To what extent Rousseau’s Social Contract Theory is valid nowadays? Modern Political Theory

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To what extent Rousseau’s Social Contract Theory is valid nowadays?

Modern Political Theory

Azamat Kabdrash


Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the thinkers who considered human nature along with state structures to solve social and political problems. In his work «The Social Contract» the main issue that he raises can be formulated as follows: Is it possible to find a way of governing a principality so that it suited both the state of nature and civil laws? In fact, this question still has not found its answer. Nevertheless, I think that many issues that Rousseau wrote about have found places in the way how modern states are governed nowadays. In this paper I will support my opinion by analyzing Rousseau’s Social Contract theory, and giving examples how his statements are related to the real world. In order to investigate his theories, I classified his work into two categories: 1) concerning the ways a society is formed, and 2) the ways a state is formed. Firstly, I will analyze the first and second one separately giving examples of its applications in modern countries. Then, I will try to answer the question to what extent Rousseau’s social contract theory can be justified and applied.

1. Rousseau’s Social Contract Theory. Structure of society

How primitive societies existed before confessing a social pact? Hobbes defined the state of nature of people as «war of all against all» (Hobbes, ch: XIII). To the contrast, Rousseau made his own concept that state of nature of individuals is not a war, but a natural disunity. He explains that war is already a product of an intercourse, and that it does not exist in the state of nature (Rousseau, 46). Then Rousseau talks about might and right. Concerning might or strength, he says that there is no concept of «strength of the stronger», because it disappears along with the source of that strength, or if there is someone who is stronger. When it comes to right or freedom of right, Rousseau says that, it is common for everyone. So, every individual by nature has a freedom (Rousseau, 43−46). But, Rousseau’s first postulating which opens his book, and which is the main problem he wanted to solve is the following: «man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains» (Rousseau, 41). So, he refers to the problems of inequality, injustice and slavery. He argues that «Force made the first slaves, and their cowardice perpetuated the condition» (Rousseau, ch: 4). Nevertheless, he says that people always had a necessity to unite. Because, when the necessity to self-preserving overweighs the striving for natural freedom, they voluntarily alienate their freedom and power in order to be in the society, and in that way to be safe. That means that every individual give all their rights to the society. But how they benefit then? So, this is the main purpose of the social contract — to make such form of organization, in which every individual give his natural liberty and take it (liberty) from the society. His liberty and power return to him within the community. In addition, everyone takes back not only what he gives, but more power to preserve it as well. So, making a social contract, every individual moves from the state of nature to the civil state, creating a society, a government. What does it mean? Rousseau asserts that, first of all, people themselves change: instinct is replaced with the sense of justice and with equality principle (Rousseau, 53). I think, Rousseau found the right reason why people unite, which is self-preserving, but his conclusion that social contract would make people again equal, as it was in primitive societies is wrong. So, for Rousseau, it was enough to put people to the same conditions, giving the same education and that it would equalize everyone. Famous French thinker, Voltaire, said an opposite argument: «In our unhappy world it is impossible for men living in society not to be divided into two classes: The rich who command, and the poor who serve… human race is as it is — different"(chnm. gmu. edu). I agree with Voltaire, not because there necessarily should be poor and rich, but because of unequal human nature: you cannot teach everyone to play music, to write poems, or to make surgeries. People have different preferences; they are born different, think and act differently.

Rousseau asserts that along with movement to civil state property acquisition appears. He also says that in the state of nature there is no such thing. Because if one captured something, it is not guaranteed that another one cannot do the same (Rousseau, ch: 9). It is very similar to the right of the strongest. While entering the social pact, individual give everything to the society: power, freedom, property. At the same time society gives it back with securing the rights to that property to the extent that it is enough to survival, and also setting a rejection to other properties as well. So, it indicates that the right to own a property also means that you cannot own other’s properties. These statements can be found in communist ideology, where equality was the main proposition. In fact, if to look into communist ideology, it can be concluded that it has nothing in common with development and social welfare (e.g. Vietnam, Laos, Cuba). De Tocqueville (1835) argues that freedom and private property can only co-exist along with democratic regime, while intervention of government to economy and to freedom of citizens creates serious danger to that. Whereas, communist ideology mainly has a command economy which obliges a government to directly intervene to economy and citizens' life. That could destroy social inequality and make all people equal, but it would make them equally poor, having law rate of wellbeing or social-economic development. So, from this I conclude that as Rousseau’s theory of property and equality is mainly reflected in communist ideology, it is not efficient and cannot be applied in the world where social welfare requires high prosperity level.

There is also another quite similar analogy to Rousseau’s offer in modern world that are used to equalize the distribution of wealth among its citizens. For example, progressive taxation, the system that takes a greater percentage of income from those who are relatively wealthy. It is used in many developed countries such as UK, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, etc. However, even in this case Shively (2011) claims that «tax policies overall have not changed the distribution of incomes very much». Therefore, considering these examples, I would say that Rousseau’s theory of making people equal is not really accurate. I think it was just a utopia or may be an issue that needs completely different ways of solving.

Rousseau talks about another fundamental concept in the social contract — general will. It is not the sum of private wills, but movement to one single will that is run by the general aim of everybody, which is common welfare («equally upright») (Rousseau, 59). As a result, the decisions made according to the general will are always right, because no private interests are concerned. But how the decisions should be made if there are different opinions about that? Rousseau solves this by explaining that the general will is the one which got the majority of votes, even if there is only one vote overweighing (Rousseau, 59−60). What do non-contents do then? If a one’s private opinion contradicts the general will, that just means that he was wrong, and he is happy that he now knows the truth. I associate this theory with French Revolution. Despite the fact that it was initially started for the sake of common welfare and happiness, it brought a lot of death and anxiety. The main reason was that people were not ready to unite for the sake of so called «general will». The revolutionists thought that people would act naturally creating common good reserves. But as it turned out that people’s nature was not commonality but selfishness, the revolution took different character which was similar to dictatorship. To sum up the points mentioned above, I claim that general will cannot be an assurance of real governmental system. Again I refer to people’s natural inequality, that people want different things. Therefore, they need a system with rules and orders.

General will is closely related to sovereignty. It is the power over its members which run by general will and which perform the general will. Rousseau says that sovereignty has two main properties: it is inalienable (a will cannot be passed on, Sovereign represents itself) and indivisible (Rousseau, 57−58). How the sovereignty is realized? In others words, how is the society governed? The answer is by laws. A law in its turn is a result of collective decision, which never considers private interests. Purpose of any law is a social welfare which is expressed in terms of liberty and equality. One of the most difficult questions then is — who can issue these laws? Rousseau says that a lawgiver should be supremely intelligent, impassive and willing to work selflessly for the sake of people (Rousseau, 68−70). In other words he should resemble a divine creature. He must not have a power, but his position is the highest. What is necessary to maintain the effectiveness of laws? Rousseau says that laws should regularly be updated in regular meetings. Uppermost, none of the authorities has a power during such meetings. Secondly, all people should gather by themselves without any representatives (Rousseau, book 2, ch: 8). Mostly these theories happen in Switzerland. In the 136th article of Swiss Constitution the following laws are written: «All Swiss citizens over the age of eighteen, unless they lack legal capacity due to mental illness or mental incapacity, have political rights in federal matters. All citizens have the same political rights and duties. They may participate in elections to the National Council and in federal popular votes, and launch or sign popular initiatives and requests for referendums in federal matters (Swiss Constitution, 1999)». It reflects Rousseau’s theories more than any other of states' constitutions. As a result Switzerland reaps what it sows. It has one of the highest social welfare and equality indexes worldwide (oecdbetterlifeindex. org).

2. Establishment of Government

Now, we’ve come to issues considering the structure of government. The Sovereign make laws and represents the general will, but who has the power to carry them out? The sovereign «hires» government representatives in orders to have an executive power. Rousseau says that it is compulsory to have separate legislative and executive powers to maintain the equality (Rousseau, book 3). Then he talks about the forms of government that sovereign can choose. It depends on several factors. Uppermost, it depends on climate. It is more difficult to the government and the sovereign to maintain regular communications at large distances, thus it needs more power. This, in its turn, leads to monarchy. Conversely, a small territory with better climate is a good prerequisite for democracy. Forms of government differ from each other by capacity of its power and by the degree of liberty. Other than mentioned features, it is necessary to democracy to have meetings with all of its members who are equal socially and have equal powers. Aristocracy — is one of the forms where there are several people on the head of the government. Rousseau says that is the most effective when these people are elected, not when it is hereditary. The next and the most dangerous form of a government is monarchy. It differs from others by quick decision making and limitless power of the governor. Also, there is a highest probability there that it moves to dictatorship or despotism. Rousseau admits that it is not possible to have pure forms of any of these governments. So, it creates conditions for formation of mixed government (Rousseau, 89−100). British Parliament is a good example of mixed governments, with reduced power of monarchy and with other organs like, House of Common, House of Lords, and a prime minister (thebritishparliament. blogspot. com). Rousseau talks about another body in the government which is called tribunate. Its function is to maintain the power between the sovereign and the government, itself being completely independent. It is like a judge who preserves the balance, having no legislative or executive powers (Rousseau 136−137). Switzerland is a good example of non-presidential separated power system. Swiss constitution says «The judicial authorities are independent in the exercise of their judicial powers and are bound only by the law» (Art. 191c).

So, it clearly reflects Rousseau’s concept about tribunate. This is the only non-presidential country with separated powers, thus the most suited to Rousseau’s theory of sovereignty. However there are a lot of other developed countries with separated executive and legislative powers with judicial authorities such as UK, US, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Austria, Ghana, Chile, etc. The World Bank Indicator shows that in such countries the government effectiveness index is high. Therefore, I very much agree that Rousseau’s theory of separation of powers is effective and should be the basis of the way government is controlled.

Finally Rousseau emphasizes the importance of censorship and religion. He asserts that people should believe in god, in afterlife and in justice. Censorship, Rousseau claims, is needed to create a morality among people by changing public opinions (Rousseau 141−146). It is clear that, for Rousseau, the prosperity of any government directly depends on its citizens and on their morality and on their general will. As religion and censorship affects these human qualities, it should be an essential part of government.

These were Rousseau’s main principles of having an efficient governmental system. As we can see, not all of his theories are justified and can be implemented in practice. However the principle of equality and consolidation is the main part of any developed democratic country. In fact, Pugachev (2001) argues that the presence of social contract is one of the main characteristics in developing countries with high rate of development. He gives examples of countries which moved to democracy such as Chile after Pinochet and Spain after Franco’s dictatorship, which have significantly increased the level of social welfare since that time.

social powers rousseau


The modern understanding of social contract theory does not involve signing a document, because it would have such an infinite content that is difficult to compose, and even more difficult to exercise. However, there are different models of social contract theory traced in world politics. But their main purpose is the same — to achieve an agreement and compromise regarding law and order within society. Such attempts to realize social contract occur in countries mainly with social democracy and liberal democracy. Because, Shively (2011) said «democracy is government of the people, therefore, there is also a sense that the full population of citizens will be actively engaged between election in debate over alternative policies and in the work of setting the policies» (p. 151). By this point, I think, I have answered the question whether social contract theory is valid nowadays.

To sum up, Rousseau emphasizes the positive qualities and moral values of human beings, and that if to put all people to conditions where only natural feelings can rule, the society would flourish. But what is substantial is that history shows us opposite, it proves that this theory cannot be justified


De Toqueville, Alexis, 1835. «Democracy in America», trans. Henry Reeve. Pennsylvania State University, p. 76−77, © 2013.

Hobbes, Thomas. «Leviathan», ed. Edwin Curley. United Kingdom, Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2012

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. «The Social Contract and other later political writings», Ed. Victor Gourevitch. United Kingdom, Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Shively, W. Phillips. 2011. «Power and Choice». International Edition. Singapore. p. 112

Swiss Constitution, «Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation», 1999

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