The Supreme Court Decision: A Birthday Gift for Rousseau?

Tomorrow is the day that political pundits, news media outlets, and most of the general public have been anxiously waiting for, the day when Obama’s landmark legislative accomplishment could either be validated or razed to the ground. Perhaps less known, tomorrow also happens to be the 300th birthday of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose writings on political philosophy are strikingly relevant to tomorrow’s decision.

Prof. Frederick Watkins provides an insightful overview of Rousseau’s philosophies here. The crux of Rousseau’s theory on the social contract can be summarized as such:

According to Rousseau, humans in presociety times was neither brutish (a la Hobbes) nor noble, but simply operating by the sense of self-preservation, and never interacting enough with other humans to need social morals. The increasing concentration of the population and the development of society requires humans to bond together and form a social contract, complete with rules for governance by which all agree to live.

In the society-gone-wrong Rousseau scenario, the dominance of private interests and increasing economic inequality allows the rich and powerful to usurp governance, resulting in a populace hoodwinked into thinking it’s free but actually serving the wishes of the elite. “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” However, in the ideal Rousseau scenario, civic-minded individuals set aside their self-interest and adopt a General Will, making political decisions that improve the general societal welfare, which they then agree to abide by. As his (in?)famous quote goes, only then can man “force himself to be free.”

The distinction that saves Rousseau’s line of reasoning from tyranny of the majority is his distinction between an individual’s “particular will” and society’s  “general will”. For Rousseau, it wasn’t simply enough for policies to be determined by majority vote or even unanimous consensus. Instead, each individual had to make decisions with the good of the general society in mind, suppressing any selfish urges that may conflict with this ideal. As a young, active, healthy adult, I may personally prefer to save the $700 in annual health insurance premiums for other expenditures, but as a well-informed citizen, I would prefer to live in a society where I can be assured that if I run into an unexpected health problem, or when I become old and decrepit, I will nonetheless have access to basic health care services. If I truly believe in advancing the general good, then society’s collective decisions will be exactly the same decisions I want.

Watkins seems almost prescient when he writes:

For the modern constitutionalist, as for Rousseau, respect for the moral responsibility of individual citizens is the foundation of all political legitimacy. Coercion is justified only in so far as it is based on some sort of general agreements. Constitutional government assumes that all the citizens of a particular state, no matter how divided they may be in their personal opinions, are so firmly agreed in their desire to share a common political existence that they are willing to repress their particular views in the interest of common action. The skill of constitutional statesmanship consists in limiting the demands of collective action to the area of actual or potential agreement. If this proves impossible, minority groups may come to feel that the values of the community are less important to them than the particular interests they are asked to sacrifice on its behalf. When this happens, there ceases to be any constitutionally legitimate basis for coercion, and a proper constitutional government must either relax its demands in such a way as to win back the disaffected minority, or else recognise the right of the latter to set themselves up as an independent political society. (Emphasis mine)

In about eight hour’s time, we will find out whether we live in a society in which consideration for a general will is too much to ask for.

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