Thursday, August 25, 2016

Discourse on Political Economy - Rousseau

Rousseau's 'Discourse on Political Economy' was published in 1755.  It's one of the body of important works that appeared in the 17th and 18th century as various thinkers in England and France were trying to figure out what good governance was.  This means that a) it was important and influential for the people who were trying to figure out what a post-monarchal government would look like and b) it has little impact today because we've already internalized many of its arguments.
It's not a long work; less than 20 pages in the actual Great Books volume.  The reading style is simple and accessible.  I'd recommend it as interesting, but its not vital in the way that some other works are. 
One interesting element of it, is that it is the earliest work I've read with some of the mainstream arguments that are found in todays political left.
It is therefore one of the most important functions of government to prevent extreme inequality of fortunes; not by taking away wealth from its possessors, but by depriving all men of means to accumulate it; not by building hospitals for the poor, but by securing the citizens from becoming poor.

This statement would be at home in many modern political campaigns.  Of course, the tricky part is remembering that Rousseau was writing at a period of time when literal classes of people existed, the wealthiest with special rights when it came to land and wealth.  The modern situation is somewhat different.  The overall idea that one of the prime functions of government is to keep the poor from poverty is alive and well though.

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