Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Confederacy Of Dunces

The idea that Rousseau can be shown to be some kind of totalitarian, abusing the rhetoric of freedom to require people to fit his narrow vision of what it is to be human, in virtue of the infamous 'forced to be free' passage in The Social Contract seems to me one of the greatest calumnies ever perpetrated on a philosopher. The context in which that obviously provocative claim is made is of the problem of a legislative body having "no guarantee of the subjects' engagements if it did not find means to ensure their fidelity" (SC 1.7.6); the problem of people enjoying "the rights of a citizen without being willing to fulfil the duties of a subject" (SC 1.7.7), a problem which if not resolved would "legitimate civil engagements... absurd, tyrannical and liable to the most enormous abuses" (SC 1.7.8). What is Rousseau worrying about here then? Is it whether citizens will collaborate in his diabolical plans to turn them all into tools of his mad utopian vision, or is instead something like, what happens if people don't obey the law, if they enjoy its protection but won't heed its commands, if they exploit the willingness of others to restrain themselves to run riot? Clearly the latter. The worry is about how effective a law can be without coercive force to back it up. This is why being constrained to obey the general will "guarantees" the citizen "against all personal dependence" (SC 1.7.8). The law, as given by the general will, protects against domination and exploitation by others by providing everyone with a guarantee of their status and so giving them no reason to aggress on others. Anyone who thinks that law is some kind of solution to a coordination problem - say, Locke, Hume, any sensible member of the liberal tradition who thinks that life under political authority is freer than one where everyone else is a potential threat - agrees with Rousseau about being forced to be free. Rousseau may be mad, but it's not because he thinks we can be forced to be free. Anyone who thinks they're freer living in an ordered society than in a world of disorder and chaos thinks that, and for exactly the same reasons.


Chris Brooke said...


Phil Edwards said...

I was going to say, I wonder if it is (just you in here). As presented, it sounds like such an obvious misreading that my immediate reaction was like that of the economist who doesn't look for coins on the pavement - I thought that if it had been valid somebody would have been bound to spot it already.

But I defer to Chris - if he thinks it's valid, it's valid.

Rob Jubb said...

It's a really good example of how a reputation can lead to pretty stupid misreadings. What's more interesting though is using it as a filter for whether someone is in general sensible or a decent reader of historical texts. Philip Pettit and I think Skinner, too, for example, fail this test.