Rousseau felt that the best and most pure existence that man has enjoyed took place in a state of nature- before society formed and oppressed us. Or, perhaps more accurately, we oppressed ourselves. He understands that we cannot go back to this easily, and so suggests ways of bringing ourselves closer to the state of nature without dismantling everything completely.
The basic idea is that if we make our own rules through direct democracy (not elected representatives) and follow those rules, we have order but are still free as no one is putting their rules upon us.
This works nicely provided you are in the majority. the real point of The Social Contract is this:
The Social Contract is built on the fundamental rules which are built into us; hardwired and instinctive, so the rules and laws which come as a result of the public vote are normal and natural. This means that if you don’t agree with them, you must be missing something which makes everyone else human.
I can’t help feeling that under this system, those in the minority are being oppressed by those in the majority. I’m not saying this is any worse than our current system- just that I can’t see how it’s much better. Especially when the idea of “forcing people to be free” is put forward. What about peoples’ freedom to be caged if they so wish?
But according to The Social Contract, if you’re in the minority you’re sub-human and the world is better off without you. It’s a fairly common tactic utilised by leaders to encourage conformity: If you don’t want something in society, make it socially unacceptable. It has been used against Communists, smokers, drink-drivers, drug-users, Jews… I could go on. I should probably be clear that I’m not saying any two things in that list are related in any way other than in the methods employed against them!
Here’s a big thing for me: We must consider ‘votes’ to be cast not just in marking a ballot paper, but in the actions we take. With this in mind, have we not voted for the system in which we live? If we were to vote against it through action, we’d have a revolution on our hands, but we don’t. We choose to be accepting, or at least apathetic. Those who rail against this system are in the minority. Therefore, would Rousseau not have to accept that our system is the result of popular opinion?
If we take this any further we fall into a paradox: For Rousseau’s ideas to be put into action according to his ways, a vote according to his rules would need to be held. But then we would already be working to his system just for the chance to oppose it.
Personally, I disagree with Rousseau. The French Revolution exemplifies the result of an attempt to put his ideas into practice.
I think one flaw is in the belief that people are basically good. But I think to say that people are basically bad is wrong as well, as to do so would be to speak of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as we understand them in today’s society- you can’t really do that when considering how people would behave in the absence of that society. The truth is humans are humans, as dogs are dogs and rats are rats. I don’t believe human nature alone allows for large societies; only law and order make that possible. Without it, i believe we would be much more tribal (isn’t that how we lived before law and order?).
I’m afraid the vision of Hobbes and the Mad Max scenario is the most likely.