Front Page Titles (by Subject) Rousseau\'s Social Contract and Freedom - Literature of Liberty, October/December 1979, vol. 2, No. 4
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Rousseau's Social Contract and Freedom - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, October/December 1979, vol. 2, No. 4 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Rousseau's Social Contract and Freedom
“La Théorie politique de Rousseau—l'homme et le citoyen.” [“The Political Theory of Rousseau: the Man and the Citizen”] Annales Historiques de la Révolution Française 50(October 1978):501–533.
Liberal critics have often attacked Rousseau's Social Contract (1762) for what they consider a flagrant contradiction. How can Rousseau claim to safeguard the freedom of citizens in his ideal commonwealth when the mechanics of his utopian system effectively eliminate all areas of individual activity and dissent? Such criticisms reflect a defective or completely erroneous understanding of Rousseau's view of human nature, freedom, and the problems posed by existence in society.
To begin, Prof. Biou asserts that Rousseau's “natural man” represents the only genuine attempt among seventeenth-and eighteenth-century thinkers to depict the character of presocial man. All other philosophical anthropologists read into the primitive state of nature such socially derived anachronisms as law, justice, and property.
Rousseau's natural man, on the other hand, possesses only self-love, a sense of compassion (both observable in other higher species), and a capacity for self-perfection which is unique in nature. This almost unlimited virtualité serves as a clumsy substitute for animal instinct. Through it, however, men quickly establish a social existence and acquire such communally derived qualities as imagination, reason, love, and shame.
Rousseau posits one last trait as essential to human character in the natural state: liberty, the ability to control one's own destiny. He points out that primitives encountered by European explorers defended their freedom as their most precious treasure. On the other hand, highly civilized Europeans at all levels were characterized by the most abject servility.
As men gradually become social beings, their conflicting personal interests give rise to a ferocious struggle for supremacy, which results in the disparity between the powerful and weak, between the rich and poor. Later, a proposal for equitable laws is promulgated to remove these glaring inequalities and the savage conflict of interests. In actual fact, this proposal represents a subterfuge on the part of the rich, since they are the ones who mete out “justice” and make use of it to secure their position.
At the same time, a deep psychological conflict arises in those naive enough to be deceived by this subterfuge. Individual man is torn between the instinct to pursue his own private interests on the one hand, and his vaunted duty to the common good on the other.
In Prof. Biou's view, the Social Contract constitutes a consistent attempt to heal this split in man, to end the strife of personal interests, and to preserve freedom and equality from the ravages of justice. Rousseau does not entertain idle dreams of restoring some presocial state of nature. Instead, he proposes a radically social solution to the problems posed by life in society. In effect, he abolishes individuality and incorporates persons as cell-units of a total social organism.
Far from abolishing human freedom, the Social Contract, as Biou sees it, outlines a plan for communal living in which freedom in a social context finally becomes a reality. First of all, in Rousseau's utopia, a person's entire interests lie with the community of which he is an integral and inalienable part. Since citizens exist only as members of the one social organism (a kind of secular Mystical Body), the tension between private and social values evaporates. By eliminating this strife, one eliminates at the same time any notion of “winners” and “losers.” Law, rather than the tool of privilege, becomes the true expression of the general will.
As an indispensable part of the general will, each citizen enjoys the precious gift of freedom—effective control over the community's and, thus, his own destiny. After the sense of the general will has been determined by discussion and voting, liberal dissent becomes a contradiction. In Rousseau's scheme, a dissenter would be fighting, in effect, against himself.
Thus, Prof. Biou concludes, Rousseau's reasoning neither contradicts itself nor serves as an apology for oppression. On the contrary, Rousseau wages a valiant battle in the Social Contract against the very contradictions which have plagued life in society throughout human history.