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Hobbes and Rousseau, Conservative and Liberal?

November 8, 2010

The recent midterm elections once again brought to the forefront of everyone’s minds the agendas and goals of both the Democrats and the Republicans. As I listened to the arguments over propositions and candidates, I began seeing connections to political figures whose work we have recently read.

I began to find many connections between Hobbes’ ideas and those of a more right wing policy. When an individual has a more selfish view of what the government should do, they will often align with many Hobbesian ideas. Hobbes believed that we are all driven by our own self-interest and in a constant state of war. This draws connections with many conservative ideologies. If I may provide a crude and generalizing example, a conservative political view can be found often in more rural areas. In a rural setting, people are less interconnected. A man may work hard for his money through personal labor, and this man does not want to give up his hard earned money to another entity for a service he may rarely use. This makes self-interest apparent in many political views of individuals in America. Without government, every individual does what he/she can to survive and succeed. When one is more self-dependant, they will have more selfish views. Hobbes states that in the state of nature we are all driven by self-interest. This then translates into politics in a dislike of taxes, for example, which takes one’s money and gives it to the government. This taxation requires every man to interact and work together because everyone may improve or attain benefits if they work in collusion with their neighbors, which can find dislike among those who gained everything he/she needed through his/her own work. This self-interest can then translate from the philosophy of Hobbes to modern day conservative political views.

The more liberal view attains an often adapting idea of society and government. More leftist ideas often involve a cooperation and inter-dependency of all men and women in society, which in the end can better the lives of all. I have found that Rousseau’s ideas in his Social Contract connect in many ways to those of the more leftist agenda. Healthcare, for example, makes everyone citizen give a proportion of their money to the government, which in turn distributes this money to those who need health insurance but cannot afford a plan. This system makes the individual make a sacrifice for the betterment of the whole population, which connects directly to many ideas of Rousseau. The self-interest takes a back seat to the importance of the common good. These liberal goals are often (once again, a generalization) found in large metropolitan areas, where each individual is more inter-dependent. They will pay a tax, then receive plumbing and electricity, etc. Advantages can be found for the whole as one makes a sacrifice such as Rousseau outlined.

The perfect government in America would have the ability to look at both left and right wing policies to decide what is best for both the individual as well as for the whole, but this is a balance that is unattainable in reality. The ideas of both Hobbes and Rousseau have proved true in certain ways in modern politics, but neither system has provided a “perfect government” and a balance between self-interest and the common good. There will be a constant state of battle between the left and the right, between the self-interest and the good of the whole, as society advances.  The interaction and the give and take of both the ideas of Hobbes and of Rousseau is what defines modern American politics today.



  1. cwatson872 permalink
    November 8, 2010 12:29 PM

    I think there’s a bit of a modern semantics problem that arises when one discusses what are now referred to as “liberalism” and “conservatism” and compares them to their older usages.

    Today’s lecture addressed this – the chart with the different thinkers on the “conservative-liberal” and “democratic – antidemocratic” axises.

    And so after reading your post, I just want to ask how close would you put these two modern ideologies on that chart that really showed a broader breadth of the political spectrum.

    Why are these the two parties so prevalent and virtually unopposed in America? Does it come from the American way of life (such as the notion of the rural farmer you made). Or are they simply all the average American is exposed to.

  2. arjunindianhongkongkid permalink
    November 8, 2010 11:24 PM

    The balance, as you put it, is indeed very hard to achieve but no means unattainable. Hobbes’ view that we are forced into peace due to our “fear of death; desire for commodious living; and a hope by their industry to obtain them” (160) reflects on a free market capitalistic view of pursuing our goals on achieving economic gains and in turn the economy tries to increase its growth and GDP. One of the main goals of Government.
    The other goal is more of a government-controlled command economy thought, reflecting on Rousseau’s general will. It makes sure that we do not let our profit incentive get too much, so the Government places restrictions on us, such as pollution control, banning of illegal substance for the importance of mankind as whole, general will.
    This is what most governments are these days, a mix of command and free market, capitalistic and communist. We are never satisfied with the balance, after all why would we be? We are humans.

    • Chrisbbarnes permalink
      November 9, 2010 10:09 PM

      As cwatson872 mentioned, I think it is important that we get our semantics straight for purposes of argument. I will consider “Democratic Party vs. the Republican party” rather than “Liberal vs. Conservative” since we are talking specifically about the midterm elections.
      I agree with you that many of Rousseau’s values can be associated with the Democratic Party, and I would go even farther to say that they are actually anti-Republican. Rousseau believed strongly in the values of equality, and freedom, which are both central to the Democratic Party. The Democrats (and Rousseau) believe that there is a “general will” which ignores personal interests, and tends towards the betterment of society. Democrats believe that it is the job of government to legislate towards this general will. Republicans on the other hand believe that society is best served by the aggregate interests of society. They believe that each person perusing their own personal benefit will tend to benefit the whole. The ideal republican society is based on competition (vanity), and all but ignores equality; clearly not in line with Rousseau’s beliefs.
      I disagree with you that Hobbes ideas should be related to Republican politics. Hobbes believed in the absolute power of the government and the depravity and inconsequence of the individual. Republican ideas, however, are very individual centered. It is not easy to relate Hobbes to American politics, since his ideas are almost unilaterally un-American. Under Hobbes view of government there could be no bill of rights.
      I think it makes more sense to relate Locke’s ideas to the Republican Party, since he believes that the primary role of government is to provide an impartial judge for property disputes between citizens. Locke values liberty and property, and believes that citizens have the right to rebel against a government that breaks the social contract.

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