Perspectives on Politics
January 18 – Hobbes’s Strengths and Weaknesses
So far the argument from human nature as a calculating response to appetites and aversions has led to the deduction of Hobbes’s two main propositions: all must strive continuously for power over the power of others and each has a basic aversion to violent death. This led to the abstraction of the state of nature which delivers a picture of complete insecurity and poverty. The suggestion followed of a rational way out of the state of nature that followed appetite. This in turn led to the agreement to give up natural right and abide by the laws of nature. This was deemed to be possible and rational only under a system of law enforcement. But we’ve seen that the contract leading to the establishment of the sovereign is really an argument aimed at convincing people they are obliged to obey any existing law enforcement power.
Even if one accepts all this, the question remains open as to how much law, i.e. what kind of law and what kind of law enforcement power is needed to ensure peace and a commodious life. The answer to these two questions is Hobbes’s “special theory” of an absolute and self-perpetuating sovereign.
Recall, that in the state of nature each person has the right to do anything; natural law is in fact not binding, i.e. it is in fact not “morally” binding. In the contract, there is a renunciation of this right and it is transferred to the sovereign. Thus the sovereign is unlimited or absolute because the right of individuals in the state of nature, the right that gets transferred, is itself unlimited or absolute. They are two sides of the same coin.
Hobbes argues that if the sovereign is to fulfill his function he must have enough power to overcome any other potential power within the state. There is no way of knowing “at the start” how much power will be needed to carry out this task, and a limited or conditional power may not be enough. Furthermore, if the sovereign were limited, then he would be limited by either by some other body, in which case either that body would be sovereign, or there would be a continual struggle between the two. Or, if the sovereign were limited it might mean that every citizen could decide for themselves, could be judge in their own case, a sort of contingent anarchy. But the power of the sovereign depends on the continuous support of the citizens. So, if the sovereign power is not to be unlimited, then we would get either anarchy or the continuous possibility of civil war.
Remember that it is a legal fiction that individuals are deemed to have actually and explicitly authorized the sovereign power. When the language of contract is translated into power language, one is able to better see Hobbes’s actual argument: the nature of sovereignty is not a “moral” problem, but an existential one, a question of fact. Any power in fact great enough to be absolute (not effectively limited by another power) is in fact sovereign. If it could be challenged, then this challenge must in fact come from a power which is even greater (in which case it would be sovereign). If, on the other hand, the sovereign were limited, this would mean there were two bodies claiming to be sovereign, which would lead to civil war or anarchy; or else the limiting power is in fact the sovereign power. Even a conquered people, if they are rational, act as though they had entered such a contract. If peace and comfort are the goal, then men must behave as if they made an agreement to obey an absolute and self-perpetuating sovereign.
Now, this is a pretty strong case, given Hobbes’s assumptions, but leads to the question of whether or not we can find a weak link. To my mind the weakest link, or the most significant weak link, is in Hobbes’s universalization of the appetites and aversions and social relations of a capitalist market society to any and all possible human societies. But, if we limit our criticism to the applicability of Hobbes’s special theory to a capitalist market society, his case seems quite strong.
One objection that might have occurred to you already. As was already pointed out, Hobbes, in ch. 14, maintains that there is one right that no one can conceivably transfer to the sovereign, the right to protect his own life. Is Hobbes then in contradiction? Not really. The sovereign has so much power that this retention on the part of individuals doesn’t damage him.
Let’s look now at two broad sets of objections to Hobbes’s doctrine about absolute and self-perpetuating sovereignty. The first set are those objections that Hobbes foresaw and answered. The second are some of those raised by later theorists. In the course of dealing with the first set we will have the opportunity to outline more fully the role and functions Hobbes assigns to the state.
First set – what Hobbes foresaw and answered:
Towards the end of Ch. 20 Hobbes addresses the objection from practice: where and when did such a sovereign exist? Hobbes answers: where and when did a kingdom exist that was long free of civil war and sedition? Beyond this retort he reasons that any argument from the limitations of previous practice is invalid or useless. The lack of previous examples is only the result of previous ignorance. In Ch. 30 he points out that time and industry everywhere produce new techniques.
A second objection raised at the time was that even if Hobbes’s argument was logically valid, the common people would be incapable of understanding it. Now, if this were true, it would be a shattering blow to Hobbes’s theory because it depends on general, rational assent. Hobbes, in Ch. 30, responds by saying that not understanding it would not be a result of its difficulty, but because of obstruction by vested interests. If the people already believe in the absurd doctrines of Christianity, how could they fail to believe his system if it were taught im a system of public instruction.
A third objection will take more time to analyze. The objection is that under Hobbes’s sort of sovereign the people would be miserable because subject to arbitrary and unlimited power. Hobbes first answer to this is simple: things are tough everywhere, but there is no condition worse than the state of nature. Even tyranny would be favourable to anarchy. His second answer will win him more friends than this first one. Even though the sovereign is formally absolute (and might hold a monopoly on organized violence), Hobbes does not expect it to act tyrannically. He thinks it is quite reasonable to expect that the sovereign will not have an interest in regulating everything, but will leave a great deal of freedom of action to his subjects. In Ch. 21, for example, Hobbes expects the sovereign to leave subjects at least the freedoms to buy and sell, to choose a trade, to choose where they will live and how their children will be educated. Hobbes believes that such a sovereign will know that it is not in his best interests to grind everybody down, but will instead only restrain them to the degree necessary that they can get on with their market freedoms. The sovereign’s role is mainly in guaranteeing everyone’s market freedoms.
To get a more exact sense of this, we can look at Hobbes’s treatment of voluntary associations. Freedom of association is usually treated as an important correlate of individual freedom, as a good indication of a writer’s position on general individual freedom. Hobbes divides associations into two types, bodies politic and private bodies. Among private bodies are of course the family, which is entirely legitimate. Beyond the family, private bodies should be regarded with some suspicion, especially “factions” – political groups, clubs or sects.
Bodies politic are of three sub-types. First those created by the sovereign for functions he should discharge, such as local government and colonial government. The second sub-type is commercial bodies. These are to be chartered (i.e. considered to be creations of the state and not spontaneous), so the freedom to form corporations is limited. The third sub-type are religious bodies. Hobbes thinks that these should not be allowed to form spontaneously . Ideally there should be one church controlled by the state. So, Hobbes was not as fully liberal in his views on association as his views on individual rights suggest, but on commercial companies his views were pretty standard for those times.
One can get a still fuller picture of the role Hobbes assigns to the state – essentially as that of being a necessary condition for the smooth functioning of a capitalist market society – by looking at Ch. 30, on the “Office of the Sovereign”; Ch. 24, “Nutrition and Procreation of a Commonwealth”; and Ch. 18 on the “Rights of a Sovereign”. The most general task assigned to the sovereign is the safety of the people. Safety does not mean mere preservation of life, but also the protection of any and all contentments a person might acquire for himself. So the sovereign protects the right of people to acquire property by their own industry (no welfare state here). This means providing public instruction and also making and administering law.
The sovereign will administer justice as between individuals on the basis of equality before the law; he will not recognize different ranks of people. This was very much a bourgeois demand during that period. One might also look at taxation. Hobbes says that taxes should be imposed equally on all ranks. Because he sees taxes as a fee paid for the defense of life and inasmuch as each has but one life, each is equally indebted to the sovereign. But, since some are more equal than others this isn’t quite good enough. Hobbes recognizes that the rich have gotten to be so by being able to command the services of the poor, and are therefore debtors for more lives than their own. By this criterion taxes should be in proportion to the amount of the labour of others that a person commands, measured by wealth. Yet Hobbes thinks that to actually do this would discourage industry (and it certainly would discourage capitalist industry). Therefore he concludes by proposing that it would be better to have a tax proportionate not to wealth but to personal spending.
What about the poor? According to Hobbes, the state should give subsistence to those unable to maintain themselves by their own labour; but for the able-bodied there should be a compulsion to work. Should the population grow too large, the sovereign should sponsor colonization and should encourage all forms of enterprises that require labour.
Property legislation, according to Hobbes, has three general functions. One, the sovereign is to establish property rights, with the proviso that none can exclude the right of the sovereign. Two, the sovereign will perform any initial distribution of land that might be required. Third, the sovereign will develop rules concerning contracts.
In sum, therefore, the sovereign will use his absolute and self-perpetuating power primarily to protect individuals in their private enterprises of gain and industry. The sovereign creates and maintains the conditions in which universal competition (and exploitation) can go on through legal and peaceful means. We’re still investigating the question of whether the people would be miserable under an absolute and self-perpetuating sovereign, and it appears from these functions, that the situation is not nearly as bad, that is as offensive to market man, as those terms suggest. Basically the sovereign regulates as much as is necessary for a highly individualistic, even though the sovereign can make large and arbitrary use of his power.
Second set --- objections by later theorists:
First, there is an apparent contradiction between the power of the sovereign and divine and natural law. Do they not limit the power of the sovereign. It turns out that this is not a very important objection because neither divine nor natural law effectively limit the sovereign power. Divine law by reason turns out to be Hobbes’s natural law. Divine law by scriptures is also not a limit because it requires interpretation. But if anyone can give an authoritative interpretation of scripture this would lead to chaos. It must therefore be left to the sovereign and would therefore not limit him. Natural law is, as we have seen, not binding in itself. It is a set of hypothetical propositions that have no force without an enforcing power, i.e. the sovereign. Since the sovereign cannot force himself, natural law cannot bind him, i.e. limits can be imposed only by an external power.
More important is a second set of problems. These revolve around their being a possible contradiction between the unlimited natural right of individuals and the absolute power of the sovereign. We’ve already seen, for example, that the individual cannot give up the “right”, i.e. urge, to defend himself. No one can obey the command to kill himself; no one can avoid resisting the executioner. But this is not much of a limit on the sovereign. But what if this means that no one is bound to obey an order to do anything dangerous? Well, if disobeying such a command meant frustrating the ends of sovereignty, the desire for continued motion, then this will not be allowed. Nor does Hobbes consider risking one’s life to defend an existing sovereign irrational. There is a greater danger in risking a regression to the state of nature. One must therefore, he thinks, do everything necessary to prevent that, including risking one’s life in war to protect the sovereign power. (Of course some individuals may provide, presumably by hiring, a substitute for their military service. This was not an uncommon practice then and even went on through the American Civil War, and, of course, in an informal way during the Vietnam war, when Americans who could afford to stay in university were able to obtain deferments that kept them out of the army. ).
There is another question having to do with the right of property limiting the sovereign power. In Ch. 14, Hobbes suggests that the end or purpose of the transfer of rights in the social contract is the preservation of property, perhaps a clue that property is to be considered inalienable. But the sovereign has the power to tax and has no need to appropriate the entire property of the commonwealth. This is still not much of a limit on the sovereign’s power.
Another possible contradiction shows up in Ch. 21 where it is stated that obligation to any particular sovereign lasts only so long as his ability to protect his subjects. What then in the circumstance where a sovereign faces impending defeat in war or civil war, or if he is captured and held prisoner? In the latter case, one is still obliged to his deputies. But how long can this go on? When can the subject invoke the general principal that obligation is only to an effective protective power? Surely only the individual can judge when the sovereign is failing to protect him. And some think this is the point where Hobbes’s whole theory begins to break down…
But there is a possible retort: if men actually followed Hobbes’s system, there would be at least no civil war, and if they don’t follow it, then he’s failed anyway. But to this there is a counter-retort: if Hobbes has admitted the possibility of civil war, he has in fact failed in showing that rational self-interested individuals are capable of steadily supporting a sovereign. I will let you sort it out…
In general, this last line of arguments raises this question: If men are as dangerous to each other as Hobbes supposes and thus need a sovereign, how can such people be capable of steadily supporting one? This is sometimes put as a logical problem: if men in the state of nature are so perfectly morally free, how are they capable of recognizing an obligation?
But remember, men have never been in a state of nature, and the problem is to avoid sliding into one. There is another way of putting this problem: if obligation to the sovereign is based only upon rational self-interest will it not break down whenever there is apparent advantage in individuals acting contrary to obligation? If people are always seeking power over each other, how can they support a sovereign who will limit this invasion?
These are indeed strong objections when put in a general way. But if you ask the same question of bourgeois men, one can perhaps show that such men both need a sovereign and are capable of supporting one. Why? Since Hobbes’s sovereign does not abolish the struggle of each against all, but only restricts it to economic behaviour. Only an extremely strong sovereign power enables such men to keep on going with their invasive behaviour, and they need such a sovereign to keep the struggle from erupting into violence. Bourgeois man, the rational economic actor, is just the type to see the overall advantage in long-term support of a sovereign and just the type to identify it with his enlightened self-interest.
There is one more possible objection: what about the conflict between the state and individual freedom?
Certainly such individualists will not support the all-powerful state? To us this seems almost self-evident, but Hobbes expected a strong state would encourage highly individualistic, competitive activity. And his expectations were largely confirmed by European history between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Indeed, the more competitive and self-seeking individuals are, the stronger a state is needed. The stronger market society becomes, the stronger the state needs to be. The individual as self-interested and atomic against the state is a false dichotomy. These are not opposites which exclude each other. In the full market society all the traditional and local institutions which regularized and regulated social relations -- custom, family, religion, local community – all are in process of dissolution. Nothing but a strong state can hold such a society together.
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