Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Case against (and for) Federalism

Authored by: Daniel E. Cullen

The Ashgate Research Companion to Federalism

Print publication date:  August  2009
Online publication date:  April  2016

Print ISBN: 9780754671312
eBook ISBN: 9781315612966
Adobe ISBN: 9781317043454


 Download Chapter



Despite his reputation as a utopian thinker, Rousseau was never enthralled by the prospect of cosmopolitanism or world government. The last best hope for humanity was that “men” might become “citizens,” which is to say, members of particular societies whose moral existence depended on the energy produced by its very exclusivity: “Patriotism and humanity are … two virtues incompatible in their very tendencies [énergie], especially in a whole people. The Legislator who desires to achieve the two will obtain neither one” (Rousseau 1964, 706n). The same considerations would appear to exclude the possibility of federalism defined as “a comprehensive system of political relationships” combining “self-rule and shared rule within a matrix of constitutionally dispersed powers” (Elazar 1987, 1). Although it recognizes the logic of progressive political unity, federalism stops short of the universal state; but, to the extent that the members of a federal association remain divided peoples, plures within a more comprehensive unum, the federal vision seems to run afoul of the Rousseauian principle of undivided sovereignty. Federalism is customarily regarded as an arrangement for a pluralistic society of diverse peoples aiming at a union of parts which does not concern itself with the internal affairs of the latter. From a Rousseauian point of view, federalism seems to offers contract without transformation of the contracting parties, and it appears less as a vision of the good society than a testament to the inability of a pluralistic society to be a good society. Federal polities limit governmental power by dispersing it among administrative levels with independent sources of authority; such defensive measures typically aim at preserving the diversity of political entities (especially ethnic minorities) who distrust a more comprehensive union. The goal of federalism thus appears to be the toleration of difference rather than the overcoming of difference in a wider unity (Cf. Walzer 2007, 168–182). Whereas Tocqueville admired the way in which the American federal system preserved the virtues of small republics within a union that conferred the advantages of greater size, power, and wealth (Tessitore 2004, 63), Rousseau viewed those “gains” as corrosive of the virtues they ostensibly served. American federalism is predicated on an extended commercial republic.

Search for more...
Back to top

Use of cookies on this website

We are using cookies to provide statistics that help us give you the best experience of our site. You can find out more in our Privacy Policy. By continuing to use the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.