Rousseau and Liberty III

The two last posts have looked at why some widely circulated criticisms of Rousseau as lacking respect for liberty under law, including the separation between the social body and political institutions, are misconceived to a significant degree. That leaves open the question of why Rousseau becomes so much the target of those committed to liberty of the individual, and limitations on the power of any political body. There are reasons, however, misguided many anti-Rousseau tirades are. One issue is that Rousseau himself is not always careful in distinguishing between the social body and political institutions. The most important  reason though is Rousseau’s objections to what the eighteenth century knew as commercial society, and what we know as capitalism or as market society. Associated with that is Rousseau’s ‘primitivism’, his tendency to prefer the more natural, and to sometimes appear to idealise humans in their ‘savage’ or natural state.

It is certainly true that Rousseau was not happy with commercial society, though to a large degree it is correct to say that he considered commercial society to be something that we have to live with in the historical development of humanity, and make the best of, much as we might regret its inevitability. In that case, Rousseau can be taken to offer a way of thinking about how to legislate and govern within commercial society, and have things to say which are useful to the friends of commercial society, including associated understandings of liberty. It is difficult to isolate Rousseau’s view of savage man and his view of commercial society, which he sometimes refers to as political economy, so that the study of commercial society and that society itself are taken together. Since the study of political economy largely starts with justification of the commercial society it analyses, as in Locke, Hume, and Smith, that is a reasonable assumption. For Rousseau, the savage man lives in a state of nature and has a solitary existence, punctuated by the need to reproduce the human race. That savage man has a natural sympathy, or pity for the sufferings of other humans, rarely though he sees them. He acts outs of complete sincerity and spontaneity since he knows no other way of behaving. Rousseau certainly expresses admiration in some ways for the savage existence, but also comments on the non-development of the faculties of such an individual and the moral limitations of such an existence.

History begins with a move for individuals to come together in order to satisfy shared needs, which leads to what Rousseau sometimes refers to as the best stage of human development. In this stage, there are communities, but not with the demarcations of property and inequality of status which characterise human societies as we know them. At some point property is enclosed, and the trouble starts. Rousseau’s beliefs here are not obviously consistent. Though in general he greatly respects the small property owner who has enough to satisfy his own needs without creating dependents, but his account of the beginning of property give it a traumatic quality. His way of thinking on that point is that someone creates the lie that something belongs to himself and not the community as a whole. This is one of the moments which gives non-socialist readers of Rousseau a  bad feeling, and the wish to berate his influence. Rousseau’s account looks like a counter to John Locke’s historical account fused with justification of property when he refers to the correct procedure of taking no more than leaves sufficient property (clearly meaning land) for everyone else. This is expanded by an account of the social benefits of trading in the products of land which makes large scale landed property socially useful. Locke gave the classic account of the liberal view of property, and Rousseau here necessarily loos like the enemy of liberalism.

Though it would not do to put Rousseau forward as the perfect liberal, there are important qualifications to be made to his rejection of liberalism as it had developed in his time. As stated above, Rousseau generally expresses great respect, love and admiration for the man of modest property, who does not have to accept any other man as his master, and does not make himself master of any other man. What lies behind the apparent contradiction in Rousseau’s thought about property is a feeling of the trauma of separating out communal property into individualised portions of property. While Rousseau’s comments on the history of human development are founded as much in his imagination as in established facts, he is not wrong to think of private property emerging from communal forms of property. Roughly speaking there is a historical movement  from communal to individualised property. The conflicts between white Europeans and native American Indians on the western frontier of the United States were in part a conflict between those two visions of property. Now the communal form of property is more appropriate to a society with very little, if any, surplus beyond bare subsistence, and private property is necessary to the development of societies where people can live beyond that minimum. Communal property does not just disappear, though its continues in more abstract forms as ‘public goods’, benefits which are available to all and cannot be charged for without undermining the existence of that benefit for anyone. Policing services and a criminal justice system are the most obvious examples. Rousseau’s greatness is to feel the trauma of the loss of communal property, and the deep psychological appeal of sharing everything as a sign of a good person. The most radical libertarian capitalist does not deny that it is a virtue to voluntarily share what we own with others.

to be continued


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