The Social Contract

The Social Contract Summary and Analysis of Book III, Chapters XV-XVIII


When people no longer care about the public interest and pay others to fulfill their civic duties, the state is near ruin. The healthier the state, the more people will place the general will above their private interests and the more they will enjoy meeting their civic obligations. Rousseau asserts that using money to avoid one's responsibilities destroys civil freedom. He also disapproves of the reliance on representatives to articulate the general will. Sovereignty cannot be represented for the same reason that it cannot be alienated: it either expresses the interest of the people as a whole, or it does not. Thus, Rousseau asserts that the English and other people in representative democracies are not free although they may believe themselves to be so - they are only free during elections. All laws must be ratified by the people as a whole to be considered legitimate.

Although Rousseau discusses this subject in a previous chapter, he re-emphasizes his belief that the establishment of government does not create a contract between the people and their leaders. First, the sovereign, by definition, is always the supreme authority in the state. It is thus impossible for the sovereign to be obligated to the government. Second, a contract between the people and their leader would be a particular act and not a law. Consequently, this contract would be illegitimate and only regulated by the rule of superior force. If the relationship between the government and the people is not a contract, how is government instituted? First, the sovereign decides that there will be a governing body, and this act is a law. Second, the sovereign appoints certain people to the government. Because the second act is merely an application of the law, it is really an act of government and not legislative authority. The problem then arises of how there can be an act of government before the government is created. In this special situation, Rousseau asserts that the sovereign takes on temporary executive power to institute the government.

Rousseau now returns to the problem of how to prevent the government from assuming sovereignty. His solution is to have public assemblies to assess the government's performance. When the people assemble periodically, they are charged with answering two questions. First, do they approve of the present form of government? Second, do they approve of the current government officials?


Rousseau thoroughly disapproves of using money to avoid one's civic responsibilities. He believes that once citizens use their finances to fulfill their obligations to the state (for example, paying for mercenaries rather than serving in the military), they have lost their liberty. Rousseau thus echoes the arguments presented in the second Discourse. Giving money undermines the equality of the state and destroys the sanctity of the social contract. Clearly, Rousseau would have numerous objections to American democracy, which has seen direct political participation decline in favor of financial contributions. For Rousseau, writing a check for a political organization or candidate is not sufficient to fulfill one's obligations as a citizen. Once people use money to shirk their duties, the state itself can be bought or sold.

Rousseau would also not approve of the reliance on representatives to express the general will. Sovereignty cannot be represented for the same reason that it cannot be alienated. Any law demands the approval of the entire populace before it is implemented. According to Rousseau, modern representative democracies like England and the United States are only free when they elect their representatives.

Rousseau believes that in a good state, the people will put public business before private interests. People will rush to the assemblies and readily accept their duties as citizens, such as being drafted when necessary. Today, there are few governments that meet Rousseau's lofty standards. It would be fascinating to consider whether Rousseau would change his political theories to conform to modern political trends.

Here, Rousseau re-emphasizes his belief the establishment of government is not a contract between the magistrates and the people. First, because the sovereign is the supreme authority in a state, it is not obliged to obey the government. Second, a contract between the people and the government would be a particular act and thus outside the scope of law. If the people are considered one entity and the government another, a contract between them would be subject only to the laws of nature and superior force - which have already been declared illegitimate.

Overall, Rousseau insists that sovereignty must remain with the people. This belief prevents him from viewing the relationship between a people and their government as a contract. Unlike philosophers such as Hobbes and Grotius, who stripped the people of their rights and empowered the executive, Rousseau affirms that the government is responsible to the sovereign.