Jean Jacques Rousseau, enlightenment thinker of natural liberty.

rousseau12Notes on Rousseau:- Rousseau poses this challenge: “Find a form of association which defends and protects with all common forces the person and goods of each associate, and by means of which each one, while uniting with all, nevertheless obeys only himself and remains as free as before.” (Comment: Rousseau might seem to be raising the bar too high. Why must the move to political society leave each individual “as free as before”? Maybe a legitimate government takes away some freedom but offsets this loss by providing other benefits that are or should be more important to each individual than the lost freedom, and moreover the mix of costs and burdens that political society imposes is fairly distributed, fair to all. Rousseau does not see it that way. The question arises, what sort of freedom must be preserved or secured, according to Rousseau, if political society is to be justified. When a government uses state power coercively, seeking to force all to obey its authority, how might this be fully consistent with the freedom of each coerced citizen?) Rousseau states the solution in the same chapter: “the total alienation of each associate, together with all of his rights, to the entire community.” But what makes this a solution rather than another of the problem? Rousseau observes, “in giving himself to all, each person gives himself to no one.” He adds in the same chapter: “”Each of us places his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and as one we receive each member as the indivisible part of the whole.” Is this double-talk? Is Rousseau speaking with a forked tongue? What does he mean? “Forced to the free.” He writes, “For since the sovereign is formed entirely from the private individuals who make it up, it neither has nor could have an interest contrary to theirs.” (Rousseau earlier in the same chapter had said that the entity formed by the union of persons in the social contract is called “republic or body politic,” and is called “state when it is passive, sovereign when it is active,” e.g., making laws.) Why not, the reader may wonder? Why couldn’t it happen that people agree to form a political society, and establish a government, which involves placing political power in the hands of some political rulers, who may then want to bully or oppress the people, or at least may form interests that are not identical with the interests of the whole people? Further along in the same chapter, Rousseau comments that “each individual can, as a man, have a private will contrary to or different from the general will that he has as a citizen.” Rousseau continues, “”in order for the social compact to avoid being an empty formula, it tacitly entails the commitment—which alone can give force to the others—that whoever refuses to obey the general will will be forced to do so by the entire body. This means merely that he will be forced to be free.” This “forced to be free” passage puzzles commentators. It’s one thing to say that it is fair to coerce and punish a person who does not obey the laws of a decent political order. The individual has benefited from the operation of the decent political order, and maybe his obedience is a fair price for the benefit. But what then is justified, surely, is restricting the person’s liberty for the benefit of other persons, those who are cooperating fairly. Rousseau, embracing paradox, says that what we are doing when we force a person to obey the laws in these circumstances is forcing him to be free. Is this claim coherent? Compare a similar claim made by Rousseau in the “Letter to the Republic of Geneva” that is the preface to the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. There Rousseau states that if he could have chosen his birthplace, “I would have wanted to be born in a country where the sovereign and the people have one and the same interest” and that “this could not have taken place unless the people and the sovereign were one and the same person” which is only true where the form of government is “a democracy, wisely tempered.” Rousseau continues, “I would have wanted to live and die free, that is, subject to the laws in such wise that neither I nor anyone else could shake off their honorable yoke” (“Letter,” p. 26).

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