Posts tagged ‘rousseau’

September 12, 2014

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.

September 7, 2014

Theories of Democracy Part 3: Participatory Democracy

[Continuing Series on Frank Cunningham’s Theories of Democracy: A Critical Introduction (2002)]


This chapter deals with the intellectual descendants of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. And this is the closest we have come to something similar to a pollyty, for Rousseau’s ideas are also best suited to small societies practicing direct forms of democracy by voting directly upon their laws. One of the main thrusts of this vision is to enable a group of people to gradually establish a unique and cohesive volonté générale instead of the merely aggregated volonté de tous that most forms of representative government achieve. This is no different in a pollyty where all members vote on any rule changes, and it is these rules then that constitute this stronger general will, since they are not mediated by representative’s individual wills or by the rent seeking or lobbying that befall indirect forms of legislation. Moreover, a pollyty, especially one that is instantiated through software applications, needs little administration or executive enforcement, since the (small) group itself (or, better, the software) ensures the rules are always followed. 

Secondly, pollyties also match Rousseau’s vision in that they are autonomous, even in the strict sense of Rousseau’s admirer Kant. Pollyties deliberate and decide upon their own rules and live by them. They are also autonomous in the broader sense of not being submitted to outside forces; their primary goal is in fact to protect their members from the vagaries of capitalistic existence. Though inasmuch as they are built upon the existing rule of law, they do remain within the strictures of modern nation states and are thus not entirely autonomous or sovereign (on which more below).

However, differences remain. Rousseau’s entities are sovereign and land-bound. Their model is a Swiss canton. Pollyties are much more like corporations: they can span national borders and would rarely concentrate all their members into one contiguous piece of land, nor are they concerned with providing the infrastructure or policing that lands require. In that sense, pollyties let nation states retain the honors and duties of sovereignty. This in fact alleviates some of the objections made against participatory democracy, namely, that it becomes unmanageable when applied to modern nation states with large populations and land masses. Pollyties abstract themselves from geographic conditions, and though they are intended for small memberships, they can easily federate upwards and thereby manageably encompass millions.

October 31, 2012

Paying for property rights

The more money one has, the easier it becomes to accumulate even more. The poor can barely keep hold of the little they have, so easily it slips through their fingers. Unchecked, wealth gravitates into ever fewer and larger piles. There must be some way to reverse this trend.

What if we were only taxed on the proportion of society’s wealth to which we laid claim? What if we forfeited all rights to whatever we refused to declare?

(In a country where the government spent 6 trillion and the top 1% of a population of 300 million owned 50% of the nation’s money and property, those 3 million would pay on average 1,000,000 in taxes, the other 99% would pay approximately 10,000 each, some more and many almost nothing, of course.)

October 31, 2012

Un pour tous et tous pour un

The first pollykaryote arose quite by chance. Someone had started a co-operative insurance group with es neighbors so they could protect one another from foreclosures. Needing a constitution of sorts, they had found a set of governance rules online which looked to do the trick. But as it turned out, there lay a clause somewhere in that code stipulating that any section could be changed, added or removed on a vote. Naturally, members began to suggest new uses for their polity, slowly shifting, nudging, extending its initial function. As it matured and friends or neighbors asked to join, the leaderless society swelled beyond its earlier, more manageable size, and so, after much deliberation and a vote, it split in two.

October 27, 2012

On the origin and basis of economic inequality

Perhaps the cause of most economic inequality is that the wealthier, less needy of two trading partners seems to always make out a bit better. Or is it the smarter, wilier of the two? Would this not over time result in some accumulating exponentially more wealth than most others? The direst need must always concede — and so the differential value of every transaction naturally trickles up.