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Posted on September 23rd, 2012, by

Today, liberty, being one of the major values of a democratic society, is accompanied by numerous dangers and risks since the unlimited liberty threatens to the basic human rights of an individual because in the pursue of total liberty an individual can violate rights of other people. In this respect, the position of Jean-Jacque Rousseau is particularly noteworthy since he admitted the possibility of a social contract. At the same time, he warned against a possible negative impact of society on an individual since the society can limit an individual’s liberty.

First of all, it is important to underline that views of people on liberty vary consistently. In this respect, it is possible to distinguish ancient concept of liberty and modern concept of liberty (Constant, 1816). To put it more precisely, Constant (1816) argued that at the ancient epoch, the concept of liberty basically implied the personal freedom of an individual, while the modern concept of liberty is consistently broader and incorporates fundamental democratic principles. For instance, Constant argues that the concept of liberty in the modern interpretation implies the right of each individual to “be subjected only to the laws, and to be neither arrested, detained, put to death or maltreated in anyway by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals”¯ (1816, 7).

The development of the modern concept of liberty rejected many ideas, which were considered to be unarguable in the past, such as the divine right of kings, hereditary status, established religion and some others. At the same time, the key idea of the modern concept of liberty is the idea of the arrangement of relationships between people as well as between people and the state on the basis of laws and principles common and equal to all members of the society. In this respect, the idea of Rousseau concerning the possibility of a social contract between citizens of a country is particularly noteworthy because, instead of traditional social and political system, the concept of social contract implies a set of responsibilities and duties of all members of the society which they need to perform in order to exercise their basic rights and liberties (Rousseau, 112).

In such a context, it is important to understand what the concept of liberty suggested to people, instead of traditional system of values. It is necessary to underline that liberty in social relations holds liberty as a primary political value that should define the state policy, based on the social contract which regulates relationships between members of the society. In broader terms, liberty seeks a society characterized by freedom of thought for individuals, limitations on power, especially of government and religion, the rule of law, the free exchange of ideas, a market economy, that supports private enterprise, and a transparent system of government in which the rights of minorities are guaranteed.

Naturally, such a dominance of free choice ideology contributes to socio-economic progress of the society since it put practically no barriers on the way to economic and social progress. In this respect, it should be said that Rousseau underlined the importance of the observance of certain rules within the society, which regulate relationship between people (Rousseau, 118). To put it more precisely, Rousseau argued that the liberty of an individual cannot be unlimited. Instead, it needs to be regulated by legal rules and norms which exist in the society in terms of the social contract that exists between people and the state. In actuality, people cannot be absolutely free in their actions because their liberty can lead to the offense of other people’s rights and liberties. In such a way, the liberty of people can come into conflicts that make the introduction of a social contract vitally important for the normal functioning of the entire society and for the normal life of individuals.

At the same time, Rousseau admitted the possibility of development of an absolutely free and liberal personality on the condition that an individual is totally isolated from the rest of the society(Rousseau , 132). In fact, he argued that an individual can learn from nature and humans can acquire essential experience from the natural life. Therefore, if people grow up somewhere apart from the society, they can be absolutely free and the possibility of the absolute liberty is acceptable. On the other hand, Rousseau admitted the fact that such a possibility of the development of an ideal, free individual is purely hypothetical because as soon as an individual starts to communicate with other people or starts living in the society, all his virtues and liberties vanish under the impact of society, which Rousseau believed to be negative.

In such a context, the necessity of the introduction of a social contract was particularly important for Rousseau because the contract could regulate relationships between people and ensure the liberty of all people and observation of their basic human rights (Rousseau, 144).

However, it is worth mentioning the fact that the concept of liberty developed by Rousseau was quite different from conventional view on liberty developed by supporters of liberalist ideas. Traditionally, liberalist viewed the concept of liberty from a “negative”¯ perspective (Villa, 2007, 2). In such a way, liberty was viewed as the freedom from something, which actually was similar to the ancient concept of liberty. As a result, such a concept of liberty limited the freedom of an individual or, to put it more precisely, granted them with certain liberties, which could be strictly defined by legal norms, regulations and traditions existing in the society. In contrast, Rousseau developed a totally different concept of liberty, which could be characterized as a positive view on liberty. Rousseau stood on the ground that human liberty cannot and should not be limited. Instead, he insisted on the priority of human rights compared to the governmental power (Villa, 2007, 2).

Consequently, human rights and liberties should be fundamental for the developed of a truly democratic, liberal society, where human rights and liberties are viewed as natural rights and liberties but not “gifts”¯ given by the authorities to people. Moreover, from this point of view, it is people who should provide the government with the authority and the government could not violate rights and liberties of people.

In fact, this is one of the major reasons why Rousseau insisted on the creation of a kind of social contract, which could have regulated the relationships within the society. In terms of this contract, the power of the government could be limited by constitutional limits which ensured rights and liberties of people and defined the boundaries of the power of the government (Villa, 2007, 2).

In such a context, it is also extremely important to emphasize that liberty stands on the ground that interaction between states is not limited to the political (high politics), but also economic (low politics) whether through commercial firms, organizations or individuals. In such a way, the concept of an individual’s liberty attempts to overcome a kind of anarchy that could be developed in the result of difference in political preferences within a state. Obviously, the idea of social contract suggested by Rousseau could prevent risks which accompany the concept of liberty and influence relationships between people as well as between people and the state.

Moreover, it is even possible to say that, on rejecting old idealistic views, it suggests new, which are not less idealistic. For instance, liberalists suggest that liberty is the highest value but often social relations were based on the principles of deprivation of liberty of some classes or interest groups by others. Furthermore, another basic idea of liberty is also extremely idealistic. What is meant here is the idea that states and people act according to their preferences. Obviously, this is an extremely arguable point. Naturally it would be perfect if each state could realize its potential and achieve possibly better results but in such a situation the contemporary world would rather represented a number of prosperous nations. Unfortunately, the reality is far from this ideal and the main reason is the dramatic difference in the capabilities of states, which may differ significantly from their preferences.

Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that liberty and social contract, being progressive concepts, are still rather idealistic and its main theoretical assumptions seems to be hardly realizable in practice. Not surprisingly that this theory is often criticized but it is also hardly possible to deny that it has some very important points that should be developed, such as the idea of liberty.

Naturally, many points of liberalism and social contract are idealistic but they worth striving for. In this respect, the position of Rousseau also seemsĀ  to be a bit idealistic because he admitted the existence of the liberty of an individual in its absolute form, but on the condition that an individual lives in the isolation from the rest of the society, while the interaction of an individual with other members of the society, as well as state at large, inevitably leads to the necessity of the establishment of social contract which regulate social relations, defines basic rights, liberties and responsibilities of all members of human society. in such a way, the liberty of an individual cannot be absolute.

Otherwise, it will inevitably lead to social conflicts and problems in the relationships between people because the liberty of an individual, if it is not bounded by terms of a social contract, can affect the liberty and rights of other people. Therefore, the social contract is the only solution of possible conflicts in the society because it provides the opportunity to regulate the relationships between people and defines the authority of the government, preventing the possibility of the limitation of liberty and rights of people by the state. Hence, the concept of liberty cannot be applied effectively without the introduction of the social contract.

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