Saturday, July 4, 2009

On Leviathan and Public Reason: A Reply to Chartier

So I've been having a discussion with Dr. Chartier over at the LiberaLaw blog about the role of the sovereign as a source of public reason in Hobbes' political philosophy, in response to an interesting post in which he discussed how a Hobbesian account might be consistent with market anarchism. Because I am a horribly verbose person, I wrote more in response to Dr. Chartier's last comments than the comments system would allow, and I am therefore posting my thoughts here. Hopefully this is of some interest to someone!

In order to understand this, it would probably be a good idea to read Dr. Chartier's post and the comments that have already been published on it, particularly this one (since this post is directly a response to that comment).


If I understand correctly, Hobbes sees the sovereign as existing to settle conflicts. In Dr. Chartier's post and comments, he's seemed to somewhat equated this to a notion of "preserving civil peace." And to an extent, this makes sense. With property disputes, for example, what the sovereign is being asked to do is to merely uphold some exogenous system of justice: the sovereign is just acting to make sure we maintain a peaceful environment, where we get our idea of "civil peace" from somewhere else.

But to Hobbes, this will treat too much as settled. He would likely want to say that we may disagree on what it is that even constitutes "civil peace." One person might have a desire to see all homosexuals put to death. Another person might have a desire to see his homosexual compatriots protected from this fate, and is willing to fight to defend them. Another person might want to see the bigoted guy put in the stockades for being such a jerk. Hobbes thinks that this kind of conflict is a serious problem. In the absence of any external norms and institutions to tell us who is right and who will get their way, and in the absence of any enforceable agreement between them, Hobbes thinks that the three people in our story will have no reasonable choice but to prepare for violence. So long as each relies on his private reason, they will be condemned to a state of war.

The liberal solution to this problem is the one which gives us the notion of "civil peace" that I imagine Dr. Chartier has in mind: this approach typically seeks to independently define some conception of right-of-way, so that we have a way of adjudicating disputes according to these independent norms. But Hobbes doesn't have this machinery in his system. He could say that there may be no standard of right-of-way that each of the three people in our story would accept if each relied on his private reason. The system of rights and duties that will appeal to the bigot will be seen as oppressive by the defender of the homosexuals, and vice versa. And even if they could strike an agreement, there's no guarantee that some new issue won't arise in the future to drive them apart. The only way for them to avoid the state of war, Hobbes thinks, would be to give some third party the authority to choose what constitutes the appropriate conception of "civil peace" that will underpin their society.

The problem with the limits Dr. Chartier seems to want to place on the sovereign, I think, is that it seems to be in conflict with Hobbes' desire that the sovereign have the authority to decide basically everything about how a society is going to function. If this authority is denied in areas where there could potentially be legitimate disagreements between people, then Hobbes is going to worry that conflicts will arise, where each side believes that his own private reasons are the right reasons. Hobbes wants to eliminate this possibility by giving the sovereign absolute authority to decide what's right and fair.

But all of this is drilling way further into Hobbes than I think Dr. Chartier was seeking to do. If all he wants to take from Hobbes is the idea that a government is necessary to adjudicate disputes, then none of these issues are going to be a big deal. In this case it seems to me that he's actually moving away from the substance of Hobbes' argument and actually moving closer to the sort of thing Locke was saying in chapter 9 of the Second Treatise. As Locke writes:
Thus mankind, notwithstanding all the privileges of the state of nature, being but in an ill condition, while they remain in it, are quickly driven into society. Hence it comes to pass, that we seldom find any number of men live any time together in this state. The inconveniencies that they are therein exposed to, by the irregular and uncertain exercise of the power every man has of punishing the transgressions of others, make them take sanctuary under the established laws of government, and therein seek the preservation of their property. It is this makes them so willingly give up every one his single power of punishing, to be exercised by such alone, as shall be appointed to it amongst them; and by such rules as the community, or those authorized by them to that purpose, shall agree on. And in this we have the original right and rise of both the legislative and executive power, as well as of the governments and societies themselves.

If Dr. Chartier is considering this sort of approach to thinking about government, then yes: I agree that it don't establish a whole lot about exactly what a government is supposed to do or how big it needs to be. As long as it addresses the "inconveniencies" of the state of nature, any system of government will seem to do, and insofar as a stateless, decentralized, or pluralistic system can address them, that would be fine too. But this shouldn't surprise us: this Lockean position is what underpins a great deal of the modern libertarian tradition, including Rothbard's market anarchism and Nozick's decentralized, pluralistic vision of Utopia. I should add, though, that it also shouldn't surprise us to find that we're led to conclusions very different from those that Hobbes professed.


Gary Chartier said...

Thanks for continuing to take the time to think about this with me, Danny.

Basically, I think you're being a careful reader of Hobbes and I'm focusing on an idealized Hobbesian position. I'd define the latter as a position in accordance with which we need the state because without it we're likely to kill each other—we're likely to find ourselves perpetually engaged in “the war of all against all,” with lives that are, whether or not solitary or poor, at least are likely to be nasty, brutish, and short.

My guess is that, even among people who know little or nothing about Hobbes, this is the underlying motivation for much practical statism. People don't want to be at war with each other; they want someone to resolve disputes and suppress violence. By slowly stripping away elements of the state, I seek to show that it's not the state that's needed to do this.

I framed this as a challenge to the Hobbesian, because I was focused on the kind of institution needed to prevent violence. As I suggested before, I see you as offering two objections to the position I've laid out.

1. Hobbes really wants to say a good deal more than this.

2. Bracketing the exegetical question, the Hobbesian will have a substantive objection to my claim that the kind of state needed, given the assumptions of Hobbes's own argument, to prevent the war of all against all is a minimal state.

As regards #1, I don't claim to be engaged in the exegesis of Hobbes, so I have no reason to dispute your reading.

As regards #2, it seems to me that the war of all against all can be prevented as long as people are required to keep agreements and to avoid killing each other. You suggest that the Hobbesian (bracket Hobbes himself here) believes that the state needs more-than-minimal authority precisely to achieve this goal, and therefore won't be willing to move along the conceptual slide I've suggested. Since I don't want to run out of space any more than you did, I'll simply observe that I'm not convinced: I think the most the argument need be thought to entail is an entity capable of protecting people from violence and enforcing agreements.

Do you think more than this follow's from the Hobbesian's perspective (not Hobbes's)? What assumptions require it?

Danny said...

Thanks so much for dropping by!

I guess the problem I'm seeing is that the concept of a "minimal state" has a lot of baggage which the Hobbesian may or may not be okay with. This is because typically, conceptions of the minimal state are based on a distinctly Lockean view of the natural law which is a lot broader and more comprehensive than Hobbes' conception of the natural law. To Locke, the nature of the social contract is going to be more or less spelled out by his view that people "may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another." The minimal state simply enforces this natural law.

But to Hobbes, the law of nature is fundamentally different, and a lot less settled. He writes, "where no Covenant hath preceded, there hath no Right been transferred, and every man has right to every thing; and consequently, no action can be Unjust. But when a Covenant is made, then to break it is Unjust: And the definition of Injustice, is no other than the not Performance of Covenant. And whatsoever is not Unjust, is Just." In Hobbes' view, the nature of the social contract is very much up in the air; the main thing that's important is that it's a contract, and therefore we have reason to stick with it.

When we try to determine the exact nature of the contract, Hobbes thinks that insofar as we all rely on our private reasons, we'll never arrive at an agreeable solution. The reason that he wants leviathan in the first place is the same reason that he would be skeptical of the Lockean system: he doesn't seem to think there can be a system of government that can be independently justified, and so we need to simply submit to the (arbitrary?) will of a third party. The problem with the minimal state for the Hobbesian, then, is going to be that it keeps the peace in a very particular way, and he may or may not find this acceptable. The minimal state would arguably be just as legitimate as the fascist state, the socialistic state, etc. And to try to choose between these ourselves would be to attempt to criticize the sovereign, which is a no-no for Hobbes since it's only by treating the sovereign as a source of public reason that we get out of the state of war in the first place.

Obviously, neither of us are going to be convinced by this. But I do think that if you're going to reject it, then you have to actually reject it: without this element, we're really no longer talking about Hobbes' position.

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