Tuesday, September 06, 2005

A Pedant's Defence of Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes has made a couple of appearances in the last few days, in reference to the breakdown of law and order in New Orleans. Steve over on Pub Philosopher cites the famous 'nasty brutish and short' line from Leviathan, before stating that
The Leviathan needs to regain control in New Orleans. Government is preferable to the rule of armed gangs.
Brian Crowe over on the Young Unionists provides a longer post (hat-tip Slugger) suggesting after David Brooks, that this decade should be known as the 'Hobbesian decade,' notable for the social breakdowns that Hobbes described. Brian tells us that
Attacking the 'nanny state', undermining the State's ability to act against terrorism, paramilitarism and organised crime, declaring that there is no such thing as society and that a government's first priority is tax cuts: all of this is yesterday's language, yesterday's agenda. Thomas Hobbes got it right when he declared that "less power" for the State threatens civil society. Without strong, activist government life becomes nasty, brutish and short - as the citizens of New Orleans are telling us.
Leviathan is an immensely challenging book, but hugely rewarding for that. It represents a major moment in political thought, in terms of methodology as well as direct normative content (of which, pedantically speaking as billed, there isn't much).

Still, two things are worth mentioning if we're in the business of drawing lessons from the text to explain the world as it is today. First, Leviathan isn't an individual as such. Rather it is the artificial person of the state: the agency that results from human cooperation.

Second, that cooperation is not a result of force from above. Hobbes's line, as Brian implies (not so sure about Steve!) is that, even if we were living in the much-famed (and hypothetical) state of nature, our fear of each other alone would drive us into cooperation and collaboration. Despite his reputation, Hobbes was something of an optimist about society.

In other words, human society is not just a welcome thing. It's inevitable.

Update: Title fixed, thanks to Hugh!

Oh, and I forgot to mention another important aspect of Leviathan: a rational person will only lend allegiance to the state if living under the state's sovereignty is preferable to living in the 'state of nature.' And that can't just be be assumed.

Update 2: Steve clarifies his position in the comments.

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