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by Thomas Hobbes

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Thomas Hobbes said some really funny things—things that my high school students latched on to and loved to repeat. He often admitted that he was a coward—in 1640, for example, he became concerned that England’s Parliament might have him arrested for something he wrote, so he slipped away to Paris and stayed there for 11 years. He later described himself as “the first of all that fled.”

This personal cowardice colored his political theories. In Leviathan, Hobbes shows how much he fears conflict and distrusts personal liberty when he defines “peace” as the absence of the threat of war: “the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is Peace.” It is not enough, for Hobbes, that he is not being attacked at present—he wants the guarantee that no one will ever attack him in the future.

For a mind as timid as Hobbes’s, there is only one way to ensure such a peaceful existence: total submission to a dictator. In Hobbes’s view, all men are out to get each other anyway, so the only hope is to give one man everything he desires—total sovereignty—so that this ruler can hold in check the destructive tendencies of every other man.

This willingness to trade personal liberty for security sounds shocking stated baldly in Leviathan, but we need to remember that many Americans willingly make that trade. After the World Trade Center tragedy, many Americans demanded absolute guarantees that air travel would be safe—guarantees for which they were more than willing to surrender freedom. Never mind that there can be no such guarantee—life is risky no matter how many precautions we take—the real issue is that Americans willingly submit to intrusive searches because we think it makes us safer. This is not a new development. The Social Security system demanded the same trade-off: the personal liberty to invest my money as I choose traded for the “security” of the government investing my money for me.

Of course some law and some government is necessary—man is sinful! But a totalitarian state promises what it cannot deliver—complete security—at the expense of man’s liberty. Hobbes was willing to make that trade; men of courage should not be.

by Jeff Baldwin