The ideas of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes lay at the root of the American governmental experience at many levels. Locke was a social-contract theorist who believed that all humans were born with rights and surrendered them in order to procure the advantages of civilized society. He thought that if there was no government things might not run as smoothly, but people could get by. Locke had a notion that people are rational creatures that are capable of making decisions that are in the best interests not just of themselves, but of the group. Thomas Hobbes also bought into the idea of the social contract, but that is one of the few things the two agreed on. Hobbes thought that human beings were essentially machines that functioned to protect themselves from injury and death and to get what gave them pleasure. Government was meant to act as a check on the base and violent desires of the masses. He thought that without government life (like Napoleon) would be “nasty, brutish and short”. Hobbes thought that you had one basic right, to be protected from the other maniacal machines around you. Any other right could be taken away freely by the government in order to keep the people safe from themselves.
The progenators of the American governmental system were highly influenced by Locke and Hobbes. Thomas Jefferson spent most of his political career doing a fair John Locke impression. He turned Locke’s “life, liberty and property” into “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and parroted Locke’s controversial belief in the right of people to revolt against an unjust government. James Madison (writing as Publius in The Federalist Papers) was clearly channeling Hobbes when he wrote in Federalist #51 that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary” and “ambition must be made to counteract ambition”. Our constitution is a marvel of balancing Locke’s democratic intentions (the House of Representatives, the Bill of Rights) with Hobbes’ fear of the great unwashed hordes (the Senate prior to the 17th Amendment, the Electoral College).
Locke and Hobbes are still very much with us today, but in another more bizarre, irrational form. The Locke-Hobbes complex can most clearly be seen in the Tea Party Movement, although it is certainly not exclusive to them. Here’s how it looks: The inward view of many Americans seems to be that Locke was correct. The individual should be controlled by the government as little as possible. Americans should be freed from many of the burdens of taxation or regulation. What’s mine is mine and should not be taken, the government should not restrict the development of business, I should be able to say what I want to say and not be bound by political correctness, and the government should stay out of my private affairs. At first glance, it seems as if Locke would be entirely comfortable at Rand Paul campaign headquarters dressed up like Patrick Henry with a NoBama tattoo on his or her forehead.
However, Locke’s ideas seem to appear in the rhetoric of both major American political parties (and quite a few smaller ones). Some candidates rail against the idea of “big government” that doesn’t seem to get that “the government that governs best governs least”. Others loudly protest a government that restricts reproductive rights or the rights of individuals to choose to live life the way they want to. Whether it be keeping the government’s hands off my money or their laws off my body, the cries of individual liberty seem to echo from every corner of the American political landscape.
It would seem that a people so committed to the idea of the freedom and thriving of the individual would have no place for Hobbes’ principles…and yet they are very much alive in our culture. A person can’t go five minutes without baring witness to a political diatribe on the importance of freedom and yet thanks to ever more strict sentencing laws the Washington Post reported in 2008 that 1 in 100 adults in the United States is in jail or prison. The United States is the world’s leader in incarcerated adults both in percentage and in number. In order to really understand the perversity of this statistic one must realize that China, a nation that our leaders have regularly excoriated for their unconscionable human rights record, has an estimated population of over 1.3 billion people, while the United States, the world’s beacon for freedom and liberty, has around 303 million people. In spite of nearly a billion more people, China has less prisoners than the United States. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics study, non-violent crimes made up nearly half of the state prison populations in 2006. On the federal level, non-violent crimes take up an even higher percentage of reasons for incarcerations. Large numbers of Americans are in prison for non-violent crimes that run the gamut from drug abuse to public intoxication. Clearly, much of the imprisonment in the United States does not even serve the purpose of public safety.
It would seem that a nation with such a highly advanced, Lockean conception of liberty would be able to come up with a solution that involved a bit more creativity than building more prisons, but that seems to be the solution we continue to come up with. At the root of our problem lies an incredibly Hobbesean conception of the role of the state. But, maybe we are just talking about the “bad” people here. A common refrain is that criminals (often defined as the amorphous mass of people out to harm us and take our stuff) are not deserving of the same rights as the rest of us. Even though the Bill of Rights spends nearly half of it’s time dealing with the issue of criminal justice, many believe that the rights of individuals should be obliterated upon the commission of a crime. One would think that this current wave of liberty based hysteria would have brought more politicians into power who opposed the federal government tearing rights away from citizens and yet, Russ Feingold, the one Senator who opposed the 2001 passing of the Patriot Act, the largest broadening of federal investigatory power in the last 50 years, was voted out of office. Is the message more liberty for the “good people”, less protection for “the bad”? How are we able to tell them apart?
There are some things to be feared and some things to be appreciated about each philosophy. Locke’s social contract was so loose that some would get away with crimes that could severely harm their neighbors, but he believed strongly enough in people’s judgements to believe that this problem could be overcome. Hobbes argued for a system that strangled human growth and potential on the altar of safety, but he also realized that there are characteristics that needed to be monitored in human beings in order to allow them to be protected from the loss of their most important right, the right to continue to stay alive. It’s as if our culture has picked out the most base, selfish characteristics of both philosophies and melded them into a giant Leviathan that attacks the liberties of the “bad” with one hand while cherishing the rights of the “good” with the other. What we fail to recognize is that we can easily be mistaken for either. Hell may be other people, but after a while it becomes us.