Dr. Laurie M. Johnson

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Home: Political Thought Links: Parallels: Hobbes


New York Times Article on Hobbes, Locke and the Social Contract

Parallels: Power Politics

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 "equal."

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 case.

"In 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 it."

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 world stage.

World Government?

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 yourself?

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, stealing, etc.

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?"

Is 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 violent crime?




Dep't of Political Science
Kansas State University
Primary Texts Certificate