June 28th is the 300th birthday of Jean Jacques Rousseau, a French philosopher whose writings have cursed political life since the mid-1700s. The New Republic has a good essay on Rousseau’s bitter legacy here.
I paid my respects to Rousseau in Freedom in Chains: The Rise of the State and the Demise of the Citizen (St. Martin’s Press, 1999), and in this 2000 essay for the Future of Freedom Foundation’s Freedom Daily:
How the State Became Immaculate
by James Bovard
Jean Jacques Rousseau, with his 1762 book, The Social Contract, effectively made self-delusion about the nature of government into the highest political virtue. British political philosopher Harold Laski later noted, “Rousseau’s theory of the general will makes him … the modern founder of the idealist school of politics.” Rousseau’s “idealistic” method was rarely more clearly stated than in the opening of his book, Discourse on Inequality: “Let us begin by laying facts aside, as they do not affect the question.” 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, because it is impossible for the body to wish to hurt all its members…. The sovereign, merely by virtue of what it is, is always what it should be.
Rousseau’s doctrine of the “general will” also created the perfect pretext to pretend that government is not coercive: the people were willing, whatever government did to them. Rousseau recommended that a lawgiver “ought to feel himself capable … of changing human nature, of transforming each individual … into part of a greater whole from which he in a manner receives his life and being.”
While Rousseau’s romantic glorification of democracy is well-known, his passion for unlimited government power is less recognized. 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 foresaw the need for the government to nullify private property. In an essay on a proposed constitution for Corsica, he 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.”
In The Social Contract, he 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. Thus, he vested in the state more power over the lives of the citizens than many Southern states in the United States vested in slaveowners. (It was a crime for a slaveowner to wrongfully kill one of his slaves, though such killings were not often punished.) He based his political philosophy on his own peculiar version of the “social contract”: “The State, in relation to its members, is master of all their goods by the social contract, which, within the State, is the basis of all rights.”
But Rousseau never explained why people would voluntarily put their heads on a political chopping block.
Rousseau’s consecration of government power had vast influence on subsequent philosophers. German philosophers zeroed in on some of his more absurd ideas and refined them into sufficiently obscure language that they commanded respect among academics for generations to follow…