The Social Contract represents perhaps the most important (along with Locke) piece of political philosophy upon which our democracy is based. Some people may sniff at it, regardless, but it is the essence of elected government. I managed to get a copy for just a few cents last spring and finally got a chance to sit down and read it on the way back from a conference for work.
To any decently educated person in a nation like America, much of what Rousseau seems to preclude the necessity of explanation—like Machiavelli’s The Prince, the ideology has disseminated into our collective conscious so thoroughly that reading the book itself seems silly and redundant.
But there are bits that really spoke tome—elementary things that I don’t normally express in words. Take, for example, the following quote: “Man loses, through the social contract, his natural liberty, along with an unlimited right to anything that he is tempted by and can get. He gains civil liberty, along with ownership of all he possesses.” Until I read that line, I’d never really given thought to the idea of “ownership,” which without context is little more than the ability to physically defend something from an arbitrary number of arbitrarily-strong opponents. Until people are bound by a collective decision to respect this idea of legal ownership, there was no such thing. Libertarians, of course, take issue with the first sentence: they equate the loss of “natural liberty” with an essential neutering, and in there heads they seem to trust human nature enough to believe that natural liberty would not be abused outside the context of a social contract. I would be more than able to steal an item from a store, provided that I would not harbor a moral compulsion to do otherwise, and that I could outrun the store’s owner (and possibly escape repercussions from his family or tribe or whatever).
But we’ve of course never seen any culture successful in the long term that was based on such principles. Even prior to the democratization of the much of the industrialized world, most cultures were based upon a much less fair social contract—empires, monarchies, papacies, etc.
One of my favorite lines has less to do with the social contract and more to do with equality. Specifically, it echoes my leftist leanings while rejecting the idea of pure socialism or communism. Rousseau says, “As for equality, this word must not be understood to mean that all individuals must have exactly the same amount of power and wealth, but rather (a) that power must be exercised only in accordance with rank and the laws, so that no one shall have so much of it as to be able to use violence upon another, and (b) that no citizen shall have so much wealth that he can buy another, and none so little that he is forced to sell himself.”
Rousseau covers a lot of ground in a relatively short piece of work, so I won’t bother to explain it piece by piece here: such a thing is better read for yourself than Cliff’s-noted here. The Social Contract won’t be the best book you’ve ever read, but it may be one of the most important (whether you agree with it or not), so I recommend you get it when you can.
I should also note here that the version I have linked to is not the version I read. Mine is a paperback from 1954, and wonderfully translated by Willmoore Kendall.