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The Social Contract

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Book II, Chapters 8-12

Book II, Chapters 6-7

Book II, Chapters 8-12, page 2

page 1 of 3

Summary

It is not only difficult to find a good lawgiver, but also difficult to find a people who are suitable for good laws. Rousseau suggests that a state must receive laws relatively early in its existence. If the attempt to give laws is made too soon, the people will not be ready to receive guidance. If the attempt is made too late, the people will have become stuck in their prejudices and will resist the improving influence of good laws. In rare cases, a revolution may permit an older state to regain its freedom under new laws, but such revolutions can only occur once.

Rousseau also remarks that a state must be of moderate size--neither too big nor too small--if it is to do well. In a large state, administration becomes burdensome and costly. Rather than one central government, there will have to be many levels of regional government, with each additional level costing the people. Furthermore, a large government will be less swift and precise in maintaining law and order, and a state spread out over a great area with different customs and climates will be hard-pressed to create one law that is fair to all. On the other hand, a state that is too small is constantly in danger of being swallowed up by neighbors who are in constant friction with it.

There must also be a balance between the number of people and the extent of territory in a state. If a small number of people own a great territory, they will not be able to maintain it all, and will be in constant danger of invasion. If a great number of people own a small territory, they will need to rely on goods from other states to sustain them, and will constantly be tempted to invade their neighbors. There is no magic number to determine the right ratio of population to territory since a great deal hinges on the kind of land, the kind of people, and so on.

The final condition Rousseau lists for the establishment of laws within a state is that it must be enjoying a period of peace and plenty, since the formation and establishment of laws leaves it momentarily vulnerable.

Bearing in mind all the above recommendations, Rousseau notes that there aren't many states fit to receive laws. One case of particular note, however, is Corsica. Rousseau remarks: "I have a presentiment that this little island will one day astonish Europe."

All laws should pursue the principles of freedom and equality. By "equality," Rousseau does not mean that everyone should be exactly the same, but that differences in wealth should not unbalance the state. Within the guidelines of these general principles, however, there is a lot of room for maneuvering. Each state has different needs and interests, and there is not one "right" way that all states must follow. Each state should have laws that harmonize with its natural circumstances.

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