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Hobbes and Locke Revisited: The Foundations of the Modern Liberal State, Part XIII

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To be sure, Hayek doesn’t accuse Hobbes and company, the precursors of the liberal theory, with modern-day liberal bias. Quite the contrary, he prefaces his introduction to “Individualism: True of False,” the first chapter of the featured selection, by saying:

The true individualism which I shall try to defend began its modern development with John Locke, and particularly with Bernard Mandeville and David Hume, and achieved full stature for the first time in the work of Josiah Tucker, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith and in that of their great contemporary, Edmund Burke – the man whom Smith described as the only person he ever knew who thought on economic subjects exactly as he did without any previous communication having passed between them.

Consequently, his true sentiments are expressed well in advance: each of these were in essence conservative thinkers. One only wishes he had included Hobbes among the bunch, the most important of them all.

Let’s highlight the points of similarity, the important respects in which Hobbes’s own views and those of Burke and Hayek didn’t diverge all that much.

In the first place, Hayek argues for a limited government and is dead-set against central planning: according to his lights, the best results are almost always most likely to obtain whenever each and every individual is left to their own devices to pursue their own interests, irrespective of how enlightened or unenlightened they may be, irrespective of their native abilities, talent, ambition, even less-than-even playing field. Hobbes’s view isn’t all that different since his conception of equality is grounded in equality based on insecurity: all were equally insecure, according to Hobbes, vis-à-vis the impersonal forces of the market.

This isn’t to say Hobbes regarded each and everyone as commanding the exact same quotient of power. Far from it! The point rather was that no matter how powerful any one individual may or may not be, she wasn’t powerful enough to overawe the rest (assuming, of course, that all those who had opposed him were equally intent on stripping him of their power). Which is why the inauguration of the state by all those who had felt so threatened by the forces about them was not only a dire necessity but also the most natural consequence. But let’s not mistake for the fact the scope of Hobbes’s project. His conception of the state was minimal, no less minimal than that of Burke or Hayek, the only purpose being to preserve the established social order. Once again, one fails to discern any significant difference here.

To properly understand the import of Hayek’s complaint, again, we must fast-forward, beyond the minimal state envisaged by Hobbes et al, to the eventual formation of a totalitarian, welfare state; the true Leviathan. It’s not against the presumed deficiency of conservative thought and spirit on the part of the founders that Hayek registers his complaint but rather, against the behemoth which, unbeknownst to all, rose in their wake. In this particular respect, insofar as Hayek’s critique is directed against statism, he’s on target; it accords, besides, with the gist of the anarchistic thought. Where he errs, however, is in his narrative of how we got from point A to point B. His account is one-dimensional, unduly beholden to the history of ideas and, in a sense, ahistorical.

It’s not exactly as though Hayek’s emphasis on rationalism, as inaugurated by the thought of Descartes and carried forth in the works of the French Enlightenment thinkers, Rousseau in particular, is ill-taken. There’s much to be said for the ideas which paved the way for the French Revolution, the vulgar notion of egalitarianism in particular; and it’s quite understandable why Hayek would be opposed to it in principle. But to dub Rousseau a socialist or a precursor of socialism only displays Hayek’s modern-day bias: if anything, Rousseau was advocating a communal form of social relations whereby everyone would be in sync, not by any grand design or central planning but by having come by it honestly, by General Will. And the context was the State, Rousseau’s vision of a human community – a far cry from socialism, one should say. In retrospect, Hayek’s narrative is faulty not on account of what he does say but by virtue of what he omits.

I alluded in the course of these essays to a series of historical developments which succeeded the inauguration of Hobbes’ grand schema, not part of the original design but developments which, nonetheless, have left a permanent footprint on what was soon to become a modern-day liberal state. The extension of the original franchise, from the lilywhite, propertied class to women and slaves, all who were disenfranchised before, surely must count among the most significant of these developments; not anticipated, one hastens to add, but come to think of it, hardly a surprise. Needless to say, the state was forced to function, at least de jure if not de facto, as a guarantor of the rights of the new constituents: it had become what’s come to be known as the liberal state. Which only confirms earlier observation that liberal theory isn’t a theory, properly speaking, but patchwork.

Hayek makes no mention of this all-important consideration, the developments which have virtually guaranteed the emergence of the modern-day liberal state, for which reason his account is short-sighted and biased.

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