Hobbes was wrong

Eric Raymond has a new post up entitled "The Myth of Man the Killer" in which he calls for moving beyond the notion of man as an inherently violent being, and instead recognizing him as an agent capable of using his own reason to make moral choices without hostility. In his well-written essay, he touches upon Thomas Hobbes's influence on the conception of man as intrinsically brutal. In Leviathan, Hobbes wrote:

"During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that conditions called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man. [...]

"To this war of every man against every man, this also in consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law, where no law, no injustice. Force, and fraud, are in war the cardinal virtues. [...]

"No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."

The Hobbesian view of man runs deep on the mainstream left-right political axis. Unless a big man with a big stick keeps everyone in line, we cannot help but give in to our basest instincts. We need a master to teach us morality and how to share. Hobbes portrayed human beings as being essentially incapable of rational thought, and only responsive to external stimuli or feral instincts.

This purely carnal view of man views individuals as sheep, needing a shepard to guide them through the imperfections of the human existence. It debases that which makes each of us unique, which is the first step on the journey to collectivism. The danger of Hobbes's ideas lies in their tendency to result in a society based on vague notions of some ill-defined 'greater good'. The eternal war is not man against man, but rather collectivism against individualism. Edmund Burke, in Vindication of a Natural Society, estimated that states had killed thirty-six million people up until that point in history back in 1756. Although he sounded a warning for the consequences of Hobbes's espousal of a dominant central authority, the last century has proven that very few listened. Far too many were content with putting their own rational faculties aside and follow the orders of the select few, and as a result, over two hundred million people were murdered by governments during the 20th century.

There is a better solution than having "a common power to keep men in awe." I do not blame Hobbes for not realizing it; after all, he lived nearly five hundred years ago when the first true economists were just beginning to appear, and even then, their ideas would not take hold until many hundred years later.

Rather than give authority to a central power, a strategy which ultimately has led to hells on Earth, there is another driving force that leads man to peaceful civilization. Free exchange is the driving force for nonviolence. Mutually beneficial exchange has brought more peace than any world 'leaders' or treaties ever have. Division of labor and specialization encourages men to pursue actions that please others for, perhaps paradoxically, their own survival. Commerce is a positive-sum game that creates wealth. Productivity increases advance civilization by allowing men to grow wealthier in their own lights. It is not a matter of chance that men in the Western world do not kill each other for food, but those societies which have taken Hobbes's advice are reduced to savagery in search of it.

Hobbes was not just wrong; he was 180 degrees wrong. When individuals are left to their own devices, they have incentives for peaceful cooperation for mutual gain. Only when they sacrifice the glorious power of reason, only when they abdicate their conscience to others, only when they yield to the illogical fear of their own individual autonomy, and only when they find solace in a central power does the war of every man against every man ensue.

If there is hope for a society without war of man against man, it lies not in debasement of the individual.

Rather, it lies in the free market.

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But remember even a free

But remember even a free society needs institutions in the inevitable event of individual rights being violated. That is the primary role of government.

His point is well argued but

His point is well argued but I don't think he succeeds. Janus is still our original mark and history is there to prove it. America's (and Britain's) civilized ways are very rare things indeed.

He's got the right idea when

He's got the right idea when pointing out that the vast majority of people inherently nonviolent, but I think the problem is not as much one of obedience (which, like technology, is both good and bad, not bad in and of itself- I believe the tendency to be obedient is as much a civilizing tendency as one that facilitates mass murder), but one of, for lack of a better term, a "will to power"- the controlling tendency. Also, humans are hardwired to sort people into "Like & Other", and instinctively be wary of the Other. That, too, can be good but is on balance more for the bad, in that its the first hook that people with the will to power use to induce greater obedience in accordance with their scheme.

Sean, Yes, there needs to be


Yes, there needs to be some mechanism for protecting individuals from coercion, but I wince at the term 'institutions', as many times, the people who use it mean such things as the NEA, social security, central bankers, bureacracy, or a council of 'wise men'.