The Social Contract
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right (1762) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is the book in which Rousseau theorized about the best way in which to set up a political community in the face of the problems of commercial society which he had already identified in his Discourse on Inequality (1754).
Like John Locke, who believed that a government can only be legitimate if it has been sanctioned by the people in the role of the sovereign, Rousseau claimed that a perfect society would be controlled by the "general will" of its populace. While he does not define exactly how this should be accomplished (as there are many possible ways, each suited to different situations), he suggests that assemblies be held in which every citizen can assist in determining the general will. Without this input from the people, there can be no legitimate government. Importantly, this input cannot come from representatives, but must be from the people themselves.
The stated aim of the Social Contract is to determine whether there can be a legitimate political authority. In order to accomplish more and remove himself from the state of nature, man must enter into a Social Contract with others. In this social contract, everyone will be free because all forfeit the same amount of freedom and impose the same duties on all. Rousseau also argues that it is illogical for a man to surrender his freedom for slavery; and so, the participants must be free. Furthermore, although the contract imposes new laws, especially those safeguarding and regulating property, a person can exit it at any time (except in a time of need, for this is desertion), and is again as free as when he was born.
Rousseau posits that any administration, whatever form it takes, should be divided into two parts. First, there must be the sovereign (which could be the whole population if that is the majority's desire) who represents the general will and is the legislative power within the state. The second division is that of the government, being distinct from the sovereign. This division must be since the sovereign cannot deal with particular matters (it is then acting as particular wills and not the general will — the sovereign is no longer whole and therefore ruined), like applications of the law. Therefore a government must be separate from that of the sovereign body.
Rousseau claims that the size of the territory to be governed often decides the nature of the government. Since a government is only as strong as the people, and this strength is absolute, the larger the territory the more strength the government must be able to exert over the populace. In his view, a monarchical government is able to wield the most power over the people since it has to devote less power to itself, while a democracy the least. In general, the larger the bureaucracy, the more power required for government discipline. Normally, this relationship requires the state to be an aristocracy or monarchy. In light of all this, Rousseau argues that, like his native Geneva, small city-states are the form of nation in which freedom can best flourish. For any state large enough to require intermediaries between the people and the government, an elected aristocracy may be preferable, and in very large states a benevolent monarch; but even monarchical rule, to be legitimate, must be subordinate to the sovereign rule of law.