I have always enjoyed Rousseau’s writings, despite the fact that, on the whole, I tend to lean towards Burkean conservativism and Burke held Rousseau in very low regard. I have to depart from my usual agreement with Burke on this. While there is much of what he says that I disagree with—for example, his romanticised belief in equality—his writings do contain several nuggets of wisdom and the seeds of nationalism, including his conception of the ‘general will’.
In his writings, Rousseau asserts that humans can never return to the state of nature because socialization has corrupted us beyond the point of no return. Therefore, as the best way to ensure our preservation, he believes we ought to enter into a social contract. Rousseau’s ideal society, under the social contract, would be one governed by the general will, not private wills. A large, multicultural society is not compatible with Rousseau’s social contract and prevents the general will from ever coming to fruition.
Rousseau argues that the purpose of society is to create circumstances under which nobody is oppressed. Ensuring our freedom and survival is what makes giving up our natural liberties (doing whatever we want) worthwhile. Outside of society, people are not equal and people are competitive. Those with advantageous qualities exploit and oppress others in order to fulfill their own private interests. Rousseau seeks to end this kind of slavery through a society where the general will trumps these private interests.
The general will, in other words, is the public will. It is not, however, a compromise between private wills. It is not ‘majority rule’. Instead, it is the transformation of private wills into a concern for the common welfare of society. The general will views each individual impartially and, although it does not have to be unanimous, it must be something that everyone could conceivably agree to in principle as being beneficial for everyone. It should reflect the high-order interests of the population, satisfying our rational goals and desires, not our whims driven by short-sighted appetites. This is what makes us free. When the laws coincide with our wills, we do not feel coerced; instead, we feel free because we feel like we are doing what we wanted to do anyway. We cannot be truly free, he says, when we are enslaved to our passions, compelled to fulfill them, and therefore the law should be designed to help us master our passions so that we can truly be free.1 Rousseau is talking about positive freedom, as opposed to negative freedom, which is what most people today conceive as freedom.
But governance by the general will is not possible in a large, multicultural society like the United States. Because the general will is not something to be imposed upon society and it is not something that should benefit one group at the expense of another, a consensus seems impossible without breaking either of those criteria. How can 300 million religiously, ethnically, and culturally diverse people ever all agree what is best for society when their conceptions of high-order interests are often dramatically different and in many cases completely opposed to one another?
First, to address the issue of size, Rousseau believes that a small state is best. He idealizes the city-state (the Geneva of his era, in particular!) and the type of community he envisions is one that is small enough where everyone knows everyone else.2 Indeed, he states “it is always an evil to unite several towns into a city, and that anyone wanting to bring about this union should not expect to avoid its natural disadvantages”.3 In his view, for example, France was far too large for people to govern themselves effectively in this manner.
A small state is desirable for a few reasons. As a state becomes larger, its administrative levels become deeper, which is not only expensive, but also results in poor and ineffective governance.4 Today, large nations have made the existence of small city-states nearly impossible and communities lack autonomy because modern government tends to be highly centralised. The government becomes very dispersed, with laws coming from politicians whom the people never see and to whom they cannot relate.5 In order to fill all these many political offices, we elect representatives and cluster them in cities (usually just one large city in particular) where, via majority-rule, they make laws that apply to all of us, regardless of circumstances.
This has a significant impact on the amount of involvement each citizen can have in formulating the general will. Although Rousseau is not necessarily opposed to legislators6, he is opposed to deputies or representatives7, which is the more appropriate term for our elected officials. We essentially pay someone else to go make laws for us so that we don’t have to worry about all the different considerations that go into making a law or fulfill the legislative duties we all ought to have as citizens. Consider, for example, the number of people who express little or no interest in politics and the high level of political ignorance as demonstrated by numerous opinion polls. How can the general will ever be the end result of this? It can’t. Rousseau says as much: “[U]nder a bad government no one wants to take a step to get to [the assemblies], since no one takes an interest in what happens there, for it is predictable that the general will will not predominate, and that in the end domestic concerns absorb everything”.8 When people do not care about government, then the only thing left to care about is private interests; and with politicians concerned only about the pursuit own private agendas, such conditions are never conducive the emergence of the general will, let alone the attainment of freedom. Rousseau says that the moment we elect representatives to take over our duties of citizenship, we are no longer free.9
Second is the issue of diversity as a hindrance to the general will. Diversity of any kind has the tendency to lead to the creation of different factions and interest groups. Humans naturally divide up into groups because group membership plays an important role in self-identity10, and we have a natural tendency to prefer people who are like ourselves11. It is also natural for us to dislike those who are different from us and practice beliefs or lifestyles we find objectionable or odd. Rousseau does not believe that it is possible for people who are intolerant of each other ever to live in peace12. He states this specifically of religion, but it can certainly apply to any type of difference between people. As people self-segregate and begin forming exclusive groups based on race, religion, or ideology, these groups can easily become political interest groups who use the institutions of government to advance their own group’s interest at the expense of the general will and sometimes to use their greater numbers and louder voices to oppress those not in their group. Laws are then made that benefit one group at the expense of another (affirmative action is but one glaring example of this); however, the general will would dictate that the law view everyone impartially and not accord special privileges to any one person or group. (In fact, one could argue that in Rousseau’s ideal city-state, there would not be enough difference between people to warrant the formation of competing groups in the first place.)
One might first be tempted to suggest that we simply apply the law evenly to all, but Rousseau states that different peoples with different customs cannot share the same form of government and the same laws.13 He believes that laws should be uniquely tailored to the people they will be given to, reflecting their customs and values. A multicultural society, under the same government, cannot achieve this. Conflicting cultural values can only result in compromise at best and conflict at worst, neither of which is the general will.
The solution, then, is for societies to be homogenous. The more homogenous a society, the more likely they are to share similar values and goals. This homogeneity maximizes agreement with the general will and also makes citizens more likely to think in terms of what is good for the whole of society as opposed only to what is good for them individually. And when new laws are necessary, their “necessity is universally understood. The first to propose them merely says what everybody else has already felt; and there is no question of intrigues or eloquence to secure the passage into law of what each has already resolved to do, once he is sure the others will do likewise”.14 Homogeneity allows citizens to think in tandem and trust that the others are looking out for everyone’s best interests.
According to a study by Robert Putnam, outlined in his book Bowling Alone, the greater the diversity in a society, the less likely people are to trust each other, the less likely they are to be involved in the community, and the less likely they are to participate in politics.15 But the general will requires active citizenship and a concern for one’s neighbors and it cannot exist if the people are apathetic and distrustful of one another. Naturally, because people seek out others like them, the result is what Rousseau calls “partial societies” who each have their own will, distinct from that of the general will.16 Certainly diffidence and a lack of concern for the common good are going to make the existence of a general will impossible, which will also make freedom impossible.
Freedom, for Rousseau, is being able to live the way we want without being a slave to our appetites. When the general will reflects our high-order desires, we are free. It is when the high-order desires of different members of society conflict that freedom is no longer guaranteed and the law becomes oppressive, as individuals, groups, and politicians seek to advance only themselves, often at the expense of others. One is never free when one has desires against the general will, but one is also not free when one is oppressed.
Unfortunately, the modern doctrine (a.k.a. the ‘Bob Dole doctrine’) that demands we must all be intolerant of the intolerant not only prevents the kind of open discussion necessary to come to a consensus, but also seeks to deny certain groups of people their right to live according to their own values. Rousseau would probably say that people should be able to live their own lifestyles away from people who support values and beliefs they find objectionable. I can think of one example that might closely illustrate this principle: the Amish, who have removed themselves from the larger society and opted to pursue their salvation away from the corrupting influences of the modern world. Rousseau would probably not only support their right to withdraw their consent to the current “social contract” (if it can indeed even be called such anymore), but would also encourage others to do the same if they find they can no longer support the arbitrary and oppressive government under which they currently live, because they would then form their own smaller societies based on their general will.
The problems of a large, diverse state are numerous. Excessive bureaucracy and administration leaves the populace feeling alienated from their government and politicians who are out of touch with the concerns of their constituents. This has the effect of reducing political participation on the part of the people, leaving the door open for politicians and interest groups to use the institutions of government to further their own ends without regard for the welfare of society as a whole. Diversity reduces social trust, causing people to withdraw from their communities and feel as though they don’t have a voice, as different groups vie for power over the others in an attempt to advance their own interests at the expense of everyone else. We all end up as slaves, chained to each other in mutually parasitic relationships, where the powerless must rely on the goodwill of their masters and the powerful are dependent on the complacency of the masses.
The general will can never exist under such conditions, and neither freedom nor equality can be found within modern society. The latter is a system that has locked in inequalities and even gone out of its way to create new ones for the purpose of exploitation. It has robbed men of their high-order desires and left them at the mercy of their whims. Rousseau did not believe a just society could exist on foundations of inequality and oppression and he would no doubt find ours to be as unjust a society as ever there was one.
Few would expect the ultra-egalitarian Rousseau to make an argument against multiculturalism, but his views on equality were nothing like those of the modern Left. While the Left would have us believe all human beings are basically interchangeable, Rousseau acknowledged human differences in abilities and talents. It is for this reason he is sometimes criticized by a minority of the academic Left as having laid the groundwork for dictatorial governments by providing “justification” for one man to rule over another. This interpretation is wrong. In all of Rousseau’s writings, he advocates for the exact opposite: true communism as opposed to Marxism.
Rousseau was not concerned about natural or physical differences between men. He accepted them as a reality and never argued from the perspective that “might makes right” nor did he ever accept that argument as a valid justification for one man subjugating another. The inequalities Rousseau was concerned with were moral inequalities (that is, primarily differences in social status). The two things are not connected in his mind. While natural inequality is a given, he believes moral inequality is artificial and it is that which he seeks to avoid in his conception of the ideal society, hence his preference for a direct democracy over other, more stratified forms of government.
It is because of this that many Leftists do tend to claim Rousseau as one of their founding ideological fathers, agreeing with his theories on property rights and equality. But Rousseau is not incompatible with the nationalistic Right and in fact his ideal society really is only achievable in the kind of societies that nationalists want to see. The Left often fails to see this, in their belief that all humans are physically equal. This makes their vision of an ideal society impossible and naive. Their view of human nature is fatally flawed.
While Rousseau wasn’t correct on everything, he did understand that radically different types of people cannot live together in peace. Although he could not have envisioned the type of multiracial societies we have today, he was certainly in a position to understand the deep-seated conflicts between competing cultures (consider as an example the ongoing enmity between the English and the French). A society that strives for coexistence between groups with nothing in common or even active hostilities can only do so through force and subjugation (see Lothrop Stoddard’s The French Revolution in San Domingo). The Left has always had to resort to these means in pursuit of their Utopia because what they want goes against human nature. Even Marx knew that people wouldn’t “come quietly”.
Rousseau would disapprove of his ideals of equality being used to justify multiculturalism and he would condemn our experiments thus far as abject failures. He would object to our governments on the basis that they promote passive, lazy citizenship that naturally results in oppression, but he would probably also recognize that our ‘melting pot’ society leaves us unable to form a general will, as there are too many competing values for there to be any consensus. If Rousseau were alive today, I believe he would be on the side of nationalist Right, not the Marxist Left.
1. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. (1987). The Basic Political Writings. (Donald A. Cress, Trans.). Indianapolis: Hackett. (Original works published 1750-1762). p 151.
2. Ibid. p 26.
3. Ibid. p 196.
4. Ibid. p167.
6. Ibid. p 162-165.
7. Ibid. p 197-200.
8. Ibid. p198.
9. Ibid. p 199.
10. Smith, E. R.., & Mackie, D. M. (2000). Social Psychology, 2nd Ed. Philadelphia: Psychology Press. p 205.
11. Ibid. p 214-215
12. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. (1987). The Basic Writings. (Donald A. Cress, Trans.). Indianapolis: Hackett. (Original works published 1750-1762). p 226.
13. Ibid. p 167.
14. Ibid. p 204.
15. Leo, J. (25 June 2007). Bowling With Our Own. Retrieved 24 April 2008, from http://www.city-journal.org/html/eon2007-06-25jl.html
16. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. (1987). The Basic Political Writings. (Donald A. Cress, Trans.). Indianapolis: Hackett. (Original works published 1750-1762). p 156.