Larry Slawson received his Masters Degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian History.
In the years and decades following the concepts introduced by political philosopher, John Locke, Jean-Jacque Rousseau in the 18th century introduced his own ideas regarding the “Social Contract,” private property, his preferred form of government, and what he perceived to be the common "good." While similar to Locke in some ways, however, both Locke and Rousseau differed significantly in their opinions on these matters. This, in turn, leads to an obvious question: who was most correct in their interpretation? Locke or Rousseau? More importantly, which philosopher had better insight into the correct form of government?
Forms of Government: Locke versus Rousseau
As discussed in an earlier article (found here), John Locke’s preferred choice of government revolved around a representative democracy. This form of government, he felt, was the best means of protecting an individual’s God-given natural rights (especially their right to private property), and would serve as a means for law and order throughout society. As stated by Locke: “The great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property” (Cahn, 328). Rousseau, on the contrary, felt that “representative democracies” were not adequate for all states. As a result of being born in Geneva, Rousseau favored small city-states and the concept of a direct democracy since he believed that smaller governments allowed for a maximization of liberties for the people. To Rousseau, liberties and civic rights granted by the government were of the utmost importance and took precedence over issues such as security. Large nation-states, he believed, were difficult to control and required more government restrictions in order to maintain stability. This concept is highly plausible when one considers the Roman Empire. In its final years, the Romans had expanded to such a great extent that maintaining control was next to impossible given the vast amount of people and cultures the empire encompassed.
"Private Property:" Locke versus Rousseau
In regard to property, both Locke and Rousseau shared significantly different opinions on what constituted private property, and how the state should deal with such matters. Through his “labor theory of value” concept, Locke believed that “private property” resulted when individuals transformed useless materials of nature into valuable commodities. To survive in the state of nature, for example, Locke believed that individuals needed to be able to transform trees into shelter, and use the animals around them as a source of either food or clothing. Once these otherwise useless resources were transformed into something of value, Locke believed that the "fruits" of an individual’s labor became their own private property and that it was the state’s responsibility to protect that person’s property. Rousseau, in comparison, did not feel as though individuals had a right to private property as Locke asserts. Rather, he felt as though it was the state’s responsibility to distribute property based on the general will of the people. As he states: “For the State, with regard to its members, is master of all their property by the social contract, which in the State serves as the basis of all rights” (Cahn, 375). In this sense, therefore, Rousseau would have likely been an advocate of “imminent domain” which allows the government to take private property from individuals if they feel it can be used for the common good of the people. Locke, on the other hand, would likely disapprove of such a notion in today’s society.
The "Common Good" and "General Will:" Locke versus Rousseau
In regard to the common good or “general will” of the people, both Locke and Rousseau differed to a certain degree as well. Locke asserted that through a representative democracy, the general will of the people would be reflected by the majority through elected representatives. While he felt that it was preferable to reach a consensus amongst the people on the appropriate direction for decisions, he realized that this would not always be possible. While the majority leaves out the minority in decision-making (i.e. “Tyranny of the Majority”), he believed it was still the best measure of what the common good is. As he states: “The act of the majority passes for the act of the whole, and of course determines, as having, by the law of nature and reason, the power of the whole” (Cahn, 326).
Similarly, Rousseau argued that the majority opinion is a good measure of what the general will of the people is as well. However, Rousseau believed that the pursuit of the general will is able to be diverted by factions and interest groups that can mislead and divide the general public away from the common good. Modern examples of interest groups would include the Republican and Democratic parties, P.E.T.A., as well as labor unions. Rousseau felt that these types of groups were largely self-interested and placed their own interests above what was good for the people at large. Once private interest groups steer the public away from the common good, Rousseau states: “then there no longer is a general will, and the opinion which dominates is only a private opinion” (Cahn, 377). Because interest groups have this ability to divert the public sphere, it is plausible that Rousseau is arguing here that the majority can be wrong on occasion due to the outside influence of private individuals and associations that feel as though they understand what is best for the country (better than the people do themselves). This concept can be seen with Maximilian Robespierre during the French Revolution and his implementation of “The Terror” to bring peace and stability to the newly formed French government. As seen, his use of mass-executions was entirely against the common good of France. For Robespierre, however, he only felt as though he was doing what was best for his country.
In conclusion, Rousseau’s version of the “social contract,” and his view on the majority (as well as political factions) appears to be the most correct in my opinion. For smaller governments, I believe that direct democracy is an efficient means to enact the general will of the people, given their smaller size and more direct interaction that smaller governments have with their people. On the other hand, a representative democracy appears to be more efficient for larger governments, such as the United States, given the dramatic regional and local variations that exist across its interior. This is logical since individuals would have less of a “voice” within larger nations and would need representation to be heard.
In addition, Rousseau's viewpoints on factions appear to be highly relevant for today’s society. Over the last few decades, factions such as the Republican and Democratic parties have created an atmosphere of polarization within the American public that has completely diverted everyone’s attention from the common good of the nation at large. Consequently, factions have proven quite problematic to the overall health of a nation, just as Rousseau stated nearly 300 years ago.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. London: The Guernsey Press Company, 2000.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Social Contract. Translated by Maurice Cranston. London: Penguin Books, 1968.
Cahn, Steven. Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.
Cranston, Maurice. "Jean-Jacques Rousseau." Encyclopædia Britannica. June 12, 2017. Accessed November 20, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jean-Jacques-Rousseau.
Rogers, Graham A.J. "John Locke." Encyclopædia Britannica. November 22, 2017. Accessed June 05, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Locke.
© 2017 Larry Slawson