Hobbes: The American West and 21st-Century America

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Christopher Carr

Christopher Carr does stuff and writes about stuff.

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  1. Avatar Murali
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    This!

    Especially

    Hobbesians are most concerned with the first of Locke’s three  inalienable rights: the right to a peaceful existence, wherein personally-meaningful activities can be pursued. That is to say, peace and stability trump discussions of essentials. As long as I am effectively free, that is all that counts. Who cares about the structure of our legislative process or checks-and-balances or bipartisanship or whatever so long as I am able to pursue freely my chosen career of saxophonist?

    That’s the core of my views on democracy.Report

  2. Avatar Stillwater
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    Nice CC. Here’s a few quibbles.

    There is a significant difference between political and personal liberty.

    Indeed there is. But personal liberties become codified as political liberties (to the best approximation!) not because of practice (or whatever) but due to a normative argument. They derive from a specific conception of the good. And insofar as people dispute the limits of liberty, those boundaries need to be codified, otherwise societies would never (conceptually!) make it out of the state of nature.

    This leads to a more general criticism of the line I think you’re pursuing here: that people are free only until there is a government in place. But that’s false. Liberty is restricted by power differentials that materialize even in the state of nature – where might makes right. So it’s entirely consistent with the Hobbesian ideal of peace that it is attained by coercive private power, power which restricts some folk’s liberty to maximize other’s. But in order to maximize everyone’s personal liberty, those liberties need to be codified. And historically, those codifications constituted real restrictions how private power could act, either on it’s own or as a proxy for government legitimized by Hobbesian ‘consent’.

    The freest nations are the ones with the most effective court, police, and military systems.

    This is trivially true because it’s true under any conceptions of liberties, values and rights. That’s why the set of actionable personal liberties needs to be justified as well as codified. That there is some limited set of  minimally necessary – and for some people sufficient – principles P (rather than P’) which a just government legitimized by consent ought to protect and promote requires argument. However, people argue for different sets of principles, and that suggests that the political problem of consent can’t be determined simply by the dictates of the sovereign.

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    • Avatar Murali in reply to Stillwater
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       But personal liberties become codified as political liberties (to the best approximation!) not because of practice (or whatever) but due to a normative argument. They derive from a specific conception of the good. And insofar as people dispute the limits of liberty, those boundaries need to be codified, otherwise societies would never (conceptually!) make it out of the state of nature.

      Stillwater, I’m not sure how the above obtains. Unless we have differ on what we mean by political liberties. I’ve got a feeling that by political liberties you mean those liberties which are guaranteed and supported by a particular political arrangement (e.g. a constitutional democracy). On the other hand, when I talk about political liberties, I am talking about liberties associated with the pursuit of political ends (choosing your senator or president or whatever). Mr Carr’s passage above makes more sense under my notion of political liberties but less so under yours. (and I’ve got the sense that mine is the more standard use of the term)Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Murali
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        You’re confused. I’m confused about what you’re confused about, which makes me generally confused. Hmmm.

        Can you elaborate more on the distinction you think I’ve missed here?

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        • Avatar Murali in reply to Stillwater
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          Can you elaborate more on the distinction you think I’ve missed here?

          I agree with you that liberties need to be codified and that this codification necessarily restricts some of the liberties of some private individuals as with regards to how they may exert private power on their own behalf and as a proxy for the state.

          Where I differ with you is on a terminological point. Just because I codify a personal liberty doesnt mean I turn it into a political liberty. (I’m interpreting you as saying that it does).

          So, when Hobbes and Christopher Carr say that the political liberties are instrumental to the other liberties, they are saying that things like separation of powers and the right to vote are only valuable insofar as they deliver freedom of speech, religion, of the person (i.e. security), private property etc etc.

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          • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to Murali
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            Murali, I’m interested if you think Rawls and Hobbes can be reconciled and how.Report

            • Avatar Murali in reply to Christopher Carr
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              Yup. The Hobbesian argument is very simply that Leviathan is justified because Leviatan (whatever it turns out to be) is the thing that puts an end to the war of all against all. The argument is not complete however. There is still a question as to whether the war of all against all is a more just arrangement than one in which Leviathan or said alternative operates. In order to do that, we need to  employ some principles of justice such that we can establish an appropriate standard to compare arrangements. Rawls’s original position establishes those standards.Report

              • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to Murali
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                So you would say that Rawls justifies Hobbes’s endorsement of a state (even a night-watchman one)? If Rousseau were correct, would Rawls’s original position justify anarchism?Report

              • Avatar Murali in reply to Christopher Carr
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                Rousseau is tough. In Rousseau’s state of nature, people are not good, so much as innocentin a garden of Eden kind of way. Civilisation plays a similar role to that of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. The difference is this. Whereas the fruit of the tree is necessarily corrupting, Rousseau’s civilisation is corrupting only because of the actual historical contingencies about the way civilisation has developed. Presumably, civilisation could develop in some way that would bring out the best in people. i.e. the right kind of social institutions are edifying while the bad kinds are corrupting.

                In that way, Rousseau is a bit like Marx and Gerald Cohen. Presumably in both the ideal society and the idyllic state of nature, people would not make claims against each other. People would not say this is mine and this is thine. Rather, everything would belong to evryone and everyone would not mind putting in their fair share.

                However, Rawls’s theory has no purchase on situations where people don’t want to make claims against each other. Rawls thinks of the principles of justice as a kind of solution to a particular problem: How should we resolve conflicts of interest? However in Rousseau’s state of nature, there are no conflicts of interest.Report

          • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Murali
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            Murali, thanks for clearing that up. I am using (and understanding) the term ‘political liberties’ more broadly than either you or CC are in thread and as primarily referring to what we call civil liberties as well as liberties. So you’re right that on your understanding of the term – the correct one – the picture I presented makes no sense: codifying (or even identifying!) any specific set of political liberties isn’t necessary for conceptually justifying movement out of a state of nature, hence, it isn’t necessary for justifying government. All that’s necessary, it seems to me, is a) the identification of mutually agreed upon general principles (a set of liberties) and b) a government to enforce those mutually agreed upon principles.

            Where do political liberties come into play, then? On your view, they come into play only after government has been granted authority to enforce contracts (agreements, etc.), that is, after we’ve (conceptually) moved out of the state of nature. So the set of specific political liberties D isn’t necessary to justify government. Rather, those liberties are only instrumental liberties which are justified (or not) depending on how effectively they achieve the Hobbesian goal of maintaining peace and stability. (Is that about right?)

            But I think that’s precisely where things get a little murky, or murky for me anyway. If consent is necessary for the legitimacy of government in the initial case (to justify movement out of the state of nature, say) then some mechanism to ensure continued consent is also necessary. And that mechanism, if codified, will be a political liberty. I think you’re correct that this political liberty may not be conceptually necessary within the state of nature. (Tho I think it is conceptually necessary behind the veil of ignorance.) But it’s surely a necessary condition on the continued justification of government if consent is to remain operative.

            And that gets to the last paragraph you wrote above: that political liberties are instrumental liberties justified – presumably – insofar as the expression of those liberties fosters peace and stability. Personally, I’d say it a bit differently. Political liberties are instrumental values wrt maintaining peace and stability as an end, but they’re a necessary condition (at least, some formal mechanism is necessary) for the continued expression of consent by the governed, hence a necessary condition on the legitimacy of government.

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            • Avatar Murali in reply to Stillwater
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              the set of specific political liberties D isn’t necessary to justify government. Rather, those liberties are only instrumental liberties which are justified (or not) depending on how effectively they achieve the Hobbesian goal of maintaining peace and stability. (Is that about right?)

              about there.

              If consent is necessary for the legitimacy of government in the initial case (to justify movement out of the state of nature, say) then some mechanism to ensure continued consent is also necessary. And that mechanism, if codified, will be a political liberty. I think you’re correct that this political liberty may not be conceptually necessary within the state of nature. (Tho I think it is conceptually necessary behind the veil of ignorance.) But it’s surely a necessary condition on the continued justification of government if consent is to remain operative.

              This is where I will pick the nit. On my thinking, it is not about the consent. The hypothetical consent of people in a state of nature (few of us find ourselves in such a state of civil unrest as to approximate a state of nature) is an analytic device (and maybe even a bit of a rhetorical tool) to pick out what is really important. If hypothetically, rational people will contract to form governments because it secures their persons, liberties etc, then the hypothetical consent only serves to highlight what is truly important (the rights, liberties, security etc). i.e. the state is justified not merely because we would agree to it in some contrived situation, the state is justified because it secures some goods that could not be otherwise secured. In thei case, it would be the personal, civil and economic liberties. All this means is that any kind of political arrangement is better, the better it expresses these features. Why is it that these particular features are what make any particular arrangement just (or how can we know?) We can know by asking what would be rational to choose. So, its the same as with political liberties. Some kind of political arrangement is necessary. The one that would be best is the one that is best able to satisfy the principles of justice. Because of this,consent need not play a part.Report

    • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to Stillwater
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      “This leads to a more general criticism of the line I think you’re pursuing here: that people are free only until there is a government in place.”

      I’m only pursuing that argument in the sense that “free” means the absence of external coercive control, so I guess people’d be “free” by certain definition. However, I’ll certainly agree that power differentials exist in the state of nature, be they “Big Men”, familial, Thulsa Doom-like villains, or even just disease and death by the elements and all the other evils even the most authoritarian proto-civilizations protect against.

      Essentially, the position I’m advancing here is a marginal minarchism rooted in Hobbes and heavily based on Maslow’s hierarchy (see BlaiseP’s comment below) which I see as itself heavily-influenced by or consistent with Hobbes.

      I’ll agree that liberties do need to be codified, but I think the way this should happen is nuanced and layered. The best check we have on undesirable behavior (I’ll agree with your point that we need a concept of “the good”) is the will of the community: shunning, refusal to do business with undesirables, etc. – the sort of thing that is well-illustrated by this season’s Republican Primary’s cyclical examination and rejection of various candidates. For the most part, societies try to foster this sort of behavior when it is desirable and impede it when it is undesirable, but we do this empirically (i.e. after something goes wrong, we try to put a “plug” in our legal/social structure to make sure it doesn’t happen again.) and things can and have gone wildly wrong a la the War on Terror. When we do codify things, it makes it more permanent, more difficult to undo, so if there is a mistake, we’re more screwed than if we had just come up with some ad hoc solution.

      By political liberties I mean things like the right to vote and run for office. These liberties are not prime in and of themselves. They are means to the ends of peace and prosperity. A lot of people will seriously argue that whatever political structure we have is fine so long as the people have the right to vote to change things (look at the failures of nation-building). I think this is a dangerous way of looking at liberty in society. We should be saying: whatever political structure we have is fine so long as that structure maximizes personal liberties; oh, and, for the most part, this political structure has been a limited representative democracy. Things like the Bill of Rights and protections against the tyranny of the majority can exist more comfortably in the latter.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Christopher Carr
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        CC, thanks for elaborating. I agree with a lot of what you wrote here in broad outline. I’m less inclined to think that social pressures (from within the community, say) will lead to greater liberty for all, or even lead to greater liberty in any event – too much of liberal progress is defined by trying to rectify injustices created and perpetuated by culturally entrenched behaviors. So even tho we both agree that personal liberties ought to be codified, I think I take it further than you’d be comfortable with.

        Re: political liberties, I wrote a more about this upthread, but in short I think my worry amounts to this: political liberties are instrumental to achieving peace and stability, but are necessary for the continued justification of government.

        Or here’s another way to say it: insofar as government is necessary to achieve peace and stability, then a mechanism (a political liberty of some kind) to ensure continued consent of the governed will also be necessary. I think this general claim follows necessarily from Hobbesian principles, while the specific type of mechanism can and often will vary.Report

        • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to Stillwater
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          Once you have peace and stability, the natural next step is to concentrate on the achievement of other goals, like freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but the idea that freedom of speech and freedom of the press will keep peace and stability is misguided I think. The only thing that can keep peace and stability is force or the threat of force.Report

  3. Avatar Matty
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    I’m not sure you can so neatly separate the personal and political. Sure your career as a saxophonist may not need regular elections or the separation of powers but it does need some way of keeping you from a law against saxaphone music and those other things may turn out to be the most effective means to that end.Report

  4. Avatar BlaiseP
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    There are various ways of defining political liberty, varying by how we view politics.   In a pinch, mankind will settle for a dictator if he provides security.   Hobbes sorta cuts to the chase here, a bit prematurely by some people’s lights, but a thorough reading of Hobbes and Locke reveal they’re arguing from different perspectives.   They’re not really in contradiction:  Isaiah Berlin lays out the larger picture in Two Concepts of Liberty.  There really is no Money Quote to sum up what Berlin’s saying here.   It must be read in its entirety and I suppose many of you know it very well indeed.

    But let’s say a society is reasonably untroubled by security considerations, beyond the usual petty crimes and such.   In Japan, if you lose your umbrella, some dutiful soul will take it to the nearest police box and turn it in:  there’s actually a problem finding storage for all these lost possessions.   In Monaco, if you leave your purse on the park bench, the gendarmes will find you and bring it back.

    In a well-ordered society such as mentioned above, the people might then have the luxury of thinking about higher level freedoms.   They’d want freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, independent judiciaries, the niceties of a civil society.   As with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, as each level of necessity is met, the next level awaits.

    Is this a means and ends problem?   Or is this a sort of balancing act, where the needs of the many are balanced against the needs of the individual?   Much of this Rugged Individualist mythology of the American West is specious:  in rural America, people do help each other in ways which might surprise you.

    I live in rural America.   It’s hard to hide out here:  everyone knows everyone else far too well.  The most violent troublemakers in rural America these days are the methamphetamine makers.   They work out here because methamphetamine stinks to high heaven.   I’d argue security problems arise mostly in the context of anonymity.   The stagecoach robbers of old relied on hanging out on the well-traveled routes, exactly as ambush predators have always operated.

    Do we need to accept the existence of Evil?   There are certainly evil people insofar as they do evil things.   But who gets to say what’s evil and what’s not?   Early in Basic Training, probably the first day, we were told “Opportunity makes the thief.   Lock your possessions up so you won’t tempt the people around you to steal.”   Evil is always good for someone in the short term:  the thief gains possession of things which don’t belong to him.   The dreadful scene which unfolded the other day in Santa Maria California, several police officers were obliged to shoot a fellow officer who they were trying to arrest.

    Tragic stuff.   But I’m not sure our freedoms, positive or negative, have anything to do with the centralization of power.   Hobbes makes this point himself, every form of government has its own deficiencies and the odds of tyranny go up with the number of people involved, reaching its nadir in the famous bellum omnium contra omnes, the tyranny of the majority.   Evil is what it does.   Evil is distinguished by the excuses it makes for its actions.Report

  5. Avatar Matty
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    the odds of tyranny go up with the number of people involved, reaching its nadir in the famous bellum omnium contra omnes, the tyranny of the majority.

    There are two ways to interperet ‘number of people involved’  you could mean the number of police and other enforcers or the number of people who can influence decisions. If the later I’m skeptical, are your odds of experiencing tyranny higher or lower in representative democracies compared to less representative systems. My gut backed by what I’ve read of history and current affairs says lower but I haven’t exactly done a comparative study. Maybe there are nations run by a dictator where individuals have more control of their own lives than in democracies but it is at least suggestive that none come to mind.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Matty
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      Hobbes observes a monarch is less susceptible to bribes, not because he won’t take them, nor yet that he won’t dole out favours to his family, nor that they won’t take bribes, but that there will be fewer such bribe-takers and sinecures if power is concentrated in the hands of the few and for no other reason.

      A tyrant can govern with the larger picture in mind.   Now (hands up)  I’m sure nobody wants a tyrant, what with the negative connotations, but at some point in the political system someone has to make a tough decision.   Look at our current system, these Congressional jamokes don’t vote their consciences or even the bottom line:  it’s all about party politics, what’s best for their faction, not what’s best for the country as a whole, hell, not even for their own local constituents most of the time.   Some folks might find gridlock a blessing of sorts, well, after the latest budget go-round, I have changed my mind on that subject.

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      • Avatar Matty in reply to BlaiseP
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        Granted every system has flaws, I still see no evidence that the factionalism and delays of the US congress are worse for individuals than the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice or even that quality of life increases as electoral politics decreases. If anything the relationship runs the other way.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Matty
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          I see plenty of evidence.   Look at the PATRIOT Act.  I’ll just stop right there and let you respond to that bit of evidence to what happens when a panicked Congress overreacts.   Groupthink is a mighty engine of stupidity.Report

          • Avatar Matty in reply to BlaiseP
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            Perhaps I’m not putting this right. I’ll accept that terrible things, even terrible attacks on individual rights happen in democracies, what I have trouble with is the implication that things are better in states without liberal democracy.

            The PATRIOT Act is awful no doubt but if you want to claim that the average inhabitant of the US is less free than the average inhabitant of Saudi Arabia I’m going to want a little detail.

            This report is far from perfect but makes some effort to disentangle civil liberties like from political rights, I’mtrying to find a way to look at the relationship between the two simply and will get back to you.Report

            • Avatar Matty in reply to Matty
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              OK that took far too long but briefly the two categories were almost perfectly correlated.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Matty
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              Any sentence with a “but” in it might as well start with No.  Read the Isaiah Berlin piece and you’ll get the drift of my argument here.   While we have the PATRIOT Act in effect, so much for the Fourth Amendment.   It has been effectively repealed.

              If I am a legislator or a ruler, I must assume that if the law I impose is rational (and I can consult only my own reason) it will automatically be approved by all the members of my society so far as they are rational beings. For if they disapprove,they must, pro tanto, be irrational; then they will need to be repressed by reason: whether their own or mine cannot matter, for the pronouncements of reason must be the same in all minds. I issue my orders and, if you resist, take it upon myself to repress the irrational element in you which opposes reason. My task would be easier if you repressed it in yourself; I try to educate you to do so. But I am responsible for public welfare, I cannot wait until all men are wholly rational. Kant may protest that the essence of the subject’s freedom is that he, and he alone, has given himself the order to obey. But this is a counsel of perfection. If you fail to discipline yourself, I must do so for you; and you cannot complain of lack of freedom, for the fact that Kant’s rational judge has sent you to prison is evidence that you have not listened to your own inner reason, that, like a child, a savage, an idiot,you are not ripe for self-direction, or permanently incapable of it.

              If this leads to despotism, albeit by the best or the wisest – to Sarastro’s temple in The Magic Flute – but still despotism, which turns out to be identical with freedom, can it be that there is something amiss in the premises of the argument? That the basic assumptions are themselves somewhere at fault? Let me state them once more: first, that all men have one true purpose, and one only, that of rational self-direction; second, that the ends of all rational beings must of necessity fit into a single universal, harmonious pattern, which some men may be able to discern more clearly than others; third, that all conflict, and consequently all tragedy, is due solely to the clash of reason with the irrational or the insufficiently rational – the immature and undeveloped elements in life, whether individual or communal – and that such clashes are, in principle, avoidable, and for wholly rational beings impossible; finally, that when all men have been made rational, they will obey the rational laws of their own natures, which are one and the same in them all, and so be at once wholly law-abiding and wholly free. Can it be that Socrates and the creators of the central Western tradition in ethics and politics who followed him have been mistaken, for more than two millennia, that virtue is not knowledge, nor freedom identical with either? That despite the fact that it rules the lives of more men than ever before in its long history, not one of the basic assumptions of this famous view is demonstrable, or, perhaps, even true?

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              • Avatar Matty in reply to BlaiseP
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                Did you actually read what I wrote?

                OK that took far too long but briefly the two categories were almost perfectly correlated.

                You appear to want to turn that into ‘the two categories are not correlated’ because I said that even though it took a long time to get the numbers from the pdf to a spreadsheet then make a scatter chart I got the result I wanted.

                But lets cut to the chase.

                You as an American have less personal freedom than the average Saudi resident.

                True or False?Report

  6. Avatar Jason Kuznicki
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    says:

    As long as I am effectively free, that is all that counts. Who cares about the structure of our legislative process or checks-and-balances or bipartisanship or whatever so long as I am able to pursue freely my chosen career of saxophonist?

    Without the structure, how long will that freedom last?Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Matty
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      says:

      Obviously we’re doing okay as a nation if we’re not as bad as Stalin!

      I propose, then, 99% of the Gulag.  An exact historical replica, right down to the lice and the typhus.  Except once, at random, for every hundred prisoners, we’ll release one.

      That should be enough to isolate us from any possible criticism, right?Report

  7. Avatar Matty
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    I’m obviously not being clear.

    Things I am not arguing.

    • Democracy is perfect
    • Democracy never hurts individual rights
    • Only the very worst should be criticised

    Things I am arguing

    • Overall your chances of being a victim of tyranny are lower in nations with elected governments than in those without.

    Now what is the argument against that, where are the examples of a Hobbesian Leviathan where the average citizen has more control of their own life than the average citizen of a liberal democracy?

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  8. Avatar Citizen
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    I lived a decade near a town of 200 without a police, judge, codified law or a single federal employee of any kind. I must say it was the most peaceful place I recall seeing. A patrol would pass through once a month and ask about the issues, which amounted to mostly kid acting as kids do.

    Haven’t seen a more peaceful town since.

    I concluded that peaceful people live peacefully with freedom.

    Start  suppressing liberty, add jails with massive quatities of codified law and stupidly high numbers of law enforcement, (all for the good of the people) and you end up with non-peaceful people living non-peacefully.

    Whats so civil about civilization?Report

  9. Avatar Citizen
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    I wont give the exact name as I would hate to see it turn into a case study. The general area is mid-western Oklahoma near the South Canadian river.Report

    • Avatar Christopher Carr in reply to Citizen
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      Okay, so my response would be that that town is an island, surrounded by the leviathan. Its supply of food, its roads, the comfortable conditions that abound in many places in times of peace are there precisely because there is no threat of outside force – there are no Roman conquerors or Mongol hordes, no famines or floods.Report

  10. Avatar Citizen
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    I propose the leviathon is the island, artificial and massive enough you have to travel a distance away to see it for what it is. Most people who live beyond its shadow would not agree that it provides food, shelter or some peace of mind about stability.Report

  11. Avatar James Hanley
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    says:

    Chris,

    Thanks for tying in Hobbes to the American West.  My wife hates Westerns, seeing them as “cowboy movies,” just for dudes.  I see them as Hobbesian political theory–every classic western is about the state of nature and attempts to overcome the war of all against all.Report

  12. Avatar Robert Cheeks
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    The tension between order and disorder always rests on the will of the people to freely choose the good.Report

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