The Social Contract of Rousseau: On government


EVERY free action has two causes which concur to produce it; one of them the will that determines upon the act, the other the power that performs it. In the political body one must distingish between these two--the legislative power and the executive power. The executive power cannot belong to the sovereign, inasmuch as executive acts are particular acts, aimed at individuals, and therefore, as already explained, outside the sovereign's sphere. Public force, then, requires an agent to apply it according to the direction of the general will.

This is the government, erroneously confounded with the sovereign, of which it is only the minister. It is an intermediary body established between subjects and sovereign for their mutual correspondence, for the execution of the laws and the maintenance of civil and political liberty.

The magistrates who form the government may be numerous, or may be few; and, generally speaking, the fewer the magistrates the stronger the government. A magistrate has three wills--his personal will, his will as one of the governors and his will as a member of the sovereign. The last-named is the weakest, the first-named the most powerful.

If there is only one governor, the two stronger wills are concentrated in one man; with a few governors, they are concentrated in few men; when the government is in the hands of all the citizens, the second will be obliterated and the first widely distributed, and the government is consequently weak.

On the other hand, where there are many governors the government will be more readily kept in correspondence with the general will. The duty of the legislator is to hit the happy medium at which the government, while not failing in strength, is yet properly submissive to the sovereign.

The sovereign may, in the first place, entrust the government to the whole people or the greater part of them; this form is called democracy. Or it may be placed in the hands of a minority, in which case it is called aristocracy. Or it may be concentrated in the hands of a single magistrate from whom all the others derive their power; this is called monarchy.

It may be urged, on behalf of democracy, that those who make the laws know better than anybody how they should be interpreted and administered. But it is not right that the makers of the laws should execute them, nor that the main body of the people should turn its attention from general views to particular objects. Nothing is more dangerous than the influence of private interests on public affairs. A true democracy, in the vigorous sense of the term, never has existed, and never will. It is against nature that the many should govern and the few be governed. A people composed of gods would govern itself democratically.

THERE are three forms of aristocracy--natural, elective and hereditary. The first is only adapted to simple peoples; the third is the worst of all governments; the second is the best of all. By the elective method, probity, sagacity and experience afford guarantees that the community will be wisely governed.

The first defect of monarchy is that it is to the interest of the monarch to keep the people in a state of weakness and misery, so that they may be unable to resist his power. Another is that under a monarchy the posts of honour are occupied by bunglers and rascals who win their promotion by petty court intrigue. Again, an elective monarchy is a cause of disorder whenever a king dies; and a hereditary monarchy leaves the character of the king to chance, which generally goes astray.

Since the sovereign has no power except its legislative authority, it only acts by laws; and since the laws are simply the authentic acts of the general will, the sovereign cannot act save when the people are assembled. It is essential that there should be definitely fixed periodic assemblies of the people that cannot be abolished or delayed, so that on the appointed day the people will be legitimately convoked by the law.

BUT between the sovereign authority and arbitrary government there is sometimes introduced a middle power, of which I ought to speak. As soon as the public services ceases to be the main interest of the citizens, as soon as they prefer to serve their purses rather than themselves, the state is nearing its ruin. The weakening of patriotism, the activity of private interests, the immensity of states, conquests, and the abuse of government have led to the device of deputies or representatives of the people in the national assemblies. But sovereignty cannot be represented, even as it cannot be alienated; it consists essentially in the general will, and the will is not ascertainable by representation; it is either itself, or something else; there is no middle course. A law not ratified by the people in person is no law at all. The English people believes itself free, but it greatly deceives itself; it is not so, except during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, it is enslaved.

How are we to conceive the act by which the government is instituted? The first process is the determination of the sovereign that the government shall assume such and such a form; this is the establishment of a law. The second process is the nomination by the people of those to whom the government is to be entrusted; this is not a law, but a function of government.

It is a logical sequence of the social contract that in the assemblies of the people the voice of the majority prevails. The only law requiring unanimity is the contract itself. But how can a man be free, and at the same time submit to laws to which he has not consented?

I reply that when a law is proposed in the popular assembly the question put is not precisely whether the citizens approve or disapprove of it, but whether it conforms or not to the general will. The minority, then, simply have it proved to thm that they estimated the general will wrongly. Once it is declared, they are, as citizens, participants in it, and as subjects they must obey it.

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