The American Leviathan

For the laws of nature (as justice, equity, modesty, mercy, and, in sum, doing to others as we would be done to) of themselves, without the terror of some power, to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural passions, that carry us to partiality, pride, revenge and the like.

Without the terror of some power. Hobbes didn’t trust us. He didn’t, in fact, trust anyone not cowed by the rule of an elite. What neither he nor any other authoritarian has ever adequately explained, however, is what mysterious process or agency it is which invests this elite with virtues none of the rest of us possess, and therefore makes them fit agents to supplement the laws of nature with whatever temporal power is necessary to ensure that the rest of us obey them.

This is the essence of politics, the idea that the rule of one group over another has to be legitimized by something other than superior power. If it isn’t, war — whether metaphorical or real — becomes our natural state, as groups rely on power alone to justify their claim to rule. History suggests that even when there’s temporarily a clear victor in such wars, the result tends to be an oppressive and ultimately unstable society, and that sooner or later, the cycle of contention will begin again.

Back in the day — the 1960’s, for those who don’t remember them — activists on the American left were fond of quoting Mao Zedong’s famous maxim, political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, as the final word on political realism. My own thought at the time, hearing this from leather-jacketed scions of the bourgeoisie, was that we could do with fewer romantics in the movement. Mao wasn’t an idiot, and there was a good deal of truth in many of his truisms, but Mao, whether or not he or anyone else realized it, owed as much to Hobbes as he did to Marx.

The American political experiment has very different roots, which are perhaps best summarized in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

This, particularly the bolded part, is the ultimate expression of faith that the problem of political legitimacy can be solved without resort to tyranny. Despite its contradiction of Hobbes’ idea of the social contract, and the misgivings of tyrants everywhere, it is also, I would argue, the cornerstone of any political realism worthy of the name.

The founders of the American state were men of faith, certainly, but they weren’t stupid or ignorant men. They knew as well as the Pharoahs of Egypt or the Ch’in Emperor did that governments are instituted among men for all sorts of reasons, few of which have anything at all to do with securing the inalienable rights of a majority. Nevertheless, they were standing on a new continent, a tabula rasa, as it seemed to them. (This would surely have been news to the Cherokee, the Seminole, or the Lakota, of course, or to the slaves in Jefferson’s own back yard, but as conservatives are fond of pointing out, new principles, being new, often embrace even less of reality than do ancient ones.) If the members of the Continental Congress didn’t want to repeat the moribund and oppressive politics which had driven them from their European homeland, they really had no alternative but to experiment, to assume the responsibility for turning the abstract into the concrete without relying on established custom, or even, in many cases, on their own instincts.

And what of their American experiment, 230+ years on? Despite our best efforts, not a great deal remains of it. The Right to Life has become the label for a religious prohibition which a minority demands be enacted into law. The Right to Liberty has no force in the workplace, because the workplace is owned by people who view the liberty of workers as an administrative inconvenience, and the courts recognize few limits on the rights of ownership. In recent years, even those limits which the law and the courts do recognize have rarely been enforced by the executive branch of the government. Finally, the Right to the pursuit of Happiness has in large part been reduced to the sanction of a misguided quest for things — bigger things, and more of them. Why this quest should require our government to bomb wedding parties in Afghanistan, or construct military airbases in Uzbekistan; why it should require our corporations to force subsistence farmers off land in Mexico or Guatemala coveted for industrialized crop monocultures, or export manufacturing jobs to countries which offer the lowest wage structures and weakest labor laws, are questions which don’t seem to concern most Americans.

They should be concerned. In the first place, both happiness and liberty are indivisible; you can’t acquire more of either for yourself by taking it from someone else. In the second place, the consent of the governed becomes a mockery when it amounts to little more than the indifference of the governed.

Here, of course, is where authoritarians — Hobbes most especially — believe that they hold the trump card. You see, they say, even you democrats are forced to admit it. When the people aren’t wolves, who must be subdued, they are sheep, who must be herded. Only an elite can lead them in any case. Being a democrat, I would reply along with Jefferson that what distinguishes leaders from the led is interest. Not heredity, not intelligence or virtue, and most especially not the sanction of God, nor the outcome of a struggle for wealth or power.

A decent society, a democratic society, which offers as few impediments as possible to a broadly-defined public interest, is always well served, precisely because it facilitates the development of a legitimate source of leadership that is both broadly and deeply rooted in the society as a whole. The authoritarian society, regardless of its pretensions to the contrary, serves only one real interest, the preservation of the status and privileges of the elites which govern it. It does so by blocking the interests of the majority, only to discover, as it devotes more and more of its energies to the task of protecting those elites, that its efforts inevitably end by serving no one, not even the elites themselves.

This is where the United States finds itself today. It may be a nation conceived in liberty, as Lincoln famously put it, but is no longer dedicated — even in theory — to the proposition that all men are created equal.

If it were otherwise, it would be hard to explain, given both the statistical and anecdotal evidence of the suffering caused by the present state of our health care industry, why everyone who matters in Washington continues to insist that single-payer is off the table. When asked for a reason why this is so, given its obvious advantages over the corrupt and prohibitively expensive insurance system which we have today, the closest we get to a meaningful answer, from President Obama, is that our present system of insurers and providers employs thousands of people, and that single payer would threaten their livelihood. Considering that a large percentage of these people are employed in processing redundant paperwork, or finding ways to deny coverage to those who need it, is this really a reason which anyone who understands what’s at stake should be obliged to take seriously?

If ours is a government of the people, by the people and for the people, why must schools, prisons, hospitals, and even libraries be outsourced and recast as profit centers? Why are we incessantly told that traditional civil institutions must now be run like businesses? What businesses should they be run like — Citigroup? General Motors? Wal*Mart? What happened to government-sponsored low interest college loans? Why are student loans, and the students who contract for them now in the hands of usurers? Why is it that no matter what question you ask, the answer from Washington is to cut taxes on the wealthy?

Can anyone who believes that the United States is still a representative democracy explain why the government finds it necessary to spy on citizens without a warrant, and why no ordinary citizen can find out what the information is being used for, or how long it’s being kept? Does anyone know why, when this illegal spying was discovered, the Congress passed laws to legalize it, and to retroactively immunize those who had taken taken part in it against prosecution for their illegal acts? Does this seem at all consistent with the Bill of Rights?

Given the present state of our country, questions like this could go on for many more paragraphs. Just in the realm of foreign affairs and the military, one might ask if there are any convincing reasons, as opposed to the reasons Fox News gives us, for bombing those wedding parties in Afghanistan, or torturing people to death, or building military bases in Uzbekistan, or Diego Garcia or over seven hundred other places, most of which few of us have ever heard of. One might even ask why the army now has a North American Command. If Thomas Jefferson were still around, you can be sure that he’d be interested in the answer to that.

The truth of the matter is that all these questions can be reduced to one single, very simple question: whose interests are being served by all of this? You don’t have to be Karl Marx, or even Noam Chomsky, to suspect that the answer isn’t the people’s interest. Hobbes’ answer is, in fact, more than sufficient. What we are witnessing is the terror of some power. Sadly, it isn’t being employed to enforce those benevolent laws of nature which were so dear to Hobbes in his own time of chaos. Far from it.

What are we to do about this? For myself, I prefer Jefferson’s answer, from the same passage of the Declaration of Independence which I’ve already quoted above:

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Shall we begin?

21 thoughts on “The American Leviathan

  1. LWM May 21, 2009 / 12:44 am

    I’m not reading all this shit.

    Timberman, yer a geenyus. I alreddy tole yoo dat but I’m gonna have to balk on the jeffason kwote.

  2. LWM May 21, 2009 / 12:53 am

    Okay. I read the first two grafs and I hear you.
    I’ll read the rest but I still dispute we have any disagreement regarding any question posed.

  3. LWM May 21, 2009 / 8:29 am

    “Can anyone who believes that the United States is still a representative democracy explain why the government finds it necessary to spy on citizens without a warrant, and why no ordinary citizen can find out what the information is being used for, or how long it’s being kept? Does anyone know why, when this illegal spying was discovered, the Congress passed laws to legalize it, and to retroactively immunize those who had taken taken part in it against prosecution for their illegal acts? Does this seem at all consistent with the Bill of Rights?”

    William, If a true “Originalist” were reading the Constitution, he might not find any impediment to this, except for the general warrants. I’ll send you the 2007 Davies article in the Michigan Law Review if you like. I posted it at you know who’s website but to no avail. He just ignores the things that don’t comport with his world view. No, I’m not a strict constructionist or and “Originalist” but I do spend time considering these arguments.

    • William Timberman May 21, 2009 / 8:59 am

      Sure. Go ahead and post the link here. Even if no one else reads it, I will. The arguments of constitutional lawyers always interest me, even though most of the time I find their conceit that we needn’t discuss the intersection of law and politics a bit tedious. Not even the law is eternal, let alone lawyers.

      I suppose that’s why I always liked your comments on the blog in question. They cut across the grain, often in very insightful ways. Now that the same contrariness is to be practiced on me, will I get just as snippy? I truly hope not.

      • LWM May 22, 2009 / 5:14 am

        Linkee no workee no more but It was a PDF and I downloaded it so I’d have to email it but it is at least 200 pages and half of those are footnotes and this is dense stuff so I’ll wait till you have more time on your hands. Davies has been ripping Scalia and his “Fictional Originalism” and some of the abstracts are at the Legal History Blog.

        “All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.”
        – Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations

        It all disappears when you look at fine art. We need pretty pictures.

      • LWM May 23, 2009 / 4:20 am

        Speaking of snippy, if you start muttering about Leviathan too frequently, I might just have to grab you by your figurative lapels and shake some sense into you and snap you out of it.

        Here you go, William.

        Obama’s tentative embrace of preventive detention has everyone up in arms – as if this is something new and unAmerican. Perhaps it is unAmerican, but it isn’t anything new.

        All due respect to Digby, she’s got this wrong:

        Involuntary committment cannot be used for criminals, who everyone knows may very well re-offend when they are released, so it certainly cannot be used for terrorist suspects who are accused of being at war with America.

        From wiki:

        “Some U.S. states have a special status for criminals designated as sexually violent predators, which allows these offenders to be held in prison after their sentence is complete if they are considered to be a risk to the public.”

        It, preventitive detention, became popular in the 90s with all the rampant TV generated sexual predator fear and paranoia.

        An interesting book at Amazon. Haven’t read but looks decent.

        Failure to Protect: America’s Sexual Predator Laws And the Rise of the Preventive State

        let the flaming begin. I can already hear the civil libertarians whine.

        • William Timberman May 23, 2009 / 6:35 am

          C’mon, LWM…you’re gonna do me like the homespun philosopher, are you? Or maybe the company first sergeant? This could be fun.

          As it happens, though, I agree with you about the preventive detention of sexual predators, and had intended to write something at some point about the hysteria factor in modern living and the demagoguery increasingly being used to manipulate it. From my perspective, it has more to do with The Scarlet Letter, or The Crucible, than it does with sensible public policy.

          I was once out to dinner with someone who claimed that research had proven that the recidivism rates for sexual predators were way higher than for any other class of criminal — virtually 100% — and that these people can never be changed, and they can’t help themselves. He was of the very conventional, very well thought out middle-class opinion that we should run them through a battery of psychological tests, and then lock them away forever.

          I didn’t reply; I finished my salmon croquettes, and waited for the subject to change, but I did think later about where the good burgher got hold of the nonsense he was spouting, and why it seemed so perfectly sensible to him.

          My conclusion: from the same place, and with the same seal of approval, as we’re now getting the conventional wisdom about detaining terrorists forever.

          • LWM May 23, 2009 / 6:56 am


            Perhaps I won’t have to grab you by the lapels after all.

            I ventured into the monkey cage and the place is still loaded with poo flinging cage climbers. The level of discourse is embarrassing. Most blog threads leave me unimpressed but I have found one I marginally like. I did a little googling and I was able to come up with a link to an abstract at SSRN you might find useful. It will point you in the right direction for further study, vis a vis court cases. It’s not bad. Check it out.

            Sex Offenders, Unlawful Combatants, and Preventive Detention

            Michael L. Corrado
            University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – School of Law


          • LWM May 23, 2009 / 7:04 am

            Just to add, recidivism rates among pedophiles and sexual predators is statistically high. Possibly the highest, but 100%? I think not. Sex drive and libido is a problem as it is. We don’t expect teenagers to do abstinence, do we? Guess which class of offender has the lowest recidivism rate, and the highest I.Q. as a group.

            • William Timberman May 23, 2009 / 7:35 am

              Two observations:

              1) Over time, the definition of sexual predator tends to broaden. An off duty cop recently came to my door, handing out scary-looking flyers, as the law in AZ requires, announcing that a convicted sex offender was moving into the area. His offense? Molesting a sixteen year-old girl when he was seventeen. He’s now 37, and hasn’t been charged with anything, let alone convicted, in the ensuing twenty years.

              2) Life imprisonment for any class of person who scares the public sufficiently, or can be made to, is ultimately worse for us than any supposed epidemic of pedophiles and sexual predators.

              Update — 2) could have been a little clearer, I now realize. Let’s try a little editing:

              2) Life imprisonment for any class of person based on who we believe them to be, and what we believe that they might do, rather than what we can prove that they’ve done — especially when they’re being characterized for us by interested parties in or out of the government — is ultimately worse for us than any supposed epidemic of pedophiles and sexual predators.

              • LWM May 23, 2009 / 1:28 pm

                Now I might just have to shake you. Some of these persons freely admit they will re-offend if they are released. There are certain people, not many, but some, that cannot live freely in society, William. Not until they have reached an age where the likelihood of them re-offending is diminished to the extent that they are deemed to present an acceptable risk to the public. I think life imprisonment is preferable to the death penalty. In some states, if I recall correctly, either chemical or actual castration is an option for those who run afoul of the dangerous violent sexual offender exception.

                As Isaiah Berlin himself, said:

                “Freedom for the wolves means death for the sheep.”

                Greenwald quoted John Adams in the detention thread, to argue that no one should trust any man, not even Obama.

                “There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.”
                — John Adams

                It seems like an argument for detention of some, especially when you consider he also said:

                “Government is nothing more than the combined force of society, or the united power of the multitude, for the peace, order, safety, good and happiness of the people…”

                Both can be found in his “notes for an oration at Braintree”.

                I don’t think this would have been a difficult choice for most of the Founders, but I could be wrong, just like anyone else, including Adams himself.

                • William Timberman May 23, 2009 / 2:59 pm

                  Some imagine themselves as the jailor, and some the jailed. To be a citizen, you have to be able to imagine both.

  4. Karen M May 21, 2009 / 6:16 pm

    Does anyone know why, when this illegal spying was discovered, the Congress passed laws to legalize it, and to retroactively immunize those who had taken taken part in it against prosecution for their illegal acts?

    Honestly? I think that just enough of them are/were either being blackmailed (w/ that illegally gained info) or fear/ed that they will be. (Bush/Rove/Cheney… their legacy certainly includes really dirty tricks.)

    It’s pretty hard to intimidate and manipulate an honest person without secrets to the degree that our congress has been so abused and manipulated. So many of the members have secrets.

    • William Timberman May 21, 2009 / 6:27 pm

      What’s the revelation of a little venality, a little theft, or even a little foot-tapping matter, when the future of the republic, and of your own children and grandchildren are at stake. Honestly, I just don’t understand these folks.

      • bystander May 21, 2009 / 7:47 pm

        I dunno WT. I suspect the difference is whether you think you’ll have a Vitter vs Spitzer experience.

        I would like to think that a Democratic representative would have a degree of integrity. But, when everyone around you is dealing from the bottom of the deck (so to speak) I can understand how someone might get to a Why me? point. We ought to ask ourselves, I suppose, whether Russ Feingold – or, more contemporaneously, Chris Dodd – could withstand some revelation we might imagine. It was assumed we dodged a bullet with Edwards.

        Please, understand. I would have voted for Tim Wirth and John Edwards regardless. But, we – as the electorate – never get to make these decisions.

        You’re describing someone who was willing to fall on their own sword. I’d like to think such people exist, but these are folks who would be willing to see their career end the day the empire struck back.

        Sometimes, I think about running for some office myself. And, I look back over my life and wonder if incident (aa), or experience (bb), or closely held belief (cc), might create some problem or another.

        All that said…

        This meditation was worth the wait. I wasn’t done ruminating on it when you’d put up the next one. I see I’m going to fall behind and stay behind. Hopefully, this isn’t going to be a timed test.

        PS. You still haven’t answered my question. How much notoriety do you want? I wanted to cite you and link a couple of times today – but, sometimes a “business” wants a few days before they throw open the doors and put the open-house advert in the newspaper.

        • William Timberman May 21, 2009 / 8:18 pm

          Yes, well…. If a nineteen year-old is actually prepared to die for us, and believe me, some of them do realize the gravity of the choice they’ve made — then I’m sorry, but I find it hard to find any sympathy for these pigs, who, after all, have benefitted far more than most people from this despicable system of character assassination which we’ve created. I think it goes without saying that it may take a few martyrs to restore some sense of proportion to our politics. In the end, it didn’t take all that many people standing up to Joe McCarthy and HUAC to bring the whole rotten house of cards down around the scumbags’ ears, which is a bit of history many of us can remember, and which no one who can remember it would mind seeing repeated.

          As for how public I want to be, the answer is as public as the natural course of events requires. I’m not selling anything, but I’m not hiding anything either, if that makes any sense.

  5. cocktailhag May 22, 2009 / 3:37 pm

    Interestingly, the often too conventional Ed Schultz has done a lot lately to point out that while America may be many things, it’s no longer a Democracy. He uses the health care “debate” to illustrate this. To the well-meaning but rather late to the library Ed I would also suggest the military budget, the empire, and myriad other things very few want but everyone nonetheless must pay for.
    Here, the government doesn’t even have to employ its own media, but merely seed it with propagandists. Berlusconi could have saved money by being born here.

    • William Timberman May 22, 2009 / 6:26 pm

      Yes, it’s definitely all of a piece. What amazes me is that the elites who stitched it together over the last 65 years or so, and are deeply embedded in it, still actually believe that it’s a) rational, and b) stable.

      Those of us holding the shitty end of the stick are beginning to wonder, but we don’t seem to have any idea what to do about it, certainly not any grand idea on the scale of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, or Daniel Bell’s Post-Industrial Society. The more fools us, I guess.

      On the other hand, maybe Pete Seeger’s modest vision of everybody with a teaspoonful of sand to put in the bucket is a better way to go. Certainly it can’t turn out any worse.

  6. LWM May 23, 2009 / 4:40 pm

    “Some imagine themselves as the jailor, and some the jailed. To be a citizen, you have to be able to imagine both.”

    I’m too lazy for HTML and there was no room above, nor a “reply to this” link. Fair enough and why would you suppose I don’t consider this? One also must balance two sets of competing systems of values. This is not a binary choice. This is going half again to either extreme,ad infinitum. You know you never reach either extreme because the points along the way to either extreme are infinite in number.

    It isn’t much different from the debate over abortion, really. Not from my perspective, at least.

    • William Timberman May 23, 2009 / 5:08 pm

      The reply to this comment indentions only go to eight levels. I could increase the number, but then the replies on a long thread would wind up being a single word wide. We’re going to have to do what you just did, I guess, at least if we’re going to carry on like this very often. 😉

      And the rest of your comment is true enough. Sometimes we just disagree where the balance point lies. What to do about Guantánamo is indeed a problem, but it wouldn’t be the kind of problem it is if we hadn’t been afflicted with a political leadership whose idea of balance is unbalanced in all the fundamental ways which led people to invent democracies in the first place.

  7. LWM May 23, 2009 / 9:00 pm

    We’ll stop meeting like this. It’s a holiday. I’m on vacation.

    Here’s something interesting:

    Quarantine is voluntary or compulsory isolation, typically to contain the spread of something considered dangerous, often but not always disease. The word comes from the Italian (seventeenth century Venetian) language Italian quarantena, meaning forty day period.

    Quarantine law began in Colonial America in 1663, when in an attempt to curb an outbreak of smallpox, the city of New York established a quarantine. In the 1730s, the city built a quarantine station on the Bedloe’s Island.[2]

    The Philadelphia Lazaretto was the first quarantine hospital in the United States, built in 1799, in Tinicum Township, Delaware County, Pennsylvania.[3]

    There are similar national landmarks such as Ellis Island and Angel Island.

    U.S. President John F. Kennedy euphemistically referred to the U.S. Navy’s interdiction of shipping en route to Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis as a “quarantine” rather than a blockade, because a quarantine is a legal act in peacetime, whereas a blockade is defined as an act of aggression under the U.N. Charter.

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