There seems to be a general trend in post-modern politics that a more direct democracy is something to be desired. Politicians can go on for days about how they are representing the people who have no voice. They are acting as an arbiter between bureaucrats in Washington and the real needs of the people. Rock The Vote campaigns crowd college campuses to tell students that their voice matters. Speeches for politicians are done for viewers to show the prospective or incumbent representative in a town where an average guy lives who has an average family and is working an average job. Republicans talk about how tax cuts are going to help the poor and middle class by giving them more money to invest. Democrats will talk about how tax increases will help stimulate public services which will benefit everyone. It all seems to just depend on your vote. This vote is presented as something that matters so much. However; another message comes your way. For instance, in Arizona, there was a proposition that would have made ballots like the lottery. You go to the polls on voting day- your name gets put in some drawing and then maybe win a large sum of money. People seemed to be up in arms about it. I remember discussing it in a political science class of mine and the jist of the sentiments were ‘What is those people voted just because they wanted money?’ or ‘Do we really want them participating anyway’ On the other hand, pundits thought maybe it would get the people normally not interested in politics to just start voting. And with a more active citizenry the political climate would change. Where did these competing views about participation and about representation come from? It would seem if there was a constant schizophrenia in post-modern societies that just can’t figure out what is right. Is it something that is striving to be egalitarian? Or is it the push for a functional inegalitarian society? This seeming schizophrenia does have its actual modern roots- that of on the egalitarian side being Jean Jacques Rousseau and on the inegalitarian side- Edmund Burke. Knowing the actual theories for a sound government that were perpetuated by the two can help one look into what the problems are with each argument. From there, this knowledge can be used to how to solve this problem of these two competing societies.
Jean Jacques Rousseau fits perfectly into the classical republican school of thought. Classical republicanism theorizes that liberty is the ability to have a hand in the laws that a citizen will follow. Rousseau’s On the Social Contract or Principles of Political Right states the citizen “who makes that law knows better than anyone else how it should be executed and interpreted.” (481). Where do these citizens gain their rights? Well, Rousseau will says through the social contract, since “The right does not come from nature. It is therefore founded upon convention” (465). In the city is where citizens unite- they will gather together to make laws which “are merely the conditions of civil association” (481). Thus, deliberation and congregating is necessary, which will make for a virtuous citizenry. When they decide on laws and customs it makes up what he calls the general will. The general will is when people act as citizens and not as individuals: “For the general will to be well articulated, it is therefore important that there should be no partial society in the state and that each citizen make up his own mind” (477). What does he think when it comes to competing ideas during the congregation and deliberation? Rousseau answers this question with saying that with deliberation- the general will cannot err:
“When, therefore, the opinion contrary to mine prevails, this proves merely that I was in error, and that what I took to be the general will was not so. If my private opinion had prevailed, I would have done something other than what I had wanted. In that case I would not have been free” (517)
The general will will provide a sense of common destiny for everyone that will inspire citizens to act in the interest of their city and not their individual interest. “In giving himself to all, each person gives himself to no one” (470). The general will is a community in that “they have no other means of maintaining themselves but to form by aggregation a sum of forces that would gain the upper hand over the resistance” (470). So, how does this work out in largely populated cities or nations? Rousseau states that for the republic to be egalitarian, that it must be decentralized. There are “Limits to the size [a republic] can have, so as not to be too large to be capably of being well governed, nor too small to be capable of preserving itself on its own” (485). With a civil society is small then the state will “[need] very few laws, and in proportion as it becomes necessary to promulgate new ones, this necessity is universally understood” (515). Laws are wonderful acts of the general will in Rousseau’s society, as he states: “since the laws are only authentic acts of the general will, the sovereign can act only when the populace is assembled” (508). Rousseau’s political though has a strong distrust not only of large governments but also of private interests. “Just as the private will acts against the general will, so the government makes a continual effort against sovereignty” (505).
Participation, deliberation and equality are what make up Rousseau’s republic:
“Regarding equality, we need not mean by this word that degrees of power and wealth are to be absolutely the same, but rather that, with regard to power, it would transcend all violence and never be exercised except by virtue of rank and laws; and, with all regard to wealth, no citizen should be capable of buying another citizen, and none so poor that he is forced to sell himself” (488).
Thus, to participate and deliberate, citizens must be equal in the eyes of that state. A lack of disparities will create a virtuous and moral citizen. In the Discourses on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men, he states that:
“moral inequality , authorized by positive right alone, is contrary to natural right whenever it is not combined in the same proportion with the physical inequality: a distinction that is sufficient to determine what one should think in this regard about the sort of inequality that reigns among all civilized people, for it is obviously contrary to the law of nature, however it may be defined, for a child to command and old man, for an imbecile to lead a wise men, and how a handful of people to gorge themselves of superfluities while the starving multitude lacks necessities” (Discourses, 448).
It is apparent that Rousseau’s idea of the social contract and his theories of inequality have contributed quite a bit to the post-modern theories of direct democracy. However, on the other side we have Edmund Burke. Burke views liberties not as guarantees but that “liberties as an entailed inheritance” (552). Rights that are not given to us by the state or through a contract: “And how can any man claim under the conventions of civil society rights which do not so much as suppose its existence- rights which are absolutely repugnant to it?”(563). On participation and representation Burke states that a representative will act as a mediator, one that will make decisions for his constituents, not one that is there to make the citizens opinions the representatives’ opinion.
“Everything ought to be open, but not indifferently, to every man. No rotation, no appointment by lot; no mode of election operating in the spirit of sortition or rotation can be generally good in a government conversant in extensive objects” (556).
Burke is a proponent of state and property personhood, meaning that the state and property should be given the same rights as people. “The power of perpetuating our property in our families is one of the most valuable and interesting circumstances belonging to it, and that which tends most to the perpetuation of society itself” (562). Nepotism and inequality are the name of the game in Burkes’ society. On nepotism he states: “The possessors of family wealth and of the distinction which attends hereditary possession […] are natural securities for this transition” (562). It might seem unfair this idea of the valuing of rich families over other families however, Burke quotes that “Some decent, regulated preeminence, some preference (not exclusive approbations) given to birth is neither unnatural, not unjust, nor impolitic” (562). Since usually the valuing of the rich often goes in hand with the demonizing of the poor- Burke also has a distrust of what he called levelers. These people “could regard all property, whether secular or ecclesiastical, with no other eye than that of envy” (559). When the poor masses are aware of their power and when “popular authority is absolute and unrestrained, the people have an infinitely greater, because a gar better founded confidence in their own power” (570). But this is not a good thing, as he tells us: “It is therefore of infinite importance they should not be suffered to imagine that their will, any more than that of kings, is the standard of right and wrong” (570). Levelers “only change and pervert the natural order of things; they load the edifice of society by setting up in the air what the solidity of the structure requires to be on the ground” (561).
Burke has a distrust of what he deems to be innovation. This is probably because of his focus on tradition and history. Even new ideas are seen as dangerous since they can interrupt what he perceives as the harmony of a functional inegalitarian society. He quotes” “A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views” (552). Tradition is what guides us, not revolution: “to encourage it rashly to engage in perilous adventures of untried policy; to neglect those provisions, preparations, and precautions which distinguish benevolence and imbecility” (555). Zealotry and innovations will cause great damage since we are constantly tied to history: “but you chose to […] begin anew. You begin ill, because you begin by despising everything that belonged to you” (553). It appears that he even has distaste for intellectualism and theorist when he states: “I saw some of known rank, some of shining talents; but of any practical experience in the states, not one man was to be found” (556). Another important idea of Burkes is the idea that we first love our family, then we love our country, and we all will respectfully know our place.
“To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our county and to mankind. The interest of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it; and as none but bad men would justify it in abuse, none but the traitor would barter it was for their own personal advantage” (559).
The two competing views of how a civil society should be run appear to be mutually exclusive. It seems fairly obvious that Rousseau’s society seems to be more desirable than the one Burke sets out for us. However, it is important to lay out why. Burke mainly has a concentration on history and tradition- which leads to the valuing of family wealth over earned wealth. With this view one can assume that nepotism and wealth are things that are earned. And from there, that means that they also deserve to be respected. What about the fact that many people can work hard all their lives and still never succeed? How about the fact that many people that are very wealthy have not done any work at all for that status? How about how institutions function in a way to value few at the expense of many? Another point is that Burke- in his distrust of revolution he assumes that history somehow made by people always playing the course safely. However, take a look around in history, and this will show that innovation was paramount to good and bad change. He equates political passion with insanity or belligerence. Another fault in his argument is his line between theorists and politician. This is far from the truth given the vast amounts of formal education that most politicians have. And finally, that the health of a nation is tied to the affinity of the family- which there is little to no practical evidence Burke gives for this statement. Thus, Burkes’ argument might be consistent but it is reliant upon false dichotomies.
In Rousseau’s society, he sets out way of mass participations, a city that is small in size and one where power and wealth are somewhat equally distributed. However, there are some problems with Rousseau’s argument, as tempting as this society seems. The first that came to my mind was the concept of the tyranny of the majority. By that, I do not mean that democracy is something to be desired, but by tyranny, I think of how often the majority in the United States has acted counter to the push for human rights. From slavery, to women, and people that are queer- the general will has said that these people are actually not citizens- but something else entirely and therefore- must be barred from participation. Since, there is no place for the slave, for the woman or for the queer , there is no need for Rousseau to anticipate the idea of differences in deliberation. True deliberation requires the recognition of individuals’ needs and ideas. It is not differences that impede us from inequality, but it is the inequitable relationship of these differences. Rousseau’s rudimentary understanding of this is articulated more in his Origins of Inequality in his state of nature theory. He states that humans were not social creatures but when they became social creatures, then we started seeing inequality:
“This repeated appropriation of various beings to himself, and of some beings to others must naturally have engendered in man’s mind the perceptions of certain relations. These relationships, which we express by the words ‘large,’ ‘small,’ ‘strong,’ weak,’ ‘fast,’ ‘slow,’ […] and other similar ideas, compared when needed and almost without thinking about it, finally produced in him a kind of reflection, or rather a mechanical prudence which pointed out to him the precautions that were most necessary for his safety” (432)
Since Rousseau’s society is for such a small base of people, he fails to understand that this “equal” relationship was probably not fair for a lot of people. The first thing I can think of is that sexual relationships between men and women were probably based off of brute rape, similar to that in nature. Since nature is not fair, and since we are all in a civil society, we need to not have these ridiculous ideas of how great the past was. From there, when it comes to Rousseau and Burkes conceptions of civil society and the past we must ask a series of questions: Exactly who was it good for? And, for whom did this society serve?
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1. Rousseau, Jean Jacques. "Discourses on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men." Modern Political Thought. Ed. David Wooton. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996.
2. Rousseau, Jean Jacques. "On the Social Contract or Principles of Political Right." Modern Political Thought. Ed. David Wooton. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996.
3. Burke, Edmund. "Reflections on the Revolution in France." Modern Political Thought. Ed. David Wooton. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996.