Reading Rousseau’s “Social Contract”: Part 6 – government and democracy

There are really two relationships that are discussed in ‘The Social Contract’: that of individuals with their society, and that of society and the state. So far I’ve been looking at what Rousseau says about the former, and from now on I’ll be dealing more with his views on the latter. This post is a sort of bridge, introducing Rousseau’s view of the state and the related idea of ‘law’.

(Rousseau’s use of words is a little different from what’s common: he uses the word ‘state’ as another word for ‘sovereign’ or, as we might say, ‘the people’, or ‘society’. For what we would call ‘the state’ he uses the terms ‘government’ and ‘prince’)

The essential distinction is that the sovereign – i.e. the assembly of all the people – is the sole legislative authority. It alone can establish the abstract rules according to which the affairs of society will be arranged. The government, by contrast, takes responsibility for the execution of these laws, and hence makes all concrete decisions, all decisions involving particular cases.

While the sovereign is bound to a particular form – a directly democratic assembly – the government can take any form that the laws (established by the sovereign) decide. It may be a democracy itself (in the classical sense), in which case the sovereign and government somewhat coincide. It may be a monarchy or an aristocracy, elective or hereditary, or any number of other forms.

The law also establishes when and how often the sovereign assembly is to be called together, which should be regular but practical. At such times the government’s authority vanishes and the sovereign decides whether to keep or change the current government, and whether to change the laws. The relationship between sovereign and government is essentially one of compulsory employment – the sovereign dictates terms to the government, which has no right to argue back.

Now, there are two questions we might ask Rousseau here. Firstly: why must the legislative power be exercised via. direct democracy? Secondly: why is it fine for the government to be a hereditary monarchy (indeed, Rousseau seems somewhat to prefer certain sorts of aristocracy to democracy, as far as the government is concerned)? That is, why does Rousseau insist on a very stringent sort of democracy in one case, but not in the other?

Given that so much of Rousseau’s argument up to this point has been concerned to affirm people’s equal freedom and the injustice of compulsory control, we might wonder why he doesn’t go all out for democracy.The challenge would suggest something like this: ‘in proportion as decisions are reached democratically, with the active involvement of the people involved, they are more legitimate and the people involved are more free. In proportion as government is taken out of the people’s hands, they are enslaved.’ What can Rousseau say against this?

I think the core of his response is something like this: if 6 people approach me in the street and propose a vote on whether I should be tied up and kept in their basement for a while, and I lose the vote 1 to 6, I am not thereby ‘free’ during my basement captivity. Any number of other people’s wills remain from my perspective an alien will, not a ‘general’ one. Hence, democracy per se is not sufficient for political freedom.

What does Rousseau think is also necessary? He says that “there is only one law which by its nature requires unanimous assent. This is the social pact…apart from this original contract, the votes of the greatest number always bind the rest.” That is, even if I don’t assent to every execution of every law, in entering ‘the social contract’ I essentially say ‘I agree to submit to whatever is the will of this society’s majority, whatever that shall be.’ Similarly, when the majority vote to endorse a given law, they give democratic legitimacy to every act which takes place in accordance with that law (including, e.g., the acts of whatever government it establishes).

So Rousseau says that there are three stages: the social contract itself requires unanimity, the laws require majority, and particular acts of government require only to be in accordance with the laws. The essential idea is that if someone agrees to an abstract principle, then even if they oppose a particular instantiation of it (e.g. one which is disadvantageous to them), this is not a conflict between their will and an alien will, but between their own ‘principled will’ and their own ‘particular desires’. And so in being forced to obey the principle, they remain free, and merely constrain themselves.

Now, the democratic challenger to Rousseau might agree that all of this is necessary for freedom – but not that it is sufficient. That is, they might grant his point that mere majorities of some group are not sufficient, but maintain that they are necessary. Rousseau, on the other hand, says that if there is assent by individuals and majorities at the origin, then this ‘transmits’ to every particular act.

This seems problematic though. Do people know in advance all the outcomes that will follow from a given law or from the social contract itself? If not, isn’t it sort of loan-shark-ish to use their past agreement as a ticket to compel and control them? And even if they did know what they were getting into, the passage of time leads people to change their minds and personalities, and after a certain length of time it seems increasingly unfair to treat every past decision as equally binding.

Rousseau does recognise this to a degree. Although he says that individuals assent to all the laws when they enter the social contract, he also says that “each citizen may renounce his membership of the state…on withdrawing from the country”, but this is heavily qualified both by the need to physically leave the country, which Rousseau admits is often, in ‘unfree states’, prevented by “family, property, lack of asylum, necessity or violence”, and in ‘free states’ “none may leave the country to evade his duty…in such a case, flight would be criminal and punishable.” But this takes us back to the issue of individual rights discussed last post.

He also says “it is not enough that the assembled people should have once determined the constitution of the state… [and] set up a perpetual government…in addition to the extraordinary assemblies that unforeseen events may necessitate, there must be fixed and periodic assemblies which nothing can abolish.” He is also, note, scathingly contemptuous of ‘representatives’. But the timing of these regular assemblies is left entirely open.

It seems that Rousseau would consider it binding for a group of people to set up as their constitution “we will select 1 person randomly and make them dictator for life, and hold another assembly either when they call it, or in 30 years.” If, 20 years later, that 1 person has become tyrannical and, armed with a team of lawyers, operates entirely within the law, but sadistically and gleefully, exploiting loopholes and abusin their powers – if they have 5 people thrown in prison on a technicality, are those 5 people ‘free’? Surely it would be absurd to say so. And yet by Rousseau’s principles it seems they are – stupid, no doubt, but suffering in the manner that one suffers while making a bad but free decision.

This, it seems to me, is a reductio of the picture of ‘freedom’ Rousseau presents, in which real consent is made something ‘transcedent’, separate from but justifying the day-to-day decisions of a government. He claims that it makes social constraint into self-constraint, specifically the constraint of one’s selfish desires by one’s rational principles.

But it’s not. The thing which is elevated and made to coerce the person is not ‘their reason’ but how they were reasoning on a particular occasion, with all the contingencies of emotion, circumstance, and ignorance that it involved. To be subordinated for years to yourself at one moment is just as much a sort of enslavement as it is to be subordinated to an addiction or compulsion or neurosis.

Hence, I conclude, the democratic challenge to Rousseau succeeds: it is not enough for the abstract laws to be made democratically every few years, or however long. If Rousseau is committed to re-making society so as to be consistent with freedom, then that same democracy must be present throughout the running of society. That leaves its precise form and limits unspecified – but it does at least rule out 30 years under a king or queen.

Rousseau is very contradictory on the subject of government. The contradiction we’ve considered here is one example of that – in my next post I’ll consider the curious ambivalence in his attitude towards governments, considering them both necessary and yet also sinister.