The Social Contract

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


As long as several individuals consider themselves to be a part of a single, collective body, the state will be healthy and will require few laws. This state will enjoy peace, union, and equality. When new laws need to be implemented, everyone will know which laws are appropriate and will ratify them out of good sense. The state loses this unanimity when private wills challenge the common interest. At some point, no one will feel any social obligations, and everyone will pursue only private interests. However, this situation does not mean that the general will has been destroyed. Although the common interest still exists, it has been made subordinate to private will. When the state is in a period of decline, the citizen uses his vote to benefit particular individuals and parties rather than the nation as a whole. Thus, Rousseau asserts that the behavior of citizens in the assembly will reveal the health of the body politic. Although there are some exceptions, long, acrimonious debates show the lack of social cohesion and signal the decline of the state. Unanimity shows that the people share common values and a uniform desire to pursue the common good.

There is only one law that requires the unanimous consent of all citizens, and that is the social contract. Because every man is born free, no one can force him to be under the state's jurisdiction without his consent. Therefore, opponents of the social contract can choose not to be included in it. However, after the state has been formed, residency implies consent.

Aside from the social contract, the law of the majority should prevail. It may be asked, "How can citizens be free and also forced to obey laws without their approval?" The law always agrees with the general will, and when a person votes, he judges whether a law is in accordance with the general will or not. He does not vote whether or not he agrees with the law, but rather whether or not it promotes the common good. Thus, when a person votes against a law that is passed, it simply shows that he was wrong in assessing the general will.

The sovereign has the right to determine the majority ratios necessary to ratify legislation. For very important decisions, Rousseau argues that the percent of people needed to pass a law should be close to unanimity. For situations requiring immediate action, a simple majority should suffice.

In Chapter III, Rousseau talks about the election of government officials and whether it should be done by choice or by lots. Although his rationale is quite different, Rousseau agrees with Montesquieu that in a democracy, elections should be done by lots. He argues that being a part of the government is a great responsibility, one that cannot justly be imposed on anyone except by chance. This reasoning agrees with his previous argument on the universality of the law. Because Rousseau views being a magistrate as a necessary burden, the state can only choose people by chance to fill this role. In states where elections are done both by choice and by lots, citizens should choose people by choice when positions require special talents. Positions that call for good sense and morals (like being a judge) should be filled by lots, because these qualities are common to everyone in a healthy state.


Although Rousseau insists that the general will still exists in a fractious, immoral state, it is hard to discern what the general will is or what importance it has in such a situation. After all, is there really a common good between people who believe that they have no shared ties or mutual interest? Is the initial approval of a social contract enough to ensure the perpetual life of the general will? If people can dissolve the social contract, it logically follows that they can also nullify the general will.

It is important to emphasize that when people enter a social contract, they agree to the means of the legislative process - not to its ends. As long as the laws are made in a legitimate way, the minority is compelled to obey them. Furthermore, when voting, a person does not decide whether a particular law is in his interest, but rather whether that law is in accordance with the general will. If he votes against a law but it is passed anyway, this demonstrates that he was simply incorrect in assessing the general will.

By basing legal obligation on the general will, Rousseau satisfies the second condition of legitimate polity: that in obeying the laws, an individual only obeys himself. It is virtually impossible for every law to obtain unanimous approval, but this should not mean that certain people lose freedom. As long as people agree to the social contract, they have a moral obligation to comply with what is derived from it. Furthermore, the minority is compelled to observe the laws to ensure equality among all citizens. Earlier in The Social Contract, Rousseau asserts that liberty cannot exist without equality. If a minority declares that it does not have to obey the laws, it is claiming a personal exemption from an impersonal obligation. The principle concept of the law is its universality. Laws must be made in consideration of the entire populace, and must affect the entire populace.

Finally, Rousseau argues that election in a democracy should happen by lots. It is interesting that Rousseau views being a government official as a burden and not a privilege. Because a magistrate has a great amount of responsibility, he believes that the only fair and legal method of election would be by lots. Furthermore, in a true democracy, mores and talents would be roughly the same, and election by lots would not affect the quality of leadership. Rousseau does acknowledge, however, that a true democracy as such cannot exist.