“Rousseau brings into prominence the idea of consent and establishes once for all that will, not force, is the basis of the State. He also champions the cause of direct democracy by vesting the legislative power in the people.
Rousseau’s political teachings had a profound appeal for the fathers of the Constitutions of the United States of America and France. To quote Dunning, Rousseau’s spirit and “dogmas, however disguised and transformed, are seen everywhere both in the speculative system and in the governmental organisations of the stirring era that followed his death.” Rousseau died in 1778.
But the main defect in Rousseau’s philosophy is in his explanation of the General Will. He places no limit on the absolute power of the whole over its members. Rousseau, indeed, gives no option to the individual will against the General Will, which can neither be wrong nor unjust. Similarly, individuals cannot protest against the authority of the General Will.
Law, according to Rousseau, is the expression of the General Will. If the individual suffers from punishment, say the death penalty, he is really a consenting party to his own execution as he is a part of that sovereign will which made the law under which he is condemned.
Rousseau really tried to explain how government can be justified—how men can submit to it and yet remain free men and not slaves, and he thought he could do that by showing that government is a natural development in as much as it is only in the State that men fully realize their capacities.
Here he was preaching something which is fundamentally true and important. But unfortunately Rousseau is often obscure, not always consistent, and there is a vein of mysticism running through his doctrine. He wrapped up the lesson he was trying to teach in a language that paved the way for totalitarianism.
And totalitarianism is a hateful doctrine, whether the individual is asked to make complete surrender to a mystical entity called the General Will or to a personal leader like Hitler or Mussolini.
Then, Rousseau does not differentiate between the State and society and fusion of the two is a handy weapon with Rousseau’s admirers in totalitarian States to suppress the individual, his aspirations and his personality.
Finally, Rousseau’s advocacy of small States, with limited population, and his categorical condemnation of representative institutions present practical difficulties, a direct democracy offers no solution for the political ills from which a nation-State is believed to suffer.