Archive for January 20th, 2010|Daily archive page

The American Leviathan

In David Brooks’ op-ed yesterday, he compared Obama’s administration to Hobbes’ Leviathan:

[Obama] is no ideologue, but over the past year he has come to seem like the sovereign on the cover of “Leviathan” — the brain of the nation to which all the cells in the body and the nervous system must report and defer.

Americans, with their deep, vestigial sense of proportion, have reacted. The crucial movement came between April and June, when the president’s approval rating among independents fell by 15 percentage points and the percentage of independents who regarded him as liberal or very liberal rose by 18 points. Since then, the public has rejected any effort to centralize authority or increase the role of government. . .

. . . The American people are not always right, but their basic sense of equilibrium is worthy of the profoundest respect. President Obama has shown himself to be a fine administrator, but he erred in trying to make himself the irreplaceable man in nearly every sphere of public life. He erred in not sensing that even a pragmatic government could seem imperious and alarming.

Brooks says that the American people want a servant, not a Leviathan, but I think he’s wrong. The thing about Hobbes’ Leviathan is that it is a political theory which assumes that on their own, people will not be virtuous, and so they need a strong governmental power to check their vicious appetites and curb their selfish desires. The Leviathan image is a provocative one because it illustrates how the government has its “tentacles” in all spheres of society, controlling human affairs in order to prevent chaos from breaking out.

I don’t think that Scott Brown’s election yesterday is a vote against Leviathan, as Brooks seems to indicate, but rather against the effectiveness of this particular Leviathan. You see, the alternative to a Hobbesian political theory is a virtue-based theory in the vein of Aristotle and Aquinas which claims that the government has a positive role, not just to restrain the evil impulses of people, but also to foster their good inclinations and inculcate virtue. And Americans don’t want the government encouraging them to be good; they really just want the government to leave them alone to do what they want.

Take the healthcare debate. Healthcare in our country is in desperate need of reform largely because our system is bloated and our citizenry is unhealthy. Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts yesterday indicated that people don’t like the current attempts to initiate reform which mainly involves the Democratic congress throwing massive sums of money at the problem, probably raising taxes, and increasing the deficit. I’m with Brooks that this is a Leviathan-like solution. But Massachusetts voters weren’t opposing the solution yesterday, or the Leviathan behind it, but rather, I think, the cost.

The reason people in our country are unhealthy is not so much due to a lack of money, but rather a lack of good lifestyles. The diseases we face in this country are largely preventable—Type II diabetes, heart disease, complications related to obesity. Treating these conditions requires time, money, and resources that our system, no matter how big it is, simply cannot adequately provide. These are problems that are not going to be solved by expanding healthcare coverage. They are only going to be solved if Americans change their lifestyle.

This means that Americans would have to take the initiative to eat less, eat better, and to make physical activity a regular part of their lives. It would also require infrastructural changes like better school lunches with more fruits and veggies, better urban planning that would encourage walking by making parking and driving more expensive and more difficult, more grocery stores with fresh produce in poor, urban neighborhoods, and a whole host of other changes.

But most Americans don’t want to change their lifestyles, they just want to suffer less because of the implications of their lifestyle. And these are the exact vicious tendencies that Hobbes wanted to curb. He recognized what I think hold true in this country—if you leave people to their own devices, people suffer and chaos reigns.

As a Thomist, I think Hobbes was wrong in his anthropology. I do think that people have virtuous inclinations that need to be encouraged, and that the government should play more of a positive role in encouraging virtue than in restraining vice. But I also think that societies can become so vicious that the virtuous tendencies of people get squelched and vice rules. This is what I think American consumerism, globalism, and militarism has resulted in.

Brooks concludes:

If I were President Obama, I would spend the next year showing how government can serve a humble, helpful and supportive role to the central institutions of American life. Even in blue states like Massachusetts, voters want a government that is energetic but limited — a servant, not a leviathan.

Yes, Americans want a servant, a government that does exactly what they want and lets them do exactly what they want. And until Americans want to start doing the right thing—living temperately and moderately, curbing their excessive desires, caring more for their neighbors—Leviathan is all they are going to get.