Friday, September 5, 2008

Nasty, Brutish & Short ain't so bad

Thomas Hobbes, in his Leviathan made the case for strong central government on the grounds that it is necessary to evade the dangers of the hypothetical state of nature, in which there is no government. In this state of nature, life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" because it's war of all against all with no one to prevent people from using force to get their way. The lesson I was taught when young and impressionable was that in a state without government, it would be simply the strong dominating the weak. Sounds reasonable, but unfortunately Hobbes is wrong. Peter T. Leeson writes an article for, about how anarchy isn't as bad as you think, and there are a number of historical examples to back it up. I think the general error that Hobbes makes is basically that we can see from our perspective that a life that is nasty, brutish and short is undesirable (in fact this is the rhetorical thrust of his argument) and yet we assume that the people living in this situation can't see it, or are incapable of doing anything about it. But the fact is they could both recognize how undesirable it is, and figure out ways to address this problem. One error many a political scientist and lawmaker has faced is underestimating how surprisingly creative people are - give them a law they don't like and they'll find a way around it, and likewise give them a state of nature and they'll figure out a creative way to make the best of it. The Leeson article is good at showing some of these creative solutions.

The error in Hobbes is not so much that he misunderstands human nature and thinks that people are more vile in nature than they really are. In theory, a few vile people could really undermine attempts to live in peaceful harmony, since they would take advantage of the whole system. So, whether you only had a few vile people or most people were vile, the results would probably be similar. His error is assuming that government is the only way to curb the behavior of these vile people. Government is one solution, but there can be many others.

In addition, we can admit how power can corrupt, and how if any of us were thrown into a situation without laws, temptation might lead us to do things we otherwise wouldn't. For example, if I was given complete legal immunity, I might be very well tempted to steal, in order to save money and to get stuff that I usually couldn't afford. Plato gives a similar example of Gyges' ring in the Republic. Gyges finds a ring that makes him invisible and suddenly he uses it to seduce the queen, kill the king and take over the kingdom (359d-360d). We might think of the movie Jumper, as a recent fictional example, wherein the ability to teleport anywhere instantly, leads the character to live lawlessly. But the confusion here is speaking of individuals getting unique powers, whereas the state of nature, applies equally to everyone. If everyone received a ring making them invisible, or everyone could teleport, then it might undermine the fabric of society, but only temporarily since people would figure out ways to cope. People would come up with surprising ways to protect their person and property and recreate guarantees that make trade and community possible, and thus allow people to attain prosperity.

I couldn't say how, but that comes back to the surprising creativity that emerges when you ask a whole lot of people to try and solve a problem. They'll try things out and some will work, and word of those successful ones will get around, and very quickly institutions will emerge that would astound even the most brilliant minds like Hobbes and Plato.

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