Why Do We Need Government? Part One: Thomas Hobbes

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I want to do a bit of review with y’all. For those of you who are new, this is particularly huge.

So, have you ever stopped and thought to yourself, why do humans need government? Perhaps you’ve gone so far as to think, why do I think government exists? If you haven’t, I’m challenging you to think about it now. The reason? The way you answer these questions is the foundation for every other political belief you hold. The reason for government determines the job of government. And whatever you think the job of government is, is the core of your political beliefs.

I often challenge my students with this question, “Why do we need government?” throughout the course of our semester together. I emphasize to them that if they are to grow into well informed, educated citizens—-that truly understand and know what they believe and why they believe it—-they first need to answer the question, “Why do we need government?” for themselves.

I encourage you, my readers, to do the same. Having an articulate and educated answer to this question will go a long way when you’re having to engage with others who want to challenge your beliefs. You see, most likely, they’ll have no foundation to stand upon and no reasonable answer to this question and will be stumped when you push them to think more deeply than their initial, emotional response to some political or social issue. You’ll know, not only why you believe government is necessary but also what it should and shouldn’t do because of this!

Theory of American Government

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There is no “right” or “wrong” answer to the question, “Why do we need government?”. I believe in the answer that our American founders believed in, and base the rest of my political beliefs on this foundation. Naturally, I believe that in order for you to truly answer this question for yourself, you should know the theory behind why our government was created. Not all governments were created for the same reason (in fact, very few governments were ever created with the same consternation and thought that the US government was), but as Americans we should all know why we have government and why we have the type of government we have. Everything political in this blog really trickles back to this question and answer—I just haven’t opened that can of worms yet since I know how deep it goes and how challenging a subject it is to think about.

The American founders formed their ideas and based their reasons for government on a few core liberal philosophies from a few liberal philosophers, most notably Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. So, if we are going to understand any American political thought, it’s imperative to know the theories upon which American political thought is based. If you want to challenge yourself, read further and hopefully you’ll be able to start answering this question for yourself.

I’ve decided to break this post into two parts because of how much information I want to share…and I don’t want to skimp here. This stuff is essential, so I’d rather take it slow.

Thomas Hobbes: Historical Context

Thomas Hobbes was born in 1588 in England and lived during the English Civil War. It’s important to understand the context of Hobbes’ life so that you’ll understand how his experiences affected his belief regarding why we need government.

The English Civil War was bloody and pointless. The war was between Charles I and Parliament. Eventually, Charles I was beheaded after attempting to dissolve Parliament. The quarrel? Charles I and the English Parliament were fighting over who (The King or Parliament) had control over the army that the English needed to suppress an Irish Invasion. Ireland was upset about the way that Charles I was handling and changing religion and was therefore rebelling—which required England to retaliate militarily. Without getting into too much more detail, Hobbes was experiencing the very negative side effects of a poorly constructed government.

He saw the lack of respect for the sovereign and wrote his seminal work, The Leviathan, as an appeal to other Englishmen to use reason to acknowledge the practical need for an all-powerful sovereign (he supported the King). Hobbes rejected the idea of a divinely appointment government and proposed the use of reason, instead of religion, as a justification for a powerful sovereign.

In these next three sections, the state of nature, the state of war and the social contract, I’ll be breaking down for you the most important aspects of the political theory Hobbes introduces in his book, The Leviathan.

The Leviathan: State of Nature

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Hobbes uses reason to break mankind down into his basest functions, such as eating, drinking, etc. He assumes that mankind exists in what he calls a “state of nature”. In this state of nature, man has a natural right to everything and is naturally free to do whatever he pleases, in order to protect himself. Get this. In a state of nature, with no government or society, mankind has a right to everything. That means that if you and I were to see each other in a state of nature, I’d have just as much right to your clothes, and your food as you’d have to mine. We’re “free”, but as you’ll see, that complete freedom comes at a cost.

(Keep in mind that man’s right to everything is not given to him by government, it’s just innate. This is a completely novel concept during his time. In England, in the 1600s, there was no such thing as a “right”. Everyone was simply a subject of the King and subject to his arbitrary will.)

The Leviathan: State of War

The cost of such overwhelming “freedom” and lack of government or law is what Hobbes calls a state of war. In other words, a state of nature (no government, law or society) equals a state of war. In his own words, Hobbes says: “And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their End…endeavor to destroy, or subdue one another.” Basically, Hobbes is saying that if you and I were living near each other in the state of nature, and we both needed food, there’s nothing to stop either of us from killing each other for that food. In fact, we would kill each other for that food. Hobbes assumes that, in a state of nature, humans are essentially operating of off their basest instinct, which is self-preservation. So, since we all desire self-preservation, and we all have a right to literally everything (even each other’s bodies), there is nothing to stop humans from constantly destroying and subduing one another.

All men, as quoted above, will destroy or subdue one another in order to get whatever it is that they do not have that they want. Therefore, no man is safe from another as everyone is chasing after their own personal self-interest with no regards for another, creating a state of war. Are you getting the ugly picture?

In this state of war, while mankind has a natural right to any and everything, he is not free because he must always live under the constant fear that at any point he may be killed or injured by another who has a natural right to something he possesses. Hobbes says, “every man has a Right to everything; even one another’s body” (91).  It is a state of fear and violence. In Hobbes’ own words, life in the state of nature is “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short” (89). Mankind knows no better than to follow their desires and passions uninhibited.

The Leviathan: Social Contract

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Hobbes is creating an ugly story here as he tries to convince his English comrades to support the King. He moves on to appeal to man’s reason and says that man, in a state of nature, is in a state of constant war because there is nothing or no one to stop these brute men from killing each other. So, man must use reason to come to the conclusion that he might need to consent to giving up some of his natural right to everything in order to avoid the state of war.

Here’s a more practical example:

Let’s say you and I both live in the state of nature (which is also a state of war). We’re both always in constant fear that we may be killed by one another since really nothing and no one is safe and all things are everyone’s. (Think about it. Friends and family can’t exist in a world where at any moment self-preservation may cause two people to turn on one another if, say, there isn’t enough food for both). You and I both realize (through reason) that, in this state of nature, nothing is safe as long as we both hold on to our right to everything. However, if we both agree with each other to give up some of our rights to everything (I won’t kill you for your food as long as you don’t kill me for mine) we may be able to have some peace. If everyone in the state of nature (including you and I) agrees to enter into this same agreement with everyone else, we’ve entered into what Hobbes calls a social contract.

It is a contract among all members of society to give up some rights in order to end the state of war. “The mutuall transferring of Right, is that which men call Contract” (94). (Understand that, in Hobbes’ time, the idea of a contract, was revolutionary. At that time, men who were not in powerful positions were completely and utterly subject to those in power. There was no such thing as the members of society who had rights inherently, choosing to do what they want with those rights or contracting equally with each other.)

So, Hobbes says, with reason, humans enter into a contract with each other to protect themselves, escape the state of war, and protect some rights by choosing to give up the right to everything. However, as Hobbes assumes, human nature is naturally selfish and concerned with self-preservation. Given human nature then, what stops someone from breaking the social contract? At this point in his theory…nothing! He’s setting the stage.

In enters…you guessed it. Government. Government, and hence, law! Isn’t this fascinating? Hobbes believes that government is needed to hold everyone accountable to their social contract. Government and law are needed because without them, mankind would devolve into a state of war and break their contracts with one another. Humans are selfish and out for their own good and without government, exist in a state of war…and would break their contract with each other. In other words, we need government to protect our rights from each other’s abuse. (I won’t get into what Madison says about how to handle putting these same selfish people into government. If you want to know more about this, check out my post about ambition counteracting ambition.)

Conclusion

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I hope I haven’t lost you here. Theory can be a bit hard to grasp but if you get it, it’ll really get into you and allow you to better understand everything else about government in general. The reward for understanding theory is high.

So, according to Hobbes, the reason for government is simple: it’s needed to enforce the social contract that mankind entered into in order to avoid the state of war and preserve rights and life. That’s it. That is the reason for government.

I could unpack so much more and I’m having a hard time not doing so…but I don’t want to overwhelm you. Please, leave a comment or ask a question if something doesn’t make sense. I’m happy to explain. For now, understand that government, according to Hobbes, is needed essentially to escape a state of war…a state of war that exists without government or law because mankind is naturally selfish and prone to violence. In other words, law brings freedom and life by limiting the violence and selfishness of human nature.

To be continued…

The Liberty Belle

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Why Do We Need Government? Part One: Thomas Hobbes”

  1. Hello sir this is Johnson from India who lives in Bangalore. As I went through your article "Why Do We Need Government? it is really thought provoking and you made it so simple to understand. I found it very easy to grasp the IDEA of Thomas Hobbes in few paragraphs.

    1. C. McMasters Ph.D.

      Thank you Johnson R! That’s great to hear. My goal is to make these rather complex and sometimes overly confusing concepts, simple and accessible to everyone. I hope you read more of my blog posts! You’ll learn a lot! 😀

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