The Social Contract

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


According to Rousseau, executive power does not belong to the people because it deals with particular acts, whereas the people should focus on general concerns. Therefore, the people must have an agent to carry out the general will and to communicate between the state (the passive body) and the sovereign (the active body). For the government to carry out the general will, it must have its own life and will and be able to distinguish itself from the sovereign. Magistrates must thus have a common interest called the "corporate will," which tends to preserve the government. Although Rousseau supports the government's independence to some extent, he argues that the corporate will should always be subordinate to the general will.

Rousseau stresses that the submission of the people to its leader is not a contract. Government officials are employees of the sovereign, and are responsible for exercising the power with which they have been entrusted. The sovereign can change the government as it chooses. There is only one appropriate form of government for each state, and because events may change the conditions of the state, different governments can be appropriate at different times.

A government in which the sovereign gives power to all people (or to the majority of them) is a "democracy." The sovereign can also give power to a small number of individuals, and this type of government is called an "aristocracy." Finally, the sovereign can place a single individual in charge of government, and this is called a "monarchy." These three types of government are not, however, mutually exclusive from one another. For example, it is possible to have a monarchy with more than one king, or a democracy that represents only half of the people.

The population of the state is an important factor in deciding its form of government. As the size of the state increases, each individual has an increasingly smaller amount of input into the laws. Thus, in a larger nation, the citizen loses his connection to the state, and his private will becomes stronger than his desire to promote the common good. Because there is less agreement between the private will and the general will, the government must employ more repressive force as the population grows.

Rousseau claims that the execution of public business is slower when more people are in charge of a state, and that for this reason smaller governments are more active than larger ones. He proposes that there should be an inverse relationship between the size of government and that of the state. It follows then that small states should have a democracy, medium-sized states should have an aristocracy, and large states should have a monarchy.


Every free action has two causes: one moral, and the other physical. For an action to be carried out, its agent must want to do it and must have the physical ability to execute it. In civil society, the moral is analogous to legislative power and the physical is analogous to executive power. Rousseau thus declares that nothing can be done without the cooperation of the two.

Rousseau has established that legislative power rests with the people, but that they should not exercise executive power, because it deals with particular acts instead of general concerns. Understood differently, legislative and executive power cannot be mixed, because this would destroy equality among citizens. By nature of the social contract, an individual can help to make rules by which everyone must abide, but no one has the right to force someone else to do what he will not do himself. The people who make the laws thus should not be the same people who execute them.

Because of the necessary separation of legislative and executive power, the people should have an agent to carry out the general will. A government is an intermediary between the subjects and the sovereign, and is responsible for the execution of the laws. The relationship between the people and their government is not a contract: the people are under no obligation to keep their form of government, and can alter it as they see fit. Government officials can be thought of as employees of the sovereign who are entrusted with using the power of the state to carry out the general will. This belief contradicts with those of other political theorists like Hobbes and Grotius, who give absolute authority to the monarch.

Although Rousseau confers sovereignty on the people instead of on the government, he gives the executive some measure of authority. The government can be considered a new body within the state, distinct from the people and the sovereign. Although the government exists only through the sovereign, it should have its own will to promote its own preservation and to distinguish itself from the state. However, the government's interest, which Rousseau calls the corporate will, should always be subordinate to the general will.