Some Complaints About Rousseau’s “Forced to be Free” Notion

Jonathan Hofer
Oct 18, 2019 · 8 min read

“Whoever refuses to obey the general will will be forced to do so by the entire body; this means merely that he will be forced to be free.”

— Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Photo by Frederic Köberl on Unsplash

Following Discourse on Political Economy, Jean-Jacques Rousseau built upon his ideas of political legitimacy from the aforementioned work in On the Social Contract. From these two treatises, Rousseau contributes his theory of the general will which is to be both a mechanism of popular expression and an instrument of reconciling freedom and authority. Immutably linked to, but not constituting sovereignty, the general will is to speak to the good of a given political society as a whole. Via this collective nature, the general will is not an expression of the additive total of the private wills of individuals. Rather, the general will speaks as a single voice.

Thus, the occasion may arise when the general will differs from private will. In such an instance, Rousseau holds that per the terms of the social compact “…whoever refuses to obey the general will, will be forced to do so by the entire body. This means merely that he will be forced to be free (167).” Such a formulation is not simply inconsistent with Rousseau’s other principles, moreover, no principle afforded by reason allows for a contradiction such as the subjugation of a free person.

The plain words themselves, “forced to be free” appear to have a rhetorically oxymoronic meaning prima facie. However, the logic behind Rousseau’s line is not immediately superficial. The semantics of “free” in this context poses a fundamental divergence in the early liberal classifications of liberty. In Hobbes’ work for example, freedom was a private affair. Hobbes writes that “[A free man] is not hindered to doe (sic) what he has a will to (262).” Freedom occupies the space where the law is not.

The status of what constitutes “free” for Rousseau assumes a particular connotation. The goal is to mitigate the tension between polis and the oikos, but not to keep them separate. According to Rousseau, freedom is not where law ends or is silent, rather freedom entails and begins with self-imposed law. Freedom in this regard, transcends its categorization of being a corollary to personal autonomy. As a consequence of the general will’s formation, freedom in the context of society is not of the same kind of freedom as that which was said to have been found in the state of nature. Viz, freedom is not the privilege to do whatever one wants.

To the contrary, “moral freedom”, the adherence to a self-produced law, alleviates a man from his natural shackles. For him, it is through alienation that one enjoys freedom. By acting in accordance to the general will, an individual is immune from the private wills of others. The process of alienation transfers all rights to the whole, to the general will (Rousseau 164).

The sovereign, a product of this process, is not a third party, nor is it donated to a private entity, rather the people are sovereign as a whole such that an individual is not dependent on the will of another. When one finds themselves in compliance with the general will, Rousseau likens this compliance to a condition of freedom.

However, Rousseau’s point is inconsistent. In one context he holds that force is permissible when enforcing the general will, yet he is also aware that force “does not give rise to any right” (Rousseau 156). If an act is free, the act is voluntary. If the act is forced, the act is involuntary thereby constituting an aggression. Force is simultaneously the negation and antithesis of freedom. If force is illegitimate, then upholding the general will is impermissible when private will deviates from the general will.

Rousseau counters that because each voter contributes to this new sovereignty, when an individual follows the general will, they are in effect following themselves. Rousseau argues that individuals agree to be party to this arrangement on account that either a “prior agreement” or unanimous deliberation compels individuals to abide by the conditions set by future deliberations (163).

The argument that holds that the democratic process confers political legitimacy is questionable. There is no principle from natural law that furnishes voting a special moral status. The objective of the aforementioned argument is to account why it is permissible for the agents of the state to do things that would otherwise be unjust for any other non-state individual to do. An act malum en se is not made ethically proper because a majority have blessed the action with their support. Even if a popular referendum declared an unrighteous act lawful through fiat, such a declaration would do nothing to legitimize or change the unrighteous nature of the very act. If force per se is wrong, then “forcing someone to be free” would likewise be wrong.

Within the discussion of unanimous deliberation, Rousseau appears to argue that force in of itself is acceptable, if the individual who is bound to obey the general will is a participant (163). It is doubtful that in the whole history of democratic ventures that unanimous participation has been successfully sustained even for a while. Yet, even if it were the case that each person cast a vote in a given population, their exercise in the process cannot rightfully be considered as consent. It cannot be said that an individual is obligated to follow the general will unless participation is truly voluntary on the part of the individual. But the mere exercise of voting provides no indication of voluntary participation.

Since the state’s manifestations of the general will via law is potentially coercive, voting is liable to become a contest between those of differing personal wills. To paraphrase the 19th Century American thinker Lysander Spooner on the subject, all members to this contest may reasonably assume that if victorious in the vote they may successfully persuade state action and in defeat they must unwillingly face the state’s coercive apparatus. This is a contest of self-preservation. Out of self-defense a man can utilize the ballot as his escape, hoping to constrain others lest he himself becomes environed by the state.

Yet his participation is not indicative of a free choice. Once again recalling an analogy from Spooner, in the prospective contest, a man enters the deliberation in a manner like that of a gladiator in combat, who looks to preserve his life by taking the lives of others. But, the gladiator’s behavior cannot be taken as consent for his circumstances or as consent for the system he finds himself in as a participant. It can not be said that chose his circumstances out of his own free will. Instead his participation in the contest was compelled.

Furthermore, Rousseau outlines the requirements that mark when the general will is met, which includes voting in good faith qua citizen (226–228). Without the knowledge of who specifically participates in the act of bona fide voting qua citizen and one who participates without democratic integrity, the very act of voting is no indication of anything. Since we do not have any legal knowledge that any given participant to the general will vote is voluntary and in good faith pledging himself to the social compact, it fails to hold that there are any supporters of the general will. If the “general will” cannot demonstrate that it has supporters according to these principles, it cannot be said that the general will has any supporters at all and its force is nugatory. Voting as a criterion for establishing consent to abide by the general will is doubtful.

Rousseau’s formulation likewise rejects the individual. He writes in terms of the organic metaphor, namely, likening society to that of a human body (166). This aggregation negates the individual wills of those that are said to compose society. Be it not forgotten that these are still individuals that do not lose their rights merely because they live in a society. Rousseau even writes that, “For since the sovereign is formed entirely from the private individuals who make it up, it neither has nor could have an interest contrary to theirs. Hence, the sovereign has no need to offer a guarantee to its subjects… (166).” This quote purports that the concern of the sovereign is the “interest” not the will of private individuals.

However, Rousseau likewise says that one of the advantages that one is to expect in the transition from the state of nature into the civil state is personal autonomy (167). But how can an individual be said to be free, that is, autonomous, if his will differs from what the general will concludes to be in his “interest”?

Though Rousseau tries to cover his tracks and says “appetite is slavery”, perhaps anticipating such a question, only to dismiss it on grounds that hedonism or some other vice that an individual would otherwise partake in, is not truly freedom (167). But if an individual has no personal autonomy to do what they like with their person so long as they do no harm to another, even to give their body away to excess, then they cannot be said to be truly free in the liberal sense. In effect, when Rousseau says that the general will takes precedence over private will, he is saying that individuals are not owed any autonomy save for whatever the general will allows them to have (166–167).

Momentarily disregarding negative freedom, even on grounds of positive freedom “forced to be free” is problematic. If autonomy is a requisite element for manifesting an individual’s private will as a criterion for freedom, compulsion fails to justify itself. An individual cannot pursue acting out their will if they need to conform to the general will.

Freedom and necessity are antithetical to one another. This is why some, Hegelians chief among them, consider innovations such as those which lead to more leisure to be tools of freedom because they rupture the pattern of necessity to let manumission occur (Hegel 232). If needs generate dependency, this dependence can lead to alienation, just as one is not truly free if he needs to concern himself with the general will. Rousseau obfuscates that being bound to the general will entails making an individual’s will subservient to the will or interests of others, an outcome he was seemingly seeking to avoid.

Seeking a plausible justification for state authority, Rousseau’s conception of the general will fails to justify the idea that an individual can be “forced to be free”. Not only does this notion run counter to Rousseau’s previous explanations which condemn force and praise autonomy, voting does not grant the permission to use force and force is antithetical to both negative and positive freedom. Rousseau is substituting one apparition for another-the general will for that of a sovereign of a different form.


Aristotle. The Politics. Translated by T.A Sinclair, Penguin Group, 1992.

Hegel, G.W.F. Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Translated by H.B Nisbet, Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Edited by C B Macpherson, 4th ed., Penguin Group, 1982.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Edited by Peter Laslett, student ed., Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Medema, Steven G, and Warren J Samuels, editors. The History of Economic Thought . 2nd ed., Routledge, 2013.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Rousseau: The Basic Political Writings: Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Discourse on Political Economy, …Contract, The State of War. Translated by Donald A Cress, 2nd ed., Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2011.

Tucker, Robert C, editor. The Marx Engles Reader . 2nd ed., W, W.Norton & Company,Inc., 1978.

Jonathan Hofer

Written by

Public Policy Research Associate| Ad hoc consultant| Former Comparative Political Economy Researcher| Oakland, CA. B.A Political Science, UC Berkeley

The Berkeley Table

Facilitating interdisciplinary work to increase public access to world-class research in the social sciences and humanities along with commentary for popular enrichment.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store