Politics & Policy

Our Hobbesian Left

Anarchy and submission are not our only choices.

Senator Harry Reid, who is an unsubtle man terribly well-suited for these unsubtle times, denounces his Republican rivals as “tea-party anarchists.” And he seems to believe that they are, in fact, anarchists: “We’re in a position here where people who don’t believe in government — and that’s what the Tea Party is all about — are winning, and that’s a shame.” I have seen gentlemen dressed as Minutemen at tea-party rallies, but never one dressed as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon or Max Stirner. Representative Nancy Pelosi says identical things — “There are many members in the Republican caucus who do not believe in government” — while David Brooks, who is always full of helpful advice for conservatives on the subject of how to curtsy to our masters, chides the Republican party for the fact that “opposing government is your primary objective.” Senator Elizabeth Warren warns of the “thinly veiled calls for anarchy in Washington.”

I always thought the vanguard of the smash-the-state revolution would be a little more rock ’n’ roll, a little less Brooks Brothers.

In reality, the Republican party is not teeming with anarchists, and the Tea Party does not wish to abolish the state. Those copies of the Constitution they’re always waving about contain the words for a charter of national government. Given the state she represents, Senator Warren’s error is ironic but not surprising. The original tea-party patriots were accused of being anarchists, too. In the Intolerable Acts that the British crown adopted at Lord North’s insistence in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party, Parliament proclaimed that the patriots were involved in the “subversion of all lawful government” and that reasserting the absolute authority of the king — while dissolving Massachusetts’s charter of self-government — had “become absolutely necessary . . . to the preservation of the peace and good order.” Among the Loyalists, there was already a version of Senator Warren’s “You Didn’t Build That” philosophy taking shape, which held that all men, and especially men of property, owed their allegiance to the crown, because the British navy enabled American trade and protected American property. As the Reverend Samuel Seabury put it at the time, “We have no trade but under the protection of Great Britain.”

Senator Warren says that regulation is opposed by the “anarchy gang,” which “is quick to malign government, but when was the last time anyone called for regulators to go easier on companies that put lead in children’s toys? Or for food inspectors to stop checking whether the meat in our grocery stores is crawling with deadly bacteria? Or for the FDA to ignore whether morning-sickness drugs will cause horrible deformities in little babies?” She might be channeling Samuel Johnson, an opponent of the American revolution, who argued that all intelligent people must conclude that those royal regulations “are not very oppressive, which have been found consistent with this speedy growth of prosperity; and begin to think it reasonable, that they who thus flourish under the protection of our government, should contribute something toward its expense.” The men in Boston felt somewhat differently about the matter.

Contra the king’s decree, the Americans were not opposed to “all lawful government.” They were opposed to particular acts of a particular government that restricted their trade, imposed cumbrous taxes, interfered with their lives, and otherwise violated certain unalienable rights that are not the government’s to grant or to take away. To say “no” to tyranny is not to say “yes” to anarchy.

Many of the intellectual opponents of the American Revolution were walking in the very long and deep shadow cast by Thomas Hobbes, whose political philosophy, in a bastardized and low-minded form, still very much informs our politics today. Hobbes was in many ways a conservative’s conservative, one who understood that man is a fallen creature and that his natural state is “the war of all against all,” as he put it in De Cive. His alternative to that war was the omnipotent state, Leviathan, about which he had no illusions: The state might be arbitrary, unfair, or cruel, but life under such arbitrary power is preferable to life in the state of nature. “The obligation of subjects to the sovereign,” he wrote, “is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth by which he is able to protect them.” Hobbes regarded the commonwealth as “an artificial man, though of greater stature and strength than the natural,” with an important difference: The state, he believed, literally could do no wrong vis-à-vis its subjects. Hobbes’s model of the social contract held that the individual transferred his rights to the state, which is no more answerable to the subject than God is accountable to His creations:

Nothing the sovereign representative can do to a subject, on what pretence soever, can properly be called injustice or injury; because every subject is author of every act the sovereign doth. . . . And therefore it may and doth often happen in Commonwealths that a subject may be put to death by the command of the sovereign power, and yet neither do the other wrong. . . . And the same holdeth also in a sovereign prince that putteth to death an innocent subject. For though the action be against the law of nature, as being contrary to equity (as was the killing of Uriah by David); yet it was not an injury to Uriah, but to God. Not to Uriah, because the right to do what he pleased was given him by Uriah himself.

In Hobbes’s view, the only liberties a subject of Leviathan can expect is whatever Leviathan permits — on whatever grounds he chooses. There is much to admire in Hobbes, but it is worth bearing in mind that he was a very sophisticated man writing for primitives. He died a decade and a half before the Salem witch trials and lived a life that was closer in both time and temperament to the age of the Black Death than to our own. Conservatives know that some things never change — but some things do. The selection of possible political choices before us is not limited to Leviathan vs. anarchy, or even the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes vs. that of Ayn Rand. The American Revolution was in some ways a repudiation of the Hobbesian model, insisting, as it did, that the citizen (as opposed to the subject) enjoys rights that are not the state’s to dispose of, that the sovereign can in fact injure the citizen, and that the citizen may seek redress for those injuries, up to and including revolution.

But our so-called liberals are committed Hobbesians. Argue for a reduction in taxes, or a more restrictive interpretation of delegated powers, or allowing the states to take the lead on health care and education, and they’re sure that the next step is a Hobbesian hootenanny in which all of our rump roasts are crawling with bacteria, somebody snatches Piggy’s glasses, and, worst of all, there’s no NPR to ask what it all means. Like Hobbes, they believe that you hold your property at the sufferance of the state, and that you should pipe down and be grateful for whatever you are allowed to keep. But the American creed is precisely the opposite: The state exists at our sufferance, not the other way around, and while few of us actually hold the beliefs that Senator Reid attributes to us and long to abolish the state as a general principle, more than a few of us are interested in making some deep changes to this state. We may not want to shut it down entirely, but we aren’t sure we want it to load another few trillion dollars in debt onto us. We aren’t throwing bombs, but we aren’t going to give it everything it demands, either. Not 40 percent of the last dollar, not a dime to subsidize abortions, not control over our children’s educations or our own consciences. Hobbes wrote about subjects. We’re citizens.

Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review and author of the newly published The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.


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