added late in the argument as less fundamental but needed, given the nature of people, to protect the laws and moderate the executive branch. He presents the legislative and executive branches as the legislative representing the general will and the executive just executing it. His reasoning is that the creation of laws needs to be the focus of the general will, but that the general will should not be occupying itself (wasting its time) with the specific details of the execution of the law. Partially because the execution will have to deal with individuals and the general will cannot say anything about individuals. This, of course, ties in nicely with the higher degree of representation of the people in the legislative branch than in the executive branch. It also makes me start to think whether I ought to be more concerned with my knowledge about Congressional elections, even though general social/media attention is much more on presidential elections. Not that I ignore Congressional elections, but it sort of puts a different spin on how to look at them...

One thing that is never explained to my satisfaction is that, while I understand how an ideal, stable government might be created by the method Rousseau describes, he never explains how this can take place in the presence of other nations which might try to take you over or which might not even be run along these principles. He actually says in the conclusion that he knows he didn't say anything about that but he didn't have time. So his conclusions are left in an incredibly theoretical state.

These plans are also unrealistic for modern times since Rousseau believes that nations should produce exactly as much as is needed to support the citizens, no more and no less; imports/exports cannot be allowed. While he does define how "successful" a nation is, his definition is that the success of a nation is the degree of protection it offers to and the prosperity of its people, so the success is directly proportional to the size of the population, not counting immigrants. Most unrealistic, he says that "it is always an evil to unite several towns in one nation". If one absolutely must do this, the seat of government has to be mobile and move from town to town. But at the very least the entire population needs to get together and have a national meeting of all citizens on a regular basis.

Now, I can't imagine this regular meeting of all citizens happening in any country in today's world, but what was interesting was that Rousseau first off felt strongly that this meeting had to happen on a regular basis regardless of whether it was announced or not so that no current leader could prevent it and therefore destroy the nation. And at that meeting, he set out two questions that had to be voted on by every citizen: 

I thought that these were very interesting questions to think about. I wonder what would happen in the US if these votes were taken. It was certainly clear that, by Rousseau's view of things, the US is a very unhealthy country.

One problem that I can't get past (and which would be a major reason for Rousseau to say the US is doomed) is that he says in a healthy government there should be no debate or disagreement about what should be done. If the general will is really being followed, then there will be consensus on what to do and voting/governing will simply be making what everyone already wants to do official. Without offering any arguments against this, because I'm not sure where to start, this view really really bugs me - it just feels wrong. But I'm a strong believer in debate and discussion.

A final snippet from the book: Rousseau also observes that all of the strongest nations have had a national religion which they used to create solidarity and give credence to their laws. He does not think that any nation can tell its people what to believe religiously, but he does believe in a "civil religion" which is a set of beliefs that all citizens have to believe in, for the good of the nation. I'll quote how he describes this:

"The dogmas of the civil religion must be simple and few in number, expressed precisely and without explanations or commentaries. The existence of an omnipotent, intelligent, benevolent divinity that foresees and provides; the life to come; the happiness of the just; the punishment of sinners; the sanctity of the social contract and the law - these are the positive dogmas. As for the negative dogmas, I would limit them to a single one: no intolerance. Intolerance is something which belongs to the religions we have rejected.

In my opinion, those who distinguish between civil and theological intolerance are mistaken. These two forms of intolerance are inseparable. It is impossible to live in peace with people one believes to be damned; to love them would be to hate the God who publishes them; it is an absolute duty either to redeem or to torture them. Wherever theological intolerance is admitted, it is bound to have some civil consequences, and when it does so, the sovereign is not longer sovereign, even in the temporal sphere; at this stage the priests become the real masters, and kinds are only their officers.

Now that there is not, and can no longer be, an exclusive national religion, all religions which themselves tolerate others must be tolerated, provided only that their dogmas contain nothing contrary to the duties of the citizen. But anyone who dares to say 'Outside the church there is no salvation' should be expelled from the state, unless the state is the church and the prince the pontiff. Such a dogma is good only in a theocratic government; in any other, it is pernicious."

I was put off by the positive obligations in belief that he lays out (though he does say later that the nation can't require anyone to hold those beliefs in their heart, only to act as if they do. But I was very interested in his description of how destructive religion can be to a nation, which is why I quoted it at such great length.

Overall, I give this book a +. I don't agree with everything in it, and there were some parts where I got lost (he writes about the Roman government with an assumption that the reader is much more familiar with it than I am). But I thought that it was overall fairly clear and made some interesting points.


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