To dub Hobbes a conservative thinker is, in a manner of speaking, a misnomer, a modern-day projection which makes sense only once we adopt modern-day political categories which were hardly appropriate or even in use in Hobbes’ own time. And when examined through the lenses of his own time, Hobbes comes across as a revolutionary thinker, revolutionary for having foreseen, amidst what was still by and large a feudal society, the operations of the market as setting the tone for all future relations among the members of the commonwealth. Unlike Adam Smith, however, for whom the formation or the existence of the commonwealth as a political entity were unproblematic, in the workings of the invisible hand and the unfolding laissez-faire mode of social relations, Hobbes saw a unique opportunity to anchor the state as the supreme political institution for all times. Through his ingenious concept of political obligation, Hobbes establishes the supremacy of the state in terms of the consenting subject: (a) market relations make everyone equally insecure and subject to power grab by any one individual or group of individuals; (b) it is therefore in everyone’s interest to relinquish their God-given sovereignty by vesting same, both individually and collectively, in the institution of the state; (c) this act of consent, also referred to as “social contract,” constitutes a political obligation on the part of the consenting subjects to abide by the dictates and the authority of the state.
In a sense, Hobbes was first in the long line of modern-day theorists to advocate what has come to be known as statism, the unchallenged authority of the state as the supreme political institution, irrespective of the personalities involved or the idiosyncrasies of the office holders, be they kings, the king’s men, or the elected officials. And his justification was, only the state offered each and everyone the requisite measure of protection not only from one another but, just as importantly, from themselves: it protected the individual from the vagaries of human nature.
How does one move, however, from Hobbes’s grand schema to what passes nowadays for the conservative and/or liberal viewpoint? One point of departure is Edmund Burke, his famous treatise against the excesses of the French Revolution being a case in point: a conservative viewpoint is always a form of reaction, and Burke’s pamphlet fits the bill to a T. Another one, if one reaches further back, are the ideas of the French Enlightenment thinkers, the ideas which paved the way to the French Revolution. And in this respect, Hayek may have been right to single out Rousseau as the object of his venom; where he was wrong, however, was in crediting the latter with socialist leanings and mindset. In an obvious attempt to discredit liberalism by arguing for such a linkage, Hayek only discredited himself.