The Bear’s Lair: The pitfalls of Hobbesean politics

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) believed that a huge state “Leviathan” was necessary to prevent the otherwise inevitable conflicts between mankind. The temporary rejection by Belgium’s Wallonia region of the Canadian trade deal agreed by the entire remainder of the EU suggests that even when we have a truly spectacularly sized “Leviathan,” absorbing 48.2% of Europe’s GDP in 2014, it often cannot achieve its objectives. Can it be, as Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon (1608-74) suggested, that Hobbes got it wrong?

As Clarendon pointed out in “A Brief View and Survey of the Dangerous and Pernicious Errors to Church and State in Mr. Hobbes’s Book, Entitled Leviathan” published posthumously in 1676 the main purpose of “Leviathan” as far as Hobbes was concerned was to get in good with Oliver Cromwell. In 1651, when “Leviathan” was published, Cromwell was already the power behind the feckless Commonwealth regime, and he was shortly to take power as Lord Protector. Hobbes was successful in this endeavor; having been in exile for a decade he was able to return to England after “Leviathan” was published and live a contented, successful life until, by the worst of luck, Charles II was restored and “Leviathan” did not look so clever. Fortunately, he had tutored the new King in mathematics, Charles II was a forgiving man and, as Clarendon dourly points out, many at the Restoration court were fond of any new idea, however foolish and damaging.

Hobbes’ thesis was that the populace could only secure themselves from a life that was “poor, solitary, nasty, brutish and short” by supporting a strong state Leviathan that would rule them with an iron hand. There was no question of democratic elections in this; the Commonwealth was ruled by a parliament elected over a decade before from which more than half the members had been purged. In practice, since Cromwell’s New Model Army controlled the parliament and did not defer to it on political matters, the Commonwealth was a military dictatorship. Hobbes was fine with that; there is no popular consent, even “Lockean consent” for his Leviathan, it is for the people’s own good, whether they want it or not.

With Karl Marx having gone somewhat out of fashion, Hobbes is now regarded by the Left as among the greatest of philosophers. Clarendon however was skeptical: “He comes at last to institute such a Commonwealth as never was in nature … and like a bountiful Creator, gives the Man he hath made, the Sovereign command and Government of it, with such an extent of power and authority, as the Great Turk hath not yet appeared to affect. … having determined Liberty, and Property and Religion to be only empty words, and to have no other existence than in the Will and Breast of his Sovereign Governor.”

Hobbes’ Sovereign Governor bears a strong resemblance to the European Commission and its head Jean-Claude Juncker, lack of democratic legitimacy and all. However, as in Cromwell’s day and contrary to Hobbes’ claims, this Leviathan without legitimacy is having great difficulty imposing its will. Even the Great Turk, in the form today of Tayyip Erdogan not Suleiman the Magnificent, appears to be having doubts about joining the possibly doomed enterprise. It has great difficulty negotiating a trade treaty, because protectionist interests within countries, not even the countries themselves, block it. It is unable to control its borders, because there is no agreement within the countries of the EU on what immigration policy should be. Its currency, the euro, is used by some countries and not by others, and is under increasing strain as the fiscal indiscipline and economic inefficiency of southern Europe makes their economies increasingly uncompetitive within the euro.

Hobbes of course knew nothing of James M. Buchanan’s (1919-2013) Public Choice Theory, and thus did not realize that his Leviathan would be subject to the weaknesses of mere mortals. Indeed, he also assumed Leviathan would be a unitary form of government, a King or dictator. Experience with existing governments should have told him that, however great the nominal power of the Leviathan, it was highly vulnerable to being cheated by its servants, who would have their own agendas. Indeed, in spite of Cromwell’s very high ability and his command over the Army, his own Leviathan government was subject to exactly these problems; the Commonwealth and Protectorate was a period of high corruption and also incessant plotting against the regime and even against Cromwell’s own life, some of which plots came close to success.

Clarendon knew the weaknesses in Hobbes’ theory; he pointed out that no existing government had the power that Hobbes postulated. This is somewhat ironic; Clarendon wrote his Brief View in the France of Louis XIV, whose government came closest of any seventeenth century regime to Hobbes’ ideal.

In today’s world, the power of the government Leviathan is at a level that would have been unimaginable to Hobbes or the Sun King. Through electronic means, the government can now read all our messages, listen to all our telephone calls. Furthermore, it absorbs almost half our output, a fraction unimaginable to the impoverished societies of the seventeenth century, where governments were lucky to extract 10% of GDP. Thus, if Hobbes’ dream were either practicable or desirable, it would be practicable and desirable today.

Clarendon however put his finger on the reasons why a Leviathan is highly undesirable, when he said it would destroy liberty, property and religion. To take the last first, the gigantic secular state, whether Soviet, the EU or Washington, cannot bear that its subjects have a belief system in which it plays no part; hence such states as they become Leviathans become dedicated enemies of religions of all denominations.

Second, Soviet citizens learned the dangers of such a Leviathan to their liberties, and EU citizens are learning it also. That explains the rise of mass populist movements, of both left and right, whose common theme is strident opposition to the Leviathan’s belief system of “Political Correctness” which they recognize as fatal to the individual’s power of autonomy. As for property rights, the Leviathan controls those by innumerable often conflicting regulations, so that even powerful companies like Apple in the EU or Deutsche Bank in the United States can have arbitrarily large penalties levied upon them retroactively. As Leviathan grows, and its need for revenue increases still further, the property of even the middle classes will be subject to expropriation more or less at random.

As Clarendon recognized, a Hobbesian Leviathan is not a system anyone in their right mind would vote for. As we have seen, however, it can grow up over time, especially in political entities with very large and diverse populations, where voters can be seduced into thinking that deprivation of rights and property will be largely at the expense of somebody else. Clarendon also recognized that the law itself, if sufficiently well established, could provide a protection against the establishment of a Leviathan. His ideal polity was not the Whig formulation of “King, Lords and Commons” but a King, with only advisory input from Lords and Commons, but a very strongly rooted legal system to guard against tyranny. As Charles I himself had said “their freedom and liberty is made up of having the government of those laws, by which their life and their belongings may be most their own.”

A written constitution like that of the United States, set up by wise men precisely to protect against Leviathan encroachments, fulfils the function of Clarendon’s strongly rooted legal system, but to do so it must be interpreted literally, and not allowed to “evolve” as a “living document.” Without such a written constitution to retrain its bureaucrats, and with all the abilities of a 21st century cyber-state, the EU is Leviathan indeed, and suffers from all the defects which Clarendon foretold.

Clarendon recognized, as the founders of the EU did not, that not only would Hobbes’ Leviathan be a dystopia, but it wouldn’t work. Its sheer size and remoteness from the people would make it corrupt and tyrannical, and prevent it achieving even the modest functions of 17th Century government, let alone the infinitude of activities in which 21st Century governments see fit to meddle. The solution is devolution to the smallest possible entities, where the populace can keep control of their governments’ activities, and strict written constitutions to check their encroachments.

Clarendon and the U.S. Founding Fathers knew better than our modern statesmen how and why government should be limited and restrained. We need to return to their approach.

(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)