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Summary and Critique of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (Part 2)

April 1st, 2008


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The end of Book II consists of Rousseau’s exploration of the kinds of circumstances under which law is most effectively made, specifically in reference to the people for whom the law is to be made, and the nature of those laws. For example, he explains that states are ideally small-to-medium-sized: small enough to be effectively manageable, but large enough so as not to be overrun by neighboring states. The creation and implementation of laws must be timed perfectly, as a people may not yet be ready to be guided, or may have become prejudiced and resistant to the positive changes brought about by good laws. Also, the state in which laws are being established must be in a condition of at least relative peace and plenty, because of the temporary vulnerability and instability caused by a period of laws being implemented.

The goal of any system of law is reducible to two ends: liberty and equality. Here (chapter 11), equality is understood to mean not the complete absence of differences in wealth, but the absence of such differences that would damage the balance of citizens in the state: “but that power shall never be great enough for violence, and shall always be exercised by virtue of rank and law; and that, in respect of riches, no citizen shall ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself. ” Overall, the general criteria for how laws ought to be made depend on circumstances that differ from people to people and place to place.

At the beginning of Book III, Rousseau explains the executive powers of government in terms of will and strength:

Every free action is produced by the concurrence of two causes; one moral, i. e. the will which determines the act; the other physical, i. e. the power which executes it… The body politic has the same motive powers; here too force and will are distinguished, will under the name of legislative power and force under that of executive power. [2]

The government is, importantly, to be distinguished from the Sovereign; in fact, confusion of the two is dangerous. The government deals with particulars (decrees) while the sovereign deals with the general (laws). Somewhat similar to the contract in Hobbes, the government itself is not a party to the social contract; somewhat different from Hobbes, this is because the government is an intermediary body that is created by the general will and can be freely disbanded by the general will.

As to possible forms of government, there are three primary kinds: democracy, when all or almost all the citizens are magistrates; aristocracy, where less than half are magistrates; and monarchy, where few or one are magistrates. However, there is not one universally superior form of government. In the previous chapter, Rousseau notes that the larger the population of a state, the fewer magistrates there should be. Hence, large states are best suited to monarchy, medium to aristocracy, and small to democracy. Though he personally preferred democracy, Rousseau expresses ambivalence toward democracy as well as monarchy. While he explains his concerns about monarchy’s dangerous efficiency and potential for corruption, he also claims, “there has never been a true democracy, and there never will be. ” Only small states with simple and unambitious citizens could remain stable under democratic rule. Overall, though simpler forms of government are preferable to Rousseau, he suggests that mixing forms of government may dissipate the powers of the government relative to the Sovereign.

The Sovereign can maintain itself by meeting in periodic assemblies. Though an impractical demand on the face of it, ancient cities such as Rome managed to do it to some degree. The assemblies are critical because within them, all citizens are as powerful as the magistrates. Because of this, the government may take actions to dissuade such assemblies, which over time may erode the freedom and authority of the Sovereign. At this juncture, Rousseau makes sure to point out that sovereignty can not be represented: “…The moment a people allows itself to be represented, it is no longer free: it no longer exists. ”

As part of a set of entailments of the general will, the latter half of Book IV expresses some specific ideas Rousseau has about the state. In some cases, dictatorship is necessary to avert the collapse the state, though the dictator does not represent the people or the laws; the dictator only acts in accordance with the general will so long as the avoiding the collapse of the state is in it.

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