Hobbesian Government

In Federalist 51, James Madison puts the problems of the tyranny of the majority and the rent-seeking in an interesting way:

In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature, where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger; and as, in the latter state, even the stronger individuals are prompted, by the uncertainty of their condition, to submit to a government which may protect the weak as well as themselves; so, in the former state, will the more powerful factions or parties be gradnally induced, by a like motive, to wish for a government which will protect all parties, the weaker as well as the more powerful.

By anarchy, of course, Madison means Hobbesian anarchy. Unrestrained government, like the Hobbesian state of nature, traps everyone in an n-person prisoner’s dilemma. If everyone can expect to be a victim of factionalized politics (i.e. the tyranny of majority or well-organized interest groups) some of the time, everyone would prefer to live in a world in which the machinery of the state could not be used for plunder. When it comes to playing the actual political game, however, every player’s dominant strategy is to prey upon others when part of the winning coalition and everybody winds up worse off.

Alfred Cuzán makes a similar but distinct point when he argues that we can never really get out of anarchy. He sees the state as subjecting relations among citizens to the control of a third party, but relations within government remain anarchic (i.e. bilateral, without external control). I prefer Madison’s way of looking at things: the state is never completely external to men, and can be used as an instrument of factional predation. It’s a different set of rules in which people relate to one another rather than an organization per se. People can be trapped in the Hobbesian war of all against all with or without the state.

Some see the constitution as a way of escaping the disorder of Hobbesian government. My current view on this is that constitutions can somewhat mitigate, but never come close to eliminating, the expression of factional violence through the state. Government will always be a war of all against all, with lobbyists replacing guns. The best we can hope for from government is the avoidance of total war.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: