I Agree with Thomas Hobbes

The Libertarian Case for the Social Contract; The Social Contractarian Case for Liberty

I Agree with Thomas Hobbes

We are sometimes told that the life of man in the state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short[1]. But: Solitary compared to what? Poor compared to what? Nasty, brutish, and short compared to what? Unless these terms are defined in a way people can form some consensus around for the sake of discussion, we will just have to accept that they refer to conditions less desirable than our own. So what is it that we — those of us not living in some “state of nature” — have that those living in such a state do not have, that causes these differences, that gives us the advantage? The nation-state? Leviathan? Perhaps…But whatever it is, we need it and I support it. I definitely don’t want to live in some Hobbesian jungle where there is not enough to be had and everyone is intent on killing anyone that they perceive to be in any way a threat to their slice of some ever-shrinking pie.

Individuals are unable by themselves to remove the vast majority of the limitations that nature imposes upon them, so if they wish to increase their chances of survival they must at least come up with some way to mitigate these limitations (they will never be entirely rid of all of them), and I contend that the most efficient and successful way (perhaps the only way) for them to do this is to come together and form a social contract. They need not think too much about it. If they are self-interested creatures it will happen naturally.

That’s right. You are not mistaken. I, a self-proclaimed libertarian, did just advocate for the social contract. And I think that there is little room for dispute as to why it is so desirable. Of course, my simply saying as much does not make it so, but I challenge anyone to defend the merits of the alternative, which I contend is this: self-sufficiency in a “state of nature.” Think you can handle that? Hold that thought! We’ll come back to it…

I concur with the idea of the usefulness, the necessity, the urgency of the social contract, so long as the goal is for individuals to live alongside each other in peace, and to increase their welfare. This goal is certainly my preference, and I hope — I am quite certain — that it is a nearly universal one on at least some level. Most anything else would mean either an unbearable or a physically impossible life for the vast majority, if not the entirety of mankind. How many people do you know that want such a thing?

Even so, I fundamentally, unequivocally reject the notion that any of this proves the legitimacy or necessity of the state or its interference into the every day lives and actions of mankind. That’s the caveat. Had you worried for a moment there, didn’t I?

I am saying that I disagree that the desirability of the social contract implies the necessity of “a singular, centralized institution that has a territorial monopoly on the perceived-legitimate use of all force, and that is beyond all criticism.” What we might call a tyranny, a despotism, or even an oligarchy. Nor do I think it necessarily calls for “a somewhat decentralized group of overlapping institutions colluding to create a multi-territorial cartel in the perceived-legitimate use of defensive/protective force, and that is subject to at least some criticism.”  What we would refer to as a republic, a commonwealth, a confederation.

No. The social contract best suited to solving man’s material and social problems is something else entirely.

What really is the Social Contract? An agreement of the citizen with the government? No…The social contract is an agreement of man with man…from which must result what we call society…Commerce…the act by which man and man declare themselves essentially producers, and abdicate all pretension to govern each other.[2]

Yes, commerce. Trade. Voluntary exchange. The division of labor. Markets, the freer, the better. All enabled by — not violently expropriating what others already own, but — producing and providing what others wish to own. This is your social contract! Anything else is a pretense, a fraud, a counterfeit. It does not — can not — do what it claims to be able to do.

But does any of this really satisfy the definition of the social contract? Does it in fact end Hobbes’ (in)famous war of all against all[3] that is supposedly present in the state of nature, but defeated by the social contract? No, not directly. We might even say, “quite the opposite.” Rather, it channels the conflict into competition rather than violence. And because of the highly decentralized and multi-faceted nature of markets, there exist more “sides” to the “conflict” than could ever really successfully attack some other side and be sure they weren’t in some way also harming their own. Furthermore, the desire to have services rendered to one’s self not only incentivizes, but creates the conditions for — get this — the rendering of services to others, whether it was the original intention of the individual actors or not. If you are keen enough, you can see both the Invisible Hand and Say’s Law of Markets in this.

So, in essence, what you have is no longer really conflict in any conventional sense of the word, but cooperation. And not forced, phony, fabricated cooperation, ready at the slightest tremor to erupt again into the violence and chaos that may have once been. No! Instead, unwitting, sincere, uncontrived cooperation, set to last for as long as outside forces will let it be.[4]

Remember my challenge from a few paragraphs back? Defending the merits of self-sufficiency in a “state of nature” against the social contract? When defined the way Proudhon has described it (free markets), is this even a fair fight? Could isolation from the rest of mankind and from society really be materially advantageous over the cooperation, division of labor, exchange, and wealth that can only be provided by the social contract (commerce)? Not a chance!


1 Thomas Hobbes, 1651 (1660), Leviathan Ch. XIII Para. 9

2 Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, 1851, General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, Ch. 4, Sec. 1, Para. 36

I shortened the paragraph so as not to distract too much from the point. Here is the whole thing:

What really is the Social Contract? An agreement of the citizen with the government? No, that would mean but the continuation of the same idea. The social contract is an agreement of man with man; an agreement from which must result what we call society. In this, the notion of commutative justice, first brought forward by the primitive fact of exchange, and defined by the Roman law, is substituted for that of distributive justice, dismissed without appeal by republican criticism. Translate these words, contractcommutative justice, which are the language of the law, into the language of business, and you have Commerce, that is to say, in its highest significance, the act by which man and man declare themselves essentially producers, and abdicate all pretension to govern each other.

3 Bellum omnium contra omnes. Properly rendered: “war of all against all.” But also, as in the following text: “war of every man against every man”. This and related phrases are found in Leviathan Ch. XIII Para. 8, 12, 13; Ch. XIV Para. 4, 18; Ch. XVII Para. 2, 15

4 That is to saylaissez-faire. Or the longer version: Laissez faire et laissez passer, le monde va de lui même! Loosely, “Let it be and let goods pass; the world goes by itself.”

For more on the likes of Hobbes and Proudhon, as well as themes related to the article you just read, see my piece on Classical Liberalism that was submitted to FEE’s Thorpe-Freeman blog contest in June of last year (it was a runner-up, I’m proud to say), as well as my article on the difference between mutualists and communists within the anarchist ideology.

[image credits: Wikipedia]

About Hank

Henry Moore ("Hank") is a 23-year old libertarian blogger hailing from Montana and is the proprietor of The Libertarian Liquidationist. He has been interested in politics and history since he was quite young, libertarianism since picking up Dr. Ron Paul's books The Revolution and End the Fed in 2009, and blogging since late 2011. Follow the link for a more detailed bio. >> More Posts

  • Zoozoo94

    This was great. To me it read as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, just more radical.

    • http://thelibertarianliquidationist.com/ Henry J. Moore

      Really? That’s very interesting. I haven’t read Common Sense (yet), although I do know it was the most popular book in the Colonies at the time.

      • Zoozoo94

        One of the main arguments Paine takes on is the benefits of a limited monarchy like the one established by England’s Constitution. He uses a similar writing style to attack it as you do to attack a centralized institution as a proper manifestation of a social contract.

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