“The Social Contract” by Jean-Jacques Rousseau Book II (1762)

J-J Rousseau, proud owner of history’s greatest comb-over.

Book II

Chapter One: Sovereignty is inalienable

The conclusion of Book I was that only the general will can direct the state’s forces based on the reason behind its establishment: the common good. Clashing interests create the necessity for societies but common interests allow them to continue. Society must only be governed by common interests.

Sovereignty is the exercise of the general will and cannot alienate itself. Once the will becomes particular and partial, it can no longer be equal to all citizens. If the will is to be general and based on common interest, then it will be equal. Bodies politic posing as the sovereign and the general will are reverting to the right of the strongest in a natural state or a magistracy.

Chapter Two: Sovereignty is indivisible

Indivisible essentially means inalienable. If you can’t give away or sell away part of the sovereignty, then you cannot divide it into parts. Either a will refers to society as a general or individuals as particular and they never cross.

Our minds always analyze the sovereign by dividing the government into departments, ministries, and branches based on functions but the general will is not divisible like that. The sovereign is like a body as the parts of the body may serve different functions for the will of the body but the will cannot be divided up like that.

Chapter Three: Whether the general will is infallible

The general will is always right and will always tend toward the public advantage. But public deliberations are sometimes wrong. We know what we want in a roundabout way but we might not know exactly what that is. The will is never corrupted but can be deceived and then it will seem to want bad things.

There is a difference between the aggregate of particular wills and the general will. The general will is based on everyone’s common interest and the aggregate is the summation of private interests. What is left over from the cancelling out of pluses and minuses of individuals wills will be the general will.

When the public is sufficiently informed ad there is no communication between citizens, the result will be a good general will. When they divide into factions and associations, they form at the expense of the general will and to the benefit of the individuals in those factions. The differences in opinion change and the results will be different and even worse. There is no longer a general will but a prevailing particular will.

The general will must express itself so that there is no partial society within the state. If there must be partial society, there should be as many as possible to prevent inequality among them. This will help the general will to be enlightened and the people not to be deceived.

Chapter Four: Limits of sovereign power

The sovereign power functions as a person does in that it must preserve itself. In order to do that, it must have a universal and compelling force. As nature gives a man absolute power over himself, the social contract gives the body politic absolute power over its members, and under the general will, is the sovereign.

We must distinguish private people from the body, as well as the rights of the citizen and the sovereign – as duties and rights in nature and as subjects of the state. The social contract alienates from men their natural liberties and goods. The citizen owes whatever the state may ask but the state must not ask anything useless of its citizens – only what is necessary. The undertakings are obligatory only because they are mutual and we can’t work for others, that is, with respect to the general will, unless we work for ourselves. The general will must be general in object and in essence. That is, they must come from and apply to all and it ceases to be general when used for particular objects.

Sometimes issues will arise that have never been thought of or never have occurred before, and there is no general convention. An individual’s stance can’t be against the general will in this case. The general will will not be able to express a desire on the matter. What makes a general will general is not so much about the number of votes but the common interest uniting interests. In the system, each man submits to the conditions he imposes on others. The social compact binds us to all the same duties and gives us all the same rights. So the sovereign makes no distinctions between those that make it up.

An act of sovereignty is not between an inferior and superior but a convention between the body and each member. The connection is an expression of the general will and stable due to the guarantee of public force. As long as the acts go no further, citizens will have to boss other than themselves. Sovereign power cannot exceed the limits of the general will because if it does, it ceases to be an expression of the general will and becomes particular.

Once the social contract is determined, each man gives up the unstable and precarious nature of a natural state for a more stable life. People’s natural independence and their power to harm others are needed to get security for themselves in nature. Under the social contract, their strength is traded for social union. It isn’t an imposition to demand a man to defend the state because just as the state is being attacked and putting at risk his and all other citizens’ rights and goods, he would face the same attack with no one else to help him fight off that same attack. At least in the social union, he can rely on others’ help but he must also give his help when it is asked for.

Chapter Five: The right of life and death

Suicide may be a crime in many societies but it is not a crime to risk your life to try to preserve it. Giving the power of life and death to the state is not a transfer of rights you didn’t have in the first place. We don’t fault people for risking others’ lives to save their own. The state may see fit to put someone to death or risk its death in order to save itself. The state’s laws are clear: in order not to become the victim of a murder, we agree to be put to death if we become murderers ourselves. When we are assured protection our expectation of murder decreases.

When a malefactor attacks people’s rights, he forfeits his and becomes a rebel and a traitor to the country. He is making war against the state. The state’s self-preservation and his become in conflict with each other and one must win and one must lose. When he is caught and punished, he is no longer treated as a citizen but as an enemy. The trial and sentence against him are proof that he has broken the social contract and is no longer a member of the state. Depending on the crime, he’ll be exiled as a violator of the contract or killed as a public enemy. It is the sign of a weak state when the state punishes the same man again and again. He must be able to have some good in him. The state has no right to put anyone to death whom it can leave without danger.

Only the sovereign may pardon or exempt someone from the a penalty because only the sovereign is above the law. In a well-governed state, there aren’t many prisoners – not because there are few punishments (which there may be) but because there are few criminals. When crimes are committed with impunity, a state is in decay.

Chapter Six: The Law

Legislation gives the body politic movement and will. The union itself doesn’t actually doesn’t actually determine what must be done. Laws are there because we don’t receive justice directly from God. Justice is a result of society. In nature, having laws to follow does harm to the good and does good for the bad. If only good people follow laws toward everyone else, they can easily be taken advantage of. Laws of nature say nothing about laws of the state.

There is no general will over particular objects because to do so would involve particular parties and interests at odds with whole. This is paradoxical. But when the whole people decrees for itself, it is only referring to its own actions and that makes the decree general. When a decree is general, it is law.

Laws consider the people as a whole and actions in the abstract and never particular people and actions. Laws can decree there will be a privileged class but never can actually name anyone assigned to it. It can create social hierarchies but never specifically put anyone in them. It can set up a royal family but not nominate a specific one. That power doesn’t belong to the legislative power. The laws are the expressions of the general will and no one is above them. They aren’t unjust because in order to be unjust would be to unfair to a particular person and the would not be something particular (not general). That would be an act of magistracy, not a law.

Chapter Seven: The Legislator

He must be an intelligent source of wisdom without “participating” in normal society – not having the same needs and desires as normal citizens. He needs to be able to see needs beyond the present.

There is a difference between a prince and a legislator. The legislator is the engineer who invents the political machine and the prince is the mechanic to set it up and make it go. Montesquieu – “At the birth of societies, the rulers of republics establish institutions and afterwards the institutions mold the rulers.”

To change or make a society you must feel capable to change human nature or transform each individual or substituting moral and partial existence for physical and independent existence. He must create an environment for men to come together in society and abandon the state of nature through the creation of institutions.

A legislator should not have control over men and those who have control over men should not have control over legislation. Power over the other will inevitably corrupt the commander or legislator. Many older cities and modern republics would invite a foreigner to establish a government because he had no particular interests either way as to how it was set up and would be more likely to establish a good constitution.

Establishing the republic is a special job – it is not a magistracy or sovereignty. When Lycurgus gave his laws to Sparta, he began by abdicating his throne. Cities and states that have followed this example have flourished while those who haven’t – Rome – have seen the rebirth of all the crimes of tyranny and been brought to the verge of destruction because they have joined the heads of the legislative authority and sovereign power. The decemvirs never claimed the right to pass laws purely by their own authority. “Nothing we propose to you can become law without your consent. Romans, be yourselves the authors of the laws which will make you happy.”

One problem is that these wise men often aren’t understood by the common people. It is often impossible to translate their ideas into lower language because the ideas are too general or out of the range of understanding the average person.  The common man might not understand anything outside his own particular interest. A social spirit must be created by institutions to cultivate an appreciation and understanding of the new state. The legislator must have some recourse in this case – he must appeal to the people about divine intervention giving the legislator the wisdom to write the laws and the divine will that they be followed.

However, not all can access this divine inspiration or be believe to be able to. Anyone can make claims about being wise or having contact with the gods about right and wrong. They might also have bad plans in this case – either intentionally or not. If he is capable of fooling the people or  isn’t wise, he never will succeed in establishing an empire. Whatever he establishes will die out with him. Only wisdom can endure. It takes real wisdom and real laws for a government representing the people to last forever.

Chapter Eight: The People, Part One

A wise legislator must survey the people for whom he’ll be writing laws like an architect survey his building site to see how much weigh it will support. Plato refused to write laws for the Arcadians and the Cyrenaens because they were so wealthy that they wouldn’t tolerate equality. He could do so in Crete because Minos had already inflicted discipline on them.

A people is only docile in its youth. As it grows older, it becomes incorrigible. Once customs and prejudices are entrenched, they are difficult to change, even if it is for the best. Crises often cause a state or a people to be reborn since the past customs – however recent they may be – are often forgotten in these cases. If rebuilding and burning down of states happens too often, the people will start to lose civil impulses and become barbarous. “Freedom may be gained but it can never be recovered.”

A period of youth in a country is when they are not subject to laws and as it matures it should be given laws it can handle. If the state lingers too long in “lawlessness” or the people aren’t amenable to proper laws, they will remain barbarous. The time has to be right, the conditions must be right, the people must be ready and the laws must be appropriate.

Chapter Nine: The People, Part Two

There is a limit to how effective a government can be with respect to its size. If it is too large, it ceases to be a good government. If it is too small, it cannot maintain itself. Long distances make administration difficult and maintenance becomes more and more burdensome as the distances increase. The government goes from city to district to province and on and on, until the supreme government. All of these governments and their connections to each other drain the people of their resources and there may not be enough for them in case of emergencies.

Furthermore, the government becomes slower, less rigorous in observing laws, correcting abuses and preventing nuisances. People have less affection for their rules and fellow citizens who become more and more like strangers. The same laws won’t suit diverse provinces with diverse customs, diverse climates and become incapable of enduring a uniform government.

Talent is buried, virtue unknown and vice unpunished. People are never sure if they can even call their country their own since they become so detached from it. Central administration becomes a gathering of a multitude of men who don’t know each other, overwhelmed with the business of the state and the state itself becomes run by nothing but clerks. The measure taken to maintain the general authority – which authorities wish to escape from or impose upon the people – absorb all the energies of the public and there is nothing left to live for. There isn’t enough to defend the state when it is needed and the body politic becomes so large and overweight for its constitution that it collapses in on itself – the people.

The state must have a stable foundation to resist shocks and to maintain itself. People tend to act in a centrifugal force acting against one another to aggrandize themselves at their neighbor’s expense. The weak are swallowed up. It is impossible to preserve oneself except when in a state of equilibrium with others – where each man’s needs and desires press upon the others equally to check the others’ actions. There are reasons for expansion and contraction and the statesman’s job is to find the right balance. The reasons for expansion are external and relative and the reasons for contraction are internal and absolute. A strong and healthy constitution is most important.

Chapter Ten: The People, Part Three

A body politic can be measured by its land area or its population. Men make up the state and land sustains the men. A balanced must be established. On one hand it must be so that the land only has the maximum number of people it can sustain without fighting within the state or with neighboring lands, or even starvation. On the other hand, it is important not to have land so sparsely settled that there will not be territory wars between settlers. Land settled near the sea may have the coasts supply them with food but they are exposed to pirates. Establishing the right sort of order is important to get right and quickly because often usurpers pick the most chaotic times to strike and then make destructive laws that would never otherwise have been enacted.

The ideal people for legislation is one of common origin, interest or convention, without deeply ingrained customs or superstitions, independent, self-sufficient and this people unites the qualities of the consistency of an ancient people with the docility of a new one.

Chapter Eleven: Various Systems of Legislation

What should the goal of every legislative system be? Liberty and equality. Liberty because particular dependence means that force has been taken away from individuals. Equality because liberty cannot exist without it. Liberty was dealt with in Book I.

Equality doesn’t mean to be identical in degrees of power and riches but power is never great enough for violence and it is always exercised by virtue of rank and law. There should be a great moderation in goods and position, and a moderation in avarice and covetousness.

If abuse is inevitable, regulation concerning that abuse should be there. If circumstances destroy equality, force of legislation should maintain it. General objects should be specified in every country according to the local situations and customs. Land fertility or natural resources will drive the people into different industries. Countries tend to specialize in what is best and easiest for them.

Chapter Twelve: Division of the Laws

There are divisions in four parts:

1 – Action of the complete body upon itself. This is how the government is set up and how it goes about taking the general will and putting it into action.

2 – How individuals relate to each other and to the whole body. They will be independent from each other but dependent on the the body to secure their liberties. These are civil laws.

3 – The relationship between the individual and the law. Disobedience will be met with a penalty. These are criminal laws.

4 – Morality, custom, habit, public opinion. While they are not set in stone, they do define the laws and society depends greatly on them.

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