Rousseaus Social Contract: A Critical Response

Bobby Taylor is a senior at Sullivan South High School in Kingsport, Tennessee.

Political theorists have long attempted to find a plausible rationale for the existence of the coercive State. This quest reached a climax during the Enlightenment when philosophers and political scientists rejoiced over the discovery of a new model depicting the relationship between the individual and the State: the social contract.

According to the theory of the social contract, individuals may leave an anarchic “state of nature” by voluntarily transferring some of their personal rights to the “community” in return for security of life and property. A seemingly rational and practical concept in its general form, the social contract theory began to lose its luster as its proponents clashed over what form the State should take and what rights, if any, the individual should retain.

During this period of intense conflict, French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau produced a seminal work entitled “The Social Contract.” In it Rousseau proposes a visionary society in which all rights and property would be vested in the State, which would be under the direct control of “the People.” Large meetings of the public would be held in order to determine the collective interest as perceived by the “general will”; this the State would then dutifully enforce. Rousseau justifies this strange synthesis of communism and direct democracy by arguing that the abrogation of individual rights would abolish special privileges, and that tyranny would be impossible because the People would never oppress themselves.

“The Social Contract” has been used by both democrats and totalitarians to support their respective positions. This ambiguity is rather symptomatic of the contradictions underlying Rousseau’s entire essay. His work is particularly vulnerable in three essential areas: the formulation of the “general will,” the subordination of individual rights, and the validity of the “social contract” concept.

The term “general will” seemingly implies that there is an interest common to all persons involved. But even if this were true, running a direct democracy on this principle would be hopelessly impractical. Rousseau, after building a heady image of united purpose and brotherhood among the masses, finally admits the impracticality later in the essay and provides a slightly less demanding criterion: majority rule.

By accepting this annotation, however, Rousseau deviates from his position that the People would never oppress themselves. History has clearly shown that majoritarianism without constraints, such as the Bill of Rights, leads to oppression of the minority and State confiscation on a vast scale. The only legitimate conception of the “general will” that would satisfy Rousseau’s great expectations is complete unanimity, and if it could ever be reached in a large body of self-interested individuals, why would the coercive State be needed at all?

Rousseau believes that personal liberty need not be secured since the individual would in a sense rule himself via the “general will.” As we have seen, however, Rousseau’s conception of the “general will” is an inadequate safeguard against tyranny, and in reality the individual citizen would be incessantly victimized by the State. This monstrous miscalculation on Rousseau’s part stems from his regard of human beings as means to higher ends, rather than as ends in themselves. His utter disregard for the rights of man runs directly counter to traditional Western individualism and leaves his ideal society suspended in a sterile moral vacuum.

Finally, Rousseau maintains that the State may exercise complete control over the lives and property of its citizens because these individuals have granted it this right by virtue of the social contract. The term “social contract” works to legitimize actions normally considered to be enslavement and theft, and at first glance the concept seems rather reasonable. Upon further reflection, however, an important question arises: Is the social contract really a contract at all?

Where Rousseau Fails

Contracts by definition must have two basic features: they must be entered into voluntarily and they must also clearly enumerate the rights and duties of the parties involved. Rousseau’s social contract fails miserably on both points.

The social contract is ostensibly voluntary, but any individual refusing to enter into the contract would be forced to flee by the State and would have his land confiscated, though he had not initiated force against anyone. Additionally, the terms of the contract are extraordinarily vague: the contracting individual agrees to grant his precious life, liberty, and property to the State in return for one ineffectual vote in the formulation of a governing but extremely faulty “general will.” This so-called contract is actually the epitome of the one-way street: the State receives everything yet grants nothing and therefore holds all the cards. The fact that no contract even faintly resembling Rousseau’s has ever appeared in the free market is ample proof that such an agreement would never be accepted by anyone—except, perhaps, at the point of a gun.

Although “The Social Contract” is a blatantly anti-libertarian document, it should be read and studied closely by all students of the free society. In Rousseau’s work one can discover the roots of contemporary socialism and can see the mass of contradictions and fallacies underlying this morally bankrupt ideology, unobstructed by the clever rhetorical devices of modern collectivists. The principles espoused by Rousseau in his essay haunt us even today, and until they are finally faced, the specter of tyranny will continue to hang like a pall over the Western conscience.

Jean Jacques Rousseau 1712-1778

“Whoever ventures to undertake the founding of a nation should feel himself capable of changing human nature, so to speak, of transforming each individual, who by himself is a perfect and separate whole, into a part of a greater whole, from which that individual receives all or part of his life and his being; of changing the constitution of man in order to fortify it; of substituting a partial and moral existence ,for the physical and independent existence that we have all received from Nature. In a word, he must be able to deprive man of his own powers in order to give him those that are foreign to him. . . .”

from The Social Contract