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America Accepts the Hobbesian Commonwealth

February 16, 2011

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.

  1. AlexKasnetz... permalink
    February 16, 2011 11:04 PM


    Certainly the Patriot Act is a controversial bill. But I do think you go too far in asserting that we have ended our “224 years of being a shining beacon on a hill.” Even if you do believe this, you must remember that similar policies have been enacted in the past–the Alien and Sedition Acts under John Adams or the advent of the House Committee on Un-American Activity (HUAC) during the 2nd Red Scare–and overcome them when cooler heads prevailed.

    On another note, I believe many others aren’t as familiar with the Patriot Act, Extraordinary Rendition, and Indefinite Detention as you are. I know space (and more importantly attention spans) is limited, but I think further specifics on how exactly these acts are changing our nation would greatly benefit your post and your readers.

    One last interesting tid bit. You may not know that USA PATRIOT Act is actually an acronym. USA PATRIOT stands for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001.” Some congressional staffer got a very large raise for that.

    • February 17, 2011 10:09 AM

      I do admit that the claim of ending our reign as the “shining beacon on the hill” is a bit of hyperbole on my part, and that there have been similar bills in the past that have since been repealed. But I also believe that my point remains valid. The Patriot Act and other similar legislation moves us unto a different conception of the nature of humanity. We do indeed move from a place of celebrating what humankind’s natural inclinations are to feeling the need to be protected from them at all costs. One could argue that we are in a time of war and we need to take appropriate precautions, but the Patriot Act is targeted at American citizens, not foreign enemies. The justification of the bill was that we couldn’t know where the threat would come from; everyone is suspect. Now the US Government is planning to hire profilers to monitor the behavior of federal employees to assess whether any of them are a threat to leak documents; once again everyone is suspect. This is where I feel the difference lies, either the state of nature is that everyone is out for their own benefit and in a constant state of war as Hobbes believed, or that everyone knows and does what is right by respecting the idea of rights, both their own and those of others.

  2. Bri Kovan permalink
    February 17, 2011 11:33 PM

    Upon reading your post, your initial argument troubled me. You state that the founding fathers created our country to allow our human nature to flourish through the protection of our natural rights and that this starkly contradicts Hobbes notions on human nature on needing to be saved from it.

    I don’t agree with this conclusion you make. I believe that the founding fathers dressed up words to make them pleasing to the public. And whether or not their motives were so pure, in essence they wanted to create a government that would be able to keep peace. They knew that if the peoples’ rights were taken away, their idealization of peace wouldn’t happen. Since the people in the country at this time had left because of persecution of these ideals, in order to create stability, it was necessary they preserved them.

    In essence, I believe that these protections are in place to keep the citizens from rebelling. In this case, our government fits under Hobbes example of how a commonwealth should be run.

    • apnash permalink
      February 18, 2011 10:49 AM

      Being that power corrupts, I do recognize and agree with your assertion that there was more than a little bit of “dressing up” of language to appease the populace and disguise the motivation for power and control as the means to peace. The difference is that a system of checks and balances were instituted as well as a citizen’s right to petition the court for redress against the government; no matter if the motive was simply to make people more willing to accept being ruled by a government or not, this is a direct rejection of the Hobbesian ideal.

      This is why I have chosen to take issue with the Patriot Act; it directly removes both of these protections. In that way I believe that we have cast off the ideals of our country and replaced them with those that are more Hobbesian in nature, and the Patriot Act’s renewal yet again this year and the lack of public opposition shows that America has accepted the Hobbesian commonwealth.

  3. willscheffer permalink
    February 21, 2011 3:41 PM

    Great choice of topics. I share your sentiment of the Patriot Act. How much personal freedom are we willing to sacrifice for security? Is it really worth it? There is an interesting case going before the supreme court in the coming weeks on the case of Abdullah al-Kidd, an American citizen who was detained while trying to board a plane to Saudi Arabia. He claims he was detained without cause, and is now suing John Ashcroft, the U.S. Attorney General during the Bush Administration. Interestingly the U.S. Attorneys office has tried to claim that Ashcroft is immune from prosecution, however two separate courts have sided with al-Kidd and thrown out the immunity claim. Who knows whether or not al-Kidd was on his way to Saudi Arabia to receive some form of terrorist training, but it’ll be interesting to see how the case turn out.

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