Vint Cerf: Freedom and the Social Contract

Vinton G. Cerf in the Communications of the ACM: “The last several weeks (as of this writing) have been filled with disclosures of intelligence practices in the U.S. and elsewhere. Edward Snowden’s unauthorized release of highly classified information has stirred a great deal of debate about national security and the means used to preserve it.
In the midst of all this, I looked to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s well-known 18th-century writings on the Social Contract (Du Contrat Social, Ou Principes du Droit Politique) for insight. Distilled and interpreted through my perspective, I took away several notions. One is that in a society, to achieve a degree of safety and stability, we as individuals give up some absolute freedom of action to what Rousseau called the sovereign will of the people. He did not equate this to government, which he argued was distinct and derived its power from the sovereign people.
I think it may be fair to say that most of us would not want to live in a society that had no limits to individual behavior. In such a society, there would be no limit to the potential harm an individual could visit upon others. In exchange for some measure of stability and safety, we voluntarily give up absolute freedom in exchange for the rule of law. In Rousseau’s terms, however, the laws must come from the sovereign people, not from the government. We approximate this in most modern societies creating representative government using public elections to populate the key parts of the government.”