Thomas Hobbes, liberalism's accidental founder

by John MacBeath Watkins

To my way of thinking, Thomas Hobbes was the deepest and most original of the liberal thinkers. Funny thing is, he advocated absolute monarchs. His most famous book, Leviathan, was published in 1651, two years after Charles I was beheaded as the English Civil War worked its way through. Hobbes had Charles II as a pupil while both were exiled in Paris. (Ironically, one of the most influential liberal thinkers to follow Hobbes was John Locke, who was an expatriate living in Paris when he wrote his Two Treatises of Government because he was suspected of collusion in a plot to kill Charles II.)

Leviathan's publication was also only three years after the end of the Thirty Years War, fought largely between protestants and Catholics, though pretty much every grievance got a hearing by the end of things. And by the end of the war, the combatants were bankrupt and populations were depleted, as first foraging armies stole the crops and burned the fields as they retreated, causing famine among the populations and opening the weakened people to disease. The "state of nature" he described was in fact the breakdown of society in the wake of such devastation:

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.

The social contract he described was not some imaginary pact arising from a state of nature so much as an aspiration for a ruined civilization. In the disorder of discredited governments, he wished to give order a new legitimacy. He did so by appealing to human nature, rather than tradition, because tradition was in a shambles, and leaders had done little to cause people to honor them. He suggested, therefore, a selfish reason for people to accede power to the sovereign -- to preserve their own lives. The ruler was legitimate because he or she enforced a peace in the war of each against all, preserving people from violent death.

In short, to save us from violent death, the state must be granted a monopoly on violence. It was a new logic of legitimacy.

But Hobbes did more than that. He gave us an entire system of value that could make sense of the chaos. It was a subjective system of value that could operate even when tradition was discredited or forgotten.

The Value, or WORTH of a man, is as of all other things, his Price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his Power: and therefore is not absolute; but a thing dependant on the need and judgement of another. An able conductor of Souldiers, is of great Price in time of War present, or imminent; but in Peace not so. A learned and uncorrupt Judge, is much Worth in time of Peace; but not so much in War. And as in other things, so in men, not the seller, but the buyer determines the Price. For let a man (as most men do,) rate themselves as the highest Value they can; yet their true Value is no more than it is esteemed by others.

One reason for the failure of Marxism was that it never had a workable system of value. Hobbes' formulation may sound philistine, but the notion of value as a thing "dependent on the need and judgment" of people was revolutionary. In Chapter X of Leviathan, he lays out how the objective notions of value -- being born of influential parents, for example -- boil down to what people think of a person.

These notions -- that society should suit human nature, that government depends for its legitimacy on the needs of the governed, that value is a matter of judgment, a thing negotiated between people -- had their own logic, which did not lead in the direction of the absolute monarch Hobbes himself advocated. Elections and markets were more obvious ways of allowing people to make their judgments known that allowing sons to succeed fathers on the throne.

So the monarchist became the founder of liberalism, not because of where he said his logic led, but because of where it did lead.