Rousseau raises some serious doubts about certain aspects of liberal theory and about the wisdom of relying on abstract principles like natural rights and natural freedom as the basis for a political order. His rhetorical fire has led a long line of political conservatives to denounce him. If we pay more attention to the subtle complexity of his thought than to his frequently jarring rhetoric, we can avoid snap judgments that reflect our impatience rather than Rousseau’s foolishness.
Rousseau agreed with the liberal view that peace, safety, and prosperity always constitute the irreducible minimum goals of any legitimate government. His “Social Contract” derives the nature of the agreement that would make a government legitimate on liberal principles. He effectively demonstrates that such a genuine social contract is at best implicit and can never be fully adhered to. Just as Plato showed why no actual city can be truly just, Rousseau shows why no government can be strictly and consistently legitimate.
Rousseau anticipates all the major features of modern public choice theory in explicating the tensions inherent in establishing and maintaining political institutions that serve the public interest. The institutional devices that he recommends for addressing those tensions are largely consistent with the political theory of “The Federalist.”
Rousseau also believed that such devices are fundamentally inadequate measures for addressing the challenges that make government necessary. Different supplements or alternatives will be possible in different circumstances. In general, however, liberal democracies will have a strong tendency to produce shallow souls and a weak social fabric — like Tocqueville, he thought these are vices to which our kind of polities would be most vulnerable.
Rousseau had some suggestions for ways to retard the degeneration of liberal polities and to strengthen the social fabric, as we see in the “Letter to d’Alembert.” He was also willing to offer private advice on building new institutions to patriots in a country faced with a choice between imminent destruction and constitutional reform, as he did in “Considerations on the Government of Poland.” But he never promoted any program of political activism, let alone any political revolution or the demolition of functioning institutions.
Rousseau’s political thought is conservative in a way profoundly at odds with the self-confident reformist spirit of the Enlightenment. Liberal democracy is one legacy of Enlightenment thought, along with astounding technological achievements and unprecedented affluence. No one could doubt the value of the material benefits that mankind has received. Nevertheless, we can see before us countless signs of the same moral corruption that Rousseau saw emerging in eighteenth-century Europe.
Atheism has begun to dominate the West. The egoism at the heart of liberal philosophy is reflected in the ongoing collapse or redefinition of the family, and in declining birthrates that threaten a kind of social suicide. It is also reflected in a politics suffused with crony capitalism, interest-group feeding frenzies, and a voracious appetite for government entitlements that has proved politically uncontrollable even while it appears financially unsustainable.
Rousseau did not propose a political cure for the corruption of the ancien régime or for the atheistic materialism that he saw at the heart of Enlightenment philosophy. Nor does he prescribe any such remedy for the ills of our time. But he does offer an incisive analysis of the underlying causes. Properly understood, that analysis does not invite us to abandon the political teachings of John Locke, Adam Smith, or the American founders. But neither does the respect they are owed refute his diagnosis.
While cautious in proposing political reforms, Rousseau was bold in promoting moral reform. He attacked the Enlightenment’s false promise of civic and individual happiness attainable through the rational and egoistic pursuit of wealth and power. Even within the kind of society promoted by liberal thought, he believed, it was possible for people to find a refuge from the corrupting influence of modern philosophy. The key institution that made this possible was traditional family life. Rousseau used all of his literary skill to defend and ennoble that institution, and thus to reinforce “the small fatherland that is the family,” which he regarded as the indispensable support for a liberal political order.
Those who aspire to defend and preserve the American republic, as Rousseau sought to serve the Republic of Geneva, need more than pious appeals to the authority of our founders, or to doctrinaire libertarian theories of natural rights. And they certainly need more than government policies that promise to promote economic growth.
It is an open question whether anyone or anything can prevent an irremediable deterioration of America and Western civilization more generally. It should therefore be especially significant for us that Rousseau was no mere sermonizer or public intellectual. “[W]hen I desired to learn, it was in order that I myself might know and not in order to teach.” He did not write only for the public, or for those who want to serve the public, and his efforts to be useful to the public had a foundation in the most uncompromising personal search for the truth.
Rousseau’s search for truth was as radical as that of any other philosopher, and it led him to acknowledge many truthful elements in Enlightenment philosophy. Quite apart from the political and moral implications in his writings, Rousseau speaks to those who are, like himself, impelled to learn solely in order to know. For them, his analysis of politics and the human soul can help to rejuvenate political philosophy as an entrance to philosophy as a way of life. This is the most profound way in which Rousseau belongs to a cosmopolitan community that transcends every mere political order.
Thanks again to Eugene for giving me an opportunity to share these thoughts with readers of the Volokh Conspiracy.