Sunday, June 26, 2011

Hobbesianism Turned on Its Head

The Hobbesian story can be summarized in the following equation: no territorial monopoly of force = nasty and brutish war of all against all in the territory in question. The problems with this assertion are too numerous and well-known to bear repetition here. However, I believe that a somewhat underappreciated point is that Hobbesianism is not only problematic in the sense that the above implication is generally dubious, but also, and perhaps most notably, in the sense that it is not its left-hand side, but its negation, that can be plausibly claimed to imply its right-hand side.

It is a relatively uncontroversial contention that monopolies of force can survive only for as long as their subjects ("citizens") obey them. And continued obedience cannot be treated as a given - any large-scale collective action problem is, admittedly, very difficult, but not impossible to overcome. Hence, it is practically necessary for the institutions in question to corrupt their subjects with promises of handouts, thus turning them into (at least semi-voluntary) clients. But since monopolies of force generate their revenues exclusively through coercive expropriation, they can satisfy their specific clients exclusively by expropriating their other clients (or those of their subjects who resist being clientelized), the result being that every member of "governmental" clienteles tries to live at the expense of every other such member. Admittedly, the scope of this "soft" war of all against all varies with the type of political regime (in a feudal system it may be largely restricted to the landowning classes, whereas in modern day social democracies it is virtually all-encompassing), but the conflict in question is nonetheless the defining feature of every form of statism.

Thus, it turns out that not only is the Hobbesian story highly implausible, but also that implementing the Hobbesian recipe for peace generates the very problem that it was supposed to counter. In other words, Bastiat ("the state is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else") turns Hobbes on his head.

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