Hobbes and the Libertarian – 2

The American Constitution is lauded for entrenching liberty, but there is little everyday freedom in the cities of that land. The South African Constitution is at pains to demand personal liberty and equality, but its people live in fear.

America’s prosperity is a factor of their personal freedom as much as it is of the space available to the Americans, and the legendary American work ethic which grows from that personal freedom. There is genuine freedom promised and enjoyed that is greater even than Britons enjoy in may fields, but it remains the case that while I can walk in complete safety, day or night, through any neighbourhood, there are many places in the cities where Americans dare not step from their cars. This displays the libertarian paradox.

In contrast, an example of a truly free society might be the Falkland Islands: crime free, such that no one locks their doors, each islander living without fear from their neighbour or their government. On the other hand, it is a physically constrained society where opportunities are limited, and that is a limit on freedom.

What then is a truly libertarian society?

Hobbes observed that liberty is not to be defined by theory:

There is written on the Turrets of the city of Luca in great characters at this day, the word LIBERTAS; yet no man can thence inferre, that a particular man has more Libertie, or Immunitie from the service of the Commonwealth there, than in Constantinople. Whether a Common-wealth be Monarchicall, or Popular, the Freedome is still the same.

This is to say that under any state, the existence of sovereignty abnegates entirely the natural freedom of the individual to exactly the same degree, whether in a free city of his time like Lucca (or like the Anglosphere nations in our own), or in a vicious tyranny like the Ottoman Empire (or any number of dictatorships in our day). One could say that in London one is just as much under the complete command of the laws as in Peking: it is just that in practice the laws are mostly mild and benevolent in Britain.

Actual personal liberty is not a factor just of the relationship with the state, or Common-wealth in Hobbesian terms, but of fact and sensation. Complete legal liberty is enjoyed where there is no Common-wealth, but then we are prey to every passing stranger, “and the life of man of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short”.

This consideration ensures that the United States of America, for all the promises of their constitution, cannot be a libertarian land. In America merely walking the the downtown areas of the main cities in daylight is fatal: the first-hand stories I have been told by Britons who did not appreciate this would make your hair stand on end. In reaction, policing in America is brutal and occasionally deadly; not as much as the media or activists portray, but breath-taking from an outside view. Outside the cities if crime is low, the Americans may enjoy the liberty their national myth promises.

Undoubtedly the proliferation of guns in America is a major factor. If Commonwealth countries forbid guns, which is an anti-libertarian move, that ban may produce a net increase in liberty.

A theoretical problem for a nominally free but lawless society is Hobbes’s observation on when a sovereign ceases to be worthy of obedience. This comes from what we might call a libertarian understanding of sovereignty, namely that ‘the end of Obedience is Protection’. He asserts:

The Obligation of Subjects to the Soveraign is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth, by which he is able to protect them. For the right men have by Nature to protect themselves, when none else can protect them, can by no Covenant be relinquished. The Soveraignty is the Soule of the Common-wealth; which once departed from the Body, the members doe no more receive their motion from it. The end of Obedience is Protection; which, wheresoever a man seeth it, either in his own, or in anothers sword, Nature applyeth his obedience to it, and his endeavour to maintaine it. And though Soveraignty, in the intention of them that make it, be immortall; yet is it in its own nature, not only subject to violent death, by forreign war; but also through the ignorance, and passions of men, it hath in it, from the very institution, many seeds of a naturall mortality, by Intestine Discord.

If the state makes itself weak, in the name of freedom, it ceases to do its fundamental duty, namely to protect its subjects. In that case not only can it reduce actual freedom, but it absolves its subjects from any duty of obedience.

A truly libertarian state therefore must retain complete sovereignty, just as much as that of China or any other tyranny, but be distinguished from a tyrant by its actions in using that mighty power for protecting personal freedom, which is the purpose of its having that power.

See also


Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short