Jean-Jacques Rousseau – There will never be democracy!

What is Democracy? A very difficult question, to which many have tried, including… Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The famous citizen of Geneva in his text the Social Contract describes a certain number of political systems, in particular the aristocracy, the monarchy, and of course … the democracy.

It is in Book III, Chapter 2, that we find a short but particularly critical and effective study of Democracy as a form of government.

Democracy is not criticized as a bad regime, a bad form of government, but as being unsuitable for men, unattainable for humanity.

→ Criticisms and defects of democracy

Hence Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s so famous formula:’If there were a people of gods, they would govern themselves democratically. A government so perfect is not suitable for men.

To stop at this conclusion, without understanding the arguments that Jean-Jacques Rousseau puts forward to reach it would be a counterproductive work. That is why it is particularly interesting to read this chapter he devotes to Democracy, and the reasons that make Democracy an unattainable regime.

The irreconcilable division of powers

It is a paradox that Jean-Jacques Rousseau raises: to make the law is at the same time to understand how to apply and execute this law. The simplest thing would therefore be for the same person to be in charge of both writing and enforcing the law. But this would contradict in a completely unacceptable way the principles of the separation of powers, described at the same time by Montesquieu.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is absolutely afraid of any conflict of interest, and in particular of cases where personal affairs would take precedence over public activities. He is, on the other hand, more lenient towards the government and the possible abuses of government. Between the two, the greatest danger for Jean-Jacques Rousseau is undoubtedly the corruption of the legislator, as he explains perfectly in Chapter 4 of his work:

He who makes the law knows better than anyone how it should be executed and interpreted. It would seem, therefore, that there could be no better constitution than one in which the executive power is joined to the legislative: but this is what makes this government insufficient in certain respects, because the things that should be distinguished are not, and the prince and the sovereign, being but one and the same person, form, so to speak, only a government without a government.
It is not good that he who makes the laws should execute them, nor that the body of the people should turn its attention from general views to particular objects. Nothing is more dangerous than the influence of private interests in public affairs, and the abuse of laws by the government is a lesser evil than the corruption of the legislator, which is the infallible result of private views. Then, the state being altered in its substance, all reform becomes impossible. A people who never abused the government would not abuse independence either; a people who always governed well would not need to be governed.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau – The Social Contract or Principles of Political Law – Book III,

A concretely impossible government: the practical reasonsJean-Jacques Rousseau

makes a very strict reading of the word “Democracy”, which implies that the whole of the citizens are gathered for example to make the laws. There is no representation possible in this strict vision of democracy: all citizens must be present and participate. Otherwise, it is not a true democracy, especially since this new administration, this new way of governing by commissions, or by representations, would lead to inevitable drifts as experience shows.

Hence at least 6 obvious material limits that make the dream of a democracy on Earth collapse:

  1. Limits of time: the people are not constantly available.
  2. Limits of the place: the state must not be too big, if one wants to gather the whole people.
  3. Limits of particular cases: the people would lose themselves in wanting to regulate all the particular cases, which are a multitude, even infinite; that supposes that the people are satisfied with general principles and thus with a “great simplicity of manners”.
  4. Limits of inequalities: the people, according to their rank and the law, must be very equal. → See what Jean-Jacques Rousseau means by equality.
  5. Limits of luxury: luxury is an inevitable consequence of wealth, and gangrene both rich and poor.
  6. Limits of wars: democracy, because it is a system that is constantly renewing and adapting itself, that constantly makes room for debate, is particularly prone to civil wars and internal conflicts.

If we take the term in its strictest sense, there has never been a true democracy, and there never will be. It is against the natural order for the many to rule and for the few to be ruled. One cannot imagine that the people remain incessantly assembled to attend to public affairs, and it is easy to see that they could not establish commissions for this purpose without changing the form of administration.
Indeed, I believe I can establish the principle that, when the functions of government are shared among several courts, the least numerous will sooner or later acquire the greatest authority, if only because of the ease of expediting business, which naturally leads them to it.
Besides, how many things are difficult to bring together in this government! First, a very small state, where the people are easy to gather, and where each citizen can easily know all the others; secondly, a great simplicity of morals which prevents the multitude of business and thorny discussions; then a lot of equality in the ranks and in the fortunes, without which equality could not subsist for a long time in the rights and the authority; finally, little or no luxury, because either luxury is the effect of wealth, or it makes it necessary; it corrupts both the rich and the poor, the one by possession, the other by covetousness; it sells the country to softness, to vanity; it takes away from the state all its citizens to enslave them to each other, and all to opinion.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau – The Social Contract or Principles of Political Law – Book III,


chapter is also the occasion for Jean-Jacques Rousseau to recall an important point: democracy is made of restlessness, anxiety, change. It is dangerous, and it requires a constant vigilance. This is why every citizen of a democracy would have to repeat to himself to live according to the principle: “Malo periculosam libertatem quam quantum servitium”, which can be translated by:“Better is freedom and danger than peace that makes you a slave”.

This is why a famous author gave virtue as the principle of the republic, because all these conditions could not subsist without virtue; but, for lack of having made the necessary distinctions, this beautiful genius often lacked accuracy, sometimes clarity, and did not see that the sovereign authority being everywhere the same, the same principle must take place in every well-constituted state, more or less, it is true, according to the form of the government.
Let us add that there is no government so prone to civil wars and internal agitations as the democratic or popular one, because there is none that tends so strongly and so continuously to change its form, nor that it requires more vigilance and courage to be maintained in its own. It is especially in this constitution that the citizen must arm himself with strength and constancy, and say every day of his life in the depths of his heart what a virtuous palatine said in the Diet of Poland: Malo periculosam libertatem quam quietum servitium.
If there were a people of gods, they would govern themselves democratically. Such a perfect government is not suitable for men.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau – The Social Contract or Principles of Political Law – Book III,

More articles on Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

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  2. Summary of the 1st book of the Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  3. The Family, the oldest of societies – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  4. A state of nature in Jean-Jacques Rousseau?
  5. The most useful and important rule for raising a child – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  6. The best legislation in the world? The French motto! – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

General Knowledge: democracy

2 thoughts on “Jean-Jacques Rousseau – There will never be democracy!

  1. The Latin quotation taken up by JJ Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Du Contrat Social must be placed in the context of the 16th to the 18th century. Feudal servitude was obedience to a lord and the impossibility of escaping from it. Some might prefer freedom, even dangerous, in the face of highwaymen: the stock market or life. In the 21st century, Western democracies have won freedom and “servitudes” are not to harm others (article 3 of the universal declaration of human rights) Also in this painful period of pandemic, vaccine and health-pass allow both to be free without harming others but with some constraints and to be in good health, albeit fragile. These are not deprivations of liberty. Think of the billions of human beings who have no vaccines, little freedom and who live in a state of servitude in authoritarian regimes.

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