Read with me: The Social Contract, Part III

Welcome to Part III of my Read Along of Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s The Social Contract, published in 1762. It is perhaps one of Rousseau’s most memorable and influential works, and contributed significantly to the philosophy of the social contract — that is, the idea that, in a society, people consent to give up some freedoms for the security offered by participation in said society. This series will take a deep dive into Rousseau’s take on the issue, going section by section through his book and in each outlining Rousseau’s key ideas and arguments. I’ll then provide some commentary, thinking about how these ideas might work (or not) in our contemporary moment.

See Part I here.

See Part II here.

Book III (Part I)

I should warn my readers that this chapter must be read without haste, and that I am ignorant of the art of making myself clear to those who do not wish to concentrate.

With his ideas on the foundations of society outlined in the previous two chapters, Rousseau uses this book to define the systems of government that might sit atop these foundations. He focuses his attention on the executive branch of government — what he compares to the will or mind, as opposed to the legislative, which compares to the force or body. While legislative power belongs to the people, executive power cannot (or should not) belong to all, or even most citizens. The executive sits outside of the sovereign (the body politic as citizens in their collectively active mode), and acts as an agent, following the direction of the general will, and providing a metaphorical means of communicating between the state (the body politic as subjects in their collectively passive mode) and the sovereign. The executive is entrusted with the execution of laws, and with the maintenance of liberty. As Rousseau summarises, the “government taken absolutely is only a function or employment, in which the agents of the sovereign exercise in its name the power which it has deposited with them, and which it may limit, modify, or take back when it pleases”.

The sovereign therefore gives commands to the government, and the government translates these commands into laws for the state. In other words, the people, in their capacity as citizens, tell the government how they want to be governed in their capacity as subjects. Any breakdown can result in failure of the system: “if the sovereign insists on governing, or the subjects refuse to obey, control is replaced by disorder, will and force no long act in harmony, and the state disintegrates, falling into despotism or anarchy”. With this system comes implications for the size of the body politic. In any state, each subject counts only as one, but the sovereign, which exercises authority over each subject, may be made up of any number of citizens.

A sovereign of 10,000 citizens means that the individual citizen’s power counts only as 1 in 10,000. The more people, the wider the gap grows between subject and sovereign. The larger the state, Rousseau asserts, the less liberty each individual has, for the individual will becomes a smaller part of the general will. With a larger population also comes the need for more restraint, and thus requires a more powerful government. This means that there is also more scope for abuse of power by the government, so the sovereign will need to be similarly empowered to offset and restrain the government. The type of organisation that each country’s government will have is therefore idiosyncratic.

Furthermore, the government will be made of individuals as much as the sovereign is, and they will have their own individual wills that make up the will of the ruling body. It is evident that for best results the dominant will of the ruling body should be matched to the general will. Any act of independence by the government will ruin the cohesiveness between the ruling body and the public. Given that the ruling body is made up of people, however, they will have their own interests, and the ruling body itself will seek self-preservation. It is imperative, Rousseau stresses, that those in power are “always ready to sacrifice the government to the people, and not the people to the government”.

And yet the government still suffers from the same numerical implications that the state itself suffers from, with the number of people in the ruling body affecting the power each individual official has. Further, with a bigger government comes increased costs — the more time and money the government spends on its members, the less it can spend on the people as a whole. Therefore, the more officers of government, the weaker it is. Its three wills — the individual will, the collective will of the ruling body, and the general will of the people they represent — should lean more towards the general will. Yet for each individual, the priorities will be reversed, and they will tend more towards their own interests. 

The less people there are, the less difference there will be between the individual and collective wills, so these will at least match — but they could still divert radically from the general will. Conversely, if the entire sovereign body were also the government, then the collective will would match the general will. Both forms have their consequences. The more people, Rousseau asserts, the slower the decisions, the more prudent people are, and the less risks the ruling body would take. There is therefore a trade off to be made — the bigger the government, the closer to the general will it becomes, but the less powerful; the smaller the government, the more powerful it is, but the further from the general will.

With these principles thus laid down, Rousseau explores three different types of government: Democracy, Aristocracy, and Monarchy. Note here — and this will become apparent soon — that democracy as Rousseau describes it is not the same as we consider it today. A Democracy has the most people involved in the government, typically the majority of the population (so anywhere between 50% and 100% of the population), while an Aristocracy has a minority of citizens involved collectively in the government (anything under 50% but more than a few), and a Monarchy has a single person, or perhaps two and maybe three people, in the government. These forms can be arranged differently and used together, with separate branches of government adopting variants of particular styles. Different forms will also suit different sized states better — smaller states can be governed well as democracies, while large states will require a monarchy because of the need for powerful government (in accordance with Rousseau’s earlier assertion). Let’s look at these three systems in more detail.

A Democracy is where the executive is effectively the same as the legislative, and the majority of people together form the ruling body and hold executive power. This is not without its problems, as Rousseau points out; indeed, he is very critical of this form. It is against the natural order, he asserts, that the majority should govern the minority. Further, with the division of government, the smallest body will end up with the most responsibilities anyway, because it is they who can make the quickest decisions and thus exercise the most power. There are also practical difficulties in assembling people for discussions (which Rousseau is careful to list — I won’t repeat them all here). Finally, the form of the state would change too quickly as the population changes, and this could lead to civil war.

An Aristocracy is where the government is kept separate from the sovereign. In its natural form, the heads of families or the elders may have gotten together to debate policies. In its elective form, driven by the “inequalities of society”, wealth or power are preferred to age, and the government is elected. In its hereditary form, those few in charge may have the right to govern passed down to them, and they may pass it down to their children. The natural form is good for simple societies, while hereditary is the worst, and the elective is the best. Elections can select for integrity, intelligence, and experience better than the others. With smaller numbers in power, it is easier to arrange assemblies, to hold debates, and for respected figureheads to represent the nation. It also requires, however, that the rich should use their wealth moderately, and the poor should be content with their lot, for there is no way to have strict equality.

A Monarchy is where the ruling body consists of one person, or perhaps two, for example a king and a queen. It is where “the will of the people, the will of the ruler, the public strength of the state, the private strength of the government, all respond to a single impulse”; “under no other constitution that can be imagined”, Rousseau asserts, “does less effort produce greater action”. And yet a king often desires his people be wretched, weak and fearful, for the power that comes from love is often “precarious and conditional”. It is a system suited to larger states, for in smaller states the distance between ruler and ruled is too great, and the graded ranks, such as lords and nobility, would cause a loss of cohesion within society. There are problems with monarchy in bigger societies, too. A large state is difficult to govern well, and a key problem with kings is that they are often incompetent — electing a king might avoid this (“it is almost as uncommon to find a minister of genuine ability under a monarchy as a fool at the head of a republican government”). The ruler is likely to focus on his own projects that the interests of his people. There is also the problem of succession, which is subject to intrigue and corruption in selecting an heir, though this is partly avoided through the hereditary system. Monarchical systems are also subject to the whims of the ruler, even with ministers, whose departmental policy can change quickly as they are replaced. Chance might produce a good king, but a good kind every now and then does not make it a good system: “everyone knows that when we have a bad government we must put up with it; the question is how to find a good one”.

These three different forms can be mixed. The separate functions of government can take different forms, and powers can be delegated. Simpler is better, however, and while divisions of government can help balance power between the executive and legislative, division can also strengthen the arms of government when new powers are introduced.

The systems will undoubtedly vary by country. Given that public people consume but do not produce, a large government will require a large surplus in production. This surplus will vary based on climate and soil. There will also be variances in taxation, with quicker redistribution meaning that people will be happier with higher taxes, while tax will feel more burdensome as the distance between people and government increases. As such, monarchy is better suited to prosperous nations, aristocracy to moderate, and democracy to poorer nations. Indeed, more prosperous nations should be monarchies, Rousseau argues, because surpluses are better spent on the luxuries of royalty on than private citizens. Indeed, the rate of consumption will depend on the climate, while the climate will effect the choice of clothing, and with the choice of clothing how luxury is expressed. Cold countries are more densely populated, which makes rebellion easier, while it is easier for despotic rulers to rule hot countries.

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Given the length of this book, I have preferred to split it into two, and deal with the two parts separately. This section, which focuses predominantly on the systems of government, is one of the most intelligible parts of The Social Contract so far. It also has some fantastic passages on monarchy, which read as thinly veiled critiques of European systems of government, and in particular the French. It is easy to see why Rousseau got into trouble. 

I wonder, on this point, how Rousseau would feel about presidential systems. Reading this, the difference between a president and a king seems to become less obvious — it is still power concentrated into one hand; there are the problems of succession that Rousseau warns about when the monarchy is not hereditary. And yet even some of the key differentials that Rousseau does draw between hereditary and elected systems ring hollow today — is it really the case that a system of elections can properly screen for fools? I don’t want to labour this point; suffice to say that campaign spending and control of the media (and how it exploits peoples’ fears and prejudices) are key impediments to keeping elections free and fair. It is probably, as Rousseau points out, that the rich are not using their wealth “moderately”.

It is also interesting to think of our elected officials as aristocrats – there is a further point here about the monarchy which I think also rings true for those elected into power. Rousseau comments, on the topic of kings, that the best ruler is one who understands what it is to obey. He argues that “the great kings most celebrated in history were not brought up to rule; it is a form of knowledge that is known least well by those who have studied it most, and which is better acquired by obedience than by giving orders”; and then, quoting Tacitus: “for the quickest and best way of deciding between good things and bad is to ask what you would have wanted and would not have wanted if someone else had been the ruler”. This made me think almost instantly of Eton in the UK, and the way it is treated as a factory for each generation of political leaders. Bringing people up to be the leaders of tomorrow risks distancing them from the fact that Rousseau states. Better leaders may be found among the rest of the population who have grown up never knowing power, or ever being expected to use it.

Rousseau also makes some excellent points about taxation. Given his criticisms of both monarchy and democracy (as he defines it), and his advocacy for the elected-aristocratic form of government (which more closely resembles at least the UK system, the similarities between presidential and monarchic systems not withstanding), Rousseau probably prefers medium-size, moderately wealthy states. (This is also reinforced by his advocacy for smaller states when it comes to establishing the contract.) Within this, he also discusses how taxation can feel more burdensome the further away subjects feel from their government. I agree here — I think that people will be most likely to tolerate high levels of taxation when they can see where it is being spent, and who it is being spent on. Redistribution will sting less if you know that your taxes are going towards solving problems in your area. If it is helping the homeless who live on your streets, or filling in potholes in your roads — and you can see the results — the taxes will appear well spent. But if you live in a country of millions, and the money goes into a collective pot, and is spent in abstract ways on programmes you don’t use that have effects you can’t see, then you will start to wonder if that money would be better off left in your pay packet than going into government coffers, regardless of how worthy the causes might be. A lot of these issues would be solved with greater transparency, but they would also be solved with more localised systems of taxation. There would, of course, still need to be national systems of taxation to account for regional inequalities and national projects (such as infrastructure) — though is is a debate for another time.

Rousseau continues his habit of not just arguing that legitimacy comes from the contract, but also subtly inserting things into the assumed contract without actually being direct. Even by theorising about the executive and legislative, Rousseau is assuming something about the nature of what must be in the contract. Laws must be created by the government to be legitimate — he does not allow for the process of customs emerging organically, similar to a form of Common Law, for example. Furthermore, though he stipulates that he is laying down the foundations here to create a theory that can justify legitimacy, rather than designing a system of government, he still gives a value judgement on the different types of government. Not that this is a problem — some of these passages are very entertaining — but the mixed aims muddy the waters somewhat. Is he theorising, or giving practical advice?

There is also a number of problematic assumptions that Rousseau attempts to give legitimacy through mathematical reasoning. Why is it the case that a single person has more power? Rousseau seems to assume that power is static, and that the separation of powers, or the creation of specialised roles would not increase power. Would having a collection of people not allow for ideas to be bounced around and for creativity to flourish better than if one person were in charge? It may be possible in such a context for the larger number of people to act more swiftly than one. These are complicated and nuanced processes, and while Rousseau does pay these complications heed to some extent, I feel he’s a bit too simplistic in his assumptions at points here. 

There are also a number of claims made which are testable and falsifiable, and which could be properly justified with reference to some evidence. That a smaller body within government would end up with the most responsibility and power, for example, is a testable hypothesis, and yet it is a claim for which Rousseau sadly provides no evidence. He also makes a number of claims that rest on the principles of geographical determinism — with some very generalised claims about the nature of “hot” and “cold” countries. A lot of this is blatant rubbish, with hard and fast rules drawn too easily from simplistic assumptions, and no evidence used to back it up.

I am clearly finding this to be a wild read, with so many excellent and engaging passages mixed in with a lot of nonsense. I haven’t, at the time of writing, finished Book III, so I will reserve judgement until then. Like as not some of these themes be revisited in Part IV of this series.

The copy I have is an Oxford World’s Classics edition, translated by Christopher Betts:

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Political Economy and The Social Contract, edited and translated by Christopher Betts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 91-116.

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3 thoughts on “Read with me: The Social Contract, Part III

  1. The links between the weather and revolt certainly brought a smile to my face; recent new about protests across the world continuing whether through earthquakes or through the pandemic (I don’ of course mean the anti-lockdown ones) are proof enough that when a government loses grip on the general will, as it were, weather or other conditions are not going to prevent revolt.

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    1. It probably also links in to recent debates about whether and to what extent climate change will lead to destabilisation in the worst affected areas, especially with droughts/fires/famines/etc. I don’t deny that the environment plays a part in how human society is shaped – I just think it’s not as rigidly deterministic as Rousseau does!

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      1. True. Weather would impact on routines, work culture in general and more. Climate pressures in addition to non responsive governments on the other hand probably will add to the dissatisfaction, enhanced protests etc.

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