Posts tagged Hobbes

Adam Smith Forum lecture on Social Compact theories–Hobbes v. Locke

My 11-12-11 lecture at the Adam Smith Forum in Moscow, Russia:

Column on Abusing the Social Contract

Abusing the Social Contract

Tibor R. Machan

At the outset it needs to be noted that whatever is called the social contract, it is not actually a contract which is “an agreement entered into by two or more parties with the serious intention of creating a legal obligation or obligations, which may or may not have elements in writing. Contracts can also be formed orally (parol contracts). The remedy at law for breach of contract is usually ‘damages’ or monetary compensation. In equity, the remedy can be specific performance of the contract or an injunction.”

So then, contracts are legal instruments, means by which legally backed agreements are recorded and used to settle disputes about the parties’ obligations. The idea of a so called social contract is, actually, an oxymoron since most social acts aren’t legal ones. A better term for what is usually meant by “social contract” would be social compact, an plain agreement of some kind.

The idea has been around for centuries. Even Socrates touched on it in Plato’s Republic, but it gained prominence mainly in the writings of the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes used the device of an imaginary social compact that everyone in society would enter into. The purpose of it is to come up with the most sensible principles of social organization. What if we all got together and reached an agreement about what principles should govern the way we live in a society? What, indeed, would everyone agree to if they had a chance to take part in such an event?

In Hobbes the social compact or contract had been the central device for identifying the principles of justice. No other edicts would be drawn upon, although implicitly the device assumes that participants would all be reasonable, rational people who are pursuing their self-interest. The result of the establishment of such a compact would be a system of principles and laws that would aim to secure peace and prosperity. Everyone can easily be imagined to sign on because such a system would be in everyone’s interest.

Hobbes also imagined that such a system would need an enforcer, a nearly absolute monarch, so as to keep people from breaching the agreement they entered into when they felt like they could get away with this. The powerful monarch or government would dissuade them from breaking the law. But if the near-absolute monarch turned out to be a serious threat to the lives of the citizenry, they could resist and depose such a ruler.

This idea, by the way, found its way into the Declaration of Independence. Here is how it’s put there: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.”

In the writings of the grandparent of the American political tradition, John Locke, the idea changes somewhat because Locke believed that the principles of justice are derivable from human nature and agreement is only necessary for selecting who would secure or protect those principles. So, in effect, the social compact creates the means by which just law is to be protected. The governing body is created by the compact, not the principles of government! And for Locke this isn’t only hypothetical but quite literal. It is why the Declaration talks of the consent of the governed, something that Hobbes’ theory doesn’t require except hypothetically.

The idea made its appearance in the works of Immanuel Kant, too, although in a rather convoluted fashion and, more recently, in the work of John Rawls’s, the most prominent political philosopher in the 20th century whose book A Theory of Justice (Harvard, 1971) invokes, once again, an imaginary social compact. Everyone supposedly enters into this “behind a veil of ignorance,” meaning, without knowing who one will be in the country established by it. (That is one way that such a system would be a fair one, which was a very important goal for Rawls.)

Social compact/contract theories are appealing for being anti-elitist, for not invoking the idea of a natural ruler, political elite or aristocracy. They are, however, also too committed to the ideal of majority rule, as if gaining the hypothetical consent of the people justified all kinds of oppressive measures against individuals. Moreover, such theories leave it quite undecided who is authorized to implement and maintain them.

Just as, for example, Massachusetts politician Elizabeth Warren recently declared that taking private property is justified by some alleged social contract and authorizes her and other politicians to do this taking in the name of this contract, so many others who make use of the idea deploy it for the sake of making riding roughshod over the citizenry by some large number of them palatable. As she put it, “part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that [what you have earned] and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

But this is a non-sequitor–no such contract has established Warren’s or anyone else’s authority to violate the basic individual rights of citizens of a free country. And even if it had, no one has consented to Warren or anyone else doing any taking in the name of society! No one can agree to violating rights, especially other people’s, which one has by nature.

Column on Rights and the Self

Rights and the Self
Tibor R. Machan
The human self gets all kinds of abuse from intellectuals, poets, artists and entertainers. Hubris and selfishness are roundly condemned whereas selflessness and unselfishness are widely praised. This rank misanthropy is fatal to the assertion of human rights!
Even as the Nobel Prize goes to the jailed Chinese champion of individual rights in opposition of the Communist Chinese government’s unabashed affirmation of its placing such a person in jail for more than a decade and even as the more pragmatic Western commentators lament the fact, the connection between altruism and the violation of individual rights is rarely being made. Yet it is a major source of the age long abuse of human beings and their liberty since, of course, free men and women are not bound to always overlook themselves as they pursue their various tasks in their lives.
What is the source of this awful paradox? How come so many demean human beings while also champion their liberty to do as they judge fit when the latter clearly runs the risk that they will look out for themselves first and foremost in numerous realms of their lives?
One main reason is that over the centuries very often human nature has either been completely annihilated or utterly derided as nasty and brutish and anti-social. Not only did some versions of Christianity—although by no means all—affirm and vigorously defend the doctrine of original sin, such that every person is born laden with evil from which he or she needs to be saved by baptism and other rituals. But secular philosophies, such as that of the very influential English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, declared people to be fundamentally ill-willed, brutal to their fellows and rapacious in all manner of human endeavors, especially the economic. This idea that we are all ruthless, amoral profit maximizers is very fashionable, especially in Hollywood where Oliver Stone makes millions depicting economic agents as nothing but vicious cads.
Why did this view become so credible even while people, especially those in the business world, are routinely pursuing a course of conduct that advances not just their but everyone else’s profit with whom they trade? Why will the silly zero sum game vision of human economic life not go away even while nearly all trade actually advances the economic interest of all the traders?
A source of this very hostile view of humanity comes from the belief that we are automatically driven to charge ahead with no regard for anything else but power and wealth. Where this vision gained its plausibility is in classical physics which Hobbes used as his model for explaining everything, including human life and politics. All of us are like atoms, like matter-in-motion moving forward blindly, ineluctably and whoever we meet we are inclined to mow down mercilessly, just as are the physical bits and pieces of which the material world is made crush anything in their path that’s weak. And for those who championed original sin what stands out about us is our animal nature, the element of us that places us at home in the wilds or the jungle. Only when we focus on the spiritual are we saved from being insufferably mean and nasty.
None of this makes much sense of our actual lives in which the great majority of us are focused on both, our own flourishing and on the well being of those close to us and even quite far! Only a small portion of humanity fits the picture that depicts us as heartless brutes. Even when we are indeed selfish—or as the ancient thinkers would have it, properly prudent—we are by no means anti-social. Mostly we realize that the company of our fellows is a great plus in our lives whether we cooperate or compete with them.
Unless people wish to give up on fighting for their rights not to be oppressed and tyrannized by the worst among us, they will need to stop denigrating themselves and assert their own value. That way, also, lies their full acknowledgement of the value of other human beings and their basic rights.

Column on Zernike’s Stupid Outrage

Kate Zernike’s Stupid Outrage

Tibor R. Machan

In a news report on October 2nd, 2010, titled “Movement of the Moment Looks to Long-Ago Texts,” New York Times reporter Kate Zernike tells us that books like Frederick Bastiat’s The Law, from 1850, and F. A Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom from 1944, are selling like hotcakes among Tea Party members. OMG! How awful. Next we will be told that some people are studying Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hobbes, Hume, Smith, Locke, Marx and other authors of “long-ago” texts in order to learn about political economy, ethics, social philosophy and such.

I suppose the hip thing to do would be to burn all these long-ago texts and focus only on the blogs, especially from the Left, in our efforts to gain an understanding of how the world works. Zernike writes as if most of our university curricula ought to be dismissed as useless, irrelevant, even destructive of human knowledge because, after all, in many courses one is advised to read other than the latest texts.

This is truly ignorant. Where does she think the Obamas and Krugmans and other champions of vast government powers gain their approach to political economy and public policy? How about Thomas Hobbes? Or Rousseau? Or Hegel or Marx or Keynes? All of these and their fellow statists produced works way back when.

It was in fact Keynes who made the observation that might have helped Ms. Zernike to get a grip on how ideas function in this world. As he wrote in 1936, “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” (The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money [Harcourt, Brace, 1936], p. 383.)

And it is, after all, Keynes’ views on the modern economy that’s pretty much guiding the thinking and policies of the Obama administration and the columns of Krugman (who makes no secret of this fact as he pushes for more and more government stimuli to solve our problems). Who thought up the idea of top down management of a country’s economy? It was the long ago champions of mercantilism whom Adam Smith criticized so severely for constantly meddling in the economy. And before that it was Thomas Hobbes who promoted absolute statism which clearly implied just the sort of policies that today’s Leftists favor and which pretty much guide their thinking today.

It is actually refreshing that Tea Party members are studying classic texts in the fields of economics and social philosophy to offset the mostly statist political education they have very likely received in their own contemporary education, an education surely biased in favor of government control of nearly everything in our lives given how that education itself is nearly uniformly government funded and administered. This certainly could use some balance from some of these long-ago thinkers the Tea Party is dipping into for some advice.

Instead of attempting to belittle Tea Party folks because they read some classic works critical of the huge scope of government–the Leviathan Hobbes was advocating –Zernike might have reported on some of the arguments they are absorbing from these thinkers and what replies might be offered them in defense of those other long-ago authors who loved government and are today influencing most politicians and bureaucrats with their statist teachings.

Tea Party folks may or may not be reading the best books to gain their grasp of the right way to approach today’s American political economy but for certain the task they face isn’t impeded at all by a bit of reading of the long-ago texts of their choice. Maybe when they end up on the Jaywalking segment of NBC-TV’s The Tonight Show with Mr. Leno, they will actually demonstrate a bit of education instead of the blatant ignorance that most of those being featured exhibit.

Column on Why Basic Rights Cannot Conflict

Rights May Never Be In Conflict

Tibor R. Machan

If rights were no more that fancy ways of expressing preferences—in short, if morality and politics could only produce emotional expressions—there would be no doubt about the possibility of conflict between rights. Those who embrace the emotivism of the likes of Thomas Hobbes and David Hume (e.g., Michael Oakeshott, Karl Popper, and, I assume, many economists) must admit to the possibility that an assertion of a right to, e.g., private property or freedom of speech, could be in conflict with an assertion of a right to, say, political participation. That is because these asser tions are for them, in the last analysis, no more than expressions of private or collective emotional preferences.

There is, however, the alternative of the natural rights classical liberal tradition. Within its tenets, which I believe make better sense than alter natives do, a conflict of true rights claims cannot exist. It is one vital contention of this tradition that when a claim is made as to someone’s having a basic right, the claim may be confirmed by reference to a correct understanding of human nature. That such an understanding is possible is itself a controversial issue. Yet it seems to me that skepticism here, as in many other cases, stems from a wholly unrealistic conception of what it takes to know something. With a conception of knowledge such that when we know something, we have the clearest, most self-consistent, and most complete conceptualization possible to date of what it is we supposedly know the problem is solved.

The natural rights position sees human nature as one category of reality that rests on our achievement of a grasp of reality. And with human nature we discover, according to this tradition, that a new aspect of reality, unlike that we are familiar with outside the human world, has come into focus, namely, morality and politics. We need to answer a question concerning ourselves, namely, “How we ought to live?” —since we haven’t the programming of other living beings that will just take care of living for us, that will avoid mistakes automatically. We need, also, to answer the question “How should we organize ourselves in communities?”

In both these human spheres of concern we are dealing with reali ty and just as anywhere else—say between economics and biology—no conflict is tolerable between true claims, so in ethics and politics no such conflict is possible. The reason is metaphysical, in the last analysis, justified in Aristotle’s defense of the Law of Non-Contradiction, a defense that still hasn’t been adequately challenged and the challenge of which will always be self-defeating.

In particular, the natural rights classical liberal tradition identifies the rights to life, liberty and property (etc.) as basic for human community organization. These rights are not, however, basic to human life—no concern with rights arises on a desert island for Robinson Crusoe. They derive from human nature and the ethics of individualism, to whit, that each person ought to live an excellent human life, a life of freely chosen rational conduct.

From the right to life and liberty there emerges, with suitable analysis, the right to private property. It rests on two considera tions: (a) human beings require sphere of individual or personal jurisdiction, so that they may carry out their moral responsibility to choose to do the right thing; (b) the choice to acquire valued items from nature or by trade is a moral responsibility, the exercise of the virtue of prudence.

Any bona fide political system must be organized in large measure so as to protect the rights to life, liberty and, in the practical respect of both of these, the right to private property. Thus any political rights—to be free to engage in decision-making vis-à-vis political matters (Sen)—must not violate those basic rights. Political rights include the right to vote, serve in government, take part in the organization of political campaigns, etc. Practically speaking, the exercise of one’s political rights may have an impact on who governs, various internal rules of government, and the organization of political processes. But there is no political right to override anyone’s right to life, liberty or property. Any evidence of some community’s legal system overriding these rights is ipso facto evidence of the corruption of that system from a bona fide political one into one of arbitrary (even if majority) rule.

As we judge communities across the globe, we must keep in mind that what is comparatively best is not always the best possible. Thus we can affirm the greater merits of certain political communi ties or countries despite their evident violation of basic rights. Just as in personal assault cases we can distinguish between major and minor ones, as well as those in between, we can also tell when communities rest on principles that render them entirely corrupt, those that simply are confused and messy, and those that come reasonably near to meeting the standards of basic human rights.

In an informal way we already apply this method of judging communities, even if not for all purposes. We should go much farther and apply it more strictly and substantively, including as we appraise our own country’s laws.