Saturday, September 8, 2012

Barack Obama as Thomas Hobbes? Hardly.

In his latest column, George Weigel--currently the Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center--argues that the upcoming election is, in a sense, a choice between Hobbes and Burke, Thomas Hobbes and Edmund Burke. Playing the part of Hobbes is--apparently--Barack Obama, while Romney stands in for Burke. Weigel sums up the choices thusly (my a) and b) notations):
For as the candidates have presented themselves to the country over the past months, and most recently at their conventions, it has become ever more clear that America will choose in 2012 between two paths into the future. Along one path, a ) there is, finally, room for only the individual and the state. Along the other path, b) the flourishing institutions of civil society empower individuals and contribute to real problem-solving. In the former, the state defines responsibilities and awards benefits (and penalties). In the latter, individuals and free, voluntary associations assume responsibility and thereby thus make their contribution to the common good.
If it's not clear, path a) is the one being offered by the current President, the one that Weigel claims to be that of Hobbes. Path b) is that of Romney, supposedly more in tune with the ideas of Burke. Weigel may have--superficially--correctly captured part of what differentiates the ideology of one from the other, with regard to Obama and Romney, but I fear he is missing a great deal of what it means to be Hobbes, to be a Hobbesian,   in his basic description of such a point of view.

To establish the assumed contrasting visions of Hobbes and Burke, Weigel focuses in on the state as conceived by each of these political theorists:
In a Hobbesian world, the only actors of consequence are the state and the individual. In a Burkean world, the institutions of civil society—family, religious congregation, voluntary association, business, trade union and so forth—“mediate” between the individual and the state, and the just state takes care to provide an appropriate legal framework in which those civil-society institutions can flourish. 
In a Hobbesian world, the state—“Leviathan,” in the title of Hobbes’s most famous and influential work—monopolizes power for the sake of protecting individuals from the vicissitudes of a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” In a Burkean world, civil society provides a thick layer of mediation—protection, if you will—that cushions the interactions between individuals and life’s challenges.
The simplification of Hobbes into a proponent of an all-powerful sovereign whose actions can never be legitimately opposed by the citizenry for any reason whatsoever has become all to common in academia, but it fails to capture a number of finer parts and wrongly suggests Hobbes wanted such a situtation, come hell or high water. Part of the reason why it is so commonplace, however, is the profound influence Hobbes has had on modern political thought. So many writers who followed him--like Burke, Bentham, Locke, and Rousseau--were desperate to find fault with the basic assumptions of Hobbes, with regard to the fundamental nature of man and the corresponding basis for government and civil society that sprang from those assumptions.

But in doing so, many of these thinkers--though intelligent and notable in their own right--misread Hobbes. Some--like Locke--understood Hobbes in full in my opinion, but recognized the need to soften the truths in Hobbes' thoughts in order to achieve a more widespread acceptance of a social contract theory as the only means of establishing a legitimate government, a government that rules based on the consent of the citizenry at large.

True enough, Hobbes called man's life "solitary, poor, nasty, brutal, and short" when lived outside the bounds of civil society. And true enough, Hobbes was an avowed proponent of monarchy as the most advantageous form of government. But within the framework Hobbes envisioned--a government empowered with the sovereign authority of each individual, granted voluntarily via the social contract--there was far more room for industry, religion, and the like than Weigel is suggesting.

In On the Citizen, Hobbes notes that the primary duty of the Sovereign--indeed what devolves to it's only duty--is the "safety of the people," which Hobbes calls the "supreme law" establishing the duty of the Sovereign to the citizenry. Aside from fulfilling this duty, the role of the Sovereign is to accrue power (via wealth and honor) which Hobbes recognized is best served by having a prosperous citizenry.

In that regard, Hobbes recommends that less government is better government. As he says--once again, from On the Citizen--"Sovereigns can do no more for the citizens' happiness than to enable them to enjoy the possessions their industry has won them." Hobbes even touches on the idea of general welfare, saying:
The sovereign as such provides for the citizens' safety only by means of laws, which are universal. Hence he has done his duty if he has made every effort to provide by sound measures for the welfare of as many of them as possible for as long as possible and to see that no one fares badly except by his own fault or by unavoidable circumstances; and it is sometimes good for the safety of the majority that bad men should do badly.
Thus, in Hobbes, we hear the echoes--albeit separated by a century--of the basic tenets underlying our own Constitution: a limited government with a primary duty to protect the citizens, freedom of industry and of the individual to acquire property, and a less-than-expansive idea of general welfare.

This is not to say all of Hobbes' ideas are--on the whole--consistent with those that inform our nation. They certainly are not; but the basic outline Hobbes sees in a successful commonwealth very much is. Hobbes, of course, knew that not all commonwealths have followed and would follow this path. In that regard, he explicitly allowed how commonwealths might fall because of poor governance. But he did not couch such actions in terms of natural rights possessed by man, he simply allowed for them in describing various kinds of commonwealths, how they came to be, how they functioned, and why they sometimes failed.

And here again, people less familiar with Hobbes are given to wrongly assume that all Hobbes describes is consistent with what Hobbes would recommend, with what Hobbes thinks is best. As I have shown above, Hobbes saw the maximization of personal liberty to be a positive thing, to be something a commonwealth should pursue for the benefits it entails. Note how very different this is from how Hobbes is commonly described, as some sort of fan of tyrannical authority.

When it comes to religion, the tale is not much different. Yes, Hobbes saw no religious component to the state, proper. But this does not mean he was irreligious, that he saw no valid role for religion in the public sphere. Indeed, Hobbes was a member of the Great Tew Circle, a group of intellectuals given to religious tolerance, the promotion of a high moral character, and with a quite traditional concept of honor. The idea that Hobbes would see no value in such voluntary associations is, I think, without merit.

Beyond all of this, there is also the issue of natural rights, as expressed and criticized by Hobbes and Burke and as a basis--or not--for fundamental assumptions about law and society which informed men like Madison and Jefferson. I do not think things will work out in the way that many may expect, given the most common understandings of Hobbes'and Burke's ideas. But I'll leave that discussion for another time.

For now, while I find Weigel's piece thoughtful and stimulating, he simply has it wrong when it comes to Hobbes, though he is far from alone on this. If I were to frame the current race as a contest between two philosophical sources, I would have chosen a very different pair (one that works nine times out of ten, when it comes to contests between conservatives/libertarians and progressives/liberals): John Locke and G.W.F. Hegel. For it is here that modern political thought diverges along two paths, that of modern liberalism with an all powerful state in service to the common good and the needs thereof (Hegel), and that of classical liberalism with a strictly limited state tasked with ensuring peace and upholding a justly made set of laws so the individual is free to rise or fall on his own (Locke). Hobbes is not fully on either side, but in context he is most assuredly much closer to Locke than to Hegel.

Cheers, all.

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