Freedom is Slavery: Thomas Hobbes and the Fear of Government

In response to a recent post here, "To Alter or to Abolish: When the People Fear the Government, There is Tyranny," Sam Wilson of the Think 3 Institute argued in the comments that any discussion of the arbitrary or unrestrained exercise of power and the despotic abuse of authority on the part of the state must distinguish between irrational and rational fear of government.  He writes:
What about irrational fear of the government, or government in the abstract? Is it possible that for every genuine violation of civil liberties there's a crank crying "tyranny!" because of legally enacted taxes, regulations, etc? Before we apply Jefferson's test to the current environment we have to distinguish between justified and unjustified fear. 
Reading this, I was reminded of a remarkable passage from Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan.  The work is, of course, famous for its argument in favor of a form of monarchical absolutism that many today might consider virtually indistinguishable from a tyrannical dictatorship.  Yet Hobbes specifically allows that the liberty of subjects entails the fundamental right to disobey certain commands of the sovereign.    From chapter 21 of Leviathan, entitled Of the Liberty of Subjects:
To come now to the particulars of the true liberty of a subject; that is to say, what are the things which, though commanded by the sovereign, he may nevertheless without injustice refuse to do; we are to consider what rights we pass away when we make a Commonwealth; or, which is all one, what liberty we deny ourselves by owning all the actions, without exception, of the man or assembly we make our sovereign. For in the act of our submission consisteth both our obligation and our liberty; which must therefore be inferred by arguments taken from thence; there being no obligation on any man which ariseth not from some act of his own; for all men equally are by nature free. And because such arguments must either be drawn from the express words, "I authorise all his actions," or from the intention of him that submitteth himself to his power (which intention is to be understood by the end for which he so submitteth), the obligation and liberty of the subject is to be derived either from those words, or others equivalent, or else from the end of the institution of sovereignty; namely, the peace of the subjects within themselves, and their defence against a common enemy.

First therefore, seeing sovereignty by institution is by covenant of every one to every one; and sovereignty by acquisition, by covenants of the vanquished to the victor, or child to the parent; it is manifest that every subject has liberty in all those things the right whereof cannot by covenant be transferred. I have shown before, in the fourteenth Chapter, that covenants not to defend a man's own body are void. Therefore,

If the sovereign command a man, though justly condemned, to kill, wound, or maim himself; or not to resist those that assault him; or to abstain from the use of food, air, medicine, or any other thing without which he cannot live; yet hath that man the liberty to disobey.  [Emphasis added.]

If a man be interrogated by the sovereign, or his authority, concerning a crime done by himself, he is not bound (without assurance of pardon) to confess it; because no man, as I have shown in the same chapter, can be obliged by covenant to accuse himself.

Again, the consent of a subject to sovereign power is contained in these words, "I authorise, or take upon me, all his actions"; in which there is no restriction at all of his own former natural liberty: for by allowing him to kill me, I am not bound to kill myself when he commands me. It is one thing to say, "Kill me, or my fellow, if you please"; another thing to say, "I will kill myself, or my fellow." It followeth, therefore, that

No man is bound by the words themselves, either to kill himself or any other man; and consequently, that the obligation a man may sometimes have, upon the command of the sovereign, to execute any dangerous or dishonourable office, dependeth not on the words of our submission, but on the intention; which is to be understood by the end thereof. When therefore our refusal to obey frustrates the end for which the sovereignty was ordained, then there is no liberty to refuse; otherwise, there is.
The influence of this passage on the subsequent history of political thought and the practice of government is attested to by the fact that one of the fundamental rights of refusal considered by Hobbes, namely, that against self-incrimination, was adopted by the framers of the Constitution and enshrined in the Fifth Amendment.  However, it is the emphasized lines above that relate, I think, to the discussion broached by Sam.  Hobbes states that subjects have the liberty to disobey the sovereign if they are commanded "to abstain from the use of food, air, medicine, or any other thing without which he cannot live."  The question here is: what are those things without which we cannot live that cannot be justly prohibited by government?

We may be deprived of our liberty and incarcerated by the state, but the government may not deprive prisoners of food, water or medicine, without which they would simply die.  Indeed, in the case of prisoners who engage in hunger strikes, the state may even resort to force-feeding, as in the case of British and American suffragettes in the early 20th century.  But there also seems to be a subjective aspect to the determination of those things without which an individual cannot live.  What if the result of some legally enacted tax or regulation was that some group of persons were effectively robbed of their ability to earn their daily bread, and no longer able to go about their otherwise lawful business or daily affairs?  Does that not amount to tyranny?  Maybe, maybe not.  The answer would seem to depend on the specifics of the case, but even then one can imagine that two reasonable individuals could disagree whether that very result is an expression of freedom or tyranny, and whether the fear of it is rational or irrational.

Obviously, there are clear-cut cases of irrational fear of government.  Often, this might be said to involve a short-circuit between the universal and particular.  For example, a justified, rational concern that the government is hostile toward Second Amendment liberties is quite different from an irrational fear that the government is coming after me to take my guns.  A justified, rational fear at the fact that the government routinely violates the Fourth Amendment has a different quality than an irrational fear that the government is routinely tapping my phones or reading my email.  One could also imagine irrational responses to rational fears and rational responses to irrational fears.  With respect to the latter, a person who irrationally feared the government was coming to take his guns might seek to strengthen protections against illegal search and seizure rather than go on a gun-buying spree.  With regard to the former, someone who justifiably fears widespread violations of the Fourth Amendment might cancel their phone plan and encrypt all their correspondence rather than petition the government for a redress of grievances. 

In this discussion, one would also have to consider the role played by political partisanship in stoking irrational fear of government on the one hand, and irrational faith in it on the other.  But perhaps for now it is best to leave that for a future post.


Samuel Wilson said...

Setting Hobbes aside, since the citation deals with principled disobedience rather than general fear of government, the crux of your argument is here: "there also seems to be a subjective aspect to the determination of those things without which an individual cannot live." As a matter of human nature, such subjectivity is inevitable, and with it comes the theoretical "reasonable" disagreements you describe later over the imminence of tyranny. Should the dissident consider anything other than his subjective determinations before making his stand? Is there an objective standard for determining the validity of subjective anxieties? For that matter, is there an objective standard that allows us to identify tyrannical tendencies beyond anyone's capacity for doubt? If we accept the Berlinian premise of plural irreconcilable goods, the answer to either query may be no. But if we accept that politics may have an object above and beyond the maximization of individual rewards, or that more than self-actualization is at stake in political action, the answer may have to be yes.

d.eris said...

I am inclined to answer all three of those questions in the affirmative. If an individual dissident did not consider anything other than his own subjective determinations before making his stand, I don't think we can call it a rational act, since it would lack necessary reflection, though it may be "logical" in the context of the individual's own thoughts and thought processes. With respect to the last question, I think there are cases which supply an objective standard for the identification of tyranny, and I think the passage from Hobbes provides a good rule of thumb: if a government dictat would force you to abstain from anything that is objectively necessary for life, it is tyranny; 'objectively necessary' being defined here as that without which you would simply die, as in the case of prisoners who were deprived of food and water. In a constitutional Republic, one might also make a strong argument that the constitution provides that objective, or at least agreed-upon, standard by which to measure the tyrannical excesses of government. As for the middle question, I am also inclined to answer "yes", but it might be more accurate to say "yes and no." Is there an objective standard for determining the validity of subjective anxieties? I would say there is an "objective" standard, but that "objective" standard is inter-subjectivity itself, namely, checking one's own anxieties by comparison with those of others.

It seems like it is here, at the level of inter-subjectivity, that partisan politics would come into play. Is it rational simply to rely on the determinations of some party as to the reasonable, justifiable character of some government action? It seems like bipolarized politics is inherently irrational, since there are so many cases in which individuals support a policy when it is supported by their side, but oppose it when the very same policy is promulgated by the other side. Partisan hypocrisy here becomes intellectual dishonesty and logical inconsistency. It seems like there are so many more questions on the party-politics angle here, I'll have to think about this some more.

Samuel Wilson said...

Partisanship compounded by ideology definitely complicates the question, since every distinct ideology, almost of necessity, offers a distinct standard for appraising tyranny or misrule. Ideological claims are often unfalsifiable, and it could be very difficult to convince someone who believes he's living in an actually-existing tyranny today that he actually isn't. Subjective determinations about quality of life may prove neither reconcilable nor answerable to objective analysis; objectivity itself may be challenged, depending upon the ideological perspective.

I appreciate your point about intersubjectivity, though, especially if we define the term as broadly synonymous with democracy. A crucial question may be whether we can convince all citizens of an obligation, inherent in citizenship, to check one's anxieties by comparison with those of others, as long as everyone's anxieties are judged according to the minimal Hobbesian standards you suggest, for starters. Meanwhile, the most inclusive discussion of what constitutes the political good should be ongoing.