Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Hobbes, Locke and Perilous Zeal

Damon Linker has a good post up on the difference between liberal and tea party political philosophy:
Speaking broadly, modern government moves between two poles, each of which has a seventeenth-century thinker as its champion, and each of which is focused on minimizing a particular form of injustice. On one side is Thomas Hobbes, who defended the creation of an authoritarian government as the only viable means of protecting certain individuals and groups from injustices perpetrated by other individuals and groups. On the other side is John Locke, who advocated a minimal state in order to protect individuals and groups against injustices perpetrated by governments themselves. Taken to an extreme, the Hobbesian pole leads to totalitarianism, while the Lockean pole terminates in the quasi-anarchism of the night watchman state.
A couple of interesting thoughts are expressed in the comments following the piece.  One writes:
There have been Hobbesian states (Hitler Germany, Stalin USSR, Mao China, and of course current North Korea). As far as I know there has never been a real Lockean, libertarian (right wing) or anarchist (left wing) state.
 and another:
The tea partiers have no trust in, and actually fear, government and prefer the Lockean solution whereas the left fears an even worse condition if the powerful have no countervailing force (i.e., government) and prefer the Hobbesian solution

I think combining the two gives a good description of why the tea partiers seem so often crazy and incoherent. The left is no longer supportive of the strong Hobbesian, having foolishly supported communism in the past. The examples have illustrated why such extremity is dangerous, and have thus moved toward a much more moderate free-market/welfare, democratic socialism - witness public schools, medicare, medicaid, regulation.

Yet the tea party (and Republicans in rhetoric) have no strong Lockean example from which to draw pause. Thus their fantasies are endlessly indulged, while arguing anything less is tyranny. What I can't see is how this could be explained by anything other than either sheer ignorance or dishonesty. In the mind of a developing adolescent we forgive this as cognitive immaturity - incoherence is understandable. But for adults to be so delusional seems crazy at best and immoral at worse.

Because in the end, do we really need the Lockean example? Communism was in large part a response to the sort of tyranny that arises from the unfettered capitalism of the late 1800's. The assumed trajectory, having not yet witnessed any real Hobbesian check, was monopoly and social and environmental exploitation and degradation. The notion that a nightwatchman state would ever possibly get better at checking already rampant private abuses was absurd.

I suppose that this current forgetfulness and Lockean pining has only been possible after the incredible success of government in providing for such unprecedented equality. Hence the tea party movement's classic line "Keep government out of my medicare". All of which would tilt towards a paradigm of abject ignorance.  This isn't necessarily a damnation of moral character.  The left has certainly had its share of naive and ignorant enthusiasm over the years, often resulting in horrendous consequences.  What began with a cogent insight into difficult political questions took on a life of its own and the ensuing abstraction became a self-perpetuating monster.

But that zenith occurred nearly 100 years ago.  I'd like to think that society has matured since then.  Yet obviously the human capacity for zeal and Utopian denialism is as strong as ever.  One wonders what structural forces can ever hope to keep these destructive tides at bay.  I suppose it may take another 100 years to find out.  Or maybe we'll just be asking the same question.

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