In 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote The Social Contract, where he believed in the popular sovereignty form of government. That is, the government should be ruled by the people. In his time, it would have been difficult to implement his form of government on an individual basis. However, with today’s modern technologies, Rousseau’s ideas can be more readily executed and applied to today’s society.
Rousseau’s social contract consisted of two branches, a government and a sovereign. The government is composed of magistrates while the sovereign is made of the people. The magistrates enforce the laws passed by the sovereign or the will of the people (Rousseau 450). In theory, this seems easy enough to put into effect. The sovereign holds elections for the position of these magistrates. This process is very similar to the way current elections are held today. Other than for the non-law making part and being more administrative, Rousseau’s government closely resembles our government today. The main problem with Rousseau’s ideas lies in the control of power by the people.
Because the sovereignty includes all the people in the state under the government’s control (Rousseau 450), it would have been inconceivable to gather everyone in the state to vote on a law back when Rousseau wrote his book. Even today in the United States, people only vote during scheduled elections usually in November. For the people to be really in control, there needs to be a quicker access to voting opportunities. Modern forms of communication such as the internet, phone, and mail can help achieve this “gathering” of people more quickly and frequently. Every person can vote on an issue almost instantly through these types of communication. Of course, there must be a way to keep track of who has voted and to avoid voting fraud, which raises the question of how do we know if the “people” are responsible enough to govern themselves.
Rousseau also considered the egotist in the individual. How can we be sure that people will vote rationally? Typically, a person will vote for what is best for him or herself because that is just human nature. Sometimes it’s hard to trust that everyone will do the right thing. For instance, today’s politicians seem to care more about their party affiliation than what is best for the country. In this sense, there is a certain amount of selfishness between the republicans and democrats. So when people vote for a law in Rousseau’s government, people will definitely vote for their own interest. Hopefully, however, the majority of the votes will reflect the society as a whole, so the majority will always rule in Rousseau’s government meaning that a law will pass or fail based only on the majority of the votes. Even though self-interest may play a role in voting, we have to trust that the majority of people in this world are rational thinkers. If we cannot assume this, then the world would be in a far worse condition than before because irrational people can do drastic things. For example, if a group of people proposes to allow adults to carry guns in schools, there might be a few gun activists in favor of it, but I am confident the majority would be against it. Therefore, if a majority of people is rational, then their votes will negate the irrational ones so that we will have an outcome that will benefit society as a whole.
Even though most of Rousseau’s ideals are very practical, I believe his idea of the “lawgiver” is not necessary. A government of magistrates can fulfill the role of lawgiver by noting the issues that need to be addressed and sending them to the sovereign to vote on. Also, the sovereign is capable of deciding the issues to vote on through petitions. In conclusion, I believe that Rousseau’s social contract is much more practical today than when he wrote it. With innovations in the modern communication technology, we can achieve a full representation of the people in government.
Rousseau, , Jean-Jacques . “On the Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right.”
Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. Ed. David
Wootton. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc , 2008. 427-487.