I think that libertarian hostility to Hobbes has blinded them to one of his deepest insights, an insight that in many ways makes him less authoritarian than many of the libertarians I know.
I. Hobbes and the Problem of Private Judgment
First, I recommend this on Hobbes’s moral and political philosophy.
Let’s begin with some review. Hobbes believes that all people are naturally free and equal.* That is, no one was born with natural authority over others. Political authority can only come from agreement. Yes, Hobbes has a notion of tacit consent and yes, Hobbes believed in a limited set of natural laws that prescribe some natural duties. But he nonetheless recognized that in a great many circumstances, for John to have a duty to obey Reba, John must have agreed to that duty.
We all know that Hobbes thought the state of nature was a state of Warre. And for this reason, each person’s rational self-interest dictates that she should submit herself to the Sovereign, who in turn would have almost unlimited power to resolve disputes and provide for the common good. You should know that in Hobbes’s day, Bishop Bramhall called Leviathan a “Rebell’s Catechism” because Hobbes argued that subjects have a right of self-defense against the Sovereign, not only to preserve their bodily integrity but to preserve their family and even their honor. So the Sovereign’s power is not unlimited.
Some of you were probably taught that Chapter 15 of Leviathan is the whole book. That’s the chapter where Hobbes addresses the “foole” who said in his heart that there is no such thing as justice. The point of Hobbes’s contractarianism, so the story goes, is to answer the foole, to show that even he is rationally committed to signing up with the Sovereign.
But I read Leviathan differently (I’m not alone). Hobbes is not worried first and foremost about the foole. Instead, he is concerned about how ordinary people with their various moral and religious views can get along with one another. That’s why the entire second half of Leviathan concerns the Christian religion. He is not only worried about sincere individuals who disagree about what the natural law requires of them but about what God requires of them (these are not really distinct for Hobbes, but whatever).
The core problem of Leviathan, then, is this: how can free and equal people who deeply disagree about what the natural (moral) law requires of them, live in peaceful, stable relations with one another? Hobbes recognizes that “no one man’s reason, nor the reason of any one number of men, makes the certainty.” For Hobbes, therefore,
[W]hen there is a controversy in an account the parties must by their own accord (emphasis KV’s) set up for right reason the reason of some arbitrator, or judge, to whose sentence they will be standard, or their controversy must either come to blows, or be undecided, for want of a right reason constituted by Nature; so is it also in all debates of what kind soever (Ch.V, paragraph 3, emphasis KV’s).
Ordinary people disagree all the time and for all kinds of reasons. And if they are to live together well, they need to resolve these disputes. The reason that I believe that half of Leviathan is devoted to religion is because Hobbes thought the need to resolve religious disagreements was perhaps most important of all. Hobbes spends an extensive amount of time trying to show how his conception of public judgment (or public reason) is compatible with Scripture and why the final interpretation of Scripture must lay with the Sovereign.
II. Libertarians vs. Hobbes
Traditional libertarians criticize Hobbes for thinking that disagreement is a disaster. Through the market, private property and limited government, we can go our separate ways and live together well. I agree with that criticism. Libertarians also recognize that some property claims will be the subject of dispute and so arbiters are needed (at least in the form of protection agencies or a minimal state). I agree with that too.
However, the problem with traditional libertarians is that they confine the range of reasonable disagreement to disputes about how to make libertarian property rights more determinate and resolve disputes among legitimate property holders. In other words, they think the range of disagreement is rather small and so arbiters have limited authority.
But let’s confront traditional libertarians with an undeniable truth: reasonable people disagree about way more political and moral matters than the scope of libertarian property rights. In fact, the large majority of reasonable people find libertarian conceptions of property rights deeply objectionable. And many of those reasonable disagreements remain after they become familiar with libertarian arguments.
So let me pose a question to traditional libertarians (related to one of my previous posts): you want to set up a libertarian society because you think it is required by justice and to serve the common good. But your free and equal fellows reasonably reject your conception of property rights. As a result, the coercion you are prepared to use to defend your property against their encroachments will be coercion that they have strong reason to reject.
Libertarians avoid the problem of private judgment by implicitly assuming that libertarian property rights are the default no-coercion point. A society without coercion is a society with property rights. But that’s false. Property rights are coercive. That does not mean that property rights cannot be justified. It just means that the coercion involved in defending property rights must be justified to all persons.
I suspect most libertarians will respond that they can use coercion to protect their justly acquired property no matter what other reasonable people think. After all, libertarianism is true and statism is false. But that means that you, libertarian, are prepared to coerce your equal to do what you demand even though she has not agreed and will likely not agree were you to explain your reasoning to her. That is, you are prepared to subordinate your non-libertarian fellows to your will.
Hobbes thinks you would be wrong to do that because you have no authority to impose your interpretation of what morality and justice require on others. When you do so, you exercise power over them without authority. Hobbes believed that coercion requires justification to the rational self-interest of all persons. Of course, he thought the most easily justified regime was near-absolute monarchy (actually, that’s not quite right) but he still understood the problem of private judgment. Unlike libertarians, Hobbes was not prepared to use violence against others to establish his preferred system of authority if others did not recognize that having a state was in their self-interest. But traditional libertarians are different: when it comes to non-libertarians, they’re the boss.
Traditional libertarian, in at least one sense, Hobbes was less authoritarian than you.
III. Postscript for Hobbes-Hataz
I know libertarians aren’t supposed to say anything nice about Hobbes because he was a Big Ole’ Statist. But please try to separate his Big Ole’ Statism from his political philosophy as such. If you’re a libertarian Hobbes-hata, you probably know enough philosophy to have an opinion on Aristotle. And if you’re a contemporary libertarian, you probably like Aristotle. You overlook his belief in natural slaves because, of course, that’s not essential to his philosophy. But if you’re open to Aristotle despite his belief in natural slaves, surely you can be open to Hobbes despite his Big Ole’ Statism.
*I will say more about the idea of natural freedom and equality in a future post.
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- Aeon Skoble on A Libertarian Mungerfesto: In Five Parts
- John on Introduction to Logic
- MARK_D_FRIEDMAN on Adam Tebble on Redistribution in Light of Past Injustice
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