Political Thought Links: Parallels:
New York Times Article on Hobbes, Locke and the Social Contract
Hobbes's political philosophy has long been
an inspiration to foreign policy "realists" in academia as well
as government. Hobbes's state of nature scenario is used by these
realists as a model of international relations. In Hobbes's state
of nature, each individual is totally responsible for his own
survival and is compelled by nature to do whatever it takes to
survive, including preempting the violence of others. Realists
liken this to the condition of sovereign states in international
relations. Despite the existence of such organizations as the
United Nations and the World Court, realists observe that there
can be no world government in the ultimate sense-there is no independent
ability to establish and enforce law. Even in the case of successful
peacekeeping or other UN missions, the voluntary consent of nations-especially
the powerful ones-is necessary for any action to take place. Hence
we are still in a state of "anarchy" in our relations with other
nations. Each nation, like each individual in Hobbes's state of
nature, must do whatever it takes to protect and defend itself
against other nations whose policies and actions are unpredictable.
Sometimes, this international scenario is referred to as the "security
dilemma;"in order to be secure, states must do things such as
build up weapons, which makes other states insecure and causes
them to do the same thing. Realists like Henry Kissinger believe
that so long as world government is not a real possibility, there
is no way out of this security dilemma, and that a state's foreign
policy must be formulated with due respect for this political
reality. The best that can be hoped for is a "balance of power,"
in which powerful states obtain a level of defense that is roughly
equal and thus deters all of them from aggression. This amounts
to an informal truce which exists as long as the powers are roughly
equal. It requires careful monitoring of other states' capabilities
and the constant management of the country's forces with an eye
to deterrence. In the age of nuclear weapons, numbers of weapons
do not matter as much as they did in earlier times. A small nuclear
capability poses a big threat and makes even a poor state more
Henry Kissinger was Secretary of State during
the Nixon presidency, and was largely responsible for Nixon's
policy of more openness toward China. The idea was to take advantage
of the rift between the two great communist countries, the Soviet
Union and the People's Republic of China, to create a balance
of power between the United States and the Soviet Union. As a
realist, Kissinger focused not on the ideological differences
among the three great powers but on their relative military and
political strengths. From this point of view it made perfect sense
to make friendly approaches toward one communist country in order
to deter the other from aggression and to prompt it to come to
the bargaining table. The "bottom line" for a realist like Kissinger
is always power, primarily military power, but also ideological
power-the ability of a country to influence other countries through
the spread of its ideology. Military power is of paramount importance
because without it, states are vulnerable to the aggression of
other states. This is why Kissinger is so dubious about the "new
world order" in which international organizations such as the
UN are supposed to take on a more authoritative role in international
relations. For Kissinger sovereignty is sovereignty-states may
act as though they have given some of it up to an international
organization, until it no longer suits their purposes to support
its activities. Then they maintain the perfect freedom and capability
of ignoring that same organization. Thus, if the UN decides on
a mission which benefits many states, many states will support
it. However, if it decides on a mission which many dislike, especially
the great military powers whose support the UN relies upon, then
the mission is likely to go nowhere.
Kissinger makes this point in his discussion of the United Nations
in his book,Diplomacy. He points out that during the Cold War,
the United Nations was "equally ineffective in every case involving
Great Power aggression, due to either the communist veto in the
Security Council or the reluctance on the part of smaller countries
to run risks on behalf of issues they felt did not concern them."
If the Soviet Union or the United States did not want the United
Nations to act, they could veto the action. Their veto was not
simply a legislative exercise but rather a political reality,
since if either were opposed the risks of going ahead with any
peacekeeping or collective security action were too great. When
the Cold War disappeared with the collapse of communism in the
Soviet Union and the Easter Bloc countries, many expected the
United Nations to become more effective in responding to illegal
aggression. However, Kissinger argues that this has not been the
the Gulf War of 1991, it did indeed ratify American actions, but
resistance to Iraqui aggression was hardly an application of the
doctrine of collective security. Not waiting for an international
consensus, the United States had unilaterally dispatched a large
expeditionary froce. Other nations could gain influence over America's
actions only by joining what was in effect an American enterprise;
they could not avoid the risks of conflict by vetoing it. Additionally,
domestic upheavals in the Soviet Union and China gave the permanent
members of the UN Security Council an incentive to maintain America's
goodwill. In the Gulf War, collective security was invoked as
a justification of American leadership, not as a substitute for
In other words, if America wants to intervene militarily, no one
including the United Nations can stop it; if America does not
want to intervene, the United Nations will find it difficult to
do so. Under such circumstances, the United Nations becomes an
instrument of the Great Power, not an independent actor on the
Hobbes, like Henry Kissinger, was certain that
anarchy was a permanent condition of international relations.
His reason, like Kissinger's, was that sovereign countries had
no real interest in giving up their power to create a world government
which could easily abuse its power. Some realists such as Hobbes
and Kissinger, say that government cannot function, and is not
really a government at all, if it cannot enforce the laws it makes.
The only type of world government that will ever exist given realist
expectations is created by empire-by the overwhelming military
force of one country. Such an empire would not last long, because
it is difficult if not impossible to control many people, especially
in the remote corners of the world. There would always be places
where rebellions could start.
Still, the debate continues about whether or
not world government of some kind is either possible or desirable.
Advocates of world government claim that it is not only desirable,
but even necessary for the long term survival of the human race.
They claim that danger to our survival comes from at least two
sources. The first source is ourselves-mankind remains prone to
solving its problems with war. Weapons continue to get more and
more lethal. We not only have nuclear weapons to worry about,
but sophisticated chemical and biological weapons as well. Either
we find a way to achieve peace, they argue, or we will eventually
destroy ourselves with our own deadly inventions. The second source
of danger is from the environmental destruction caused by the
unbridled economic growth in the richer parts of the world and
the desperate attempt of poorer countries to catch up. In an international
free market such as we now have, there is an incentive for countries
to continue to pollute in order to be competitive. Advocates of
world government often argue that only if such competition is
regulated or even eliminated by an overarching authority will
this environmental threat be reversed.
Those who want world government may argue that
we do not have to have a full-fledged government in place, a government
with all the military and decision making power, in order to reap
many of the benefits. Instead, some may advocate a world federation
(such as we will find Kant describing in a later chapter). In
such a system, countries would maintain some of their power and
give up only that amount of power and authority necessary to achieve
certain desirable ends such as regulation of emissions or peacekeeping.
They envision something stronger than the United Nations, which
is paralyzed if a few countries balk at its plans, but something
weaker than a single world government. Some would argue that agreements
such as GATT (General Agreement on Tarriffs and Trade) and NAFTA
(North American Free Trade Association) and the various regional
organizations of nations such as the Organization of American
States and the European Union, are significant steps in the direction
of some level of world government. They allow for more and better
cooperation on economic and security matters; such cooperation
could easily expand with the organization's membership.
Realists do not deny that the growing deadliness
of weapons worldwide threatens our survival, but they are not
as optimistic about directly eliminating this threat through organization
and cooperation. While it might make sense from a purely rational
standpoint, looking at the situation from a universal perspective,
to simply disarm and set up a government, it makes no sense from
the standpoint of any single government. Who would go first? How
would we verify that each nation is giving up their power at the
same rate and at the same time as others? How would we persuade
those nations who have the most weapons and money-and hence the
most to lose-to cooperate? If we attempted to do this it would
probably be the most unstable and dangerous time in human history.
It is better, though less ideal, to rely on a rough balancing
of power-and good diplomacy-to keep the peace.
Critics of world government also often paint
a frightening picture of what that government would be like. If
it were possible to create a world government, it would be at
the expense of every nation's security. A government powerful
enough to keep all the nations in line on issues as important
as defense and economics would be a government powerful enough
to destroy its enemies and become a tyranny. Human history certainly
has not proven that human beings can wield this much power benevolently
for very long. Thus they argue that it would be foolish to trust
such a power now.
As far as the idea that world government does not necessarily
have to entail giving up all of a country's sovereignty or independence,
realists claim that this is a case of all or nothing. A government
that is more of a coalition or federation is not a government
at all but an agreement to cooperate for the moment. As soon as
any of the states does not wish to cooperate there is no real
power there to enforce the rules. Behind his scepticism is the
realist's belief that human nature does not really change. Just
because cooperation works for awhile and peace prevails does not
mean that countries will get so used to peace, or so "interdependent,"
that they will not see their self-interest as separate from the
self-interest of others and act accordingly should the situation
change. Cooperation on food distribution world-wide, for instance,
may work until a drought occurs in a particular country which
then, out of necessity, begins to horde its grain and other food-stuffs.
Realists may point out that the moral obligation of the leaders
of any particular country would require them to look out for their
own people and not the nebulous "world" or "humanity." Thus, from
their perspective it would not only be foolish but morally wrong
to ignore their country's needs while serving the "greater good."
Trust But Verify
You may think that you are a trusting person,
but Hobbes would ask you to examine yourself and your actions
and think again. In De Cive, Hobbes asks his readers to look inside
their own hearts to verify his hypothesis that human nature is
basically selfish and untrustworthy. Hobbes might ask you (in
the modern context) the following questions:
Do you lock your doors at night?
Do you have a car alarm or other security system?
If you ever hired a housecleaning service, would
you lock up your valuables before its employees arrived?
When walking alone down a dark street, do you
remain on guard for other human beings?
Do you cover your test answers to make sure
others do not cheat or copy your work?
Have you ever considered cheating on a test
Hobbes insisted that if you answer "yes" to
questions such as these, you have already confirmed your suspicion
of most people and your general belief that human nature is selfish
and untrustworthy. Indeed, Hobbes went so far as to say that we
do not really trust members of our own family, certainly not any
employees we have, and perhaps especially our children. We are
likely to lock up our valuables against the invasions of our own
flesh and blood-probably the most likely thieves of all!
But even if you must concede that Hobbes's argument
is at least somewhat convincing, you may still resist his conclusion.
Hobbes, of course, thought that (at least in the state of nature)
the person who tried to counter this trend and be good was likely
to perish. The only rational response to others' selfishness is
to assume that they will always act selfishly instead of waiting
to find out if they do. Likewise the rational way to live under
such circumstances is to be as self-interested as possible yourself.
Hobbes said that in a state of nature it was perfectly right to
kill first before being killed, even if you had no direct evidence
that the other person was an immediate threat to your life. This
is the "preemptive" attitude, an attitude which is rational but
also causes unacceptable chaos and violent bloodshed in the state
of nature, until people escape from this state through the social
contract. Once the social contract is formed, an absolute sovereign
would take away people's freedom to do whatever they wanted, and
would give them instead an enforced peace.
We, however, have not opted for Hobbes's absolute
government, and in our world there is still much of the mentality
common in the state of nature. In the business world, sometimes
in sports, often even in the lives of college students, there
is a "kill or be killed" mentality. A person may reason, "If I
don't pay this bribe/kickback, some other salesman will get the
contract," or "if I don't use this copy of the exam answers, I'll
fail." The justification for such assertions is that of the state
of nature-"Everyone gives these purchasers a kickback-if I don't
do the same I'll just lose out to those who do" or, "probably
most of the class has seen the answers if I have-what good will
it do me to be more honest than everyone else?" The "state of
nature" becomes the excuse, the justification for lying, cheating,
Do we really live in a society where "everyone
is doing it?" Even if we do, does this situation really justify
joining the crowd? Socrates would say that the intelligent person
would rather perish than do wrong, that the fact that "everyone
else is doing it" is still no justification because "winning"
in worldly terms is an illusion. Religions often agree with the
Socratic perspective-it is better to stand firmly in the right
even if you perish as a result. Perhaps it comes down to whether
or not there is a higher existence beyond this life, though Socrates
seemed to think that even if there was not, the life of "kill
or be killed" actually caused us more pain than happiness in this
life. Socrates pointed out that those who are constantly thinking
of their advantage and worrying about others doing the same, are
not really living for themselves but through the eyes of others.
Their minds are so constantly occupied with reacting to other
people's selfishness that they are virtual slaves of their situations,
their decisions and actions determined by "necessity."
In our daily lives, is it better for us to adopt the attitude
of the state of nature, or Socrates' disregard for "mere survival?"
Mixed Government Absurd?
Hobbes makes mixed government sound like an
impossibility. He calls the very idea "absurd." By mixed government,
Hobbes means the type of government created by the U.S. constitution,
one in which power is shared and balanced among various institutions
that at some level actually compete with each other for power.
In the United States, state governments share power with the federal
government. Sometimes they fight for more control, for instance,
over who will decide how to spend federal money for welfare programs
and education. The states themselves sometimes quarrel with each
other, for example, over where exactly their borders are. At the
national level, we have three branches of government: the legislative,
executive and judicial, each with their own constitutional sources
of power. The legislative branch, Congress, is further divided
into two houses-the House of Representatives and the Senate. Some
different responsibilities are assigned to each house. For instance,
the House of Representatives can impeach a president (issue an
indictment), but only the Senate can hold the trial that might
convict a president or other official. While bills can originate
in either house, both must agree before any of them become law.
The power of the legislative branch is pitted against the power
of the executive branch. Even if Congress passes a law, the president
can veto that law. Congress can then override the veto, but has
to have a two-thirds majority in order to do so. The Supreme Court
balances the power of the other two branches and has become the
last word on the constitution. It can overturn the laws of state
legislatures and of Congress.
Hobbes would look at this situation of "checks
and balances" and laugh at the foolishness of our founders. First,
he would see our government as unacceptably ineffective. The entire
government is limited by a written constitution, whereas we know
that Hobbes thought that the sovereign should be the law and thus
should be able to change it at will. According to Hobbes, if the
sovereign had to answer to some higher law, it meant that he or
it lacked the power and authority to rule and social chaos was
likely to result. Second, Hobbes would wonder where sovereignty
resided in our government. Is it in the people? Only in the most
abstract way, because the people do not rule directly. Inasmuch
as our government is a democracy, Hobbes would criticize it as
prone to demagoguery-the manipulation of the masses by adept politicians
who serve only their own interests.
If sovereignty is not in the people, it cannot
be said to be in the states or in any single branch of the federal
government. Indeed, Hobbes argued that divided sovereignty was
no sovereignty at all. Again, he predicted that governments based
on this principle would be doomed to frequent conflict because
of the factions that would form around the agendas of officials
in the various branches of government. He thought that this was
a perfect recipe for civil war.
Before we scoff at Hobbes's notions, let us
remind ourselves that many of these issues - including power struggles
among states and between states and the national government, between
Congress and the presidency and those branches and the courts
- came into play before and during our own civil war between slave
and free states. Hobbes might argue that it was because the federal
government was ultimately not strong enough to enforce one rule
(either legal slavery or slavery made illegal) that set the context
for a conflict to emerge.
Moreover, we should remember that the civil
rights struggles of the 1960's and '70's could be said to be the
result of a weak and divided government. Southern states simply
ignored the 14th Amendment which called for legal equality
between whites and former slaves for approximately a century.
Even though federal law said that blacks had an equal right to
vote, Southern states through their "Jim Crow" laws made it difficult,
if not impossible, for blacks to "qualify" to vote. The federal
government most often simply looked the other way-it had no political
incentive to strictly enforce the laws. Southern and many Northern
states alike did not enthusiastically enforce legal equality between
blacks and whites in other matters. This flouting of constitutional
law, and the inability and unwillingness of the federal government
to enforce this law, led to a sometimes violent and destructive
struggle between white authorities and black protestors.
Today we can see evidence of the weakness of
our system in the fact that demagoguery abounds, arguably more
than ever before. It is still easy to find corruption in government.
Also, Hobbes would point to the historically unprecedented levels
of peacetime violent crime (though some categories have decreased
somewhat in recent years) as proof that our government is too
weak and has failed in is primary purpose-to protect our lives.
If you live in an area where you cannot count on government to
enforce the law and keep you safe, Hobbes would tell you that
you are actually in a state of nature. If the government cannot
at least protect your life, you can and should have no allegiance
to your government. The fact that the Supreme Court can overturn
the laws of the states and the federal government, as well as
the decisions of lower courts, might mean to Hobbes that the Supreme
Court is ultimately in control even though the Court purports
to follow the constitution. But Hobbes would surely say that the
rule of the Supreme Court is ineffectual because it is indirect
and haphazard, and no one knows what it is going to rule from
case to case because the justices and their "interpretation of
the constitution" may change. Hobbes thought that for laws to
be effective they had to be clear and predictable. Constitutional
interpretation as the final arbiter of what is law creates a lack
of clarity and predictability.
Hobbes would be astounded that our form of government
has lasted well over two hundred years. In terms of a constitution
continuously in effect, ours is not a young but an old country.
The weakness of the U.S. government is also its strength. While
it has endured a civil war and major civil unrest, it has survived
both. In both cases, the ideals of the constitution eventually
supplied the inspiration and means for reconciling the different
factions. Hobbes might cringe just thinking about a country in
which prostitution, the sale of pornographic materials, casino
gambling, the purchase of alcohol, moments of silence before school,
ticket "scalping," late term abortion and marijuana use are legal
some places or under some circumstances and not legal in others.
However, the flexibility to accommodate local standards of justice
into the larger framework may very well be what, for better or
worse, has kept the social peace so well.
Still, on the matter of violent crime, it is
difficult to argue with Hobbes that government is not fulfilling
the most important of its responsibilities adequately. Does the
prevalence of crime in our society mean that Hobbes was correct,
that a government such as ours is, after all, an absurdity? If
you live in a high crime area, would you trade more security for
less freedom? Conversely, is the freedom Americans enjoy in so
many areas of their lives worth enduring the increased risk of