The Free Market
Modern State's Evil Prophet
The Free Market 17, no. 6 (June 1999)
At the American Revolution, the founders clearly recognized the defects of representative government. Pamphleteer John Cartwright in 1776 derided "that poor consolatory word, representation, with the mere sound of which we have so long contented ourselves." "Slavery by Parliament" was the phrase commonly used to denounce British legislative power grabs.
Based on their experience under Britain, Americans came to believe that the power of representatives was to be strictly limited by the rights of the governed, a doctrine later enshrined in the Bill of Rights. It prohibited the federal government from violating the rights of the people, thus severely restricting the scope of legislation and the power of the executive, even when they claimed to act on behalf of the people.
But while the Americans were fighting a revolution against the fraud of representation, the doctrines of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau were sweeping continental Europe. And despite the founders' best efforts, it was Rousseau's influence that dominated the assumptions and expectations about democracy over the past two centuries. As Harvard professor Irving Babbitt noted in 1924, "The commanding position of Rousseau in the democratic movement is at all events beyond question."
Rousseau unleashed the genie of absolute power in the name of popular sovereignty, which had hitherto been unknown. His 1762 book, The Social Contract, merged contemporary romanticism and mysticism with eighteenth-century political thought. Rousseau thereby gave intellectuals an engraved invitation to delude themselves about the nature of majorities, government, and freedom.
Rousseau claimed that representative governments are based on the "general will," which could somehow be different from the conscious will of the people themselves. "The general will is always right and tends to the public advantage," he wrote. "But it does not follow that the deliberations of the people are always equally correct...the people is never corrupted, but it is often deceived."
Rousseau provided few hints on how either rulers or the ruled could recognize the general will. Instead, he waved a philosophic magic wand over representative government and pretended that his doctrine of the general will had solved all its problems. As historian William Dunning noted in 1910, "The common interest and the general will assumed, through [Rousseau's] manipulation, a greater definiteness and importance than philosophy had hitherto ascribed to them. They became the central features of almost every theory of the State."
Rousseau's doctrine of the general will became the invocation of rulers seeking unlimited power. In our century, despotism has been universally defended as the will of the people. The Soviet regime always claimed communism to be working on behalf of the masses, while Hitler's Volk was the Teutonic rendition of Rousseau's doctrine. And when U.S. Congressmen go on television to announce that the "American people" support their pet government project of the moment, or when Clinton invokes popular sentiment in support of his idiosyncratic programs, Rousseau is serving as their muse.
Rousseau's concept of the general will led him to a concept of freedom that was a parody of the beliefs accepted by British and American thinkers of his era. Rousseau wrote that the social contract required that "whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free." C. E. Vaughan, in a 1915 study of Rousseau's work, correctly observed that, for Rousseau, "freedom is no longer conceived as the independence of the individual. It is rather to be sought in his total surrender to the service of the State."
Rousseau further muddied political thought with the doctrine that people could gain their freedom only by surrendering all their rights to the government: "Each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody." This view provided a pretext for denying that vastly increasing government power posed any threat to the individual. Each citizen, in return for a nominal share of sovereignty over everything, accepted a real servitude to the commands of the State.
Rousseau propagated faith in absolute power at the same time he appeared to be preaching democracy: "The sovereign, being formed wholly of the individuals who compose it, neither has nor can have any interest contrary to theirs; and consequently the sovereign power need give no guarantee to its subjects.... The Sovereign, merely by virtue of what it is, is always what it should be."
Rousseau's doctrines have inspired claims that democracies cannot be coercive, since the people are "doing it" to themselves. The fact that political aggressors and political victims are usually different became irrelevant. Rousseau shifted the focus of political thought from what government is--to what government should be in the best of all possible worlds.
While Rousseau's glorification of democracy is well-known, his passion for unlimited government power is less recognized. In The Social Contract, Rousseau declared, "The citizen is no longer the judge of the dangers to which the law desires him to expose himself; and when the prince says to him: 'It is expedient for the State that you should die,' he ought to die, because it is only on that condition that he has been living in security up to the present, and because his life is no longer a mere bounty of nature, but a gift made conditionally by the State." Rousseau implied that people should be grateful that the government had not yet killed them.
In a short essay entitled "On Public Happiness," Rousseau declared in 1767, "Give man entirely to the State or leave him entirely to himself." And Rousseau clearly believed that men could not be left to themselves.
Rousseau also believed government must effectively nullify private property. In an essay on a proposed constitution for Corsica, Rousseau declared, "In a word, I want the property of the State to be as great and powerful, and that of the citizens as small and weak, as possible.... With private property being so weak and so dependent, the Government will need to use very little force, and will lead the people, so to speak, with a movement of the finger."
Rousseau's consecration of government power had vast influence on subsequent philosophers. German philosophers zeroed in on some of Rousseau's more absurd ideas and refined them into sufficiently obscure language that they commanded respect among academics for generations to follow.
In contrast to Rousseau, the Founders were gravely concerned about the abuses of popular government. The American Revolution was sparked by distrust of government; the French Revolution, following Rousseau's doctrine, was based on the delusion that the People are infallible and that democratic government automatically pursues the common good.
While John Adams naively declared in 1775 that "a democratical despotism is a contradiction in terms," few Americans held that belief by the mid-1780s. Judge Alexander Hanson declared in 1784, "The acts of almost every legislature have uniformly tended to disgust its citizens and to annihilate its credit."
One commentator in the 1780s, noting the early dashed hopes of democratic governments, declared that the usurpation of "tyrants at our doors, exceeds that of one at 3,000 miles." Gordon Wood, author of The Creation of the American Republic, noted, "Throughout the years of the war and after, Americans in almost all the states mounted increasing attacks on the tendencies of the American representational system."
The doctrines of Rousseau have had far more influence on subsequent thinking about democracy than the insights of the Founders. Rousseau did more than any other person in the last 250 years to make clear thinking about democracy almost impossible. Rousseau keenly perceived some of the injustices of the political systems of his times. Unfortunately, his solutions were worse than the status quo.
There is no magic in democracy or in democratic processes that transcends the inherent defects and limitations of government itself. A democratic government will still be a government, and this fact is more important than the mechanism by which leaders are selected. Idealizing any form of government--as Rousseau encouraged people to do--is one of the worst mistakes a free people can make. The idealizing of American democracy is one of the worst threats to the future of American liberty.
James Bovard is the author of Freedom in Chains: The Rise of the State & the Demise of the Citizen (St. Martin's Press, 1999).
Further reading: Charles Edwyn Vaughan: Studies in the History of Political Philosophy Before and After Rousseau, A.G. Little, ed. (New York: Russell and Russell, 1960) and William Dunning, A History of Political Theories: From Luther to Montesquieu (New York, London: Macmillan, 1910).
Cite This Article
Bovard, James. "Modern State's Evil Prophet." The Free Market 17, no. 6 (June 1999).