Rousseau’s Imperfect Improvement on Locke

Rousseau’s On the Social Contract is an attempt to solve the problem of the state’s inherent contradiction between the state’s right to power over men and man’s right to freedom from another’s power. Like Locke, Rousseau considers man’s original position in the state of nature. Unlike Locke, however, Rousseau concludes that such a state of nature is no longer present and can never be returned to. Instead, man has decidedly removed himself from that state of nature and its inherent freedoms in order to secure civil liberties. “Men have reached the point,” says Rousseau, “where obstacles that are harmful to their maintenance in the state of nature gain the upper hand by their resistance to the forces that each individual can bring… Such being the case, that original state [of nature] can no longer be the case” (VI, 919). With each individual too weak to overcome these obstacles (undefined as they are), Rousseau’s natural man combines his desire to unite against these obstacles to overcome them with other men so also naturally inclined in order to preserve their collective security together.  Rousseau’s civil society is thus born.

Rousseau’s civil state, however, does not adequately confront all obstacles or address the new obstacles it creates. Rousseau’s civil society advances its originating cause by maintaining what Rousseau calls the social contract. According to Rousseau, the social contract is “the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the entire community” (VI, 919). In return, each associate’s property and rights are protected equally by all other associates. This relationship forms what Rousseau calls “the general will,” otherwise understood as the embodiment of all individual wills of associates that combine to animate the social contract between them. It is not clear where in this contract, though, the individual’s civil liberty ends for the general will to be honored. In Rousseau’s discussion of the sovereign, for example, he prevaricates on what exactly the community’s responsibilities to each individual are. For example, Rousseau says that “duty and interest each obligate the two parties to come to one another’s aid, and the same men should seek to combine in this two-fold relationship all the advantages that result from it” (VII, 921). Rousseau later asserts that man can, in fact, “have a private will contrary to or different from the general will that he has as a citizen” (VII, 921). It is not clear where in this scheme man must suppress his will or private interest tot he needs of the community or the commands of the sovereign. Rousseau’s society may, therefore, include the seeds of its own destruction, for it appears to countenance a libertarian streak that stands in stark contradiction to the civil state’s animating spark – the social contract.

Whatever its faults, there does appear in Rousseau some clearer examples of economic thinking that precedes the economic discipline. For example, Rousseau’s citation of “credits and debits” on a balance sheet that enumerates the advantages and disadvantages of civil society and its social contract not only invokes the concept of opportunity costs, but also the use quantitative measures for social observations. Rousseau also appears to address one of Locke’s weaknesses – Locke’s amorphous concept of property. According to Rousseau, one of civil society’s credits is its unabashed elimination of a right to property through such narrow means as that of combining labor with unowned goods. For Rousseau argues that “what man loses through the social contract is his unlimited right to everything that tempts him and that he can acquire” (VIII, 922). What man gains instead is proprietary ownership, which we can understand as ownership of a particular portion of what is otherwise the community’s property; ownership made possible through the assent of the people and their general will’s expression through the sovereign.

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