Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Political Theory 101: Thomas Hobbes

So, who is this Hobbes guy anyway? I keep talking about him, and referring to things as "Hobbesean". What the hell am I talking about?

Thomas Hobbes of Malmsebury is one of the first truly modern political philosophers. He wrote during the mid seventeenth century, around the time of the English Civil War. His general outlook was materialist - he tried to explain human psychology in terms of the motions of the body - and the unpopularity of his views caused a certain amount of controversy. His books were placed on the Index by the Catholic Church, and "Hobbists" were fired from Oxford. His notoriety as an atheist was so great that he was blamed by Parliament for bringing the "dreadful judgement" of the Great Fire of London upon them (god presumably having much the same discrimination and aim as the Americans). But it's really the political philosophy laid out in his Leviathan for which he is remembered, and which I'm primarily interested in.

The key question for Hobbes is how do we justify the State. By what right does the State claim its authority, and is challenging that authority ever justified? Hobbes answers these questions by imagining what life would be like if there was no government.

Firstly, he starts off with people. People are roughly equal in physical and intellectual power. While there are differences, none are so great as to automatically make any one person master; anyone can be overcome by treachery or a coalition of others. This rough equality leads to trouble, because it gives rise to an "equality of hope in the attaining of our ends". Where interests conflict (and Hobbes takes it as a given that they will, sometime), then no-one has any reason to give way to any other. The net result is that people will fight, and that no-one is secure in their life or property:

if one plant, sow, build, or possess a convenient seat, others may probably be expected to come prepared with forces united to dispossess and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labour, but also of his life or liberty. And the invader again is in the like danger of another.

Hobbes calls this situation the "State of Nature, and characterises it as a "war of every man, against every man", in which

there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Or, to put it another way, it's Mad Max, or what people generally think of when they use the term "anarchy".

How do we get out of this mess? Hobbes believes that we all have some desire for security and an urge towards self-preservation; in fact, he thinks that it's not just an urge, but a moral duty; we ought to take whatever steps we think necessary to protect our own lives. And the rational step to take is to seek peace where others are also willing to do so. The problem with the State of Nature is that we each have a right to all things; Hobbes thinks that we should (if others are also willing to do so) surrender this right, and "be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself".

And so we have the "Leviathan" for which the book is named: people give up their right to all things to the State ("an artificial man; though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defence it was intended"), which then acts as an arbitrator and enforcer of laws and ensures that people are secure. Hobbes goes off into absolutism at this point - because he thinks that it is necessary to prevent civil war - and it's about there that I lose interest. Locke or Rawls have better answers from this point on.

Why do I find Hobbes interesting? Well, firstly I think his formulation of the problem and its solution is essentially sound (though not historical). In a practical sense, we are as unconstrained as those Hobbes imagines in the State of Nature; any of us can kill, steal, rape, or rob. The only way we can live together as a society is if we voluntarily refrain from those courses of action. Hobbes may reach the wrong conclusions about the sort of government people should establish, but he at least gets the basics right on why we have some government rather than none.

Secondly, the argument he makes is essentially game-theoretic. The State of Nature is an enormous game of Prisoner's Dilemma, with the important difference that we can all talk to one another. In these circumstances, it is obvious that we should all agree to co-operate, and to punish cheaters. I find game theory a useful lens to view politics and society through on occasions, and so Hobbes is a good place to start.

And thirdly, I like his outlook. Like Machiavelli, Hobbes is a hard-nosed naturalist who talks about the world as it is rather than the world as it should be. He's pessimistic about human nature; while he acknowledges that we can be nice, charitable, generous and altruistic, he's too smart to rely on it. Likewise, he talks almost entirely about power and pragmatics (rather than authority and obedience) because he's not stupid enough to think that morality is a significant factor. We don't have a government because it is the moral thing to do or because its the way god wants us to live; we have a government because we have to. If you're a naturalist trying to build a political theory from the ground up or analyse the state without regard for "spookiness", then this is the place to start.