The Author beside a statue of Rousseau –the Pantheon-Paris
When I taught about the origin of the US Government, I would follow my explanation of John Locke’s Contract Theory with a comparison of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract theory.
Rousseau’s social contract, and other parts of his philosophy in regards to self-government, have been hotly debated for over 250 years. Many critics of Rousseau cite the attempts of the Jacobins to force human equality in the French Revolution as a natural extension of some of his theories. They point to the (literal) decapitation of the nobility, and to a lesser extent the French Roman Catholic hierarchy, in the height of the French Reign of Terror as an example of Rousseau’s vision of “egalite.” I don’t think that is fair to lay the excesses of Robespierre and Saint-Just at the feet of Rousseau.
While it would be hard to do justice to Rousseau’s philosophy in a short blog post like this, we can make a few generalizations: 1) He advocates a society where love of man in a family sense is better than selfish love; 2) man is in competition with each other as we are also more dependent on each other; 3) a social contract between each citizen would benefit all. His philosophy contains much more, but these points are the ones that seem to be debated so frequently when it comes to assessing his impact on the creation of the American consciousness in independence.
How do we see his ideas in today’s modern America? Many aspects of modern America have leaned more towards Rousseau’s social contract as opposed to Locke’s contract between citizen and government. Social Security is the most obvious example. It was sold as insurance but we know better now. I have put in for years in order to make sure that my parents had at least a subsistence living in their retirement. It’s a contract that even babies are entered into at birth as part of our society.
Another example of the “social contract” are student loans and aid. American society has decided that it is in the nation’s interest to allow as broad a section of our youth to have the opportunity to seek higher education as possible. At some point, we will probably reassess that judgement to include newer forms of specialized education such as trades and technical schooling. Many would argue that most of LBJ’s Great Society was “social contract” on steroids. Adding areas like housing, education, law enforcement, and social welfare programs have had varying amounts of success. Another problem is that it took substantial confiscation of individual property, through heavy taxation, in order to meet the promises made in these areas of social contract.
Today’s American taxpayer is seeking a review of the successes and failure of the federal government’s attempts at Rousseau’s theories. While these debates often deteriorate into accusations of poverty vs. “paying one’s fair share”, it seems clear that the balance of Locke vs. Rousseau will continue, even if it’s not being recognized as such. As the nation continues to debate healthcare, what is referred to as “Obamacare,” what we are really debating is whether Rousseau’s social contract is supportable in a modern society, especially with some of the drastic declines we are seeing in fertility in many western nations. Food for thought…