What does Rousseau think of the concept of individualism, and how does the social contract affect individual will?
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There were two thinkers who were greatly influential in forming philosophies that would affect the future political theories that followed. The greatest thinker of the modern age was John Locke, who provided the framework that would allow for liberal democracy. A thinker who perhaps inadvertently laid down the foundation for totalitarianism was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Both Locke and Rousseau were grand thinkers, but Rousseau was an advocate of his own form of collectivism while Locke believed in individualism, the basis for a truly free society.
It is sensible to begin by analyzing Locke, as he preceded Rousseau. John Locke writes in his Second Treatise of Government that the state of nature was a “state of perfect freedom” and a “state also of equality.” After establishing the state of nature as both free and equal, Locke states that society must emulate the state of nature. The sovereignty of the state is defined by its ability to make law. The state is there to ensure equality in the eyes of the law and Lord. Locke envisioned a state that protects an individual’s rights.
Locke mentions the importance of numerous natural rights. The most important natural right that government is meant to protect is the right to private property. Locke is in fact one of the first modern thinkers who is an apologist for private property. He wrote that “the great and chief end…of men’s uniting into common-wealths, and putting themselves under government is the preservation of their property.” This, however, is not the only natural right of men under government. He argues that the state must have a “known and indifferent judge.” This judge is not an all-powerful magistrate, but rather someone with the authority to determine the “established, settled, known law, received and allowed by common consent.” The right to appeal the government is critical as it precludes the state of war, which violates equality and freedom. He writes that “where there is an authority…from which can be had by appeal, there the continuance of the state of war is excluded.” Locke also eloquently argues against slavery. The key element of Locke’s philosophy is that the government rests on consent of the governed, and government is created to protect the natural rights of life, liberty, and property. It is individual rights that are so dear to Locke and must be protected.
Private property is so important to Locke because man earns the right to property through his labor. Labor creates a distinction between the common and the private. If a man were to pick apples in the woods they become his private property. Labor has added something “more than nature, the common mother of all, had done; and so they [the apples] became his private right.” Locke says that a man deserves the reward of his hard work. Private property is the result of personal responsibility, and once you have worked to gain it the government must protect it.
Princeton University political philosopher Sheldon S. Wolin argues that this view of Locke’s viewpoint is “argued in most interpretations,” and that it suffers from “misplaced emphasis.” Wolin writes: “Locke made it abundantly clear that in the act of joining political society men submitted their possession to its control. Security of possessions did not, to his mind, mean the absence of political regulation, but only that such regulation ought not be ‘arbitrary’; that is, incapable of being defended as in the common interest.”
Wolin is reading the same treatise and deriving a faulty understanding. Locke is clearly emphasizing that property existed before civil society, that property is a right, and that that man did not surrender that right when entering the commonwealth. It is in fact a right that both limits and defines the commonwealth’s power. Locke himself defines tyranny as the “the exercise of power beyond right, which no body can have a right to. And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those under it, but for his own private separate advantage.” The government’s chief duty is preservation of property. Hence, tyranny is when the state extends its power violating that individual right. It is for this reason that Locke’s thinking was so very influential on the American revolutionaries, especially Thomas Jefferson.
In contrast to Locke, Rousseau did not emphasize individualism. Rousseau’s political philosophy was encapsulated in the idea of the “general will.” Wolin correctly explains that Rousseau believed that the precondition for dependence upon the whole as opposed to nature, individuals, or classes, required “the voluntary and total surrender by each individual of all his rights and powers.” As Rousseau himself stated, “each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will.” Rousseau claims that there is a great difference between the “general will,” which considers “only the common interest,” and the “will of all,” which considers the “sum of private wills.” At the same time Rousseau argues that the “general will is always right and always tends toward the public utility.”
It is his straying from the groundbreaking thinking of Lockean individualism that makes Rousseau’s philosophy dangerous. Rousseau naively assumes that there is one “general will” which benefits everyone. In my estimation, the common good is an aggregate of private interests. A truly free society must protect competing interests. Rousseau also makes no distinctions between “will” and “utility” saying the “general will” is always in the best interest. What makes this thinking perilous is that, despite the fact that Rousseau attempts to differentiate between “general will” and “will of all,” he leaves unexplained the mechanism to determine whether something is “general will” or not. This only leads to the worst forms of tyranny as totalitarian regimes can exploit this concept and force the people to act against their true will. Furthermore, an inevitable result on reliance on the “general will” is tyranny of the majority. Rousseau famously said that if someone does not abide by “the general will” then he must be “forced to be free,” a paradox to the very concept of freedom from a classical liberal perspective.
Locke is the greatest modern thinker because of his emphasis on freedom and equality. He provides the framework for a government that is meant to protect the rights of its citizens. He importantly argues that property is the result of hard labor, recognizing that not only are individual rights important, but the advancement of individual interests as well. Rousseau thought he could increase freedom through the “general will” because “private interest tends always to preferences, the public interest to equality.” Rousseau was paving a dangerous path that would be taken up by succeeding writers stressing “subordination of the individual to the group,” a concept that I do not value. In my opinion, it is important to value individual rights and preferences. It is essential to encourage hard work with incentive and property. It is imperative to have a government that protects the people’s rights.