I'm reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau's The Social Contract (Goodreads, Penguin, Wikipedia) and really enjoying it. Either translation from French to English is a perfected art nowadays, or the originally writing is good. Both is more likely both. Whatever the reason, the prose is very clean and many good points are made simply and strongly in every paragraph.

The book clarifies one's thoughts on the roles and authority of citizens and governments. Of particular usefulness is the distinction between the general will and the will of all. The former is the opinion of the whole civic body, whereas the latter is merely the sum of the particular (i.e. subjective) will of each individual. Rousseau explains how the former naturally tends to act for the public good, whereas the latter inevitably reflects self-interest. He goes on to identify general will as the only possible guidance for good government, which to my mind is a strong rebuttal to things like tax cuts for the purpose of vote-buying.

The relevance of some of the observations to modern politics is amazing for a book more than 200 years old. Here are some quotes from Book III, Chapter 4: Democracy (my emphasis in bold).

It is not good for him who makes the laws to execute them, or for the body of the people to turn its attention away from a general standpoint and devote it to particular objects. Nothing is more dangerous than the influence of private interests in public affairs, and the abuse of the laws by the government is a less evil than the corruption of the legislator, which is the inevitable sequel to a particular standpoint.

It may be added that there is no government so subject to civil wars and intestine agitations as democratic or popular government, because there is none which has so strong and continual a tendency to change to another form, or which demands more vigilance and courage for its maintenance as it is. Under such a constitution above all, the citizen should arm himself with strength and constancy, and say, every day of his life, what a virtuous Count Palatine said in the Diet of Poland: Malo periculosam libertatem quam quietum servitium [I prefer liberty with danger to peace with slavery].

The above are from a translation by C.D.H. Cole in the public domain; the Penguin edition is translated by Maurice Cranston but the text is largely identical.

By a general interpretation, Canada and certainly the United States could be failed or dead states, which is worrying. Worse yet is that Rousseau does not allow for the revival of failing states; only their replacement with new ones. Simple solutions to our political problems seem ever more remote from the realm of possibility.


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