Famed French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote “The Social Contract” in 1762 and statist political philosophy has never been the same since. For those not familiar, the argument goes that when we are born we all enter into a social contract wherein we give up rights to the government for mutual protection.

Lysander Spooner says, "Social contract? I didn't sign shit."

To which the astute Lyssander Spooner once retorted, “I didn’t sign shit!”

This has been used for many bad ideas from Thomas Hobbes’ totalitarian state to John Rawls’ softer socialism. Yet Rousseau’s famous book on the subject advocates something more libertarian than what many advocates of big government social contracts would expect.

Function over Form

Rousseau’s social contract is less concerned with the form and more with the functional characteristics of a society, leaving the door open for undemocratic monarchies. The only valid measure of a government for him is that it reflects the general will.

Does a particular monarchy reflect the general will? If so, Rousseau would not frown upon it even though he makes it clear that he believe monarchies are the most difficult, if not impossible, to be meet his criteria of a good government.

Does America’s democracy reflect the general will of Americans, given that Trump was elected with only 25.7% of Americans voting for him? Could Clinton with 26.8% have done any better? Our democracy doesn’t seem very successful by Rousseau’s measure.

Against Pluralism

A second unusual angle, though a very insightful one, is that he is more concerned with the moral qualities of a people in the society than its government, which is to say that a good government is largely a reflection of a good people rather than the other way around, and that a government that is effective for a good people is not necessarily effective for a corrupt populace. He believes a moral people will generally have common interests that can unify into a common government policy while immoral corrupt people will have innumerable personal interests all at odds with each other where each small minority tries to force itself upon the myriad other minorities.

Yet he recognizes that sometimes even good people do not always have common interests. Perhaps in America the interests of rural communities are very different than that of urban communities, and that of cities economically dependent on foreign imports very different from those dependent on exporting. If you have a people in which there are multiple factions whose interests are all justifiable, but are also justifiably at odds with each other, then Rousseau argues that this society will be dysfunctional unless they part ways.

Given the recurring theme in modern America of divided politics (which means a divided people), Rousseau’s points bring up a provocative proposition for Americans. Is the cause of divisiveness a reflection of pervasive moral corruption, or one in which different people have justifiably different interests? If the latter then does that mean secession?

Rousseau argues it does. His ideal society is one in which there is no disagreement on political interests. Should there be a law against this or that, a treaty with this of that nation, a war? In Rousseau’s view of a well constituted society, there would be little to no dissent on such important matters because everyone’s common interest would be the same. When there is a large dissent then Rousseau argues it is a sign that the government rules over too large a people. Like a dysfunctional family, each faction will try to force its will on the other, resulting in self-destruction of the society over the long run, unless they part ways.

Powerful but Small

The third unusual angle is his view on the size and power of government. At times the book sounds anarchic. At other times it is dictatorial, even arguing that a dictator is justifiable in specific conditions. He gives examples from Rome of how dictators were used effectively, and also cases where they were used ineffectively, ultimately leading to the death of the Roman republic and its liberties.

The reason for this is due to his strange view on the strength and physical size of government. The size, he argues, ought be very small. City-state small, like Monaco and Luxembourg, or Chicago and its surrounding county being a nation state. From this point of view, he certainly sounds quasi-anarchic. And so you read rhetoric where Rousseau attacks governments that rule large societies with too much pluralism as dysfunctional, calling them tyrannical and sounding like Thomas Paine railing against the king. Yet within this very tiny society, he argues for a strong, powerful government that rules over everything, even over religion. Then suddenly he sounds not like Thomas Paine but rather Thomas Hobbes!

His point is to keep unity above all else. And that is what unites this odd combination. A society is harder to unify the larger it gets due to increased diversity. (The etymological roots of the words “unity” and “diversity” are antonyms in Latin, and so the EU’s motto “united in diversity” would make no sense to Rousseau.) Yet he argues this geographically small government should be powerfully large enough to shape future generations to conform to the general will of its predecessors so as to avoid future disunity.

He may not be completely incorrect, given Scandinavia. Those are perhaps the closest societies to fulfill Rousseau’s vision. The Scandinavian countries are small and very politically unified. Socialists point to them as utopian model society Americans should immitate, with the highest rates of happiness in the world despite also having some of the highest rates of taxation. Yes, but the difference is maybe 80-90% of their population supports the system. You can accomplish that level of political unity in a culturally homogeneous nation of almost 40% fewer people than live in New York City. You can’t accomplish that system in a highly heterogeneous nation of 328 million people with conflicting interests like the USA.

Conclusion

No, this is not a libertarian book. His ideals do not match mine. Yet his perspective provides an interesting critique of the dysfunction that plagues our modern society even if his prescription for the problem is objectionable. For that it is worth reading.

The book is short. It can be read without any pre-reading, but there are two things that would be helpful. “Leviathan” by Thomas Hobbes is often cited, as is Grotius (though the latter, whom I’ve not read, seems similar to Hobbes). Having some familiarity with “Leviathan” will make “The Social Contract” easier to appreciate, including some of Rousseau’s jokes that poke fun of Hobbes. The second is that there is a chapter that delves heavily into Rome. Being familiar with the fall of the Roman Republic is helpful: how the tribune of the plebs usurped power, the Catiline conspiracy during the days of Cicero, and ultimately Caesar’s usurpation as emperor. And besides this book, that’s a fascinating tale from history and is worth reading for its own sake!