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On reading Hobbes

by Stephen Kaye
Sun Jan 3rd, 2016

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes wrote The Leviathan in defense of the monarchy of Charles II whose reign triggered England’s Civil War, a regicide, an unruly period of thuggery under Cromwell, and an eventual return to monarchy with a somewhat more independent parliament.  Although Hobbes did not win the argument, his work remains one of the foundation documents in political thought, for he was one of the first to assert the compact theory by which the governed consent to be governed in exchange for the security and the freedom from fear that a state should provide. 
We picked up a copy of “Hobbes,” by Hannah Dawson at Oblong Books during the Christmas rush, a very short study (barely 100 pages) intended for students at the college level.  It is a useful review of the main arguments of the Leviathan – that government is necessary to prevent men from killing, raping and plundering, their natural propensity.  She points out than when Saddam Hussein ceased being the effective sovereign and strong man in Iraq, chaos, looting and lawlessness was the immediate result. Hobbes thought a strong monarchy was necessary to preserve law and order and a civilized society.  
We can use Hobbesian thinking in judging our own government, weakened by dissention, gridlock and lack of leadership.  We are falling behind in providing the basic necessity – security and freedom from fear.  We now fear Climate Change while the majority in Congress is still in denial that it exists.  Congress would have us fear a handful of demented anarchists travelling under the banner of militant Islam, and is willing to squander billions in their defeat.  They urge more bombing. 
A more immediate threat – Lyme Disease – gets small change.  We stridently support widespread gun ownership, thereby undercutting the effectiveness of our police.  The loss of monopoly power to administer violence leaves the population in a state of anarchy which we see in those states of Mexico where armed gangs, not the police, hold the upper hand.  While we don’t actively fear anarchy as such, we do fear the devolvement of firepower to gun-owning individuals who are self-selecting and who undergo less qualifying instruction than a teenager getting her first driving license. 
Among the duties of a responsible government is to keep the state competitive in competitive markets, to invest in essential infrastructure so its systems remain state of the art.   Our railroads are now antiquated, 1950’s versions of public transport, thanks to a Congress that prefers large cars to public transit, that thinks public transit is a socialist idea and therefore suspect.  We are losing the race for efficiency to China whose transportation system works, whose goods get to market before ours, whose turnaround times are faster and cheaper than our own.  This is what happens when a state lacks strong and enlightened leadership.  
No one wants a Leviathan State.  Orwell spoke for us in Animal Farm and again in 1984.  But we do need a strong central government that understands the needs of the people for security, and that means freedom from fear of being left behind, or being unemployed, because our industry can’t compete in the marketplace.