Resonant Hobbes

Christopher Carr

Christopher Carr does stuff and writes about stuff.

Related Post Roulette

54 Responses

  1. LeeEsq says:

    FDR once famously observed that the necesitious person is not a free person. If a person needs to worry about the basic necesities of life like clothing, food, and shelter that person can not really be free to reach his or her full potential because the task of surviving day to day take precedent over everything else like music or art or science. FDR also thought that one reason why ideologues like you know get power is because are necesitous and scared and are looking for help. In order to prevent this and allow for people to be free, the state needs to provide material security for its citizens. We can call this a liberal Hobbesian point of view.

    Hayek took an opposite point of view and argued that this will only lead to dependence upon the state and that a dependent person can not be a free person because they can not live without their source of support. Most children in the developed world receive their necesities from their parents and a bit of luxury as well but aren’t really free. This is a rightist anti-Hobbesian cosmology.

    The evidence is inconclusive either way. There have been lots of societies where people lacked security in various forms and were terribly creative. Russia during most of the 19th and 20th century was a good example of this. The masses were stuck in tremendous poverty even though things were kind of getting better and the Tsarist system was not that good at providing traditional security either. It produced some of the most important works of art in human history both in literature and music and more than a fair bit of important scientific discoveries. There were also countries that provided a lot of traditional and material security for its subjects and are tremendously creative. Post-WWII France is an example of this. Countries like Pakistan and Somalia aren’t good at providing security to their citizens but haven’t produced much in terms of creative achievement. More than a developed countries are great at giving security but haven’t produced much either. What has Luxemberg given the world?

    I hope I’m interpreting this post correctly.Report

    • J@m3z Aitch in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Good comment, but Hayek wasn’t rightist, and explicitly rejected rightism.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Hayek considered himself a classic liberal or something as such but his world view is taken up by the right side of the political spectrum usually even if he did not count himself as one. He also most clearly contrasts the left-liberal opinion on this subject. I could have used Nozick to I suppose.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Also, if you read my comment I never referred to Hayek as a rightist. I just said that he took the opposite point of view to FDR’s argument that the necessitous person is not a free person.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        But I dispute that that is so simoky defined as a rightist position.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:


      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        “simply.” I have endless troubles trying to type on an IPad.Report

      • Chris in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Hayek wasn’t rightist, and explicitly rejected rightism.

        This highlights something that really bugs me about the American political “spectrum” and the limitations that come with its flatness. Once upon a time, right and left weren’t associated with things like degrees of statism, but with larger political and social philosophies that utilized the state in different ways, such that there were right socialists and left socialist (even within the Soviet Union!), right anarchists and left anarchists, right and left liberal democratic statists, and so on. Today, you’re either on the left or the right, where “left” is largely associated with explicit state intervention in the market and the “right” with either reduced state involvement in the market or at least a focus on state intervention in the social and cultural realms. Neither is particularly accurate in our current political system, and neither provides much flexibility for describing, much less explaining, ideological diversity within that system.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:


        I suppose that’s what you get with the end of history.Report

      • Chris in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        James, or at least when even political parties billion dollar industries.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Of course with infkation a billion dollars doesn’t buy as many votes as it used to (thanks a lot, Obama!).Report

      • Chris in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        If only buying candidates were where the money was.Report

      • Kim in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        What inflation? Hasn’t it been at something under 4% for all of Obama’s presidency?Report

      • morat20 in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        What inflation? Hasn’t it been at something under 4% for all of Obama’s presidency?

        It’s been under two percent.

        I suspect James was being sarcastic, though I suppose he could be one of the people who think the inflation numbers are rigged but I doubt it. 🙂Report

      • j r in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Hayek considered himself a classic liberal or something as such but his world view is taken up by the right side of the political spectrum usually even if he did not count himself as one. He also most clearly contrasts the left-liberal opinion on this subject. I could have used Nozick to I suppose.

        As others have pointed out there are problems with the spectrum model of political ideology. For one, if you go far enough in any one direction the left becomes indistinguishable from the right, so it becmes more of a circle.

        With regards to Hayek, he plotted out the classical liberal position as one that is specifically different from either the progressive or the conservative position. See his essay, “Why I am not a conservative” (

        Also, even though he may be best known for The Road to Serfdom, his Constitution of Liberty is a much longer, more thought-out meditation the value of freedom within the framework of a state and how best to make the welfare state accommodating to freedom and liberty.

        To say that you can’t be free without freedom from want is to make freedom an essentially meaningless concept. And I suspect that’s a bit of what FDR was up to.Report

    • Roger in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Thought provoking piece.

      I do have concerns with the way you jump back and forth between freedom (both versions), progress and stability.

      Although I would agree that destruction and chaos in the streets are antithetical to progress, I do not believe stability is sufficient for progress. Indeed, I would suggest that progress requires change, change is disruptive and that too much emphasis on stability can and often does choke off progress. Seems like the balance is to allow and encourage change and experimentation and risk, while ensuring the system is robust enough to avoid spinning out of control. Edge of chaos, so to speak.Report

  2. Burt Likko says:

    …[T]he freest nations are the ones with the most effective court, police, and military systems. Such well-controlled societies, by defending themselves against the evils of the natural world (and of conflict with other societies), best allow their citizens to go about their chosen activities.

    The most effective court, police, and (frequently) military systems are found not in free societies but totalitarian ones. The court, police, and military systems, by which the will of the rulers are implemented, are ruthlessly effective and efficient.

    The defining trait of a free society is the subornation of the will of the rulers as well as the rule-enforcers to the command of universally-applicable laws coupled with the presence of laws about laws (a concept which Anglo-American lawyers frequently call “due process”). When the law itself is sovereign over even the law-makers and the law-enforcers, then the law-abiders benefit substantially. This dovetails into the general thought of the OP that enforcement and honor given to the law is an inherent good as well as one which produces a variety of good effects.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Burt Likko says:

      It depends on how you are defining effectiveness. If you define part of effectiveness as the average person being immune from arbitrary punishment from law enforcing while going about their daily lives than democratic countries provide the most effective court, police, and military systems. In a dictatorship of various stripes, a person can be arrested simply for having a vague association with dissidents or for no reason at all. The judgment a person receives in a court, assuming that they go through the nicety of providing a trial, can be arbitrarily harsh or generous.

      In China, all religious activity must take place through five state approved and run religious associations. There is one for the Catholics, two for the Protestants, one for Muslims, one for Buddhists, and one for Taoists. Naturally a lot of people do not like worshipping at what they see as an organ of government and there are various underground non-governmental religious organizations. In some parts of China, officials allow these underground religious organizations to exist and in other parts they are persecuted very fiercely with raids on services, fines, and arrest and detention without trial. This isn’t providing effective security because the average Chinese person does not know whether or not she can worship as she choices. It all depends on the leniency of officials.

      Democratic societies might not be able to have effective court, police, and military systems in the sense that every criminal is caught and apprehended. They are effective in that most people know that they can go about their lives without too much problems or if that they get in trouble with the law, the law does not always win.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to LeeEsq says:

        FTR, I’m defining “effective” with respect to law enforcement as “the degree to which activity contrary to the positive law is either detected and punished, or deterred.” In a perfectly effective law enforcement regime, all crime that was actually committed would be promptly detected and punished. “Effectiveness,” in other words, relates to the potency of the system.

        The measure of justice within the law is a different axis than “effectiveness” as I’ve undertaken to use that phrase. Perhaps Chris meant something different by “effective” than this, something more akin to the substantive fairness within the law that @leeesq describes.

        My problem with that definition of “effectiveness” is that while we might imagine a society with perfectly just and fair laws, but also with police, courts, and other implements of justice so weak that the laws were routinely ignored with effective impunity. This seems to me a fair but ineffective system and not a desirable state of affairs. Preferable perhaps to a society like the Oceania of George Orwell’s 1984, one with a strong and powerful legal system, albeit a substantively unfair and unjust one.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Even under your definition of effectiveness are authoritarian regimes really effective? They tend to be effective only because the cast a wide net and are willing to punish people simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time rather than actual guilt. This leaves the citizenry in a state of abject terror in many cases.

        Our courts, police, and military are not weak. They make mistakes more often than they should. At the same time most people have a certain degree of trust in them. They are usually respected institutions. They try to find and only punish the actually guilty even if they can get over zealous at times.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Perhaps the legal system in a place like, say, Myanmar, or Cuba, isn’t all that “effective” under this definition. There is crime everywhere, after all. And if a police officer, prosecutor, judge, or jailor can be easily bribed, then the “effectiveness” of the system is diminished greatly by that fact.Report

      • Murali in reply to LeeEsq says:


        without exactly running into telling-the-sun-to-rise-in-the-east territory, it would be extremely difficult to enforce legal regimes which criminalise too much and/or too intrusively. What tends to happen is that since everyone is very nearly always breaking some law or another, enforcers use their authority to pick and choose which laws to enforce and for whom. Almost inevitably, they use their powers to ignore law breaking by people they like and not ignore it for those they do not like. This in turn creates the effect that people in power are de-facto above the law*. Thus, a lot of authoritarian regimes are in fact ineffective simply because most people who violate the positive law are not punished for that.

        *I don’t think it is even conceptually possible to be de-jure above the law. The law merely applies differently. Consider a society where the plebes are required to phi while the aristos are not. If the law states the everybody should phi, then the aristos are de-jure required to phi but de-facto no required to. If the law states that only plebes should phi, then it is not that the aristos are above the law, it is that the law carves an exception for aristos.Report

      • Murali in reply to LeeEsq says:


        In which case, the law carved an exception for him. Everything he did still accorded with the law. It’s not Richard who specifically could take from others, it is whoever occupies the office of king. If somehow, Wat Tyler became king then he too as according to the law could permissibly take whatever the hell he wanted. We may say that the law ought not to be this way, but nothing the king does is in violation of the law.Report

    • Notme in reply to Burt Likko says:

      I agree, sounds like the former soviet union would be a great example for Chris. Efficient courts, full employment, a veritable workers’ paradise. “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” – Karl MarxReport

    • Kolohe in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Lee beat me to it, but in practice that’s not how totalitarian or even authoritarian societies work. Authoritarian societies at most levels of the spectrum generate an ‘under-system’* of corrupt front-line agents, middle-managers that know how to exploit the system for (sometimes immense) personal gain, and other well-connected folks that can simply ‘know how to get things’.

      Of course, you can’t go to far out of bounds, as China (in)famously culls some bureaucrats every year who got a little too greedy and/or who didn’t have quite the right political topcover.

      But the reverse is true too. For example.

      North Korea has, naturally, an immense underground economy, and about a year or two ago, some top official, being a good communist, sought to cut down on all the black market activity. Well, in doing so, things went very figuratively, very south quickly – even by the standards of the DPRK – and that initiative was greatly curtailed, leaving much of the black market activity in place. And the official was given the Greater Than Gold retirement package – greater by 3 atomic numbers, that is.

      *I think there’s a more technical name for it, but can’t recall at presentReport

    • Christopher Carr in reply to Burt Likko says:

      I’m defining “effective” here as subservient to some idealized form of justice. This was something I went into more detail about in one of my previous Hobbes pieces, but I should have explicated more here. That being said, I think this sub-thread in particular contains a lot of good insight into the purpose of the law and especially the paramount importance of due process.Report

  3. This was a really stimulating post for me, Christopher that’s helping to re-stoke some thoughts that had been percolating in my own brain about a year or two ago, but that I was never able to sort into a coherent theory. I think your core point – that stability is an end unto itself – is a critical one.

    So far as I can articulate my own thoughts, they’re essentially this – human progress, if you will, is contingent upon finding a balance between stability, equality, and liberty, each of which are important and legitimate ends and ideals unto themselves and which are deserving of a single-minded advocacy, but each of which are in a near constant war with each other.

    Yet any one of these, should its advocates succeed in achievsing the total defeat of the others (or even the total defeat of just one), would either wind up paradoxically destroying both progress and itself, or, at best, just human progress (if it descended into pure anarchy, which is the logical extreme of absolute equality or liberty).

    While this may appear to be an argument for split-the-difference centrism, it is not – they’re each important and critical values that cannot and should not be compromised; it’s more an argument for issue-specific alliance building and for each of the three “ends” to have a large enough group of advocates that it can create a clear majority (minimum 55-60%, I’d guess) for either of the other two “ends” on any given issue.Report

    • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Mark Thompson says:

      human progress, if you will, is contingent upon finding a balance between stability, equality, and liberty,

      I recently re-read a journal article arguing that civil peace (which may equate to stability), economic inequality, and individual freedom (liberty) “cannot all exist simultaneously in any society, though any two of them can.” The author calls this “the iron law of politics.” Unfortunately the article is, imo, poorly written so it’s hard to evaluate the strength of the claim. It’s an unsettling thought, though, and seems to bear on your thoughts here.Report

      • NewDealer in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        How are we defining Civil Peace? How much Peace is needed to count, how much breakdown is necessary to say that there is not Civil Peace? This seems to be the key.

        Would or did the author say that the 1960s-70s in the United States lacked civil peace? There were many urban riots, left-wing protests, the Boston Busing battle, Kent State, Watergate, etc. Yet America was still more civilly peaceful than the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s or Somalia today.

        This is not to say that I am not concerned. This article seems to think that “elite overproduction” and “unemployed lawyers” are part of a cycle that lead to “elite fratricide” and “political disorder.” So someone who went to law school recently might become the next Robespierre.

      • Roger in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        I would say that economic progress, liberty and economic equality cannot exist simultaneously in our current world. Free people will not achieve the same economic outcomes, and trying to get them the same can only be achieved by limiting their freedom. And doing so will pretty much wipe out any incentive to progress.

        Equality of outcome is the odd man out. It is something which is mistaken for a “good,” when it is not a good. Equality of opportunity is fine. Equality of outcome is the big mistaken good.Report

      • greginak in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Treating these three variables as either vs or/ black or white seems beyond silly. Each is a continuous variables, not dichotomous. We will have varying levels of each not 100% of one and none of the others. How to mix these three values is our challenge since each will likely feel more salient at times or be more endangered.Report

      • Roger in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        I read one of Turchin’s books and have loosely followed his blog ever since. I am not impressed with his modern “elite overproduction” hypothesis in the slightest.

        In a zero sum world where the elites live by exploiting the masses and the masses face higher Malthusian forces it makes sense. Elites will become too numerous, and fight over the scraps.

        In a world where elites can become elite by producing positive sum value for others, then we are dealing with a completely different dynamic.

        I would agree that this dynamic exists today with rent seekers. Rent seekers are not synonymous with the elite though anymore. The terms can and do often overlap, of course. The USSR didn’t self implode due to the elite. It did so because the system encouraged people to free ride off everyone else.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:


        From the article:
        By “peace” I mean civil peace, that is, the resolution of conflicts peacefully through application of established rules. I contrast civil peace with “self-help,” the maintenance of order through the threat or application of coercive violence by the parties to a disagreement or dispute.

        So I think he’s looking at a more fundamental structural level of society. I would guess he’d say the riots of the ’60s, while not unproblematic, did not prevent the U.S. from basically being a system primarily characterized by “the resolution of conflicts peacefully through established rules.” But we could possibly get him to agree that there was greater threat to civil peace in the U.S. in the ’60s than in, say, the ’80s.

        But, yes, Somalia and Yugoslavia are more what he’s looking at for cases of non-civil peace. Somalia is specifically mentioned.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        It sounds like a really bad analogy to “relativity, causality, faster-than-light travel: pick two.”Report

      • Murali in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        I’ve read that article too. It seems to ignore evidence that many existing inequalities are due to government interference with liberty and not due to an expression of liberty. It also ignores the multiple ways in which a private property system can be configured esp wrt bankruptcy, liability and externalities that can increase or decrease inequality without actually being less free.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Murali, do you recognize my gravatar?Report

      • Murali in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:


        It looks familiar but I can’t place it.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        The other hand is holding a gun.Report

      • Murali in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Sorry, then I don’t recognise the gravatarReport

      • Stillwater in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Murali, I think it’s part of the American Gothic series.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Haw Par Villa?Report

      • Murali in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        I haven’t been in there in 20 years. I kinda forgot what exactly was inside.Report

    • Will H. in reply to Mark Thompson says:

      I think certain propositions are being accepted as givens while their truth remains in dispute; e.g.:
      peace begets peace and violence begets violence
      Is it not true that nations enter into war from a state of peace, and into peace from a state of war?
      Why have we not seen some endless war, or unending peacetime, by which this might be verified?

      I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
      To take from another field (and to address the points that Roger touches on above as well), that of the nature of learning (and I’m sorry, but I forget the people’s names):
      The one view is that learning is compounded, and builds up gradually over time; a vertical structure.
      The other view holds that knowledge occurs mostly through the phenomenon of breakthroughs, like crashing through a brick wall; where most (if not all) prior knowledge is invalidated.

      Both dynamics can be seen as counterparts.
      Progress occurs in tumult as well; case in point, the march at Selma, Ala.Report

      • Christopher Carr in reply to Will H. says:

        This is another valid criticism of my argument, worthy of an extensive response. For now, suffice it to say that, admittedly, my argument is an oversimplified version of reality, and, as you say, there are probably multiple models that work as synergies.

        As for examples of unending peacetime that verify my original idea, look at the progress of human civilization writ large. There is little doubt that humans have become more peaceful over time, while warlike factions have either exterminated each other, a la Rome and Carthage, been exterminated, as in the case of the Hittites, or acquiesced to the ways of civilization, such as the Huns or Mongols. Factions in Northern Ireland have reached the point where the cost of not-peace exceeds the cost of peace, while factions in Palestine have yet to reach that point, but they may if one side is permitted to develop as the other has instead of being increasingly marginalized.Report

      • Roger in reply to Will H. says:


        May I suggest the tricky term here is “progress”. I think if you were to flesh what progress means and what tends to bring it about further, that it would be insightful.Report

  4. Stillwater says:

    CC, thanks so much for this post. I’ve been thinking about you – and Hobbes! – in the recent days and actually hoped that you’d write a post about the topics we’ve all been discussing.

    Good to see you back here. Excellent post. I’ll write something more substantial after I’ve re-read the piece.Report

  5. Mike Schilling says:

    If you still lived in Japan, would this piece be called “Carr-san and Hobbes”?Report

  6. Shazbot9 says:

    “It seems to me that if you accept the idea that peace begets peace and violence begets violence, then there is a clear normative conclusion that stability is an end to be pursued in its own right.”

    That doesn’t seem to follow at all to me. Peace is still an instrumental good, not an intrinsic one. It is just an instrument that works better, the more you use it.

    Maybe I am being picky, but peace is not an end unto itself, certainly not for Hobbes.Report

  7. ScarletNumbers says:

    The most important question is was Hobbes a tiger who became a stuffed animal whenever anyone but Calvin saw him, or was he just a figment of Calvin’s imagination?Report