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Why Liberals Need Rousseau

Rousseau still has much to teach us about the need to pursue a common good.

Jason S. Canon
Jason S. Canon
10 min read
Why Liberals Need Rousseau
i'm not at all sorry for this creation.

Nearly all of Rousseau’s politics should be rejected.

He adored Sparta. He misunderstood markets and the value of commerce. He gave the “general will” enough shine to seduce generations of revolutionaries, but failed to define it clearly. We can thus forgive Isaiah Berlin for thinking Rousseau “one of the most sinister and most formidable enemies of liberty in the whole history of modern thought” (2002, 52).

There is more to jettison in Rousseau than recover, and this has led many liberals to dismiss Rousseau entirely. They are blameless in this, of course, for if Rousseau has been roundly misunderstood the fault is his alone. His love of paradox has confused centuries of readers. His eloquence has drawn blood.

But we abandon Rousseau at our peril, for what he gets right is exactly what modern liberalism most needs: a model of politics that promotes the common good in service of liberty. In this Rousseau’s claims are consonant with the long line of liberal thinkers, as Helena Rosenblatt has recently shown. Rousseau’s great discovery was that democracy requires a search for the common good. In Rousseau’s hands these ideas are neither platitudinous nor oppressive. The common good—or, if you prefer, mutually beneficial exchange—is the origin of political life. It gives the state its aim and sets its boundaries. It is a good discovered by the people themselves, drawing on local knowledge and the experience of ruling and being ruled. In a moment when liberalism and democracy are in global ebb, and when political society feels riven beyond repair, no theorist is more vital. Rousseau shows friends of liberty how they can promote shared aims without conceding democracy to demagogues or epistocrats.

Rousseau helps us see what we still share.

This essay aims to clarify Rousseau’s conception of the common good and advance an original interpretation of the general will. A future essay will address the second half of Rousseau’s insight, that only democracy in its direct, deliberative form can long preserve liberty.

The Common Good

From Plato to Schumpeter through Brennan or Achen and Bartels, observers have found citizens to be doubly ignorant, struggling to know their good and lacking the expertise to realize it. Rousseau’s genius lies in showing how this ignorance disappears when citizens are asked the right questions in the right way.

Let us distinguish the “common good” from the “greater good” with which it is often confused. The latter is consonant with—and is often drawn from—a utilitarian view toward maximizing the good or welfare of all, whatever sacrifices this requires from individuals. When, for example, those in Omelas want to forcibly torture or kill someone for the greater good, they can do so without compunction.

But the very nature of that sacrifice precludes it from being a good common to all. For Rousseau, government is justified to the extent it promotes exclusively common goods:

[T]he general will alone can guide the forces of the State according to the end for which it was instituted, which is the common good. For if the opposition of private interests made the establishment of societies necessary, it is the agreement of these same interests that made it possible. It is what these different interests have in common that forms the social bond, and if there were not some point at which all the interests are in agreement, no society could exist. (SC 145)

Far from being antithetical to liberal values, then, the common good limits the scope of government to the essential interests we all share. Laws are legitimate when and only when they promote this good—anything more or less is unfreedom. The moment a law favors some at the expense of others, its legitimacy vanishes.

Rousseau is explicit in setting the boundaries of what this good can demand. Even in Political Economy—his earliest wholly political work, and a problematic text for reasons discussed below—Rousseau distances himself from the oblations left open by proto-utilitarian arguments:

[I]sn’t the body of the nation under an engagement to provide for the preservation of the humblest of its members with as much care as for all the others? And is the safety of a citizen any less the common cause than that of the whole state? If someone tells us it is good that a single man should perish for all… I hold this maxim to be one of the most execrable that tyranny ever invented…. Rather than that one ought to perish for all, all have engaged their goods and their lives for the defense of each one among them… (PE 152)

He is more direct still in a footnote to the Social Contract: “…each person is perfectly free with regard to everything that does not harm others. That is the unvarying limit. It cannot be stated with greater precision” (SC 222, original emphasis). Rousseau was never interested in precisely what counted as harm, but his antiharm framing is notable.

We should also distinguish Rousseau’s sociology from his politics. Like nearly all of his contemporaries, Rousseau’s social ideal was republican, praising virtues like honor, public-spiritedness, and love of the fatherland. But by drawing on a popularly derived common good, rather than some vague sense of a public interest or divinely ordered good, Rousseau avoids a common republican pitfall. For Rousseau asserts that bounds exist: no legitimate law will harm some citizens for the good of others. But such assertions are meaningless unless citizens also know what counts as harm, what qualifies as a shared good.

With this in mind, we can see why Rousseau thought it necessary in the Social Contract to offer the first procedural account of collectively defining a common good, exercising a faculty that would become forever tied to his name: the general will.

A Genealogy of the volonté générale

A quarter millennium later and still the general will mystifies. Rousseau’s interpreters may disagree on its meaning, but nearly all have assumed his texts share a single conception of the general will. This is a mistake. For between 1755 and 1762 Rousseau gave the general will competing definitions: in Political Economy it is a transcendent standard of right, while in the Social Contract it is an aim toward a common good discerned through deliberation. In dismissing the former, he reformulated the concept with what appears to be the express intent of preserving liberty.

Rousseau rarely refers to the general will. He cites Rome and Sparta three times as often, and his later projects for Corsica and Poland mention it only once, and there in passing (P 194). In the Social Contract, he argues that the general will alone is the source of legitimate law, and for this will to be expressed, lawmaking must be constrained by three forms of commonality or generality:

  • Generality of source: each citizen states his own opinion in the assembly, and none is excluded from deliberation. (SC 148; 207)
  • Generality of subject: motions considered by the assembly are restricted to matters affecting all. (SC 164; 197; 152-154)
  • Generality of application: the effects of law must privilege none, harm none, and benefit all. (SC 145; 149; 222.)

Laws are legitimate only when this triple-generality constraint obtains, when they are written by the rulers (the people) to promote the interests of all the ruled.

This constraint is new to the Social Contract. Rousseau’s earlier Political Economy had given the general will a completely different aspect, unique in three respects. First, in Political Economy it is a feature of the body politic as a whole: Rousseau never claims that individuals know—or even possess—a general will. Second, deliberation is neither necessary nor sufficient for its expression. The true statesman can himself speak for the vox populi. Third, Rousseau’s chief concern in discussing the general will is that be known to rulers (and may not be necessary even then!).

Political Economy is an epistocratic work, a mirror for the enlightened prince that describes a “talent of reigning” by which a ruler “extends his respectable dominion over wills even more than over actions” (PE 147). Such a man should reshape the will of citizens and “make them what one needs them to be” since at birth citizens must “learn to deserve to live” (PE 155).

We are far here from taking men as they are and laws as they might be, and if these had been Rousseau’s definitive principles, Berlin’s scorn would be warranted.

Thankfully, Political Economy was not Rousseau's final word.

Expressing the General Will

In the Social Contract Rousseau derives the general will entirely from the immanent will of citizens to realize their common good. There is no mystical, transcendent standard of right that must be divined. Consider Rousseau’s thrice-repeated description of how the general will becomes known. The first is found in Book II:

If, when an adequately informed people deliberates, the Citizens were to have no communication among themselves, the general will would always result from the large number of small differences, and the deliberation would always be good. (SC 147)

He summarizes this a few paragraphs later: “In order for the general will to be well expressed, it is therefore important that there be no partial society in the State, and that each Citizen give only his own opinion” (SC 147-148). He restates the idea one last time in Book IV: “Each one expresses his own opinion… by voting, and the declaration of the general will is drawn from the counting of the votes” (SC 201). These lines leave no doubt that the volonté générale is known when—and only when—the people themselves declare it in a collective expression of judgment.
Rousseau says more about this process in showing how “the general will would always result from the large number of small differences” among deliberators:

There is often a great difference between the will of all and the general will. The latter considers only the common interest; the former considers private interest, and is only a sum of private wills. But take away from these same wills the pluses and minuses that cancel each other out, and the remaining sum of the differences is the general will. (SC 147)

This mathematical metaphor is most easily understood from the perspective of participants. Each citizen has two sets of preferences: a “private will” that he should gain at others’ expense, and a “general will” that the good of all is realized. The costlessness of the former will is attractive, but both outcomes conduce to his well-being. Our citizens enter the assembly. Each knows that under conditions of equality, his compatriots would never vote to enact his private will; “If we can’t free-ride,” they would reason, “neither can he.” Seeing that each private will—the “small difference” separating each—is thus removed from the pool of possible outcomes, what remains is a general will. This process demands no altruism; Rousseau’s citizen is still a self-regarding creature. It requires only a well-ordered society in which sovereignty is exercised by an assembly operating under the constraints of generality.

But suppose I hold a minority view on the nature of the shared good. When I am outvoted in the assembly, must I obey? Can I simultaneously “be free and forced to conform to wills that are not [my] own?”

I reply that the question is badly put. The citizen consents to all the laws…. The constant will of all the members of the State is the general will, which makes them citizens and free. When a law is proposed in the assembly of the People, what they are being asked is not whether they approve or reject the proposal, but whether it does or does not conform to the general will that is theirs…. Therefore when the opinion contrary to mine prevails, that proves nothing except that I was mistaken, and what I thought to be the general will was not. (SC 200-201)

The question put to the assembly has a correct answer: will this policy benefit everyone? When the conditions of the general will are in the majority—a crucial condition—and when the question is so posed, the minority simply got it wrong. We might disagree with Rousseau as to whether any questions in politics are of this sort, but the claim is formally sound.

One consequence of this passage is easy to miss: participating in the assembly both expresses and refines my will. Under ideal circumstances, “the common good is clearly apparent everywhere, and requires only good sense to be perceived” (SC 198). But such conditions will rarely (if ever) apply, and I may err in judging the common good, confused by my passions or my isolation from the experience of others. Only deliberation prevents this. This explains the rarely noted line in Book II that “there can never be any assurance that a particular will conforms to the general will until it has been subjected to the free votes of the people” (SC 156). It is only by these lights that I can improve both my will and understanding.

This is Rousseau’s new model of the democratic mind, the “union of understanding and will” so central to his politics. It is in the processes of democratic sovereignty—the assembling, the voting, the deliberation—that we discover our common good and exercise our freedom by willing that good. This is why when I am outvoted, Rousseau explains, if “my private opinion had prevailed… I would have done something other than what I wanted. It is then that I would not have been free” (SC 201). So tightly combined are these concepts that the moment I can no longer discern the good I share with others, I am enslaved.

In sum, Rousseau’s claim is that once a society is well-ordered—that is, once the people have sufficient virtue (ensured by Rousseau’s sociology) and have contracted to abide by their general will—once all this is in place, citizens themselves will decide the boundaries of the common good, in a process that requires both private reflection and the assembled opinions of others.

It is not enough to know that good; it must also be willed.


Liberals need Rousseau for two reasons. The first is that he saw, more clearly than we have seen, that legitimacy demands a search for mutual gain. Second, he understood that this politics of the common good must be built on direct deliberation over fundamental laws. Rousseau always leaned toward aristocratic government, but his Social Contract is built firmly on democratic sovereignty.

John Rawls once remarked that his two principles of justice could “be understood as an effort to spell out the content of the general will.” What Rousseau saw as the outcomes of the general will—personal inviolability, equal influence in public affairs, a state that “needs very few laws” (SC 198)—are recognizably liberal, however anachronistic it would be to apply the label to Rousseau himself, and however much his republican bombast obscures this.

But unlike Rawls, Rousseau’s politics need no veil of ignorance. In taking men as they are, Rousseau described a polity in which rational, pluralistic, self-concerned citizens could come together and choose their laws, pursuing justice by drawing on their experience of liberty and harm.

Even in this Rousseau was not as perceptive as we might wish, for general wills are, in fact, unnecessary to realize a common good. Rousseau’s misguided sociology is as superfluous as it is dangerous. Here writers like Smith and Sophie de Grouchy are far more useful.

But showing this will require separate treatment. It is enough for this essay to suggest that is no mystery or menace in the general will. For all its juridical complexity and its author’s love of paradox, the message of the Social Contract is simple: liberty requires discerning well and willing generally.

Rousseau thus challenges his liberal skeptics: what legitimates law if not a common good? And who can define that good if not citizens themselves?