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Home / Culture and Society / Hobbes and Locke Revisited: The Foundations of the Modern Liberal State, Part VIII
At the bottom of the liberal theory, the one thing which provides it with its foundation, there lies a peculiar picture of a human, a human qua individual.

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

It should be apparent by now that at the bottom of the liberal theory, the one thing which provides it with its foundation, there lies a peculiar picture of a human, a human qua individual.

One is tempted to trace this picture to Locke’s ownership postulate as one of our unalienable rights; that, however, would be a mistake. We have seen that the idea of ownership, in and of itself, is a fairly straightforward proposition (unless we be ready to do away with private property altogether as an inherent social evil); even Marx found no fault with it except that he wanted to make it communal, to be shared by all and all alike, especially the workers. If anything, it’s the positing of the ownership right to the exclusion of everything else – loyalty, commitment, sentiment, even affection, all the things, in short, which round up the full scope of human interaction – which is at fault here and produces the skewed picture. For in having declared all such influences artificial, a throwback to the past and of little or no effect on how the moderns tend to interact – transactions having essentially replaced relationships! – the founders of the liberal theory have virtually reduced a human to a market man, each and everyone subject to the very same impersonal forces, the forces of the market.

(That’s one basis for universal equality we find in Hobbes, the kind of equality which transcended the old hierarchical structures in terms of social ordering, rank and privilege. Even the rich were no less subject to the same market forces, according to Hobbes, than the poor were, property owners no less so than common laborers or slaves. It was a revolutionary idea in Hobbes’s time, a form of egalitarianism in a manner of speaking, though on the perverse side.)

Perhaps the distinction introduced in Part VII, between freedom “to” and freedom “from,” can serve to illustrate the one-sidedness of the underlying picture. Both appear to define the opposite ends on the freedom spectrum. The first asserts a fundamental right to act as one pleases, subject to the usual restrictions, of course; the second, a likewise right to resist all forms of coercion which might prevent the individual from acting freely, as defined by the former. Whereas the first is directed against individuals who might stand in one’s way, the second against all coercive institutions, including the state. We’re made to believe thus that these two positions preempt the entire spectrum, there being nothing in between.

Nothing could be further from the truth: both concepts fail for not taking responsibility seriously enough, the indispensable component of freedom.

A qualification is in order. A libertarian, for whatever reason, will hold the other fellow responsible in the event of his or her failure: we’re all entitled to our just deserts. A consistent libertarian will apply the same principle to their own comings and goings. So far so good, and it confirms to the letter of Hobbes’s assertion that we’re all market men first and foremost, and that we all stand to rise or fall by the decisions we make vis-à-vis the market, right or wrong. None are exempt from having to pay the price.

This is not, however, the kind of responsibility I have in mind. What’s missing is a certain awareness of how our decisions impact the other, not to mention how they impact the larger community. It’s precisely this kind of awareness which must be made part and parcel of our decision-making process if our concept of freedom is not to be a truncated and empty concept but one which is endowed with its full and intended meaning. And it’s precisely this sense of responsibility which is conspicuously absent from either rendition of freedom by the liberal theorists. Indeed, we’re made to believe there is nothing in between, that our freedom is entirely circumscribed by the two polar opposites.

Whether by design or not, it doesn’t matter. Suffice it to say, what’s implicit in such a view is a tacit assumption that none of us owe anything to society, that we can continue on our merry old way, pursuing our enlightened, and sometimes not so enlightened, self-interests, while giving no thought whatever to the greater good, believing somehow that the greater good needn’t be tended to because, ultimately, it shall prevail by hook or by crook, as if by the working of the invisible hand.

I suggest there’s something inherently wrong with this picture, something categorically wrong. For one thing, it dispenses with a human as a moral agent, the essential characteristic of our species, I daresay. So yes, this is in a sense a moral critique of liberalism, a critique on essentially moral grounds, and I have nothing to apologize for. Against it, the so-called market man, let me posit instead a moral man, a far more comprehensive conception of what we are.

Ultimately, all political philosophies rise or fall on the soundness of their philosophy of the human subject, and liberalism is no exception. What I intend to demonstrate in the remainder of this series is that the liberal conception of the subject leaves a great deal to be desired.


About Roger Nowosielski

I'm a free lance writer. Areas of expertise: philosophy, sociology, liberal arts, and literature. An academic at a fringe, you might say, and I like it that way.

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