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The Hobbesian Myth

Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679)

While most political theorists consider Thomas Hobbes as a political individualist, the most popular argument against individualism in politics is still the Hobbesian notion that in the absence of the state, life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. Hobbes’ only disagreement with political sovereignty was that people should be allowed as much as a right to disobey the orders of the king when their life is under threat. Almost everyone has accepted the Hobbesian myth lock, stock and barrel though valid arguments for this seemingly obvious tenet never quite seem to emerge. There is no opponent of anarchy whose central argument eventually does not boil down to the “sophisticated” notion that without a monopoly of force, we will all be at each other’s throat.

Was Hobbes Right?

What if Hobbes was wrong through and through? The structure of rationalizations against market anarchy would crumble, with political authoritarians left with nothing but rubble. Libertarian anarchists think that Hobbes’ social contract theory is discredited by theory and experience. Human history is full of instances in which men found far more efficient, non-governmental ways to settle their disagreements.

Let us examine some central assumptions behind the Hobbesian notion.

Do anarchists assume that men are angels?

A case for anarchy is often met with the argument that human nature is not good enough to sustain a societal structure in which we are on our own. Of course, it is true that many left anarchists had a romantic view of human nature, but I am yet to read a libertarian anarchist who is deluded enough to believe that men are angels. No sensible thinker assumes that a miraculous transformation of human nature is bound to happen once the state is done away with.  Sound anarchist political philosophers, on the contrary, assume that criminals would be dealt with far more efficiently under a market based legal structure.  

Aren’t men evil and irrational?

We of course, know that most people are evil and irrational. In the words of economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe, “The mass of people, as La Boetie and Mises recognized, always and everywhere consists of ”brutes, ”dullards,” and “fools,” easily deluded and sunk into habitual submission.”  

 But, consider:

1) The unscrupulous are more likely to rise to power under statist tyranny. As the 20th Century economist Frank H. Knight, so perceptively remarked, the authorities of a collectivist state “would have to do these things whether they wanted to or not: and the probability of the people in power being individuals who would dislike the possession and exercise of power is on a level with the probability that an extremely tender-hearted person would get the job of whipping master in a slave plantation”. 2) Positions of power in democracy attract scoundrels who love bossing others around when sensible men would have far better uses for their time. 3) Politicians rise to positions of power by making promises. Keeping the promises often require far more than persuasion and rational discourse. Coercion is an integral part of any government policy. 4) As impossible as it is, if honest men find themselves in power, they would be under continuous temptation to be evil, because power has a corruption influence on people. As Lord Acton pointed out, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupt absolutely. 5) There are no sufficient checks and balances on governmental power. There is little evidence that people can analyse complex economic policies advocated by politicians. 6) The masses often ignore the criminal records of their representatives, and are excited by trivia such as their race, religion, physical appearance and more importantly, the emotional appeal of their policy positions. 7) Private Defense Agencies’ (PDAs) do not have any coercive power. A poly-centric legal system comes with necessary checks and balances as people have to bear the consequences of their irrationality in the marketplace. Political power does not come with such a baggage. 8 ) People often feel that the present word is an indication of how things would work out under anarchy. Concentration camps and forced labor camps were the norm in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. It must be clear that perverse incentives in totalitarian societies corrupt people and that such is not the lot of mankind. 9) Finally, when all things considered, isn’t it obvious that the state is likely to be far less pernicious in a world in which men are angels?

 The Hobbesian argument refutes itself

In short, 1) If you believe that human nature is flawed, you have to admit that the politicians and bureaucrats chosen by these flawed creatures too would be worse, and there would be no excuse whatsoever for state action. The state attracts all kinds of rascals. 2) A change in human nature is not at all necessary for libertarian anarchy to work. Quite the contrary, in fact. If men were angels, the state would have been far more workable. 3) What libertarian anarchy ensures is that criminal acts are hard to perform, and that the reward-punishment mechanism is just and efficient. The police and courts will work under a far less skewed incentive structure under liberty.

Is anarchy possible at all?

The state in its modern form is a relatively new institution, though political authority has been around for thousands of years. Mankind has lived hundreds of thousands of years in the absence of a state. In the words of Christopher Pearson, “The State is not an eternal and unchanging element in human affairs. For most of its history, humanity got by (whether more happily or not) without a State. For all its universality in our times, the State is a contingent (and comparatively recent) historical development. Its predominance may also prove to be quite transitory. Once we have recognized that there were societies before the State, we may also want to consider the possibility that there could be societies after the State.” If so, isn’t it implausible that human beings are naturally inclined to live under statist tyranny?

Is liberty consonant with human nature?

Slavery and serfdom existed for a long time. Few serious thinkers would argue that absolute slavery is consonant with human nature and hence, acceptable. If history is indicative, when people realized the advantages of co-operation, they experimented with more efficient and less morally abominable contractual dealings with others. The argument that anarchy wouldn’t work as human nature is flawed is not much different from the argument that capitalism wouldn’t work as much of humanity lives under grinding poverty. It is forgotten that it is precisely the lack of capitalism that made people poor, and that economic freedom eliminates poverty to the extent it can. Similarly, political freedom eliminates corruption and violence to the extent it can. Though political freedom is not a sufficient condition for the elimination of violence and brutality, it is nevertheless a necessary condition. However, there is more than a grain of truth in the argument that human nature is not consonant with anarchy. Achieving anarchy requires the appreciation of complex political and economic issues on the part of the masses, at least on a broad, fundamental level. It can be safely said that it will not happen in our lifetime. Second, there is no society which is entirely free of the menace of political authority. Human beings are naturally inclined to seek a master. But then, we are also naturally inclined to yell. Many of us do not, as we are entirely capable of controlling our impulses when necessary.

Social Contract

The Social Contract

Consider the hidden assumptions behind Hobbes’ central argument: If it is true that we all would perish without a social contract, would a social contract ever be ratified? If the state rests on a social contract, doesn’t it presuppose the existence of a social cooperation? If it is indeed true that social cooperation would never emerge in the absence of a state, wouldn’t it be evident that the state is not the result of a social contract, or even social cooperation? More importantly, if the rightful interests of men and women are in inherent conflict with each other, isn’t it implausible that there will ever be a social contract that is binding upon everyone? Finally, as Williamson M. Evers wondered, are men in a non-governmental society idiots to turn over absolute authority and all weapons to some Jones family?

The sanctity of the social contract

The social contract argument does not hold much water when we consider many obvious arguments against it. Why should the state derive legitimate authority from majority consent? What makes the majority sacrosanct? If X is entitled to grant consent for himself and Y (Among the minority of dissenters), why hasn’t Y the right to consent for himself at least? What makes X a member of a master class other than that his gang is better than Y? If the state has legitimate jurisdiction over its territory, why does Y lack you legitimate ownership over his own property? If Y does not own his own body or property, how would his consent matter?

Social contract theorists have a difficult problem to answer: If I am an anarchist, (as I am), and has never consented to the state (I never did), why I am I bound to bow my knees to parasites of the state?

The non-existent social contract

Social contract is an illusory philosophical construct. The plain, naked truth is that there exists no such social contract that binds everyone who lives under a particular geographical location. Such a contract can never exist. When I enter your home, it is quite true that I implicitly consent to behave according to your rules. I can opt out of the agreement. The “social contract” argument, however, is quite an unwarranted stretch. If people do not have the right to emigrate, isn’t it more than obvious that they have not consented to the rules and regulations of their native country? You have legitimate ownership over your house. The state is, in the words of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, “an institution run by gangs of murderers, plunderers and thieves, surrounded by willing executioners, propagandists, sycophants, crooks, liars, clowns, charlatans, dupes and useful idiots — an institution that dirties and taints everything it touches” . Social contract theory rests on the invalid assumption that the state has legitimate jurisdiction over its territory. It must be clear by now that it hasn’t.

The circular nature of the social contract argument

Imagine me having the “legitimate” authority to demand that you should promise that you will live according to a set of rules laid down by me. According to the social contract argument, I am entitled to have the authority because of your consent and you are expected to consent because I am entitled to hold authoritative power over you. The argument is clearly circular as it assumes what it is trying to prove.

Do people often withdraw consent to authority?

Though authority depends on wide consent, it is not at all true that people revolt against authority even when they are not too happy with it. The reason is simple: The cost of a revolution is unbelievably high, while the benefits are merely prospective. Bryan Caplan writes: “By 1933, despite mass starvation and millions of deaths, private agriculture was virtually eliminated.  There is no reason to think that Soviet public opinion became more favorable to collectivization during the NEP era.  All historical evidence indicates that Stalin’s policy was exceedingly unpopular.  The hostility of Soviet opinion toward collectivization may have moderated with passing decades, but Stalin’s policies cannot be explained away as a short-run aberration.” In the words of Gordon Tullock: “There are undeniably individuals with strong public interest who are willing to take great risks or sacrifice their lives to benefit other people.  This is particularly true if religion can be brought in. It turns out that such people are fairly rare, however. I don’t want to swear that there have been no cases in history in which the people have risen and disposed of a tyrannical leader, but I have never come across a clear-cut case.”

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