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Rousseau on the natural tendency of governments to degenerate into tyranny (1762)

The Swiss political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) warned that there is a strong tendency for members of the government to usurp the sovereign power in order to pursue their own private interests, leading to tyranny:

First, when the prince ceases to administer the State in accordance with the laws, and usurps the Sovereign power. A remarkable change then occurs: not the government, but the State, undergoes contraction; I mean that the great State is dissolved, and another is formed within it, composed solely of the members of the government, which becomes for the rest of the people merely master and tyrant. So that the moment the government usurps the Sovereignty, the social compact is broken, and all private citizens recover by right their natural liberty, and are forced, but not bound, to obey.

As the particular will acts constantly in opposition to the general will, the government continually exerts itself against the Sovereignty. The greater this exertion becomes, the more the constitution changes; and, as there is in this case no other corporate will to create an equilibrium by resisting the will of the prince, sooner or later the prince must inevitably suppress the Sovereign and break the social treaty. This is the unavoidable and inherent defect which, from the very birth of the body politic, tends ceaselessly to destroy it, as age and death end by destroying the human body.

There are two general courses by which government degenerates: i. e. when it undergoes contraction, or when the State is dissolved.

Government undergoes contraction when it passes from the many to the few, that is, from democracy to aristocracy, and from aristocracy to royalty. To do so is its natural propensity.1 If it took the backward course from the few to the many, it could be said that it was relaxed; by this inverse sequence is impossible.

Indeed, governments never change their form except when their energy is exhausted and leaves them too weak to keep what they have. If a government at once extended its sphere and relaxed its stringency, its force would become absolutely nil, and it would persist still less. It is therefore necessary to wind up the spring and tighten the hold as it gives way: or else the State it sustains will come to grief.

The dissolution of the State may come about in either of two ways.

First, when the prince ceases to administer the State in accordance with the laws, and usurps the Sovereign power. A remarkable change then occurs: not the government, but the State, undergoes contraction; I mean that the great State is dissolved, and another is formed within it, composed solely of the members of the government, which becomes for the rest of the people merely master and tyrant. So that the moment the government usurps the Sovereignty, the social compact is broken, and all private citizens recover by right their natural liberty, and are forced, but not bound, to obey.

The same thing happens when the members of the government severally usurp the power they should exercise only as a body; this is as great an infraction of the laws, and results in even greater disorders. There are then, so to speak, as many princes as there are magistrates, and the State, no less divided than the government, either perishes or changes its form.

When the State is dissolved, the abuse of government, whatever it is, bears the common name of anarchy. To distinguish, democracy degenerates into ochlocracy, and aristocracy into oligarchy; and I would add that royalty degenerates into tyranny; but this last word is ambiguous and needs explanation.

About this Quotation:

In this passage from The Social Contract (1762) Rousseau uses some public choice-like insights about the self-interested behaviour of members of the government who will inevitably use the power of their position to pursue their own private interests (their “particular will”) at the expense of the people (the “general will”). He calls this “the unavoidable and inherent defect” which afflicts all political organizations just like aging afflicts the human body. When this process inevitably happens he believes that “the social compact is broken” and that “all private citizens recover by right their natural liberty, and are forced, but not bound, to obey” the state. The path by which various types of government reach this end point differs: democracy degenerates into ochlocracy, aristocracy into oligarchy; and royalty degenerates into tyranny. Many of Rousseau’s followers believed that they could break out of this cycle which they attempted to do when revolution broke out in France in July 1789, with results that only seemed to confirm Rousseau’s original pessimism.

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