The Social Contract

The Social Contract Summary and Analysis of Book II, Chapters VIII-XII


It is important that any legislator survey the people to determine whether they are ready to obey the laws. Societies can be in different stages of development at different times, and some will be ill-equipped to follow the law no matter how good it may be. Rousseau claims that once people have developed bad habits, it is very difficult to reform them through the law. Although revolutions can spark a new age in a society and remove its vices, these events are rare and cannot happen twice to the same people. Rousseau argues that people can acquire liberty, but they cannot recover it after it has been lost. Thus, the legislator must wait to see if the people are mature enough before subjecting them to the laws: a very difficult task that must not be taken lightly.

There are limits to the size of the body politic. It must big enough to sustain itself, but not so big that it is difficult to govern. In general, a small state is better-governed than a large state for several reasons. First, administration becomes more difficult over large distances. Second, the cost of running a government increases as it grows in size. Third, the people become exhausted from following the orders of several different levels of government. When the government becomes too big, it cannot enforce the laws. The people also lose affection for their leaders and for the state because the laws cannot be universally suitable to people who live in different regions and have different customs.

A body politic can be measured by its population and the size of its territory. In a good society, the two must be in an ideal proportion. There must be enough men to maintain and cultivate the land, and the land must be adequate to feed all of the men. If the land is too much for the citizens to maintain, the nation will face the constant threat of invasion. If there is too little land, the nation will be tempted to invade other locales to obtain the needed resources.

The aim of all legislation should be the promotion of liberty and equality. Equality, however, does not suggest that everyone must have the same amount of power and wealth. Power should never be based on violence, and should be exercised in accordance with the law. In regard to wealth, no man should have so much money that he is able to buy another person, and no man should have so little that he is forced to sell himself. This kind of equality may not exist in reality, but should always be a goal of legislation.

Natural resources and the temperament of the people will determine the type of economy that a society will have. For example, nations with long, accessible coastlines will focus on commerce and navigation, while countries with rocky coastlines will remain isolated from other nations.


In the previous chapter, Rousseau argued that the laws produce a moral change in man by substituting natural liberty for political liberty. Here, he claims that only some people are ready for the law and thus ready for this moral transformation. This raises the question of whether Rousseau believes that human nature or the law is more important in forming morality. He asserts that a people must reach a certain point of maturity before being subjected to the law, but does not provide any tangible determinants that reveal that one has arrived at this point.

Rousseau asserts that every state has an ideal size that will allow it to be governed effectively. The state must be large enough that it is independent and capable of resisting foreign nations, but not so large that administration becomes impossible. Although Rousseau acknowledges that it is very difficult to determine how large the state should be, he clearly prefers small states to larger ones. In a large nation, the cost of administration increases, the people lose their sense of civic pride, and the laws cannot be equitably applied to different regions of the state.

Rousseau asserts that every system of legislation should aim to promote liberty and equality. The laws support liberty because relationships of particular dependence take away force from the state. If one person is obligated to another, it is clear that he cannot give himself to the state as the social contract requires. The laws must maintain equality because liberty cannot exist without it. However, Rousseau's emphasis on equality does not necessarily suggest that he supports a communist state. According to Rousseau, there can be differences in power and wealth, but luxury should not exist.

Although Rousseau argues that each state should aim for equality, he believes that natural resources should determine the economic organization of the state. For example, countries with barren soil should focus on industry and sell their goods in exchange for food. Thus, despite maxims that apply to all states, each nation should create legislation that is appropriate to its individual situation.