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Rousseau on America’s Social Contract

March 22, 2011


America in the 21st century is changing rapidly. Globalization, the decline of the baby-boomers, a struggling economy and new technological advances daily have created quite a different America. Yet one of the largest concerns is a much more centralized and powerful government than ever before. Although there are huge changes affecting the environment around us, as Americans we still have the same goal, which is to remain a nation in which citizens share in the general prosperity as workers and property owners. To obtain this goal, America is in need of a new social contract.

How would philosophers like Locke and Rousseau feel about adapting their social contract to societal changes? Rousseau, Locke, and other theorists referred to an actual or hypothetical social contract among individuals to form a society. The term has evolved so today a social contract commonly refers to agreed-upon social arrangements that provide basic security and access to basic necessities for individuals in modern, industrial societies. We have a multitude of social contracts today, ranging from Health Care to unemployment insurance to educational assistance programs, yet all these contracts aim to provide support by government for individuals who cannot support themselves anymore.  So how does Rousseau view America’s social-citizen contract?

Rousseau believe that human nature is problematic, but can be improved by special human efforts. Rousseau wanted to achieve the unity of individual and collective rights, and he believed in uniqueness and hated conformity. But Rousseau not only proposes his theory in “Of the Social Contract” but also tried to apply his contract to his contemporary European situation. For example, when Rousseau applied his social contract to the state of Poland, he decided it would be best to break Poland into a confederation of more than thirty small republics thus giving small governments more control. Rousseau values the role of  individuals in the community. The lawgiver in “Of the Social Contract” is the crucial figure. He has to overcome the communication problems between the mass and the leaders to persuade the former to make his proposal into the laws. He has nothing to rely on except his own virtue and wisdom.

My conclusion is that Rousseau believes the integration of individual and collective rights by favoring particular type of individual liberties and individual distinctions, can be traced in his social contract theory, and thus he would not be happy with America’s social contract of one centralized, governing power.


  1. Micah Friedman permalink
    March 22, 2011 9:28 PM

    I tend to agree with you. However, Rousseau does believe that the general will should trump the will of all, which would lead me to believe that he might support the type of American that we have today. America does have a powerful central government, but it also has fifty individual state governments that all have their own explicit powers, and then each county, and city has its own governments and councils. So, if a few people do not get their way to protect the general will of the people, which is what America’s central government tends to produce, then I would think that Rousseau would be pleased with the American social contract.

  2. Chris J permalink
    March 23, 2011 11:11 PM

    Our government is essentially a series of hierarchies meant to contradict one another and achieve as little as possible. As odd as this seems this is good in Rousseau’s eyes because it brings about the “general will” (a key to effective governance, as Micah pointed out).

    The system of checks and balances is meant to keep any one branch from getting too powerful. Those leaders in each branch are then elected by us or appointed by our elected officials. This creates a common thread between leaders that always leads back to the general will of the people (the overall consensus in elections). These checks and balances then destroy contentions between our leaders and create a general will among them, which represents our general will because we elected them.

    Also, what I think Rousseau would not be most dissatisfied with the government, but the economics of this nation. The economy is built upon consumption, the acquisition of property, even to the point that we cannot afford it. This obsession with property is the antithesis of what Rousseau believes in. Rousseau even directly cited property rights as beginning the fall the simple, yet great, men of nature.

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