Every known human society has its organizing myth. All those myths are about security — from other tribes, from nature, or from both.
As society gets bigger and more complex, so, too, do the organizing myths, to the point where we often forget they are myths. Everyone knows, for example, that “representative democracies” like America are founded on “the consent of the governed,” which takes the form of a “social contract.”
When did you actually sign your social contract, Citizen? Did you initial all the highlighted blanks? Did you read all the fine print?
It’s no secret I think Leviathan is one of the finest things written in English. It’s one of only two books of political philosophy you’ll ever need to read. But…
…..it’s barmy for all that. Hobbes bases his reasoning off a thought experiment: the war of all against all in the famous “state of nature.” The “state of nature” doesn’t actually exist. Hobbes knew the state of nature doesn’t exist, and at one point I’m pretty sure he comes right out and says “the state of nature doesn’t really exist” (the closest real-world example he could find were the Indians surrounding Plymouth Plantation).
But he rolls with it anyway. We only form governments to escape the state of nature, he says, and the only reason we want to escape the state of nature is that life there is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” And the reason for that is…. wait for it…. wait for it…. That all men are equal in the state of nature.
Seriously. This man, who ends up constructing an eloquent logical argument for the most absolute monarch that could ever be, starts with the fundamental premise that all men are equal.
See why they don’t actually want you to read what the Dead White Guys actually said?
John Locke agreed, of course, and through him, via Montesquieu and the rest, we get to Thomas Jefferson and his “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal,” and from there to the “consent of the governed” nonsense they made you memorize back when they required Civics in grade school. We like the notion of “consent of the governed,” so we ignore the “all men are created equal” gunk it comes from. We should’ve stuck with Hobbes’s much better, much more cynical, origin of government: “The power of the mighty hath no foundation, but in the opinion and belief of the people.”
There’s your “representative government,” all right, since nothing represents humanity better than the judgment that we’re all fools, throwing away our lives for some inbred weirdo in a funny hat.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. One reason the “state of nature” is such a compelling thought experiment, especially to us “conservatives,” is that we know men are really like that. Put a group of guys in a state of dire scarcity — cf. any bar on a Friday night where the men outnumber the women — and you’ll see vicious, brutal, indeed Hobbesian competition. However:
We aren’t in a state of dire scarcity. None of us, I would venture to guess, has ever needed food and had no realistic possibility of getting some. We may not have liked the options on offer — soup kitchens, panhandling, dumpster diving, Arby’s — but we knew that we were about 12 parsecs away from starving or resorting to cannibalism. Unless you have actually been in the heat of battle, watching your comrades fall bleeding around you — and few Americans have — you’ve never been certain there’s a pretty good chance you’re about to die, like, NOW.
“Scarcity” in the State-of-Nature sense is meaningless to us, and because it is, “social contract” arguments lose whatever force they once had.
What we need, then, is a new myth — a REorganizing myth, if you will. I have no idea what this would actually be, but it’s time to think outside the box. Perhaps literally. Our greatest external threat, the one that is 52,902 times more likely to do us in than exploding Arabs, car accidents, and the Designated Hitter combined, is…. caloric surplus. We’re simply not built to handle an all-food, all the time environment. It’s deadly, and all the worse because it sneaks up on you. A government based on self-control — “we hold this truth to be self evident, push away from the table, fatso” — is a damn sight better than “all men are equal.”