Rousseau’s Idea of “General Will”…Conducive to democracy?
We have been learning about Rousseau and his own version of the social contract recently, and one idea that he presents stuck out to me. He introduces two types of wills that exist in a given society: the general will and the will of all. Now, when Rousseau gives his fist general definition of each, I found myself having to read it over and over again so I could truly grasp what he is saying:
“There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will; the latter considers only the common interest, while the former takes private interest into account, and is no more than a sum of particular wills: but take away from these same wills the pluses and minuses that cancel one another, and the general will remains as the sum of the differences” (Rousseau 437).
Essentially, the general will calls upon the people to think in terms of the common good. You must put aside thoughts of what will personally benefit you, and consider what is best for the state as a whole. Thus, the decision made at the end will be a reflection of the moral choice, with people putting aside selfish interests. The will of all, however, considers what individuals think, and the ultimate decision made is based on the most popular answer—what Rousseau refers to as “particular wills” (Rousseau 437). To me, the will of all is extremely democratic. For example, consider our democratic system and the practice of voting for President. Each individual citizen gets their own say, and the person with the most votes at the end becomes President. I think that each member of a specific society should have a say in how their government is run, which I why I have discovered some issues with Rousseau’s idea of the general will.
Of course, we can all hope that people will put aside selfish interests and act for the common good—but how practical is this? Does it actually ever happen? When he says that “the general will remains as the sum of the differences” (Rousseau 437), it sounds to me like Rousseau is basically saying that the general will is a compromise, seeing as the will of all makes it impossible to be in 100% agreement. While I can see this point, the general will makes it impossible for everyone to have a voice. People will always have differing opinions on what is moral and about what is truly best for the common good, so why try to mesh it all together? Issues within the state are multi-faceted, and by following the general will, every possible aspect of an issue is not considered. With a system like the will of all, where people can voice their own opinions, it seems unnecessary to try to force everyone to think in the same way, like the idea of the general will encourages.
A question asked in lecture on Wednesday looked at Michigan’s in-state vs. out-of-state tuition in terms of the will of all and the general will, and whether or not it is fair to have out-of-staters pay so much more. It was answered that the general will would come to the conclusion that keeping out-of-state tuition higher is better for the UM community as a whole because without it, the general quality of education would suffer. This is where my problem with the general will surfaces again. While some might argue that this is true and that keeping out-of-state tuition higher is better for the community as a whole, some will completely disagree. You could say that lowering out-of-state tuition would be better for the UM community as a whole because more students from all over the world could afford to come to UM and would be more likely to attend. This would thus increase the diversity and prestige of the Michigan name. In effect and in my opinion, the general will fails to consider all aspects of a decision, and is not therefore conducive to democracy.
Rousseau, Jean. “On the Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right.” Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzshe. Ed. David Wooton. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2008. Print.