With the famous phrase, “man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains,” Rousseau asserts that modern states repress the physical freedom that is our birthright, and do nothing to secure the civil freedom for the sake of which we enter into civil society. Legitimate political authority, he suggests, comes only from a social contract agreed upon by all citizens for their mutual preservation.
Rousseau’s central premise in The Social Contract is “how people might construct a genuinely free political society.” Rousseau concerns himself with the conditions under which rational individuals would form a civil society to preserve the peace and secure their own liberty and property interests. He concludes that the political arrangement which results in the greatest mutual benefit for all the parties is a common pact by which they agree “to subordinate themselves to the good of the community.” Rousseau contends that this social arrangement would require “total alienation of each associate with all of his rights to the whole community”, noting that if the forfeiture (alienation) were only partial then there would be no way of resolving disputes over “which powers and possessions the public good requires them to forfeit.” Rousseau asserts the subordination involved in this alienation is to the community as a whole, not to any individual or faction, and that this common forfeiture results in the greatest net gain of personal freedom for each member of society. The common good is determined by the sovereign, which is comprised of all parties to the social pact, declaring its general will. The general will represents the negotiated compromises voted upon by the entire community. The closer the vote comes to being unanimous, the healthier the society.
Rousseau distinguishes between “natural freedom” and “civil freedom” to illustrate how submission to the general will should result in no net loss of freedom. Rousseau asserts that prior to the formation of the social contract, individuals enjoy a type of “natural freedom” to act in their own best interest. Since all human beings enjoy this liberty, in a world occupied by many competitive claims, the practical value of this type of freedom may be almost nonexistent because the individual’s capacity to procure their wants will always be limited by his or her physical power in relation to others. Furthermore, the unhindered exercise of natural freedom pits individuals against one other over scarce resources, inevitably resulting in violence and uncertainty. Conversely, creation of the sovereign guarantees individuals a sphere of equality under the law which provides greater security in their persons and property. The loss of natural freedom to the general will is accompanied by a grant of civil freedom, defined as “the absence of impediments to pursuing one’s ends in cases where the law is silent.” Provided that the law is not meddlesome or intrusive (and Rousseau believes it will not be, since no individual has a motive to legislate burdensome laws) there will be a net benefit compared to the pre-political state.
Rousseau’s social contract has been maligned by a host of twentieth century philosophers as supporting either Communism or a tyranny by the majority. Rosseau promotes neither. The genius of Rousseau’s premise is not it’s claim that democracies should be guided by altruism or majoritarian rule, but rather that the legitimacy of a sovereign formed by consensus resides in its ability to serve the interests of those it governs. Rousseau observes that democracies which refuse to foster general consensus will eventually deteriorate into tyrannies which must be dissolved.
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Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig makes the case that our democracy has become corrupt with money, leading to an inequality. Leesig argues that only 0.02% of the United States population actually determines who’s in power and that public policy reflects the desires of this segment of society. He introduces research conducted by Princeton which suggests that public opinion no longer affects change. The study reflects that in the aggregate, public opinion has a zero percent impact on policy decisions. Lessig says that this fundamental breakdown of the democratic system must be fixed before we will ever be able to address major challenges like climate change, social security, and student debt. He contends this may not the most important problem we face, but it’s the first problem we must address if we seek to resolve the major social problems facing our society.
Lawrence Lessig is the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School, former director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, and founder of Rootstrikers, a network of activists leading the fight against government corruption. He has authored numerous books, including Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Our Congress—and a Plan to Stop It, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Free Culture, and Remix.