Category Archives: Things Dead White Guys Said

Things Dead White Guys Said: Thomas Hobbes

Another discussion at Z Man’s has devolved into a debate about, and with, Libertarians.  Which suggests a new topic series here at Rotten Chestnuts: Things Dead White Guys Said.  It shouldn’t be necessary, but given how public schools are now….

Anyway: Thomas Hobbes covered all this 500 years ago.

Libertarianism, I’m told, is based on the “non-aggression principle,” which an organization whose mission statement is “To attract and persuade people to embrace libertarian principles and to empower libertarians to be highly successful at presenting the ideas of liberty to the world” defines as follows:

Libertarians oppose the initiation of force to achieve social or political goals. They reject “first-strike” force, fraud or theft against others; they only use force in self-defense. Those who violate this “non-aggression principle” are expected to make their victims whole as much as possible… Simply put, libertarians take the non-aggression principle that most people implicitly follow in their interactions with other individuals, and apply it to group actions, including government actions, as well.

And so you don’t think I’m cherry-picking a simplistic explanation, here it is all scholarly, with footnotes and everything.  Here we’re told that the non-aggression principle (NAP) derives from property rights, specifically the right of each man to his own body:

The mistake lies in thinking property rights in one’s body are acquired in the same way and for the same reasons as property rights in external resources. Though they are linked, and though self-ownership is in a sense more fundamental, they are not the same. But it is a confusion to think of the basis of self-ownership as the same as the basis for ownership of external objects. We are used to thinking of Lockean homesteading–original appropriation, or initial use–as the basis for ownership of the latter. Thinking that all ownership must be of the same character and even origin, the assumption is also made that we own our bodies because we were the first users of our bodies. We try to fit self-ownership into the same framework we use to justify rights to inanimate, external objects.

Ah yes, Locke.  Keep him in mind; we’ll be coming back.  But let’s continue:

ownership of one’s body, and ownership of external objects, do have something in common, but it is not “first use.” It is rather that in each case, the resource in question is assigned to the person with the best link to the resource so as to avoid conflict and permit peaceful, productive use of the resource in question….For those living in society who prefer peace, prosperity, and productive use of resources instead of violent conflict, it is obvious that it is desirable to assign an owner to each such contestable resource. These resources include our bodies, and other means we use in action to causally bring about our ends. Such rules, to suffice as social rules, must be objective and fair to ever be accepted by individuals and as an improvement over a world of might makes right. Thus, the search among civilized people in society is always for objective…property assignment rules. Human bodies and other resources share in common that they are both scarce resources, and property rules are needed for each.

Which is lovely, no doubt, but it’s a big ol’ question-beg.  The bold bits are the key, as Dickensian pickup artists no doubt said.

— in each case, the resource in question is assigned to the person with the best link to the resource so as to avoid conflict and permit peaceful, productive use of the resource in question.  Sez who, kemosabe?  I think the best, most productive use of this hunk of iron is to make it into a plowshare.  Attila the Hun thinks the best use is as a sword.  And since Attila has the sword and all I’ve got is a plowshare, resource usage will be both peaceful and productive — I’ll produce what Attila says, doubletime, and peacefully, because I don’t want to die.  Which is why I also agree that Atilla has the best link to the resource — he’s linked to the sword at the hilt, while I’m linked to it on the business end.

— For those living in society who prefer peace, prosperity, and productive use of resources instead of violent conflict, it is obvious that it is desirable to assign an owner to each such contestable resource.  Attila and I both agree on that, too.  Problem is, Attila wants to assign ownership of all contestable resources to himself, and since he’s got the sword and I don’t, he wins.  And he wins peacefully, too, since my only persuasion technique involves impaling myself.

Such rules, to suffice as social rules, must be objective and fair to ever be accepted by individuals and as an improvement over a world of might makes right.  And now it’s getting truly sad.  Because, obviously, the only people who regard “objective and fair” rules as an improvement over “might makes right” are the ones without the might.  Moreover, Attila would tell you our arrangement — the one where I do everything he says — is objective and fair, and it’s hard to argue with him.  I objectively don’t want to die, and if I do what he says, he very fairly won’t kill me.

This is why, as the Z Man is fond of pointing out, Libertarianism only appeals to nerdy White spergs.  Strand a group of world-class Magic: The Gathering players on a deserted island, and maybe they’ll sit down and assign ownership to contestable resources… but only because, knowing themselves to be noodle-armed choirboys, none of them has the guts to try might makes right.  For any other group, it’s Welcome to the Jungle….

…which is why these pussycats only ever refer to Locke, never Hobbes.  Like everyone else who has read Hobbes, Locke was terrified of Hobbes’s “state of nature.”  Hobbes starts with a simple, brutal, undeniable truth about human beings:

[I]n the first place I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death. And the cause of this is not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight than he has already attained to, or that he cannot be content with a moderate power; but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well which he hath present, without the acquisition of more.

Unchecked, this desire for power after power results in the famous State of Nature, the perpetual war of all against all, in which life is “nasty, poor, solitary, brutish, and short.”  Even if you are content with what power you have, Hobbes says, you can never rest secure without having more.  You may not presently need the “contestable resources” of our Libertarian friends.  Hell, you may never need them.  But you still need to control them, lest Attila get his hands on them and use them against you.

This is why Hobbes declares the first Law of Nature — note the capital letters — to be: “Seek peace.”

The problem, of course, is that any contract you make with another person invokes the dilemma of the first performer.  Let’s say we both agree to put down our swords.  I have no incentive to perform first, and every incentive to perform second — if you lay down your sword first, I can still stab you with mine.  If I put mine down first, I’m completely defenseless; I have no way to compel you to uphold your end of the bargain.

Hence, government.  We both need to trust a third party with enforcing the contracts.  But that brings up the Libertarian’s dilemma: Any third party strong enough to compel both contracting parties to perform their obligations is, by definition, more powerful than either of them, or even both of them together.  What if the third party decides to keep all the goodies for himself?  What are the other two gonna do, rebel?

Remember, the “Advocates for Self-Government” say “[Libertarians] only use force in self-defense.”  Which is, in this case, by definition suicide.

Hobbes had an answer for this, and if you grant his premises, his logic is irrefutable:  The Leviathan is bound by self-interest, and his own sense of fair play.  That’s it.

That’s where the “non-aggression principle” leads.  To get out of the State of Nature and into a state where we can allocate resources based on “objective and fair” social rules, we must obey the First Law of Nature: “Seek peace.”  To do that, we must surrender our liberties to the most absolute monarch that could ever be.

Locke knew it, which is why he spent so much time writing his Treatises of Government.  He knew that governments arise from some kind of “social contract,” but the only example of one he could find was in Leviathan… and that just can’t be right!!!  So he came up with some stuff about “first use,” and since that “homesteading” business lets us pretend life isn’t nasty, poor, solitary, brutish, and short, we went with it.  Fast forward a few hundred years, and you’ve got guys who’d be hors d’oeuvres after five minutes in the State of Nature going on about “non-aggression principles.”

Hobbes’s language takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s not really that hard.  At least read the SparkNotes, for pete’s sake.  If it helps, Hobbes was a fairly earthy guy; I don’t think he’d mind you smoking a bowl.

 

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