TCS Daily

Hobbes, Locke and the Bush Doctrine

By Nathan Smith - June 21, 2005 12:00 AM

"From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave... So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." -- George W. Bush, Second Inaugural

"Uzbekistan is a sovereign state.... [T]he idea of setting up an international commission on investigating the Andijon events is groundless, and we will never agree to this."

-- Islam Karimov, president of Uzbekistan

A struggle is underway between two ideas: liberal democracy, and sovereignty. Lately, this struggle has been given new impetus by the Iraq War, and the Bush Doctrine that makes spreading liberal democracy central to US foreign policy. Now, from Almaty to Amman, from Baku to Beirut, from Cairo to China, from Kiev to Karachi, from Damascus to Darfur, from Tehran to Tashkent, the Bush administration faces the challenge of translating its democratic vision into policy, and one of the constraints is that some consider this unwarranted interference in sovereign states. Those are the recent developments; but the struggle has much deeper roots. It goes back to 17th-century England, when the respective proponents of the two views were John Locke and Thomas Hobbes.

That the doctrine of popular sovereignty serves as a point of overlap between liberal democracy and sovereignty should not mask the conflict between the ideas, which manifests itself in popular sovereignty's internal contradictions. For the people to deliberate and decide, certain procedures and freedoms must be sacrosanct. But those procedures and freedoms may at times be unpopular, either with the people themselves or with elected leaders who claim to speak for them. Someone, typically the judiciary, must protect these procedures and freedoms. But while judges are thus essential to the maintenance of popular sovereignty, they also have an anomalous position within it, since their own authority is taken to proceed, not (merely) from the people, but (also) from a mysterious entity called the law, which derives its authority from deep and venerated traditions. Where such traditions are absent or weak, popular sovereignty easily turns into populist dictatorship, liberal democracy to libertinism and demagoguery. But if there is a law independent of the people's will, how are the people sovereign?

The Social Contract

Locke and Hobbes both saw a social contract as the foundation of governmental legitimacy, but they conceived the social contract in different ways.

For Locke, citizens agreed to defer certain of their actions to majority rule, in return for protection of their rights and property:

        "The only way whereby anyone divests himself of his Natural Liberty, and 
        puts on the bonds of civil society is by agreeing with other Men to joyn and 
        unite into a Community, for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable 
        living one amongst another, in a secure Enjoyment of their Properties, 
        and a greater Security against any that are not of it.... [T]hey are thereby 
        presently incorporated, and make one Body Politick, wherein the Majority have 
        a Right to act and conclude the rest... And thus every Man, by consenting 
        with others to make one Body Politick under one Government, puts himself 
        under an Obligation to every one of that Society, to submit to the determination 
        of the majority... (Locke, 331-2.)" (my emphasis)

According to Hobbes, citizens -- or, rather, subjects -- surrender their right of self-government in toto to the sovereign, in return for self-preservation and peace. More than that, they seem to achieve a type of mystical union:

        "The only way [for men] to erect such a Common Power... is, to conferre all 
        their power and strength upon one Man, or upon one Assembly of Men, that 
        may reduce all their Wills, by plurality of voices, unto one Will... to beare their 
        Person; and everyone to own, and acknowledge himself to be the Author of 
        whatsoever he that beareth their Person, shall Act... This is more than Consent, 
        or Concord; it is a reall Unitie of them all, in one and the same Person... as 
        if every man should say to every man, 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..." (Hobbes, 227)

If the idea that the sovereign "bears the person" of his subjects sounds too bizarre to take seriously, it is worth noting that protestors against the Iraq War in 2003 often charged that the invasion would violate "Iraq's sovereignty." What they really meant was Saddam's sovereignty. But the conflation of Saddam and Iraq, as if Saddam bore the persons of the Iraqi people and they authorized his actions, shows the influence of Hobbes.

Consent, Speech and Religion

Locke's and Hobbes' contrasting notions of the social contract rest on different ideas of what constitutes valid consent. In particular, Hobbes holds the unusual view that contracts exacted by fear are valid:

        "Covenants entred into by fear, in the condition of meer Nature, are obligatory. 
        For example, if I Covenant to pay a ransome, or service for my life; I am 
        bound by it. For it is a Contract, wherein one receiveth the benefit of 
        life; the other is to receive mony, or service for it..." (Hobbes, 198.)

While Hobbes' opinion is counter-intuitive, those who argued for the legitimacy of Saddam's regime in the run-up to the Iraq war seemed to agree with it. Iraq's citizens did not consent to be ruled by Saddam's regime voluntarily, of course. Iraq was, as one author put it, a Republic of Fear, where individuals obeyed because the apparatus of oppression threatened everyone with sudden disappearance or death, and it was too efficient for them to organize against and overcome. By Locke's terms, Saddam's regime did not enjoy the consent of the governed and was therefore illegitimate. But it does meet Hobbes' standard of consent.

Locke's and Hobbes' theories have different implications for freedom of speech and religion as well. Hobbes supported a state church and censorship:

        "It is annexed to the Soveraignty, to be Judge of what Opinions and Doctrines 
        are averse, and what conducing to Peace; and consequently, on what 
        occasions, how farre, and what, men are to be trusted withal, in speaking to 
        Multitudes of people; and who shall examine the Doctrines of all bookes 
        before they be published." (Hobbes, 233)

Locke, in A Letter Concerning Tolerance, advocates toleration (which is also implicit in his phrase "the secure Enjoyment of their Properties.") Many considered Saddam's regime the legitimate government of Iraq despite its lack of freedom of religion and of speech.


Another important difference between Locke and Hobbes lies in their views on revolution. Here the events in 17th-century England are an important backdrop to the theories. The 16th-century Tudor dynasty had a close working relationship with Parliament, but in 1603 a new dynasty, the Stuarts, inherited the English throne. They had different assumptions about the nature and prerogatives of royal power. For a time King Charles I dismissed Parliament and experimented with personal rule, but he summoned a restless and resentful parliament when he needed money to suppress an uprising in Scotland. That led to the English Civil War, in which Charles I took the wrong side and got executed, and to the military dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell. When Cromwell died in 1660, the Stuarts were restored to the throne, but they still had their bad habits, and eventually provoked another revolution in 1688, after which Parliament secured a primacy in the English constitution that has endured ever since.

For Locke, a partisan of Parliament and revolution, the government is dissolved when the "legislative is altered":

        "When any one, or more, shall take upon them to make laws, whom the 
        people have not appointed so to do, they make laws without authority, 
        which the people are not therefore bound to obey; by which means they 
        come again to be out of subjection, and may constitute to themselves 
        a new legislative, as they think best, being in full liberty to resist the force 
        of those, who without authority would impose any thing upon them."

Locke's position makes the constitution inviolable and elevates laws above men. But it leaves the question: who will be the judge of whether the legislative has been altered or not? (Would the Republicans have "altered the legislative" and thus dissolved the government if they had eliminated the judicial filibuster, for example?)

Hobbes makes dissolution of government dependent on a physical fact: the government is dissolved when it loses the power to ensure its subjects' physical security. For Hobbes, this formulation provided an exit from a contemporary conundrum. Hobbes was viscerally against revolution. But when Leviathan was written, a revolution in England had already taken place. Should Hobbes, then, support a restoration? But that would amount to a revolution against a revolution. And if restorations are accepted as legitimate, every revolutionary can argue that the reigning sovereign had come to power through a revolution sometime in the past, and disguise revolution as restoration.

Hobbes' claim that sovereign power is dissolved when the government cannot guarantee the physical security of subjects closed this revolutionary loophole. Past governments' authority was confined to the past, when they had physical control. But in the process, Hobbes created a paradox. While not-yet-successful revolutionaries stand condemned, if they manage to carry out their revolution, they automatically become the legitimate, sovereign power. They can even, quite justly according to Hobbes, suppress the opinion that the former sovereign was ever legitimate. Considering the great privileges that Hobbes bestows on sovereigns, and the dismal conditions in which his subjects find themselves, the incentive to trade subject for sovereign status is great. Thus, even as he condemns revolution, Hobbes creates an incentive for it.

In Iraq, we see Hobbes' paradoxical position realized. In the 1950s, the world recognized the Iraqi monarchy. Then the Baathists overthrew the monarchy, and in the 1960s, the world recognized the Baathists. Later, when the US-led coalition overthrew Saddam and installed the Allawi government in its place, the world recognized that government too. Saddam, refusing to accept that the Hobbesian rules that had legitimized his rise to power by force also legitimized his removal by force, told the court on the first day of his trial: "I am the current president of Iraq." But not even Jacques Chirac agreed.

Clearly, though Locke is more popular than Hobbes, Hobbes still has a constituency. The question that divided them is still a live one: Does a tyrant, who seizes power by force, who is obeyed from fear, have a right to rule?

Hobbes resembles Machiavelli in that more people agree with him and live by his rules than would admit to it. He reveals repugnant realities about the nature of power, which the naïve are appalled by and reject, while the shrewd recognize but are reticent about them. (A little more reticence might have served Hobbes well too: later in life, he was barred from writing about politics for his unpopular opinions.) Recent Western defenders of Saddam's sovereignty were helpful in throwing light on the unacknowledged but potent influence of Hobbes' ideas on the modern state system.

The Westphalian State System

Leviathan was written in 1651, three years after the peace of Westphalia was signed. The peace of Westphalia brought to an end the Thirty Years' War, during which Catholic and Protestant powers wrought terrible bloodshed in Europe as they battled and subverted one another, goaded into antagonism by their differing visions of Christendom. The Westphalian state system proved durable. Throughout the 18th century, the heyday of absolute monarchy, France, Spain, Austria, Prussia, Britain, Turkey and Russia -- Europe's great powers -- were stable, and although wars occurred, they were mild compared to those that took place in the periods before and after. From 1789 to 1814, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars erupted across Europe, shaking the Westphalian order to its foundations. But it was cobbled together again at the Congress of Vienna, and despite a few minor wars and boundary changes, maintained its integrity until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. After another period of wars and revolutions, a (modified) Westphalian state system was not only re-established in 1945, but was generalized to the whole world. As lands and peoples emerged from beneath the ebbing tide of colonialism, they turned into sovereign nation-states. Today, all the earth's territory and people are portioned among sovereign states in the Westphalian tradition.

Hobbes, sovereignty, and the Westphalian order are intimately linked. As part of the price of peace, each state had to adopt a certain cynicism with regard to the subjects of enemy powers. Catholic monarchs abandoned the souls of northern Europeans to (in their opinion) heresy and eternal damnation. Protestant states left free-thinking Spaniards to be burned by the Inquisition. The Soviets left American and west European workers to be (in their view) exploited by capitalist pigs. And Americans abandoned eastern Europeans and Russians to (in our view) Soviet thralldom, not even aiding them when, as in Hungary in 1956, they rose up to fight for their freedom and begged us for help.

Peace required partial ideological abdication, in that each state treated as legitimate other states whose arguments for their own legitimacy were anathema to its own principles. America could not accept that the Soviet Union was legitimate because it was the vehicle of a historically inevitable proletarian revolution, liberating workers from the miseries of capitalism. Nor could the Soviet Union accept that the US government was legitimate because it protected the natural rights and property of its people, adhered to an 18th-century Constitution, and submitted regularly to free and fair elections. Instead, we each became ad hoc Hobbesians, accepting (at least provisionally) that force and fear adequately established the other power's right to rule.

Bush vs. the Hobbesian Order

If the Hobbesian order has proved so robust and durable, as well as rather effective in exorcising the scourge of total war, why has President Bush chosen to risk a confrontation with it? No doubt the truest answer is the simplest: because he believes it is the right thing to do. But what persuaded Bush to embrace the role of evangelist-in-chief for global democratization, which he didn't appear to aspire to when he was a candidate in 2000? Because of 9/11, yes -- but why did 9/11 lead to that particular epiphany?

I'll leave it to future biographers to explore what role leftist historiography may have played in the change. Throughout the Cold War and after, leftist historians sought to undermine the "Free World" narrative which fortified Americans' belief in the righteousness of their cause. In some respects they failed. Leftist historians were wrong in arguing that Third World poverty is a legacy of colonialism, or the result of being an exploited "periphery" in the global capitalist order. Their sympathies for communism and Stalinism look grotesque in retrospect. But they had a point when they argued that America betrayed its principles during the Cold War by bringing to power and/or allying with vicious dictatorial (but non-communist) regimes. After the fall of communism, part of the peace dividend that the free world enjoyed was the moral relief of being able to withdraw from (most) such sordid partnerships.

After 9/11, we were confronted with the old Cold War dilemma again. Most of the countries where Islamist terrorism festers are dictatorships. A war on terror threatened to involve a lot of collaboration with these regimes. Liberty in America would once again be protected and tainted by repression abroad. Bush found his own risky high road out of this dilemma in the forward strategy of freedom, fighting terrorism and tyranny at the same time.

Bush's argument for freedom tracks Locke's. In particular, like Locke's, it has a theological basis: Bush is fond of saying, "Freedom is not America's gift to the world, it is the Almighty God's gift to every man and woman in this world" -- a claim not likely to be convincing to atheists, such as many contemporary Europeans, or (probably) Thomas Hobbes.

Is there a logical link between theism and Locke, and between atheism and Hobbes? Do their respective premises favor arguments for liberty and sovereignty? Perhaps. A belief in human dignity is more well-founded if one thinks man is made in the image and likeness of God than if one believes he is a purely material animal-machine. One who is obedient to a higher Sovereign can pledge only a provisional, not a total, allegiance to an earthly sovereign. A Bible-based moral realist will never let right and wrong be defined by the state. And if one believes there is an afterlife, one is less likely to accept Hobbes' insistence that self-preservation must trump every other motive. But nowadays God and the Bible are taken to be unproven at best. From a contemporary point of view, it is one of Hobbes' strong points that the allusions to God in his argument are insincere and superfluous, and the theory can dispense with them and remain cogent. The explicit theological basis of Bush's and Locke's positions is a weakness.

Liberalism and Tradition

Well-founded or not, the belief in human rights and dignity is widespread, and the notion that the world should in any way condone the power of a monster like Saddam Hussein is now under siege. Even the most acerbic critics of the Iraq War usually avoid uttering the logical corollary of their position, namely that it would be better if Saddam's prison-state were still in business. The title of one fine Iraqi blog, Iraq the Model, even expresses the hope that the liberation of the bloggers' own country will serve as a model for (apparently) the liberation of all peoples suffering under tyranny. However, Iraq is not a model suitable for general application, and not just because the cost in money and soldiers' lives is too high, but also because Hobbes was partly right in his aversion to revolution. Most would agree that few countries are so abused by their rulers that they would benefit from regime change by foreign invasion. Fewer appreciate the harms inherent in radical change even by peaceful means. Natan Sharansky writes of being "overcome by a powerful sense of liberation... I am certain that this feeling of exhilaration transcends race, religion, creed and culture, and that the drug of freedom is universally potent." (Sharansky, 64.) But after the high comes the hangover.

When societies are suddenly reorganized in the name of liberal democracy, the vast majority may be confused by and unable to navigate the new rules, and lose out while wealth and power are seized by unscrupulous insiders. This happened in Russia, to cite the most famous example. The resulting configurations of property and power will not be perceived as legitimate. The forms of liberal democracy appear without the substance.

In order for people meaningfully to consent to the laws that govern them, they must understand them. And since most people do not read constitutions or lawbooks, that understanding must be inculcated by parents, by schools, by churches, temples, synagogues or mosques, by friends and social networks, and by experience. In other words, it is inculcated in the form of folk wisdom or tradition. Occasionally, sudden change is welcome or necessary. But it also alienates people who find themselves in a strange "through the looking glass" world that folk wisdom and tradition do not enable them to understand.

Bush is right to condemn utterly the malevolent and far from traditional "stability" imposed by murderous totalitarianism. But most forms of stability and tradition, even if they do not fit perfectly with the liberal democratic paradigm (like the religious authority of Sistani in Iraq) nonetheless have merit. And they have a deep legitimacy for which elections alone are not a substitute, and which democracy must defer to and co-opt in order to succeed.

It was neither Locke nor Hobbes but Edmund Burke whose thought inspired the Congress of Vienna and thus laid the foundations for what remains the world's longest golden age of peace, progress, and the advance of liberty -- the 19th century. If we wish to achieve such progress again, to end tyranny in our world, and to transcend the world of Hobbes, we must temper the idealism of Locke with the wisdom of Burke.

Nathan Smith is a writer in Washington, D.C. He blogs at Towards a Good Samaritan World, contributes to the blog at Citizen-Journal, and self-publishes at Liberation Theology for Free-Market Economists.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Penguin Books, London 1968.
Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Cambridge University Press.
Sharansky, Natan. The Case for Democracy. Perseus Books 2004.


TCS Daily Archives