Democratic Majorities and the Social Contract: What would Rousseau say to Tocqueville?

In this paper I hope to explain in detail the many ways how Rousseau’s Social  Contract would help address several crucial problems of democratic majority that Tocqueville raises in his writing.  First, I will discuss how Rousseau would respond to Tocqueville’s issue of legislature. Tocqueville states that in democratic majorities “ legislature is, of all political institutions, the one which is most easily swayed by the wishes of the majority.” Rousseau’s response to Tocquerville would be that  that an impartial “law-giver” is needed to give a people its fundamental laws, and this could take away the majority’s advantage in controlling the ways of the states according to their preferences  over   those of minorities.  Second, I will talk about  the issue of Moral authority. Tocquerville states that ”The moral authority of the majority is partly based upon the notion that there is more intelligence and more wisdom in a great number of men collected together than in a single individual, and that the quantity of legislators is more important than their quality.” In this case, Rosseua would argue that morality is defined by rationality, rationality (according to Rousseau) comes into being with civil society, and civil society comes into being thanks to an impartial lawgiver. And finally I will address Tocquerville’s argument of the “Omnipotence of the majority” by using the concept of “general will” brought up in The Social Contract.

Before we start the in-depth analysis of the points mentioned above, it would be helpful to define a few key terms in the context of Rousseau. To better understand  Rousseu’s view on political authority and legislature let’s first define what sovereignty, law, general will, common good freedom and liberty as they mean to him.  To Rousseu, Law  is  a nonrepresentational expression of the “general will” that is universally applicable. Laws deal only with the people as a whole. They are a manifestation of what the people collectively desire. The law keeps all citizens commited and loyal to the sovereign.  The sovereign in the 16th century   (Rousseau’s time),  was typically an absolute monarch. In The Social Contract, however, this word may been given more thought. According to The Social Contract in a healthy republic, Rousseau defines the sovereign as all the citizens acting as one loyal unit.    General will , to Rosseau is the will of the sovereign that aims at the common good. Common good, then is in the best interests of society as a whole. This is what the social contract is meant to achieve, and it is what the general will  focuses on. Each individual has their own desires and preferences. The general will expresses what is best for the state as a whole.  What does freedom and liberty mean to Rosseau? The two terms are synonymous.    The problem of freedom is the inspiration behind The Social Contract. In the “state of nature” (human life without the shaping influence of society.) people have physical freedom;  their actions are not restrained in any way; to act according to their own instincts and impulses. In other words physical freedom is considered the unbounded freedom to do whatever we like, following our instincts and impulses. Civil freedom places is what controls our instincts and impulses, teaching us to think and behave rationally, exposing up to the freedom of thinking for ourselves (a.k.a rationality).  By proposing a social contract, Rousseau hopes to secure the civil freedom that should accompany life in society. This freedom is tempered by an agreement not to harm one’s fellow citizens, but this restraint leads people to be moral and rational. In this sense, civil freedom is superior to physical freedom, since people are not even slaves to their impulses.

In his masterpiece Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocquerville proposes that democratic majorities can become tyrannical and, therefore, threaten individual liberty. One of the main problems with democratic majorities, according to Tocqueville is that the legislature of the state is controlled and adjusted according to the preferences of the majority This, he argues, could lead democratic states to become tyrannical.  (Tocquerville: )“ If to public opinion, public opinion constitutes the majority; if to the legislature, it represents the majority, and implicitly obeys its injunctions; if to the executive power, it is appointed by the majority, and remains a passive tool in its hands; the public troops consist of the majority under arms; the jury is the majority invested with the right of hearing judicial cases; and in certain States even the judges are elected by the majority.”

Jean Jaques Rousseau ‘s social contract  suggests that Legitimate political authority, comes only from a social contract agreed upon by all citizens for their mutual preservation. The  social contract is an agreement with which a person enters into civil society. The contract essentially binds people into a community that exists for mutual preservation. In entering into civil society, people sacrifice the physical freedom of being able to do whatever they please, but they gain the civil freedom of being able to think and act rationally and morally. Rousseau believes that only by entering into the social contract can we become fully human.

Rosseus’ response to Tocquerville’s claim of legislature being dominated by democratic majorities is quite clear.  To a substantial degree, it is the commitment (contract) to live under certain recognized laws that defines the social contract. In his writing, we can easily differentiate between civil and physical freedom, he explains that we give up the latter and gain the former when entering into civil society.  soverign, as Rossue suggests, would help maintain the unity of a republic as a people, and have all individual’s rational needs addressed and represented through the law-giver.

The next crucial point raised by tocquerville in his writing is problem of  moral power being held predominantly by those of the majority.  “The moral power of the majority is founded upon yet another principle, which is, that the interests of the many are to be preferred to those of the few. It will readily be perceived that the respect here professed for the rights of the majority must naturally increase or diminish according to the state of parties. When a nation is divided into several irreconcilable factions, the privilege of the majority is often overlooked, because it is intolerable to comply with its demands.”

According to Rousseu’s very own civil religion that has it’s own moral definitions of life, by entering into civil society we learn to restrain our instincts and to act rationally. When we leave our “natural state” (defined above), we recognize that we need reasons to justify our actions. This rationality is what defines our actions as moral.  So it is only by becoming a part of civil society that we become human. The community is superior to the individual because it is a community of humans and the individual is just a solitary animal. Rosseua breaks away from the need for majority to preferences to construct a definition for what is and isn’t moral, and creates his own definition/ civil religion.

“The omnipotence of the majority” is one of tocquervilles main problems with democratic majorities. “Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion, and God alone can be omnipotent, because His wisdom and His justice are always equal to His power. But no power upon earth is so worthy of honor for itself, or of reverential obedience to the rights which it represents, that I would consent to admit its uncontrolled and all-predominant authority. When I see that the right and the means of absolute command are conferred on a people or upon a king, upon an aristocracy or a democracy, a monarchy or a republic, I recognize the germ of tyranny, and I journey onward to a land of more hopeful institutions.”

This claim of Tocquerville, in Rosseu’s eyes could be solved by the concept of General will. The general will expresses what is best for the state as a whole.  The problem resolved by the social contract is how people can bind themselves to one another and still preserve their freedom. The social contract explains how each individual must surrender themselves unconditionally to the community as a whole. Rousseau appeals three insinuations from this definition:  one is that since the state of affairs of the social contract are the same for each person, each of them will feel the need to make the social contract as smooth as possible for all. Secondly,he implicates that as people surrender themselves unconditionally, the individual has no rights that can oppose or pose a threat to the state. And finally when all are equal, people maintain their natural freedom by entering into the social contract.

Rosseu ‘s world looks down upon the idea of a democratic majority and the idea of believing one is greater that the other as a whole. As he would put it  “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they.” His ideology has is the solution to all malfunctions of democratic majorities that toqcuerville speaks of.



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