"[...] By equality, we should understand, not that the degrees of power and riches are to be absolutely identical for everybody; but that power shall never be great enough for violence, and shall always be exercised by virtue of rank and law; and that, in respect to riches, no citizen shall ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself [...]" ((Rousseau, The Social Contract, 2:11.2))
It is interesting to think about this quote, which was brought to my attention when reading Rawls. Rousseau is talking about the essential nature of how he sees equality within a society. The translation quoted is a bit chunky. For Rousseau, the idea of equality is not in anyway idealized or romanticized, but rather, it is the balance between the two polar opposites of each aspect at hand. Power should never be so great as to necessitate its use, and power that is exercised is to be done with strict adherence to the law and social status of the wielder. The whole idea is that, in a society, some inequality is inevitable. Here Rawls uses a phrase that I quite like: the idea is to moderate inequality, rather than strive for true equality. And so, this is why Rousseau means by the latter part of the stipulation of power. Whatever power is exercised should 1) not be violent, and 2) always adhere to the law and appropriate action of rank. The second part of moderated inequality, I find also interesting. No citizen should be so rich as to buy others, and none should be so poor as to forced to sell his own sovereignty.
Through reading Rawls' interpretation of Rousseau, I constantly had thoughts as to how our system of value (ie, capitalism) serves to undermine the perfect state that Rousseau describes in Social Contract. In recent discussions, I've also been struggling to explain why the world as it is today, seems to be so unequal. Rawls has a very specific interpretation of "moral freedom" as it pertains to Rousseau. As far as I understand, it is "moral", in the sense of Rousseau, to be able to act in accordance with the laws that one has given to himself to follow (the idea of Rousseau's common will, founded in common interests). However, it seems to me that Rousseau places his conception of equality as the primary principle of any "moral" society. Through interest in self, equality would be a common interest, and in this way, embodied as part of the common will. In this way, would it not be immoral to disregard this conception of equality? Rousseau (through Rawls' interpretation) seems to argue that it is, in essence, a paradox to be immoral in the sense I have charged because the essential nature of man is good. Rousseau believes that man, through social institutions and political society, becomes corrupted. Through reading, the question of how we can justify the system of capitalism which we use to distribute and allocate resources dominated my mind. My thought is, "Isn't capitalism, at its essence, concerned with the supply of labour?" This is in direct violation (I feel) of Rousseau's definition of equality. I am so poor that I have to sell my labour, which is in essence my sovereignty. Don't get me wrong, I think capitalism is the best resource allocation system we have seen to date (communist planned markets failed), but there is something inside of my head that wonders if we couldn't do better than capitalism.
As far as the essential nature of man is concerned, I do not share Rousseau's optimism. However, I am also not as quick to endorse Hobbes and his essential nature of man. I would posit that the essential nature of man equates roughly with the idea of tabula rasa. I believe that, as Rousseau, and I'm sure many others much smarter than me, the nature of man is not defined by any predetermined "gift" (so to speak), but rather, there is a clear moral development. Moral agency is gained much as reason is bestowed at the so called "age of reason". I would argue that there are people with a Hobbesian nature, and others with one akin to Rousseau's idealization. Due to this process of moral development, I don't think it is possible to characterize humanity, as it were, with a particular moral nature.
I don't know enough about moral philosophy to be able to justify any positions I may take, not have I read enough to make any assertive statements on who says what.