Thursday, February 05, 2009

Hobbes, and giving up your rights to the Constitution

I've been thinking about some ways to fix Hobbes's view so that you don't end up giving up all your rights to a sovereign who then has absolute power and can do awful things with impunity. Hobbes was concerned that if you don't give up all your rights to a single individual or body, your divided government will be riven by internal power struggles and you'll end up in another English Civil War. (A lot of Leviathan is a "How to not be in the English Civil War" manual.) Hobbes claimed that an absolute monarch would rule in the best interest of his subjects because his power was constituted by theirs. Historically, this consideration hasn't been especially successful in aligning the interests of absolute monarchs with their subjects.

So here's a way to start from Hobbes' basic premises about the state of nature and meet all his major desiderata while incorporating goodies like separation of powers and the structures of liberal democracy. Rather than getting out of the state of nature by giving up all your rights to a sovereign, give them all up to a form of government embodied in a clearly written Constitution, which defines the roles of various branches of government, lays out procedures for governance, and guarantees a bunch of rights to the subjects. You're also going to have to do some voting to figure out who will fill the offices at first, but Hobbes grants that you can do that in his account of how a commonwealth begins by institution.

From then on, regard the Constitution the way that Hobbes would want you to regard the sole pronouncement of an absolute monarch. If people are violating it, they're denying the sovereign's authority, putting them at a state of war with everyone else. Assuming that the Constitution is clearly written and there's an agreed-upon framework for interpreting it, I don't see why you couldn't achieve all of Hobbes' major desiderata. (There are some minor things you couldn't get -- he thinks an absolute monarchy is superior to democracy because the absolute monarch has an easier time making secret plans. But I'm sympathetic to Yglesias' argument that in some foreign policy contexts, it actually helps if everyone knows you're incapable of secrecy.)

This isn't to say that there aren't problems with this account of government. The point is just that as far as I can tell, it'd accomplish everything Hobbes really cares about, while building in some extra goodies.


Daniel Nolan said...

I have the vague sense that some people have thought along these lines - see the legal philosopher J. Austin's view of the "sovereign", which he thought, in Britain, was the crown in parliament, as opposed to an individual. (If I've remembered Austin's view correctly.)

I suspect the main Hobbsian problem with the proposal is going to be with enforcement of the constitution. Everybody would prefer the consitution to be violated if they did better out of it, and everyone would be aware of that, which leads to mutual suspicion, faction, etc. On the other hand, when the sovereign is an agent, at least he or she has an interest in keeping the sovereign in power, and he or she has the means to do so. So an autocrat is self-supporting in one way that a constitutional system is not. My impression is that a Hobbsian is going to be somewhat pessimistic about solving the "who watches the watchers" problem.

But I'm no Hobbes expert, and haven't even gone back to check before posting. So I'd be happy to be proven wrong by people more familiar with Hobbes's work!

Neil Sinhababu said...

Thanks, Daniel! I hadn't heard of Austin's view on this. And I'm no Hobbes expert either, so there's no need for humility until Gregory Kavka shows up or something.

What I'd like to say here is that Hobbes uses various theoretical resources to explain why an autocrat's orders will be followed, and as long as you grant those resources to the constitution as well, things work the same way.

At the immediate level, people obey a monarch because lots of people fear him. But obviously that's not because he's personally big and strong enough to beat people up. People fear him because he has command of so many others. And assuming that all in constitutional government listen to the dictates of the constitution just as all in a monarchy listen the monarch, our constitutional government will have the same command over people. People who claim extraconstitutional powers will be sanctioned in whatever way you'd sanction the people who violated the monarch's orders. (I'm assuming that the constitution, or some pursuant law, would lay out penalties for defying the constitution in various ways.) If people in general don't follow the constitution, of course things will fall apart. But the same holds for the orders of the monarch as well.

At bottom, people obey the monarch's orders or the constitution because they don't want to fall back into the state of nature. The existence of the commonwealth is what stands between us and the state of nature, and that's why we all support it -- whether by obeying the monarch's orders or by obeying the constitution. People who openly defy those orders reveal themselves as enemies of the state, and thus as threats to the commonwealth who must be defeated.

There may be a point at which the monarch's orders / Constitution isomorphisms break down for some reason, but I'm not seeing it yet.

dr said...

I can't say as that I'm much of a Hobbes scholar either, but a reading like the one D.N. suggests seems to be pretty widely accepted. At any rate, it's the interpretation that I was taught.

For what it's worth, it seems to me that this interpretation is bolstered by the fact that Hobbes gives several arguments for the legitimacy of state power which seem to be independent of his argument that the state of nature is intolerable. This is helpful, because it allows us to separate the issues out into the answers to two very different questions. First, why should I prefer some state to no state? And second, why should I obey *this* state? The first question is about what it would be prudent to do, the second about what one is obligated to do.

Which, not to put to fine a point on it, is a good thing, because the idea that what's wrong with breaking the law is that it constitutes a declaration of war on all is, well, hard to believe. At most it would seem to represent a declaration to be a free-rider on the peace.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Yeah, I'm not trying to interpret Hobbes as a Constitutionalist here or anything like that. I'm just suggesting that his decision not to take that position isn't well-motivated.

Ariela Tubert said...

I had missed this post from you so here is my late reply!

I realize that you are not trying to interpret Hobbes but to modify his view to support a constitutional system. However, I don’t think that you can easily do so within Hobbes’ system, at least as I understand it. On Hobbes’ view people obey the monarch because the monarch has the power to punish those who don’t. It is true that the monarch has that power only because other people follow her orders but the monarch has authority only insofar as she has this power to enforce the law (once the monarch looses this power to enforce, she stops having authority). The same would be true about the constitution; it would only have authority insofar as someone punishes those who disobey. But then, the idea that people give up their rights to the constitution rather than to the monarch (or whoever is in power) would not result in anything very different from giving up the rights to the monarch because the constitution is only authoritative insofar as those who enforce it take it to be so. And if those who enforce it change their minds and decide to enforce something other than what the constitution says then on Hobbes’ view that would be what must be followed. Notice also that Hobbes thinks that the monarch is the judge of all disputes so the monarch would have to interpret the constitution as well as judge what constitutes a breach of it (no separation of powers). On Hobbes’ view, you could talk about the constitution having authority but in the end it would all come down to what gets enforced… and that may or may not be what you or I think the constitution says.