“How to find a form of association which will defend the person and goods of each member with the collective force of all, and under which each individual, while uniting himself with the others, obeys no one but himself, and remains as as before.”
This, Rousseau claims, is “the fundamental problem to which the social contract holds the solution.” That is – given that society is good, how it be reconciled with the ideal of self-rule, of ‘obeying no one but oneself’? It’s a good question. What about his answer?
“These articles of association, rightly understood, are reducible to a single one, namely the total alienation by each associate of himself and all his rights to the whole community.”
This, I think, neatly sums up the most controversial aspect of Rousseau’s project in this book. At first sight it looks almost paradoxical: how can the way to remain free be to give up, not only all your rights, but even yourself as well, to the community? Isn’t that, like, the opposite of what he said he wanted?
I think that ultimately this incredulous response is right: what Rousseau offers is not an adequate answer to the problem he raises. But I also think that it maybe should not be written off too quickly. So in this post I’ll be mainly trying to put Rousseau as sympathetically as possible, so as to see exactly how far his argument goes, and where it fails.
So, let’s consider how he justifies the striking claim that we can only ‘remain as free as before’ by ‘the total alienation of all our rights’:
“in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others.
Moreover…if the individuals retained certain rights, as there would be no common superior to decide between them and the public, each, being on one point his own judge, would ask to be so on all…and the association would necessarily become inoperative or tyrannical.
Finally, each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody; and as there is no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right as he yields others over himself, he gains an equivalent for everything he loses.”
In short, Rousseau seems to be arguing as follows: only by making the submission total, can we have equality. Consider a claim he makes a few pages later: “the social pact, far from destroying natural equality, substitutes, on the contrary, a moral and lawful equality for whatever physical inequality nature may have imposed on mankind; so that however unequal in strength and intelligence, men become equal by covenant and by right.”
Now one response would be to invoke the typical themes of right-libertarianism: this is levelling down, removing rights so that people are left, at the end, with equally few. It just shows that freedom and equality are in conflict, and we should simply prefer freedom. Now, whatever merit this position has, it would have when the ‘equality’ in question were equality of happiness (or well-being, pleasure, food, money, or anything else taken as a rough measure of ‘utility’). But it isn’t here – it’s crucially equality of power. And being unhappy about inequalities of power isn’t an alternative to valuing freedom, it’s a way of valuing freedom – if people have unequal power, those with more power are able to use it to control the actions of those with less (both deliberately and, sometimes, even without wanting to). Hence Rousseau’s concern with ‘obeying no-one but yourself’. To accept the legitimacy of an unequal society is to accept obligations upon oneself to ‘obey’ others, to guide your actions not by your own will but by theirs.
For these reasons I think we at least need to take Rousseau’s arguments seriously. If he is correct that absolute submission of individuals to society is necessary for equality, that would be a significant conclusion (whether it would be an overriding conclusion, that trumped competing considerations, is another matter). So is he?
Consider, by analogy, a romantic relationship. Suppose that you, dear reader, are socially awkward, conventionally unattractive, and lack many of the things that make it easy to find partners. Your partner, on the other hand, is charming, gorgeous, rich and stylish, and constantly has people falling at or on their feet. Now, imagine various possible forms that the relationship could take. It might be an open one, or one in which both partners kept dating and were willing to end the relationship if they found someone better who they cared for more. Does that affect the two of you equally? Of course not – it will probably gain you nothing, while allowing your partner to have multiple cakes and eat them. Or at least you might feel that way.
Similarly, what if the relationship, though not officially ‘open’, is casual in the sense that both parties are explicitly recognised as having the right to leave as soon as they feel like. Compare this with a formal or informal commitment, a promise or marriage ceremony, anything whereby each partner says ‘I am committed to this relationship, I will try to make work, and will stick with it if at all possible.’ It seems as though the less the commitment, the greater the ‘advantage’ that your partner gets from their greater attractiveness or popularity, the greater the discrepancy in dependency. If your partner can find someone new for every day of the week, they can better afford for this relationship to go badly, they are more independent – while you, having few if any other options, need it and need them more. But if the level of ‘commitment’ is raised, even if only emotionally, then leaving becomes harder and so they’re ‘advantage’ becomes less.
On the other hand, if commitment isn’t equal, if you’re very committed and they don’t really mind, then again it can feel that this affects the dynamics – it makes them more powerful, more independent, and you relatively dependent upon them. You might be ok with this, of course – you might even fetishise it. But in general, people like power and it seems generally better for people to be equally in control of, and equally vulnerable in, whatever relationships they enter into (other things being equal).
So in general, and setting aside the one-sidedness of discussing romantic relationships in such antagonistic terms, it does seem to be true both that low levels of commitment leave those with greater natural advantages in a more powerful position, and also that uneven levels of commitment leave the less committed in a more powerful position. That then seems to mean that for equality of power, equal high levels of commitment are ideal. And if everyone gives up all of their natural rights, then everyone is (and must be!) committed – everyone is in the same boat, and nobody can swim.
So I think there is some merit in this argument. But there are also, I think, a lot of holes.
Even if we grant that low levels of enforced commitment, i.e. leaving people with extensive rights against the community, might mean greater powers for those with greater pre-existing advantages, it’s not clear that this couldn’t be cancelled out by making specific distributions to empower the less advantaged. I’m not talking so much about property (Rousseau’s take on that is a whole other issue) but ‘natural’ advantages. We already do this in some ways – for instance, in relieving people of certain obligations (e.g. to work in order to get X money) if they’re disabled, and providing them with other things to make them more secure and capable, funded by taxation on general economic activity (that’s not to make any judgement about modern society and its treatment of disabled people overally, merely to observe that the principle here is already accepted in some cases).
To this it might be objected that this would require an already-established social body to make those decisions – but since we are trying to set up a social body, we cannot presume that. We need equality from the word ‘go’. This may well be invalid, for the reasons discussed in my last post. Even if it weren’t, it ignores a very important point about ‘natural advantages’ – namely, that it is often largely society that determines what they are and what their extent is. Social model of disability, ‘differently abled’, you know the drill (and if not, google the drill).So the idea of society discovering pre-existing power imbalances that are independent of its own decisions might be considered fictional.
Thirdly, one might just ask whether this issue is really as important as Rousseau seems to make out. If the concern is ‘natural’ advantages, then how much inequality do they really produce – isn’t most of the stuff we think of when we use that word ‘inequality’ (certainly ‘domination’ or similar) 99% social, in that if you want to have power over someone else, simply being stronger or smarter isn’t a very good bet, compared to seeking positions of social power. On the other hand, if it’s something else (like property – it seems likely that part of Rousseau’s intent with his ‘total alienation of oneself and all one’s rights’ talk is to deny the possibility of a contract between an already-rich person or group and already-poor people), then let’s talk about that more specifically (e.g. let’s discuss property rights) and judge how seriously to take the associated forms of inequality.
In response, we might imagine Rousseau saying ‘even if the effect is small, it is important – I demand complete theoretical purity’. If that’s what he demands, though, he seems unlikely to get it. A person who can speak will not cease to be in a position of power over one who can’t, simply by the waving of social-contract-wand. Nor will the more beautiful, the healthier, the smarter. Their advantages may be made less salient, less of a power issue, but they will never disappear until society comes under the control of an omniscient (and hence effectively omnipotent) ruler. And at that point worries about ‘inequality’ will become somewhat superfluous.
In conclusion, then, Rousseau’s argument doesn’t really work. If it tolerates a small level of inequality of power, then it will not compel its conclusion: if it cannot, then it will be forever frustrated in reality. It identifies a genuine point, and something that is worth considering, but overall I think the standard ‘knee-jerk anti-totalitarianism’ response is correct. And fortunately, a deep concern with inequalities of power need not commit one to defending his conclusion.