Hobbes & Occupy Wall Street

Or, more appropriately titled, Life in the State of War Poor.

The great political philosopher Thomas Hobbes had quite a lot to say about many subjects.  In his work, Leviathan, he tackles desires, relationships, nature, power, religion and the government, just to name a few.  However, I believe that there is rather an interesting parallel between today’s Occupy Wall Street movement and Hobbes’ state of war.  Delving in to Chapter 13 of his book, we find such comparisons.

First of all, Hobbes makes the claim that all men are by nature equal.  Now, he recognizes that some people are stronger, some are faster, some are smarter, and so on and so forth.  However, no one person possesses such extraordinary abilities that another person or group of persons taken collectively cannot best him.  Hobbes then writes, “From equality proceeds diffidence.  From this equality of ability, ariseth equality of hope in attaining our end.  And therefore if an two men desire the same thing, which they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their end, which is principally their own conservation, and sometimes their delectation only, endeavor to destroy, or subdue another.”

Presumably, both those who work on Wall Street as well as those occupying desire the same goal, prosperity for oneself and one’s family.  For example, according to OccupyWallSt.org, “The movement is inspired by popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and aims to expose how the richest 1% of people are writing the rules of an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future.”  As the Wall Street workers have achieved this economic end while the occupiers have not, this difference in situation creates a tension between them.

Perhaps the most important argument regarding this whole affair is whether the workers have achieved their riches through hard work or exploitation and whether the occupy force is simply a lazy mass demanding wealth that they have not earned or a down trodden and oppressed people.  This article will not delve into this topic, but merely seeks to point out the driving force behind each side.  Also, for the sake of this discussion, we will assume that the Occupy movement is a group of disaffected citizens and not a mob organized and paid by left-wing organizations as some have suggested.

Although there is not currently widespread violence (thankfully), one group desires what the other holds and therefore will seek to deprive them of a portion or all of their wealth if given the opportunity.  Thus, according to Hobbes, Wall Street and its occupiers are in a state of war with each other; inequality and poverty give way to class warfare.

Digging deeper in to chapter 13 of Leviathan, what do we find as a result of the state of war?  “In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit therefore is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth…no account of time; no arts no letters; no society.”  If this present state continues in the current form, Hobbes warns in his most famous lines, “and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

So, assuming we are plunging headlong into this horrid condition where violence between the haves and the have-nots is merely one spark away, what is the proper remedy?  Interestingly, both Hobbes and the Occupy movement seem to seek the same solution, a strong central government.  Surely centralized power can right these income disparities!  Surely our lives, liberty, and property are best protected by a state of increasingly limitless power!

If we rely upon the federal government to correct this wealth gap as some in the Occupy movement desire, then what is the end result?  Where will the authority of the government end and, with a totalitarian state, can we still question its actions?  In chapter 18, Hobbes informs us that we cannot.  “Because every subject is by this institution author of all the actions…whatsoever he doth, it can be no injury to any of his subjects; nor ought he to be by any of them accused of injustice.”  Furthermore, “no man that hath sovereign power can…in any manner by his subjects be punished.”

Is the prospect of some financial gain worth sacrificing our political freedom?  Fortunately, when reacting to the abuses of the British, our founding fathers chose to model our nation upon the principles of limited government advocated by philosophers like John Locke than the totalitarian ones espoused by Thomas Hobbes.

Another major political protest group, the tea party movement offers a different solution to this problem.  As Gerald Ford famously stated in 1974, “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.” Although I will freely admit that there are injustices in our society, I predict that expanding government power will only exacerbate the existing crisis.  After all, haven’t subsides, tax loopholes, and excessively meddlesome regulation through our existing government helped give birth to many of the woes that the Occupy movement seek to improve?

Just about everyone would like to see an upswing in the economy.  Living in poverty, not knowing how or where one will live one week or month to the next is not a situation that one can stomach for long.  It is easy to fall into the trap of base desires, jealously coveting the treasures of neighbors, but these passions only lead us into hate.  I know that it is tempting, but, unlike Hobbes and the Occupy movement, don’t give into the lure of expanding  government power for a remedy.  Doing so will not create either liberty or long-term prosperity, but rather more widespread and equalized misery as all of us are further shackled in the bonds of economic slavery.

3 Replies to “Hobbes & Occupy Wall Street”

  1. An interesting take. Perhaps one day I will be a first year masters student. Please say hello to all our conservative friends in West Virginia!

  2. Great post V.C. Definitely a scholarly take. Hobbes was an interesting intellectual. 2 addendums to your post:
    -Hobbes lived during the English Civil War. Seeing your king beheaded by Oliver Cromwell probably won’t give you the belief that human beings are inherently good.
    -Let’s face it, haven’t these Occupy movements descended into a Hobbesian nightmare? Thievery, vandalism, rape, disease. Maybe they’re demonstrating their point in real time.

    There are other conservatives in WV?!?! I always feel so lonely.

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