Sunday, March 2, 2008

My Beef With Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes is the father of modern political philosophy. I think he should have been burned at the stake. This is why:

Hobbes was a conservative — which, in the terms of 1651, meant he was a totalitarian monarchist. In his highly regarded book, Leviathan, he sets out to prove that totalitarian monarchy is based on a “social contract”, and is, therefore, completely moral. In other words, tyrannical dictators are OK, because the populace agrees to be controlled.

This theory is wrong on every relevant level.

First, it is historically inaccurate. There has never, in the history of the world, been a coercive government which resulted from a contract between individuals. Hobbes says this doesn’t matter. His apathetic attitude is impossible to defend, for a contract that hasn’t been signed is void. If government should be a contractual creation, and no one signed a contract, it follows that there should be no government.

He then goes on to explain that life without government is, to use the famous quote, “nasty, brutish, and short”. This is because no agreements are possible in an anarchy. There must be a government to enforce the rules:
For if we could suppose a great Multitude of men to consent in the observation of Justice, and other lawes of nature without a common Power to keep them in awe, we might as well suppose all Man-kind to do the same; and then there neither would be, nor need to be any Civill Government, or Common-wealth at all; because there would be peace without subjection.
He assumes agreements can't be enforced without a government, then assumes that an agreement to create a government can be enforced. As he has admitted, his assumption that a government-creating contract can be enforced obliterates the need for a government in the first place. This is characteristic of Hobbes. As long as it favors the monarchy, logical consistency is unnecessary.

Another flaw is his inconsistent use of the word "contract". The entirety of Hobbes' argument depends on a definition of contract which excludes coercion. Why? Because contracts are regarded as more ethical than forced relationships only because the former are voluntary, that is, non-coercive. By altering the definition of contract to allow for coercion, he alters the moral composition of contracts, so that they aren't automatically ethical. Imagine: "Rape is not a crime. If a woman didn't want to be raped, she wouldn't walk alone after dark. As you can see, rape is completely moral." It's the same bait-and-switch. All he did was give coercion a new name. He even, in a Freudian slip, consistently refers to government as "coercive", despite the explicitly non-coercive nature of a contract.

Lastly, his description of the state of nature is completely outdated thanks to modern sociobiology. There is wide agreement among psychologists that morality is an evolved, and thus inherent, property of human individuals. Thanks in part to this, it has been shown, historically and theoretically, that in societies in which every person knows every other, order can be kept without a government. This is due to a tit for tat strategy — basically, revenge — that we've evolved to cope with social environments. As long as a person can keep track of criminals, the potential for revenge creates a strong incentive for cooperation, and peaceful society is possible. (Axelrod, 2006) In short, the Hobbesian state of nature does not exist.

To sum up Hobbes’ argument, he says, and I paraphrase, “People should accept the coercive power of the government because
1) They signed a contract — well, OK, they didn’t really sign a contract — and they did this because
2) Anarchy is perpetual war, and no one can reach agreements while in it — except when they want to create a state — and
3) Even though contracts are, by definition, non-coercive, this one is coercive — hey, I’m writing the book here, it can be coercive if I want it to be — and
4) This defies all psychological and historical evidence, but that’s not the point. The point is that
5) People cannot be free.

In Conclusion:

The social contract theory is not only historically inaccurate, psychologically inaccurate, and logically indefensible, it also presupposes that men can create and abide by contracts in the absence of state authority, which is more appropriately the basis for a contractual anarchic society. Q. E. D.

Hobbes' theory has been indirectly responsible for more misery than that of any other in history. I hope he's tortured by a totalitarian government in Hell. (The torture being voluntary. Otherwise he'd leave, right?)

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