Jean-Jacques Rousseau is not only the author of radical freedom, evolution, and equality, but he appears to be the author of the State.  In Book 2, Rousseau find sovereignty in the general will, which acts always for the common good. Private, or particular, wills are bad because they are not common wills/goods.  Rousseau finds the private wills too divisive to society and hostile to the common.

The tomb of Rousseau in the crypt of the Panthéon, Paris

The tomb of Rousseau in the crypt of the Panthéon, Paris

The general will tends toward equality. he asserts.  There is a sense of schizophrenia in all of this because the Swiss emphasized obeying one’s will as the definition of freedom (in Book 1), but now he seems to be saying in book 2 that the individual must obey the State.  Which is it? In the Social Contract it seems he settles on the power of the State.

The general will, he argues, can never err, and upon entering in a compact, the sovereign, which represents the general will, will decide what does  and does not matter in terms of what rights may be alienated.  This means the majority will will determine what the people’s rights are, or which are active.  The general will, though, must come from all and apply to all. But what should the general will be?

It ought not come from the law of nature, or reason per se!  Metaphysical thought only messes up the works.  So, we should look to the State for our moral laws.  From the State comes clarity.  In book 2, chapter 6, Rousseau seems to bring together this nasty little problem with freedom and obedience by stating that submission to the State is freedom because it comes from the general will.  This is good, because we would never harm ourselves, thus, since the general will never errs, and does not harm, it is an expression of freedom!

There is one big problem with all this:  the general will is not wrong, but unenlightened.  This strains the argument in chapter 2 that the general will cannot err.  However, the general will needs guidance.  And who is to provide that guidance?  The legislator.

The Legislator

It is a conspicuous element of the Progressives:  the knowledge the great leader possesses.  But, perhaps this is portentous? The figure is God-like:  someone who knows all about human beings, but experiences none of their “passions.”  This is a person who believes he can change “human nature.”  He must be able to give humans new modes and orders.  It is not like this has not happened before, we have examples–why look at Lycurgus!  Lycurgus, Plutarch tells us, changed the polis of Sparta forcing upon them a communistic form of government.  Those that did not agree were taken care of, or left the city.  His reforms controlled everything from diet, to exchanges, to living arrangements, to family issues–in other words, Lycurgus’s reforms touched every part of human life.

It would be incorrect to say that the legislator forces his will on the people–instead, it would be better to say that the lawmaker guides the people in the direction they ought to go, but only insofar as they can handle the direction they ought to go.  In other words, the people have to be able to endure the laws.

But, if it looks like Rousseau is making the case for the State and big government (as in big administration), think again.  Rousseau sees bureaucracies, and over regulation as the death of the State.  so while he wants the State to be a powerful entity, he does not want he State to regulate, and tax all.  A State that makes a myriad of laws, and different laws for different people, loses the people, and ultimately, the State collapses of its own largess.

Too, the Social bonds of society are strained under a large State.  While Rousseau certainly states that small states are generally better than big ones, he is not saying this is always the case.  He does cast doubt on the realistic survival of big States, but it seems that administration crushes the individual; it also crushes familial bonds.  However, the question is this:  with his focus on State, how could it not become big and regulatory? Does not Rousseau’s thought carry the practical seeds of its own destruction?