As a historian of political thought, I’m compelled to consider what we might learn from some of the great historical thinkers. Several scholars and authors have already identified one of the most obvious sources: 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). As the author of the “Leviathan,” perhaps the greatest work of political philosophy ever written in English, he is most associated with two doctrines: the state of nature and the sovereign Leviathan.
Hobbes believed that government’s prime responsibility is ensuring the safety of citizens’ lives
To understand the origins and purpose of government, Hobbes invented a thought experiment he called the “state of nature,” in which he imagined humanity without government, laws or any organized society. Given human nature, which he argued is a compound of egoism, competitiveness, vanity and mutual distrust, he envisioned the state of nature as a state of war, of every individual against one another, leading life to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” To escape the resulting fear of violent death, according to Hobbes, individuals would be motivated to sign a contract with one another to halt the war, transferring their right to be violent against one another to an all-powerful government, or Leviathan.
In considering the impulse to reopen the economy, as many are now insisting, Hobbes would ask us to contemplate our priorities. For Hobbes, when people are genuinely fearful of losing their lives, “there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain.” In other words, he would argue that securing citizens’ lives is foremost, because it is a precondition for having an economy. People will largely refrain from economic activity so long as they fear dying from it. It’s easy to imagine how this would play out in the coronavirus era. Even when communities open up their businesses, it’s difficult to imagine large numbers of customers risking their lives to buy scented candles, for example.
States may allow businesses to open, but most customers will stay away so long as they fear for their lives — and businesses won’t bring in the numbers necessary to move the economic needle. And where there are open businesses that cater to those who don’t feel threatened by the coronavirus, such as the bar patrons in Wisconsin, they pose a significant threat to those with whom they will subsequently interact.
Second, from a Hobbesian point of view, the fear of death threatens to undermine society. That’s significant because reopening schools, businesses and the like threatens to multiply deaths significantly. One of government’s central responsibilities is to protect citizens’ lives. According to Hobbes, the Leviathan’s foremost responsibility is “safety of the people, to which he is obliged by the law of nature.” If a sovereign is unable to provide that safety, the consequence is tumult and the unthinkable return to the state of nature, where people are threatened not only by a virus, in infectious times, but also by one another in the absence of effective governmental authority.
The emergence of armed citizens threatening state authorities is already raising serious questions along Hobbesian lines. If citizens feel they are empowered to challenge state authority with loaded weapons, they will only hasten a return to Hobbes’s state of nature. The appropriate response to such displays, for Hobbes, is for the government to reestablish the fear of its “coercive power to compel men … by the terror of some punishment.”
To put this bluntly in Hobbesian terms, when a government fails to take seriously its mandate to protect the lives of its citizens, it flirts with inviting violent revolution, chaos and mass casualties. Indeed, Hobbes probably thought of this specifically when contemplating plagues; he was the first English translator of Thucydides’s “History of the Peloponnesian War,” which includes an account of social breakdown brought by the Athenian plague.
Hobbes believed government’s second responsibility was protection from poverty
Third, many careful readers of Hobbes’s work overlook his concern to meet the needs of the poor. He wrote, “What grieves and discontents the human spirit more than anything else is poverty; or want of the essentials for the preservation of life and dignity.” Pursuing this line of thought further in “Leviathan,” Hobbes insisted, “no king can be rich nor glorious nor secure, whose subjects are poor or contemptible or too weak through want.”
Hobbes’s lesson: If the sovereign wants to keep its job, it must care for the needs of the poor. Before the pandemic, about 46 percent of Americans reported being unsure that they could afford an unexpected $400 car repair. Roughly 36.5 million Americans have now filed for unemployment, bringing joblessness to rates not seen since the Great Depression. With businesses shuttered and more expecting to fail, poverty may soon become an overwhelming problem. For Hobbes, this demands the government’s full attention.
As a result, Hobbesian reasoning strongly advises that all calls to reopen the economy be subordinated to a focus on preserving human life. At the same time, governments should focus on meeting the needs of the poor — not by sacrificing lives uselessly, in a vain attempt to fill the wallets of people who fear for their lives, but rather by meeting their tangible needs, such as providing food, medical care and housing.
Thinking about what Hobbes might say about the pandemic and its accompanying economic devastation may give us both a richer sense of the “humane” Hobbes, and, potentially, sensible public policy.
David Lay Williams is a professor of political science at DePaul University. He is writing a book, “The Greatest of All Plagues: Economic Inequality in Western Political Thought,” to be published by Princeton University Press, which includes a chapter on Thomas Hobbes’s political economy.