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The Social Contract

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Book IV, Chapters 1-4

Book III, Chapters 12-18

Book IV, Chapters 5-9

Summary

Though the general will can be silenced or sold to the highest bidder in states that lack the simplicity of peace, unity, and equality, it can never be annihilated. The general will cannot be changed, but it can be subordinated to other wills, notably the particular wills of each individual citizen. Even when the will of all ceases to express the general will, the general will continues to exist, however little it is heeded.

Unanimity in popular decisions is a sign of a healthy state. That is a sign that the general will is agreed upon by all. When everyone is expressing only his own particular will, there are bound to be disagreements. In a worst case scenario, unanimity reappears when people vote in accordance with a tyrant either out of fear or flattery.

While the social contract itself must be agreed upon unanimously, and all who dissent from it must be expelled from the state, all other acts of sovereignty may be decided by a majority vote. In matters of great importance, a vote should need something close to unanimity in order to pass, and in unimportant administrative matters, only a majority of one should be needed. Those who take the losing side of a vote are not having their wills counteracted so much as they are found to be mistaken in determining the general will. When acting as a sovereign, people must not vote for what they personally desire but for what they perceive to be the general will.

Rousseau distinguishes between election by lot (choosing at random) and election by choice. The former suits a democracy, where the only fair method of determining who should bear the responsibility of office would be a random one. Election by choice suits aristocracy, since the government should be free to choose its own members. Generally speaking, election by choice is better for filling offices that require a certain degree of expertise (such as military offices), and election by lot is better for filling offices (such as political offices) that require only the common sense, justice, and integrity that should be common to all citizens.

Chapter 4 launches a lengthy discussion of the Roman comitia to show how a large city was able to maintain the sovereignty of the people for such a long time. There were three different popular assemblies. The comitia curiata was made up of only the inhabitants of the city, and not the wealthier citizens in the outlying countryside, and was generally quite corrupt. The comitia tribunata was an assembly of the people that excluded senators and wealthy patricians, thus favoring the voice of the people. The comitia centuriata was an assembly of all citizens, but the vote was weighted heavily in favor of the wealthy. Rousseau particularly admires this last comitia, and notes that, in spite of Rome's immense size, all the people collectively exercised the sovereign powers of enacting laws and electing officials, taking on some executive duties as well.

Commentary

If we recall, the general will is the will that aims at the common good. As a result, the general will continues to exist even if it is totally disregarded. If we recall, Rousseau draws an important distinction between the general will and the particular will of each citizen. Insofar as Rousseau treats the sovereign as one collective individual, the general will is the particular will of this sovereign. Just as the particular will of each individual aims toward that individual's best advantage, the general will aims toward the best advantage of the sovereign, which is the common good.

In a healthy state, citizens see themselves as only a small part of this more important whole. They recognize the general will and they aim for it. In an unhealthy state, citizens lose their sense of civic duty, ignore the general will, and pursue their own interests instead. Even in an unhealthy state, the general will continues to exist so long as the sovereign exists, but the sovereign is in poor shape when no one looks out for its interests.

Decisions of the sovereign are made in the assembly by means of popular vote. When citizens assemble to act as the sovereign, they are expected to place their vote in accordance with what they believe the general will to be. Thus, citizens are expected to vote against their own private interests sometimes if they think that will benefit the state as a whole. In a healthy state, these votes will almost always be unanimous, because all citizens will be intimately aware of the general will and will want nothing more than to vote in accordance with it. If a citizen votes for a losing cause, this should not reflect that his desires are unpopular so much as it reflects that he was mistaken. If he, just like everyone else, votes in accordance with what he believes the general will to be, he will simply have made a mistake and thought that the general will was other than what it is.

There are two related problems with this view. The first is how the citizens are meant to know what the general will is. Suppose the sovereign has to vote on whether Swiss cheese or cheddar should be the official cheese of the state. Not only do most citizens prefer cheddar, but for whatever reasons, cheddar cheese is closer to the common good and so expresses the general will. However, there is a very vocal and very powerful minority that supports the Swiss cheese movement. This minority manages to persuade the people that in fact most people prefer Swiss cheese and that it is in the common interest to vote for Swiss cheese. Even supporters of cheddar cheese will feel obliged to vote in favor of Swiss cheese if they feel this is the expression of the general will.

In Rousseau's system, people don't vote for what they want, but for what they think is best for all. If they can be deceived into thinking that an unpopular and unhealthy choice is in fact in the interests of all, they will be duty-bound to vote for that choice even if it is against their interests. Because citizens in the assembly are not meant to voice personal interests, there is no sure way of finding out that the unpopular choice is in fact unpopular. Rousseau provides no criteria beyond honest intuition for how citizens might determine what they think the general will is.

The second, related problem, has to do with distinguishing between the general will and the will of all. In modern democracies, elections voice the will of all: we add up what each person wants and we go with the most popular choice. In a healthy republic, the will of all and the general will are identical: everyone wants what is in the best interests of the state. However, when people's particular wills start taking precedence over the general will, there will be a great disparity between the two. The problem (which has been mentioned in the ##Commentary section for Book II, Chapters 1-5## is that both the general will and the will of all are determined by popular vote. If both are determined in the same way, how can we distinguish between the two? There seems to be no criteria for how we can look at the results of an election and determine whether the general will was indeed expressed or not. Thus, our nefarious Swiss cheese supporters can pass their law and there will be no objective means of showing that this vote did not express the general will.

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