… is from page 208 of Philipp Blom’s superb 2010 book, A Wicked Company:
The first problem with Rousseau’s concept of the social contract is that the “general will” he posits has, like God, no voice to make itself heard directly. For its expression and interpretation, it must rely on particular, wise individuals to lend it theirs.
DBx: Surely among the top three greatest fallacies of the modern age – the age that was only beginning to form when Rousseau and his contemporaries were on the scene – is the notion that a group of people has a will and that this will of the People is only, or at least most reliably, revealed in the results of majoritarian democracy.
If this notion were true, it would indeed be obnoxious to impose restraints upon the expression of this ‘will’ and on it being carried out. But there is no will of the People. No group of people has a will because no group of people has a mind. A group of people is a group of different wills and different minds. These different minds might well share many preferences. Each of these minds – being human – certainly is influenced in its thoughts and preferences by what that mind imagines the other minds think of it. But a group of people, as such, has no will.
And that which doesn’t exist cannot be discovered or put into action.
There are many goods and services that are best supplied simultaneously to a group of people in a manner that makes it impossible, or too costly, to exclude particular individuals from being able to consume the good or service. An example is the reduction of air pollution in the Los Angeles basin. Every person in the basin gets to breathe the cleaner air whether or not he or she contributed to the effort to cleanse it. This inability to exclude non-payers creates obvious challenges to those who would, through private initiative, provide the service of cleansing the air.
Some group effort to cleanse the air, therefore, is likely appropriate. And individualist principles counsel that every individual who will plausibly be significantly affected by the collective effort cleanse the air have a say into whether or not, and how, that effort is carried out. Majoritarian democracy is one such way, and this way might be, all things considered, the best way.
Yet the result of majoritarian voting ought not be sold as being more than it is. The result of majoritarian voting – or, indeed, of any sort of voting or of any collective-choice process – is simply the result of that collective-choice process. This result is categorically different from the result of an individual choosing some course of action from among perceived alternatives. The latter can with accuracy be said to reveal the individual’s will; the former cannot be accurately said to reveal the will of the group or of the voters.
Among the practical and important implications of the above reality is that anyone who asserts that he or she is the voice of ‘the people’ or is carrying out ‘the will of the People’ is either delusional or lying, and in either case is not to be trusted.