Saturday, April 12, 2008

On the Social Contract

Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.

One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they.

- Jean Jacques Rousseau

Social order is a sacred right which is the basis of all other rights. Nevertheless, this right does not come from nature, and must therefore is founded on convention.

The most ancient of all societies, and the only one that is natural, is the family, and even so the children remain attached to the father only so long as they need him for their preservation. As soon as this need ceases, the natural bond is dissolved. The children, released from the obedience they owed to the father, and the father, released from the care he owed his children, return equally to independence. If they remain united, they continue so no longer naturally, but voluntarily; and the family itself is then maintained only by convention.

This common liberty results from the nature of man. His first law is to provide for his own preservation, his first cares are those which he owes to himself; and, as soon as he reaches years of discretion, he is the sole judge of the proper means of preserving himself, and consequently becomes his own master.

The family then may be called the first model of political societies. The whole difference is that, in the family, the love of the father for his children repays him for the care he takes of them, while, in the State, the pleasure of commanding takes the place of the love which the chief cannot have for the people under him.

Men in order to co-exist have to reached the point at which the obstacles in the way of their preservation in the state of nature shows their power of resistance to be greater than the resources at the disposal of each individual for his maintenance in that state.

But, as men have no other means of preserving themselves than the formation, by aggregation, of a sum of forces great enough to overcome the resistance. These they have to bring into play by means of a single motive of power, and cause to act in concert.

This sum of forces can arise only where several persons come together: but, as the force and liberty of each man are the chief instruments of his self-preservation, how can he pledge them without harming his own interests, and neglecting the care he owes to himself?

The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before. This is the fundamental problem of which the Social Contract provides the solution.

The clauses of this contract are so determined by the nature of the act that the slightest modification would make them vain and ineffective; so that, although they have perhaps never been formally set forth, they are everywhere the same and everywhere tacitly admitted and recognized, until, on the violation of the social compact, each regains his original rights and resumes his natural liberty, while losing the conventional liberty in favor of which he renounced it.

These clauses, properly understood, may be reduced to one – the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community; for, in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this being so, no one has the interest in making them burdensome to others. The alienation being without reserve, the union is as perfect as it can be, and no associate has anything more to demand.

Finally, each man in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody; and as there is no associate over which he does not acquire the same right as he yields others over himself, he gains an equivalent for everything he loses, and an increase of force for the preservation of what he has.

Discarding those of which is not of the essence in the social compact, we shall find that it reduces itself to the following terms:

“Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”

At once, in place of the individual personality of each contracting party, this act of association creates a moral and collective body composed of as many members as the assembly contains voters, and receiving from his act its unity, its common identity, its life, and its will.

The public person formed by the union of all other persons, formally took the name of city, and now takes that of Republic or Body Politic; it is called by its members: State when passive, Sovereign when active, and Power when compared with others like itself. Those who are associated in it take collectively the name of people, and severally are called citizen, as sharing in the sovereign power, and subjects, as being under the laws of the State. These terms are often confused and taken one for another; it is enough to know how to distinguish them when they are being used with precision.

Instead of destroying natural inequality, the fundamental compact substitutes for such physical inequality an equality that is moral and legitimate, and that men, who may be unequal in strength or intelligence, become every one equal by convention and legal right.

As soon as this multitude is so united in one body, it is impossible to offend against one of the members without attacking the body, and still more to offend against the body without the members resenting it.

Duty and interest therefore equally oblige the two contracting parties to give each other help; and the same men should seek to combine, in their double capacity, all the advantages dependent upon that capacity.

Each individual may have a particular will contrary or dissimilar to the general will which he has as a citizen. His particular interest may speak to him quite differently from the common interest: his absolute and naturally independent existence may make him look upon what he owes to the common cause as a gratuitous contribution, the loss of which will do no less harm to others than the payment of it is burdensome to himself.

In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. In this lies the key to the working of the political machine; this alone legitimizes civil undertakings, which, without it, would be absurd, tyrannical, and liable to the most frightful abuses.

What man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to everything he tries to get and succeeds in getting; what he gains is civil liberty and the proprietorship of all he possesses.

As nature gives each man absolute power over all his members, the social compact gives the body politic absolute power over all its members also; and it is this power which, under the direction of the general will, bears the name of Sovereign.

Besides the public person, we have also to consider the private persons composing it, whose life and liberty are naturally independent of it. We are bound then to distinguish clearly between the respective rights of the citizens and the Sovereign, and between the duties the people have to fulfill as subjects, and the natural rights they should enjoy as men.

Each man alienates, by the social compact, only such part of his powers, goods, and liberty as it is important for the community to control, but it must also be granted that the Sovereign (which ultimately transcend to become the Constitution of a State) is sole judge of what is right and accepted as equal and just.

The Sovereign for its part, cannot impose upon its subjects any fetters that are useless or unjust to the community; nor can it even wish to do so; for no more by the law of reason than by the law of nature can anything occur without a cause.

The undertakings which bind us to the social body are obligatory only because they are mutual; and their nature is such that in fulfilling them, we cannot work for others without working for ourselves.

Equality of rights and the idea of justice which such equality creates originate in the preference each man gives to himself, and accordingly in the very nature of man.

It proves that the general will, to be really such, must be general in its object as well as its essence that it must both come from all and apply to all; and that it loses its natural rectitude when it is directed to some particular and determinate object.

As soon as a question of particular fact or right arises on a point not previously regulated by a general convention, the matter becomes contentious.

From whatever side we approach our principle, we reach the same conclusion, that the social compact sets up among the citizens an equality of such a kind, that they all bind themselves to observe the same conditions and should therefore all enjoy the same right.

Thus, from the very nature of the compact, every act of the Sovereign binds all the citizens equally, so that the Sovereign recognizes only the body of the nation, and draws no distinctions between those of whom it is made up.

We can see from this that the sovereign power does not and cannot exceed the limits of general conventions, and that every man may dispose at will of such goods and liberty as these conventions leave him; so that the Sovereign never has a right to lay more changes on one subject than on another, because, in that case, the question becomes particular, and ceases to be within its competency.

By the social contract we have given the body politic existence and life; we have now by legislation to give it movement and will. For the original act by which the body is formed and united still in no respect determines what it ought to do for its preservation.

Doubtless, there is a universal justice emanating from reason alone; but this justice, to be admitted among us, must be mutual.

The law of justice is ineffective among men: they merely make for the good of the wicked and the undoing of the just, when the just man observes them towards everybody and nobody observes them towards him.

Conventions and laws are therefore needed to join rights to duties and refer justice to its object. In the state of nature, where everything is common, I owe nothing to him whom I have promised nothing; I recognize as belonging to others only what is of no use to me.

The object of laws is always general. The law considers subject en masse and actions in the abstract, and never a particular person or action. Thus the law may indeed decree that there shall be privileges, but cannot confer them on anybody by name. It may set up several classes of citizens, and even lay down the qualifications for membership of these classes, but it cannot nominate such and such persons as belonging to them. In other words, no function which has a particular object belongs to the legislative power.

As the law unites universality of will with universality of object, what a man, whoever he be, commands of his own motion cannot be a law; and even what the Sovereign commands with regard to a particular matter is no nearer being a law, but is a decree, an act, not of sovereignty, but of magistracy.

Laws are, properly speaking, only the conditions of civil association. The people, being subject to the laws, ought to be their author: the conditions of the society ought to be regulated solely by those who come together to form it.

If each citizen is nothing and can do nothing without the rest, and the resources acquired by the whole are equal or superior to the aggregate of the resources of all the individuals, it may be said that legislation is at the highest possible point of perfection.

He who has command over man ought not to have command over the laws. He who has command over the laws ought not any more to have it over man; or else his laws would be the ministers of his passions and would often merely serve to perpetuate his injustices; his private aims would inevitably mar the sanctity of his work.

He, therefore, who draws up the laws has, or should have, no right of legislation, and the people cannot, even if it wishes, deprive itself of this incommunicable right, because, according to the fundamental compact, only the general will can bind the individuals, and there can be no assurance that a particular will is in conformity with the general will, until it has been put to the free vote of the people.

Thus in the task of legislation we find together two things which appears to be incompatible: an enterprise too difficult for human powers, and, for its execution, an authority that is no authority.

Conceptions that are too general and objects that are too remote are equally out of its range: each individual, having no taste for any other plan of government than that which suits his particular interest, find it difficult to realize the advantages he might hope to draw from the continual privations good laws impose.

The legislator therefore, being unable to appeal to either force or reason, must have recourse to an authority of a different order, capable of constraining without violence and persuading without convincing; that man might obey freely, and bear with docility the yoke of the public happiness.

All peoples have a kind of centrifugal force that makes them continually act one against another, and tend to aggrandize themselves at their neighbor’s expense. Thus the weak run the risk of being soon swallowed up; and it is almost impossible for any one to preserve itself except by putting itself in a state of equilibrium with all, so that the pressure is on all sides practically equal.

“Legislation is made difficult less by what it is necessary to build up than by what has to be destroyed; and what makes success so rare is the impossibility of finding natural simplicity together with social requirements.”

“Wise men, if they try to speak their language to the common herd instead of its own, cannot possibly make themselves understood.”

It is impossible to translate wisdom into popular language.


Jean Jacques Rousseau; On the Social Contract


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