Tag Archives: political philosophy

Book Review: The Social Contract by Jean Jacques Rousseau

This is another of the Penguin ‘Great Ideas’ books that I’ve picked up on the off chance and had hidden away in my drawer at work for some time. After having moved office recently, I have been able to read at lunchtimes (previously I had one particularly obnoxious colleague who would talk all through lunchtime – often with his mouth full – and there was nowhere else to go) so this has been read in the middle of the working day.

Rousseau’s work is maybe not one that the majority of people have heard of. Amongst those who have an interest in political philosophy, though, it is regarded as something of a classic work.

So what is this social contract? Well, let me attempt to sketch an answer by contradiction. I recall a conversation I had with a fundamentalist libertarian where they argued that they had no duty to pay tax because they had not entered into any contractual arrangement for goods or services with the government. Their argument was that they should only pay for the precise goods and services which they have requested and have agreed a price with the supplier. As this individual did not have a contract which they had signed, they argued that they should be exempted from any obligation to society, including the paying of taxes.

While this was a ludicrous argument, based on a narrow view of contract law, applying to arenas of life where it does belong, it is interesting to consider what the best route is to take in countering it. One such answer is the idea of the social contract. This isn’t a paper contract that one signs, but is a tacit agreement between two sets of people, which we might broadly call the government the people, on how best to run a country.

I say “broadly call” because Rousseau brings in his own definitions, which are quite alien to a 21st century Englishman. For example, I would regard the term “sovereign” to denote a single person, the head of state. In our monarchy, that is the queen. In a republic, it would be the president. Yet for Rousseau the sovereign might not be a single person. A magistrate is not a low-level person who presides over a civil court. A prince is not a male member of the royal family.

What this leaves us with is a work that is rooted in a very different politics from that which we find ourselves in. If you wish to guide someone from A to B, it can be a little perplexing for someone who is starting from C; even more so when both A and C use the same terms but mean different things by them. As such, I cannot say that I fully understood the points he was driving at. Here and there, I found something to ‘hook into’ and find my bearings again, but it probably deserves to be read somewhat more slowly than the rate I rushed through it.

The book gets bogged down in some of the detail at times, such as how to conduct elections and the nature of dictatorship. On the latter point, Rousseau derives much of his understanding from the Roman Republic, which I was fortunate to be (by no design or specific purpose) reading Livy’s Early History of Rome at the same time. So while the historian of political thought may find Rousseau useful in tracing how modern western democracies view the nature of the relationships between citizens and their government, I cannot say that it has an enduring value in terms of the specifics of what Rousseau proposes.

If there is to be any application, it is in America where government is split into two arbitrary sides, entitled legislature and executive. In the UK, there is no such clear division, there is one government. Yet Rousseau contradicts himself on this particular point, as he states early on that to artificially separate the two functions (which are poorly defined) is not recommended yet he goes on later to talk about them as though they are two separate arms of government, but again with insufficient detail as to how someone is meant to discern between them.

The one major point where I disagreed with Rousseau is on the matter of taxation. This is something Rousseau sees as a burden on the people, but I couldn’t help but question whether the taxes he was subject to were the same as we have today. If you go back as far as the Roman Republic or the Roman Empire, then taxes were raised to keep the aristocracy in luxury and to fund wars. Indeed, our modern income tax began to take its current form as a way to finance the wars against France in the decades after Rousseau was writing. It seems he had little concept of the mechanics of a welfare state. While his opinion differed from mine, his view also wasn’t the same as my conversation partner alluded to above.

So what do I make of it? It’s a bit frustrating, as it’s dying for a re-write. If we clear up the muddled terminology then we could clarify the priorities of government, its democratic mandate and how it is funded. As it stands, it is a testament to the old adage that “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Rousseau’s world seems quite alien to 21st century Britain.

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Book Review: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

Of late, I have bought a few editions in a series called ‘Great Ideas’ published by Penguin Books. They tend to be short works (or short abridgements of larger works) and represent a wide variety of influential writings covering the history of civilization.

I hadn’t actually planned on reading On Liberty at this time of year, but it so happens that I had an accident and needed to go to hospital to get something checked over. At the time, I was (and still am!) reading Paul and the Faithfulness of God as well as The Forsyte Saga, both of which are bulky books and which I didn’t want to carry around with me in A&E. So I grabbed the first slim book I could find and read through the first quarter of it while I was waiting to be seen, X-rayed and assessed. It was also intended as a first follow up from Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction.

In sitting down to review this book, I must admit that I found myself in a little difficulty. The book is written as an argument for a particular point of view, though Mill takes a number of tangents which distract from the main thrust of the book. One could choose to enter into a full-blown study of all these tangents and how they branch off from and feed into the core of his point. But to do so would require a great number of essays and I am aiming for a review of no more than about 900 words. So I shall try to stick to the point.

As I began to read I found myself thinking “I agree, I agree, I agree.” The opening argument over a person’s right to liberty provided that it does not infringe on another’s was an argument I have heard before, sometimes from my own mouth, at other times from others citing Mill. The further I read and the more I thought about it, though, the more I doubted the soundness of the argument. Just to pick a few points, Mill slightly paraphrases the old adage “no man is an island” but doesn’t really follow through with this. After all, if it is right to state that the no person should be hindered from any thought or action that doesn’t affect anyone else, does such a situation exist in real life? While at first glance something I think in the privacy of my own home may seem as isolated as one can get, can one really think that it is isolated from every subsequent thought, and hence action, that I undertake? If any of those thoughts and actions affect another, can one really say that were devoid of influence from earlier thoughts and actions? I would post not, though it is another matter to question whether or not any influence on another is a form of impingement on their liberty; a question that Mill does not seem to properly address.

After his initial discussion on liberty, he turns his attention to religion. If you know me and are familiar with Mill’s views on the matter, it will come as little surprise that I disagree with him. His portrait of what religion is, in particular christianity, seem to be particular to his experience and from this experience he extrapolates to take his negative views to apply more widely than can reasonably be justified. It is rather unfortunate that his rather skewed views on this topic have perpetuated.

From here, he moves on to his view on individualism as the paramount virtue which much must be protected. Though he doesn’t use the word, this is a founding exhortation of libertarianism. In some places, he makes a very good case, particularly with relation to not inhibiting genius. In terms of the argument that is there, one could find it very convincing, as indeed many who call themselves neoliberals do. That is, until you think about it. What he does is to try to play a false dichotomy between liberalism and authoritarianism, without considering alternatives or properly following through the consequences of individualism.

What makes it doubly bizarre is that he appeals to Bentham on a couple of occasions, and others comment that this liberalism is grounded in utilitarianism. Yet the conclusion that Mill draws is that the needs of the individual are paramount. In other words (to twist the familiar summary of utilitarianism which may be found in a popular film), the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. I would disagree with Mill on this. Because of my christianity, I would favour a more “communitarian” approach whereby, whilst preserving our individual freedoms as much as possible, the needs of others must be put ahead of our own.

Whether you agree with me or with the view of Mill that I have portrayed here, I would encourage you to read it. Even though I would not wholly endorse his view, there is a great deal that is merit worthy contained within this small volume. Given its influence on modern thinking, it also serves as a useful education in the roots of how many neoliberals think.

Book Review: Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by David Miller

Regular readers of this blog may well recognise my growing addiction to the Very Short Introduction series published by Oxford University Press. As they are so short and so interesting, they are ideal for me to keep in my desk drawer as an “emergency stash”. One day in early October, I switched the bag I took to work, but forgot to transfer the book (The Extended Phenotype). So it was that I dipped into the emergency stash and pulled out this take on political philosophy, which I had bought a few months beforehand.

In reviewing books, one likes to have some foreknowledge of the subject at hand, even if one does consider oneself omniscient on the subject. We read non-fiction not to be entertained, but to be informed. Though I do, from time to time, post my political opinions on this blog, the idea of political philosophy is more fundamental than the level at which I usually ponder. As such, it fitted the bill as a short introduction rather well. The individual notions will be familiar to us all. What makes this an interesting work is the particular combination of topics, along with their interplay.

He writes under the headings of political authority, democracy, ‘freedom and the limits of democracy’, justice, ‘feminism and multiculturalism’ and finally, ‘nations, sates and global justice’.

In the discussion of political authority, the figure of Thomas Hobbes looms large. In many ways, this is quite a sad outlook, particularly as I look at it from a christian perspective, as much of Miller’s argument is to do with a carrot-and-stick approach, whereby adherence to political authority is done so out of the threat of some form of physical violence. The root of this seems to be the notion of human selfishness and greed, but this seems to be accepted as a fact to live with rather than a problem to be addressed.

In democracy, attention switches from Hobbes to Rousseau. The discussion pulls on a few threads that will likely occur to anyone who has considered democracy, such as how to protect the rights of the minority and how democracy differs from mob rule, but there’s nothing earth-shattering here.

In discussing freedom, our central figure is John Stuart Mill. As with those before, he is another writer who I must confess am familiar with only by reputation than by their writing. Miller doesn’t so much give answers and just ask the reader a series of questions to consider. This is a theme throughout, so even if you disagree with the particular slant that Miller presents, he does at least give the reader room to come up with their own answers.

What seems to be the heart of the book is the notion of justice, where Miller takes as his key guide, John Rawls. The focus here is not about justice of outcomes but of justice of machinery. i.e. let’s not look at the outcomes, but at whether the systems in place are fair. At one point in this chapter, Miller seems to lose the plot entirely, trying to draw principles of justice from living in a desert. The concept of social discussed though he does bring in the counter point of Friedrich Hayek, an ideologue who I have little time for.

As he looks at the nation states, he continues to ask us questions, while sketching out the answers that others have given. At times it felt less like a book a politics and more about ethical dilemmas. One thought that flashed through my mind was about the curbs to liberty; specifically to the idea that one cannot be free to as one wishes, as that may include the ability to curb the freedom of others, hence not everyone can be free to do as they wish.

One thing that soured it was Miller’s pessimism in human nature. There was a theme running through the book about the need for either coercion or the threat of it. My personal reaction to this is that, as a species, we can do better this. It may require education, even a more enlightened worldview, but that it is possible for people to work together for a common good without the need for violence.

At this point he seems to run out of steam and so the chapter on ‘feminism and multiculturalism’ feels quite different. Here, Miller tries to ask the same questions as he has before, only through alternative lenses, as some factors fade into the background and others get highlighted. The treatment given to these subjects are so brief, though, as to be rather unsatisfying. I doubt many of the feminists I know would consider Miller to have captured the nuances of their views.

In any discussion of politics, one cannot write from a neutral perspective, just as one cannot really read such a book from a neutral point of view. Miller attempts to give a fair weighting to different viewpoints, though his choice of representatives may be questioned by some. The other thing that I picked up on, which other readers may do so, is that is quite UK-centric.

As far as meeting the brief, Miller does as good a job as one can hope. From my point of view, I acknowledge that my formal learning in political philosophy is somewhat lacking. Though I know my own mind, I probably ought to learn the minds of some of those others who have gone before me. So I have added some works of Mill, Rousseau, Hobbes and Derrida to my reading list. Though as that is rather long, it may not be until late next year before you can expect to see any further book reviews on the subject.