Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Hobbes and the Free Market

What would Hobbes think about our present economic system?  Does market capitalism today represent a system of laws and regulations that protect man from himself (i.e., his worst impulses of fear, jealousy and greed), or does it represent the natural freedom which Rousseau felt is our birthright? If the natural condition of man is war against himself (a "state of nature"), then what is the alternative? Hobbes believed that men, out of fear for their lives or property, band together to form societies which impose a rule of law that makes possible a civilized state in which to live and prosper. Today, the great debate between liberals and conservatives is to identify the proper limits of government and whether it should or should not interfere with the business of the people. Since Hobbes and Adam Smith both agree that all men seek their own interest, the problem for democracy is to discover what political and economic arrangements will bring about the best outcome for the greatest number of people. However, even if economists can demonstrate that free market capitalism, with all its inequity, generates more wealth than a paternalistic welfare state, does that mean we are better off as a nation if we consider wealth as our primary goal? Rousseau would say no, as would Plato, Aristotle, and Saint Augustine. There are higher ideals to which we should aspire.

The classical model for success, exemplified by the Greek cities of Athens and Sparta, was for every citizen to pursue excellence, in both body and mind. The word they used to express this idea was "arete," a word for which we have no exact synonym in the English language. However, the word "virtue" comes close. For the Greeks, the pursuit of arete was part of the virtue of being a citizen. It encompassed such values as honor, courage, loyalty and wisdom. They believed these were the qualities that separated a civilized man from a barbarian. Yet, in our society today, it is obvious that a relentless pursuit of wealth has become divorced from any sense of arete. For a commodities trader on Wall Street, the acquisition of wealth is its own reward and needs no interference or regulation by government. For Hobbes, the institution of government is necessary to regulate the affairs of men. He felt that men, lacking trust in one another, and fearing for their lives or property, could never live together in society unless they were prevented from doing one another harm. Thus, a state of nature is a constant state of war in which no progress or human development is possible. Peace requires one man, stronger than all the rest, to restrain our worst impulses. Out of fear for their lives, a mob chooses one man among them to be a prince and to rule over them. Thus, people yield up their individual freedom in order to obtain the peace and security necessary for a better life. For Hobbes, the prince or monarch is the seat of government and bringer of laws which make possible a peaceful, orderly society which would otherwise not exist.

Rousseau disagreed with this version of history. He insisted that people were better off without government, and that it was government itself which corrupted men's souls. Adam Smith thought this was naïve. In order to protect one's property, one needed a system of laws backed by the authority of government. Otherwise, people would not trust one another and there could not exist such a thing as a "free market" in which to exchange goods and pursue the acquisition of wealth. The question we must ask ourselves today is whether a free and unregulated market is simply a new state of nature in which the powerful investor rules over the weak without any regard to moral limits. Unless people are guided by principles other than self-interest, can we ever be truly civilized?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Virtue is highly overrated. It's money that matters.

10/02/2012 10:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home