In Book I of the Social Contract, Rousseau suggests that towards a certain stage in the state of nature, people feel the need to bind themselves to one another. Individuals bind themselves to a larger community and form a social contract. Rousseau’s main argument in Book I is that the community that is formed by the gathering of individuals is not simply an aggregation of the interests of all the individuals that form it. It is a distinct entity –in a way, a distinct individual- that acts on its own. Rousseau defines this entity collectively as “the sovereign” and individually as “citizens”.
All citizens are committed to this higher entity (the sovereign) and to each other. However, the sovereign is not bound by or committed to anything. Even though Rousseau implies that the sovereign is not bound by any force, he states that it is still obligated to act in the best interest of its citizens. The sovereign might be tempted to act as an independent existence and take measures considering solely its own interests. However, if it took a measure that would hurt its citizens, it would also be hurting itself.
As a result, the sovereign is always supposed to act in the best interest of its constituents. Insofar as the sovereign is limited to acting in the best interest of its citizens, individuals are also limited to acting in the best interest of the collective will and the sovereign. Some individuals might act in their own interest only, while still enjoying all the benefits and freedoms that the sovereign provides to them. Therefore, Rousseau suggests that individuals need to be “forced to be free”: that citizens need laws that force them to abide by the measures taken by the general will.
Although individuals are able to follow any liberty and instincts in a state of nature, they become limited in the civil society, by rules that are based on reason and general will. This way, they become more noble and civil. By entering the civil society, individuals learn to limit their irrational behavior. The civil society ensures that all of its citizens maintain their civil freedoms by imposing laws or in Rousseau’s words, by “forcing them to be free”. The last section of Book I talks about property in civil society.
Rousseau states that ownership of a property is legitimate if the owner is the first occupier of that property, if no one else claims that property and if the owner occupies no more property than he needs. In civil society, each individual gives up all of his property to the general will. This way, the sovereign assures legitimate possession and fights usurpations. In a way, the individual is not disowning his property by giving up his property to the sovereign. Since, he is a constituent of the sovereign, he still owns the properties that are owned by the sovereign.
Book II of Rousseau’s Social Contract discusses problems related to the sovereign and the general will. Rousseau asserts that sovereignty is inalienable, that is, it cannot be represented by a different group, but by itself. The sovereign represents the general will. Hence, no smaller group or individual can be able to represent the general will. This assertion is probably Rousseau’s reaction to states, where citizens are not actively involved in politics, and are subject to the decisions of a smaller representative group.
Rousseau believes that the sovereignty can only exist when all people have direct voice and are politically active. Rousseau also asserts that sovereignty is indivisible. Sovereignty represents the will of all the people and not that of some of the people. Rousseau believes that the will of all does not always result in the common good, whereas the general will always aim for the common good. The general will only includes common interests. However, the “will of all” is merely a summation of all private interests. Since most private interests contrast the common good, the will of all and the general will rarely coincide.
In Book II of the Social Contract, Rousseau continues to expand on his ideas about law. The author believes that there are universal laws and justice systems that are set by God. However, since some people reject to obey these laws, humanity should set up its own laws, which should be derived from morals and reason. According to Rousseau, laws apply to all people as a whole and they reflect the general will. A declaration of the sovereign that applies to only certain subjects is not a law, but a decree. Ideally, laws must be agreed upon and passed by the people as a whole.
However, Rousseau acknowledges the impracticality of this suggestion. It is almost impossible for a large group of people to write a law together. Besides, people are not always able to see what is in the society’s best interest. As a result, Rousseau proposes that there should be an impartial lawgiver, who is not a citizen of the state. Nevertheless, Rousseau admits that it is very hard to find such a legislator. Rousseau argues that to be able to establish a state and a legal system, there first must be a long-term peace among the citizens.
According to Rousseau, a state can be measured in two ways: by the size of its territory and by the size of its population. The author states that a state must be neither too big nor too small – in terms of both territory and population. Governing a state with a large territory becomes is very hard. Such states usually have large governments. As a result, the decision making process is very slow and arduous. On the other hand, having a small state is also not desirable, as small states might be attacked by larger neighboring states.
In addition, there must also be a balance between the population and the size of the territory: A large territory with small number of people is hard to control and a small territory with a large amount of people will always have to depend on outside resources to sustain its population. Rousseau concludes Chapter XI of Book II by stating that a legislative system must aim for equality and freedom, that is, inequalities in power or wealth should never be able to give a citizen the opportunities to dominate another citizen.