With the famous phrase, "man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains," Rousseau asserts that modern states repress the physical freedom that is our birthright, and do nothing to secure the civil freedom for the sake of which we enter into civil society. Legitimate political authority, he suggests, comes only from a social contract agreed upon by all citizens for their mutual preservation.
Rousseau calls the collective grouping of all citizens the "sovereign," and claims that it should be considered in many ways to be like an individual person. While each individual has a particular will that aims for his own best interest, the sovereign expresses the general will that aims for the common good. The sovereign only has authority over matters that are of public concern, but in this domain its authority is absolute: Rousseau recommends the death penalty for those who violate the social contract.
The general will finds its clearest expression in the general and abstract laws of the state, which are created early in that state's life by an impartial, non-citizen lawgiver. All laws must ensure liberty and equality: beyond that, they may vary depending on local circumstances.
While the sovereign exercises legislative power by means of the laws, states also need a government to exercise executive power, carrying out day-to-day business. There are many different forms of government, but they can roughly be divided into democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy, depending on their size. Monarchy is the strongest form of government, and is best suited to large populations and hot climates. While different states are suited to different forms of government, Rousseau maintains that aristocracies tend to be the most stable.
The government is distinct from the sovereign, and the two are almost always in friction. This friction will ultimately destroy the state, but healthy states can last many centuries before they dissolve.
The people exercise their sovereignty by meeting in regular, periodic assemblies. It is often difficult to persuade all citizens to attend these assemblies, but attendance is essential to the well-being of the state. When citizens elect representatives or try to buy their way out of public service, the general will shall not be heard and the state will become endangered. When voting in assemblies, people should not vote for what they want personally, but for what they believe is the general will. In a healthy state, the results of these votes should approach unanimity. To prove that even large states can assemble all their citizens, Rousseau takes the example of the Roman republic and its comitia.
Rousseau recommends the establishment of a tribunate to mediate between government and sovereign and government and people. In cases of emergency, brief dictatorships may be necessary. The role of the censor's office is to voice public opinion.
While everyone should be free to observe their personal beliefs in private, Rousseau suggests that the state also require all citizens to observe a public religion that encourages good citizenship.
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