In the great ancient despotisms, political philosophy was a subset of metaphysics — Pharaoh is Pharaoh because his correct performance of the rituals keeps heaven and earth in balance. In Classical times, political philosophy was a subset of ethics — the state exists to promote virtue in its citizens. In modern times, political philosophy has been divorced from ethics, metaphysics, and everything else. It started with Hobbes, and no one since has said it better:
[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.
That’s it. That’s what people are. Nothing metaphysical there; it’s pure anthropology. No ethics, either — maybe man shouldn’t desire power after power, but we do. Any social arrangement that doesn’t acknowledge this brute fact about Man is doomed to fail sooner or later.
From this, Hobbes argues that it’s only the fear of shameful death which causes us to moderate — not lose — our unceasing desire for power after power. Fear of shameful death is why we band together under a king, surrendering some of our natural rights in return for protection. This is, of course, the social contract, and it’s the basis of all Liberal* political philosophy.
More precisely, arguing against Hobbes’s version of it is the basis of modern political philosophy. Because Hobbes’s social contract leads to the Leviathan, the most absolute monarch that could ever be. Hobbes’s philosophy is complex, subtle, and not always entirely coherent, but I’m not doing the old man too much injustice when I say that it boils down to: “Peace at any price.” Hobbes was born in 1588, the year of the Armada. He was already old by the outbreak of the English Civil Wars, and he lived to see both the Protectorate and the Restoration. He witnessed every horror political arguments can produce — the English Civil War was, on some estimates, proportionally as devastating as World War I. “Peace at any price” makes sense after that.
But it doesn’t make sense to an easier generation, like John Locke’s. Locke was born in 1632, just as the troubles were gearing up, and the wars didn’t affect him much (though his father was a Parliamentarian cavalry commander in the early stages; Locke himself was in school for most of it). The great political event of his early manhood wasn’t the Civil War, but the Restoration, when the English people actually voted to hand some of their liberties back to the King. This was unprecedented, and Locke can be forgiven his optimism — he saw, or seemed to see, the social contract being renegotiated right in front of him. If men desired only power after power, like Hobbes said, General Monck and the rest would’ve restarted the Civil Wars. Instead, they peacefully handed the crown to Charles II.
From this, Locke concluded that the state’s purpose isn’t “peace at any price,” but “the protection of citizens’ life, liberty, and property.” The social contract is broken, he argued, if the King fails in these.
Locke’s version of the social contract seemed to be confirmed when the Colonials went to war with it in 1776. Using all previous human history as our guide, we’d expect the Patriots’ victory to be followed by a great slaughter — mass execution of Tories, communities turning on one another to settle old grievances while the swords were still drawn. There’d be no need for a Newburgh Conspiracy, as Washington would’ve already had Congress at gunpoint. At any other time, in any other place, King George III would’ve been swapped out for King George I. But that didn’t happen, and since America didn’t do half-bad in the next two centuries, that seems to confirm John Locke’s version of the social contract.
But it’s wrong for all that. American Exceptionalism is real. Even the American Revolution’s second string were men of exceptional ability and high principle. George Washington and (maybe) George Monck are the only two people I know who have had a real opportunity to crown themselves, and turned it down. Locke’s version of the social contract works, but only in a rough frontier society whose minor league leaders are themselves world class. Regression to the mean kicks in within a single generation — see the Hartford Convention for details.
Given all that, what is to be done?
Put as simply and plainly as I can: The Second Civil War lots of folks in Our Thing seem to be rooting for will be horrible beyond imagining. It will be World War III. What, you think the rest of the world is just going to watch it on pay-per-view? What happens when the New Confederacy invites Vladimir Putin to help out in their struggle against Holy New England? Vlad might turn them down — he’ll be too busy overrunning completely defenseless Europe — but the ChiComs will surely come to the aid of their fraternal socialist brothers in the People’s Republic of NorCal, slugging it out with Nuevo Nuevo Mexico. The minute shots are fired in Washington, the Mullahs will nuke Tel Aviv. The Korean peninsula will get reunified the hard way. India and Pakistan will finally settle their grudge.
Civil War 2.0 is the end of the fucking world.
We need to take a long hard look at Hobbes. Monarchy’s dead, but the fuhrerprinzip is alive and well. Some kind of Austro-Hungarian Empire thing seems to be the way to go, with the Boss presiding over a “Congress” of all the Peoples. It’ll be a police state, sure, but it sure beats a radioactive wasteland. Anyone got a better idea?