Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, August 08, 2016

ROUSSEAU: The Social Contract (Public Policy)

Reading Rousseau’s essay on The Social Contract is both an inspiration and a problem for modern American readers.  The Social Contract is the foundation of all legitimate government based on the “general will” of its citizens.  Rousseau believes “the general will alone can guide the forces of the State according to the end for which it was instituted, which is the common good… it is uniquely on the basis of this common interest that society ought to be governed.”  This theory of government is an inspiration for people who want government of the people, by the people and for the people.  But what sounds good in theory presents some problems when trying to figure out how to put it into practice.  How does Rousseau’s theory hold up under closer examination?  For starters, why should we follow the general will?  Because, as Rousseau says, “the private will tends by its nature toward preferences, and the general will toward equality.”  That may be true but here’s the problem.  What Rousseau calls “preferences” other folks call freedom.  And they worry that personal freedoms may get submerged under the power of the general will.  Tocqueville calls this state of affairs the “tyranny of the majority.” (Democracy in America, GB1)  Equality may indeed be a worthy political goal.  But does following the general will (in the name of “equality”) have a levelling effect on society as a whole?  Socrates did not share Rousseau’s trust in the judgment of “the many” in his Apology (GB1).  Rousseau thinks “the general will is always right and always tends toward the public utility.”  Was the general will right in Socrates’ case?  Was it in “the public utility” for the Athenians to execute Socrates?  If they wanted to preserve the peace, then yes, maybe it was.  But if they wanted to pursue the truth, then no, it wasn’t.  The vote for execution was very close, which leads to another problem. 

How do we determine the general will?  Rousseau is aware of this problem and tries to resolve it partially by stating “In order for the general will to be well expressed, it is therefore important that there be no partial society in the State, and that each citizen give only his own opinion.”  What does this mean exactly?  The American Founding Fathers were also concerned about the power and divisiveness of what they called “factions” (Federalist Papers, GB4).  Would Rousseau think modern political parties are a bad idea?  Would he consider the Amish people to be a “partial society” and banish them from living in America?  Tocqueville actually admired the American’s knack of forming local “associations” to take care of local situations and problems.  And Rousseau says each citizen must give up “only that part of his power, goods, and freedom whose use matters to the community; but it must also be agreed that the sovereign alone is the judge of what matters.”  In the United States would Rousseau consider “the sovereign alone” to be the federal government alone?  If so, then how does federal government represent the general will, whereas local government does not?  This matters a great deal when it comes to establishing public policy.  For example, Rousseau says “every authentic act of the general will obligates or favors all citizens equally so that the sovereign knows only the nation as a body and makes no distinctions between any of those who compose it.”  It makes sense that federal government can look after the common good of the whole country better than any state or local government can do.  But this leads to another problem.  If the general will “favors all citizens equally” then what would Rousseau think of federally-sponsored affirmative action programs?  Would he approve of programs designed to create more equality?  It can be argued from a Social Contract perspective that these kinds of programs do contribute to the common good.  But it can also be argued that these programs create a sort of “partial society” where the State is partial to one group of citizens over another.  Reading The Social Contract is a good way to understand certain aspects of political theory.  Turning that theory into public policy can be problematic.


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