Some of the thinking I didn’t do at the gym yesterday has been going on in the background of my mind for a few days. Since Monday’s audio meet up and Tuesday’s discussion of libertarianism I’ve been considering my basic concept of humanity. For my general formulation of good governance to be true the underlying assumptions about people have to be accurate. This is a struggle I go through from time to time, but in the end I always cautiously side with hope rather than experience.
The two basic conceptions of man can be found in John Locke’s 2nd Treatise and Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. In short, the former believed mankind capable of living in peace while the latter understood strife and conflict as the natural way of things. Out of the first grows our system of government where each person is at liberty to live as he sees fit so long as his liberty does not hinder that of another. Government exists primarily to protect such a society from external threats and to settle disputes arising when individual liberties become mutually exclusive. On these concepts conservatism (and even libertarianism) finds a solid foundation.
Growing out of the Hobbesian understanding of humanity, however, is a great and powerful centralized authority. Modern liberalism, whether aware of this root or not, takes its nutriment from the humus cultivated by Hobbes in the mid 1600s. Within this understanding, mankind’s inability to live in peace requires a strong authority for its very survival. Every person who would live in peace must first surrender his liberty to the great sovereign or be left outside of society to fend for himself against the might of the collective and the brutality of nature.
Obviously, Locke’s theory is to be preferred to Hobbes’. In one there is hope; in the other the only hope is in servitude to another. The former leads to a fragile (but contented) peace; the latter leads to a rigid (but joyless) stability. But, who is right? When one stands aside and views humanity what understanding of the way of mankind rings true? I ask the question because faith in my fellow man is often shaken by the behavior I see around me. Sadly, the state of war of all against all can be readily seen in places it should be least expected. Ever watch the stands at a youth sporting event? Ever watch the cars exiting a busy church parking lot? Seen any Republican presidential primaries lately?
If people really do suck, if irrational self interest rules the mind of man, then Hobbes very well could be right. Sadly, his theory of governance becomes a very rational option if this is so. We conservatives and libertarians are spitting into the wind and striving to turn back the tide of humanity if Hobbes is correct. My only defense against despair when I consider this is that the sovereign to whom I would be forced to bend a knee would be one of the selfish asshats who make the whole thing necessary in the first place. Hobbes’ theory becomes rational but impossible. Only Locke remains, but there also remains humanity, striving against him at every freeway onramp.