Hobbes: The American West and 21st-Century America
In my last post on this topic, we got through Hobbes as relative and Hobbes as overstated. To continue our discussion:
Claim 3: There is a significant difference between political and personal liberty.
Lockeans love to claim themselves the true lovers of liberty, but their liberty is political by nature: the right to vote, the right to free speech, the right to rebel against an unjust leader, etc. 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 is not to say structural issues don’t matter, but they should be seen as means to an end rather than as ends themselves.
Claim 4: The freest nations are the ones with the most effective court, police, and military systems.
By “most effective” I certainly do not mean most expensive; nor do I mean largest or most powerful. If one dedicated protector of peace is enough to prevent Precinct 13 from being overtaken by those who threaten the social contract, then that dedicated protector is more than enough.
In the American Western, the clash between lawlessness and civilization remains a common theme. One of my favorite passages from one of my favorite Westerns, E.L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times, illustrates this thematic tension:
Every time someone puts a little capital into this Territory I’m called in by the Governor and sent on my way. It doesn’t matter I suffer from the rheumatism, nor that I’m past the age of riding a horse’s back. If a man files a claim that yields, there’s a town. If he finds some grass, there’s a town. Does he dig a well? Another town. Does he stop somewhere to ease his bladder, there’s a town. Over this land a thousand times each year towns spring up and it appears I have to charter them all. But to what purpose? The claim pinches out, the grass dies, the well dries up, and everyone will ride off to form up again somewhere else for me to travel. Nothing fixes in this damned country, people blow around at the whiff of the wind. You can’t bring the law to a bunch of rocks, you can’t settle the coyotes, you can’t make a society out of sand. I sometimes think we’re worse than the Indians… What is the name of this place, Hard Times? You are a well-meaning man Mr. Blue, I come across your likes occasionally. I noticed Blackstone on your desk, and Chitty’s Pleadings. Well you can read the law as much as you like but it will be no weapon for the spring when the town swells with people coming to work your road. You need a peace officer but I don’t even see you wearing a gun. I look out of this window and I see cabins, loghouse, cribs, tent, shanty, but I don’t see a jail. You’d better build a jail. You’d better find a shootist and build a jail.
The last time I used this quote in a post was a year ago after the Gabrielle Giffords shooting. I wrote then on the need to take a deep breath and avoid enacting some of the hasty, emotional legislation that was being bandied about (to recap: laws promoting the involuntarily incarceration of “crazy” people, doubling down on gun-control legislation, etc.). As it turns out, the solutions we have developed and refined over generations – the trial, the jury, the jail, the watchful citizen – are the best ones:
It’s tempting to over explain incidents like these by saying they are determined by our culture: the dialectics of the restless American Western mythology and the static comforts of modernity; men who want to watch the world burn and pundits who traffic in firewood; an individualist ethic of self and cold, indifferent pseudo-communities. At times, it seems like we may have even summoned the monster ourselves. But then we must step back, remember where we are, and realize that further destruction comes when the rational controls that order our existence slacken. Evil exists, and while it may be to our benefit to keep that evil away from guns, our best weapon against it is the fortitude within our own souls, the kind of fortitude displayed by Patricia Maisch and Colonel Badger, the kind of fortitude which we should all reflect on before descending into the madness of politics as usual.
Claim 5: We need to accept the existence of evil.
There are no easy solutions to the problem of evil. We need a strong, secure state that fosters peace and prosperity without itself becoming the worst kind of uncontrollable monster. The last ten years–no, the last hundred years of human existence have taught us clearly that, if we are to err on one side of things, we should err on the side of decreased central power; we should secure peace and prosperity while interfering in as few personally-meaningful, peaceful existences as possible.
I’m glad we didn’t overreact to Jared Lee Loughner, because more often than not our overreaction to evil becomes evil itself.