Isaiah Berlin on Rousseau

Having recently found Isaiah Berlin’s Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty at my local bookstore, i decided to read through some of the essays in search of a healthy contrarian view. The chapter on Rousseau was tendentious and at times frankly ad hominem, but nevertheless worthwhile. (The other indictees in this little book are Helvétius, Fichte, Hegel, Saint-Simon and de Maistre.) Though Berlin objects primarily to the outcome of the philosophy (Hitler and Mussolini! — these are, after all, transcribed radio addresses from the early ’50s), his main contention is with “the mysterious assumption of the coincidence of authority and liberty” which is his gloss on Rousseau’s volonté générale.

Without attempting to defend Mr. Rousseau against Sir Berlin, i would nevertheless like to suggest how the Genevan’s bohemian “paradox” might be calmly explained to a gentleman and a scholar. One might think of this general will, as an instance of Harry Frankfurt’s second-order will. In agreeing to such a social contract, each individual is establishing a second-order will, namely, that e will want what the democratic institutions decide (because it is in es overall or long-term interest). Of course, this defense would be rather weak for large representative democracies as we know them today, but it should be remembered that Rousseau was advocating town-sized direct democracy, so every law was voted upon by every one (well, all eligible voters). Though this does not reduce the Contrat Social to an acceptable form of “negative liberty”, it does explain how one’s liberty might be reconciled with the authority of laws one has freely elected to follow.

Finally, i would like to point out a few modifications one might make to Rousseau’s idea, which would take it yet further towards something Sir Isaiah Berlin might find less objectionable. Two advances in our modern societies have made Rousseau’s general idea more palatable. One is the existence of liberal democracy and its rule of law. A Rousseauvian mini-democracy could easily sit atop this legal framework. This would add two further degrees of freedom: For one, such an association would no longer need to span a defined land area. This would make it much easier for people to leave the association should any of the laws passed not meet with their approval; exit would not require emigration. For another, being freed from maintaining the conditions of negative liberty, the associations could be truly voluntary, making entrance, as well as exit, a matter of individual choice. The second advance is the Internet and mobile computing devices, which add further degrees of simplicity. Associations can now be easily managed, significantly reducing the overhead of direct democracy, since the laws or rules can be automatically implemented by software, and voting requires only that one’s fingers do the traveling.

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