Hobbes and the Libertarian – 1

It seems a contradiction, to uphold the doctrine of absolute, unlimited, undivided sovereignty and yet to be a Libertarian demanding the minimisation of the state.

The Liberty of a Subject, lyeth therefore only in those things, which in regulating their actions, the Soveraign hath praetermitted; such as is the Liberty to buy, and sell, and otherwise contract with one another; to choose their own aboad, their own diet, their own trade of life, and institute their children as they themselves think fit; & the like.

Hobbes also characterises the social contract which creates the state as if each man were to say in complete abnegation of his natural freedom:

“I Authorise and give up my Right of Governing my selfe, to this Man, or to this Assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy Right to him, and Authorise all his Actions in like manner.”

This done, the Multitude so united in one Person, is called a COMMON-WEALTH, in latine CIVITAS. This is the Generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather (to speake more reverently) of that Mortall God, to which wee owe under the Immortall God, our peace and defence. For by this Authoritie, given him by every particular man in the Common-Wealth, he hath the use of so much Power and Strength conferred on him, that by terror thereof, he is inabled to forme the wills of them all, to Peace at home, and mutuall ayd against their enemies abroad.

As there is no limit on the authority given to the ‘Leviathan’, and as sovereignty is indivisible, all theories that limit the state must be false ideas. Indeed, Hobbes points to the danger in any state limiting itself by promise only to have to break that promise when new circumstances emerge.

Nevertheless, freedom is prized by every thinking man and woman, and collectively we hold that we created the state in order to preserve our freedom, not to cancel it.

Followers of Hobbes are more likely to be libertarians. This is not an internal contradiction: there is no contradiction between a love of individual freedom and acceptance of the total abnegation of freedom in the state. The alleged contradiction is an error of definition, and:

The first cause of Absurd conclusions I ascribe to the want of Method; in that they begin not their Ratiocination from Definitions; that is, from settled significations of their words

To acknowledge the power of the state over everything is not the say that this power should be used. That is the distinction.

The social contract as explained by Hobbes is a statement of what the state is and what authority it has, not how it should use that authority. The state may act morally or immorally, and it may trespass into areas we do not want it to, but these are questions of ethics, preference and culture: the fundamental is that the state, “the mortall god”, can do whatever it likes, even if morally and culturally it should refrain.

If we read Hobbes and we read John Stuart Mill, the works are written on very different subjects: one explores the nature of mankind and of the commonwealth, which is in modern terms ‘the state’; while the other explores how the state should restrain itself for the benefit of its subjects.

A third voice which might to be heard, of the generation before Thomas Hobbes, is that of John Calvin, who built a state in Geneva hoping to exclude the imperfections of man and his “mortall god” by substituting instead the will of the Immortal God, a republic resting upon strict morality. However he found that it was still built of men, and of that crooked timber no straight thing can be made.

All these are lessons to us if we are to build government that allows a free nation: build governing systems that grant freedom and so benefit those governed, but build them on truths, cold, uncomfortable truths though they may be, not pleasant-sounding fancies.

Where there is no Common-wealth, which is to say in the state of nature, there is perfect freedom for every individual, in theory. However this is a state of war of one with all, and so there is no freedom in reality. When men create between them a commonwealth by the social contract there is no freedom at all in theory, but a greater freedom in practice. Therefore a true libertarian state must be a Hobbesian one.

That is something to be looked at again in another article.

See also


Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short