America Accepts the Hobbesian Commonwealth
In Leviathan, Hobbes views the natural condition of man in a very unfavorable light. We are all naturally more or less equal in ability, yet out of this equality comes a desire to be more than the next person. We all have a natural inclination to pursue our own ends, to the point of taking it from others, which creates enemies who “endeavor to destroy, or subdue one another”. Humans are in a constant struggle against each other for each other’s wealth, status, and property. This Hobbes refers to as state of constant war, all of which leads to a life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.
The United States was founded on a different idea. “All men are created equal” proclaims the Declaration of Independence, and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. The equality that the Founders imagined people possessing endowed them all with these rights and that no one has the natural right to deprive them of them. For the protection of these rights “Governments are instituted amongst men”; we became a nation of laws, not of the will of a disconnected sovereign. Hobbes believed that we needed to be saved from our own nature, in America we wanted it to flourish.
Enter the Patriot Act. Six weeks after September 11, 2001 congress passed the Patriot Act, a bill that radically redefined which rights the American people were entitled, and brought us back to the Hobbesian idea that the sovereign, or government exists only for the immediate protection of the citizens’ physical well-being. Under the Patriot Act people’s natural desire to seek liberty and happiness as well as our ability to petition our government for redress have been greatly curtailed. This coupled with Extraordinary Rendition and indefinite detention have returned us to the Hobbesian system of the supreme power of the sovereign. No longer is the purpose of the state to promote its citizen’s natural pursuits, now we are only to be protected at all costs. Earlier this year, the extension of the Patriot Act was voted down in the House of Representatives, but the victory of reason over fear was short-lived. On Monday February 14, the Patriot Act passed the House by 131 votes and was sent to the Senate where its passage is assured.
Via this bill, we have ended our 224 years of being the “Shining Beacon on a Hill” and reverted to the very ideas that were cast off by the sending of The Declaration of Independence to King George III. This is not a rejection of the Founders’ ideas; it is a response to fear. The framework of our country was a well-conceived and fiercely debated and to reject it not on its own merits seems reckless. If we as a nation want to be protected from death and nothing else, let’s have the debate; Hobbes lays out for us the perfect framework. But let’s not go about our lives pretending that we are still the country we once were while the Patriot Act is in effect, because that’s not only reckless, it’s naïve. Under the Patriot Act America has changed, and not until you’re arrested at an airport for not wanting to be groped will you realize how much, and by then it’s too late.