“Leviathan is people:” I argue with a Hobbes-spouting righty on Reddit


A more-or-less typical-seeming righty Redditor, who seems to do most of his posting on r/The_Donald, went to r/anarchy looking for a debate about whether the rule of law is a necessary check on human evil or a sick joke and an excuse made by tyrants. He and I wound up being the principal debaters. I’m reposting the result here because I like the way it turned out and want to make sure it doesn’t disappear.

(I did clean up a few typos, in both our responses; other than that, I didn’t change a thing. If I failed to make a point clearly enough, I’ll make it again some other time, I’m sure.)

The OP:

Anarchists, I am here to meet your charge. I believe in the rule of Law, and the value of this, and would like to debate on this issue.

Someone else drew him out a bit:

You go first… explain yourself

And:

Sure!

Firstly, there’s no evidence to suggest that Anarchy has ever worked, nor could it ever work. There is no historical antecedent for this ever being true, because the human species natural arranges things in terms of orders–be they collective, or hierarchical.True anarchy is ultimately impossible for this reason. Secondly, I subscribe to the Hobbean model of society that asserts that without a Leviathan–that is, a state wielding ultimate power, and the power the lives of human beings will be governed by perpetual conflict and tit-for-tat, because human beings are fickle, vindictive, and naturally favor themselves. They require an independent arbiter with ultimate power to make ruling binding decisions on their behalf, because in any dispute, individuals will naturally always rule in favor of themselves. The penalties and power of the state must be so severe as to ensure that wrongdoers do not merely disregard them, otherwise a leviathan would be pointless.

Here’s where I come in:

“Leviathan” is a group of people, and usually not the best people. If you already think that people on average are untrustworthy, the last thing you want to do is give some of them “ultimate power.”

The OP:

Well, no–because the people who compose the Leviathan are simply appendices and functionaries carrying out terms and ideas; the ultimate Authority is the ideas themselves. Their power is not arbitrary. An anarchic situation is precisely the opposite; it is the execution of arbitrary power by individuals at their own whim.

Me:

Your original argument was that people are too fickle, vindictive, and self-serving to be trusted, and now you’re arguing that the people who comprise Leviathan will disinterestedly obey it’s stated principles, rather than bend or selectively ignore those principles to suit themselves. Do you believe that Lord Acton had it backwards and power ennobles?

OP:

Of course there is always the potential for corruption, this is hardly a point worth making. There is no method of abolishing this without exterminating our entire species. However, in the case of a leviathan, corruption it is severely mitigated through tiered judiciaries, and separation of powers. In an Anarchic system no such safeguards exist. One or a group of people may be as corrupt as they wish, and completely unhindered to do so. It is not completely effective, but it is certainly better than a free-for-all. Anarchy is the state of nature; no dignity, rights, or compassion is natural. These are artificial constructs upheld through artificial reasoning.

Me:

The problem with the “separation of powers” is that the people holding those separate powers can collude with each other, or be self-interested in the same way as each other, and work toward a common bad end. They often do. And even when they don’t, one of them can do a lot of damage with the fraction of Leviathan’s power they hold before they’re stopped (if anyone else in Leviathan tries to stop them.)

In a state of anarchy, there is no concentrated power to abuse. Some people will still be villains, but they won’t be able to abuse thousands or millions of people at once, like they can as part of Leviathan.

And I don’t know of any anarchists, outside of the outer fringe of anarcho-primitivism, who argue against compassion or reason. More to the point, they aren’t more prominent here than they are in mainstream politics (see, for example, many righties’ knee-jerk rejection of compassion as “bleeding hearts,” or Cass Sunstein’s ideas on how the lefty elite can “nudge” the rest of us toward complying with their desired ends, because the rest of us aren’t capable of reason).

OP:

Under an Anarchic system, it would be no different–it would simply be multiplied beyond all comprehension. Every time you leave your house and lock the front door, every time you put your car keys in your pocket, and don’t leave your keys in the ignition and your wallet on the front seat, you’re directly contravening the premise of your ideology. For Anarchy to work, it would require human beings to act ethically and decently, all of the time, without exception–which is mere fantasy. I also did not accuse anarchists of acting without compassion or reason, I simply pointed out that morality, ethics, and compassion are the result of artificial reasoning; that is, they do not occur in nature. Unless human beings are given reasons to act ethically and decently, they will not do so.This inescapable law of human nature is the reason we have a leviathan to begin with. The reason, for example, that you drive at the speed limit isn’t because you’re worried you’ll have an accident, it is because there is the possibility you will be fined.

Me:

Do you lock your front door and avoid leaving your wallet lying around now? Then either you don’t trust Leviathan to protect you from other people’s predatory impulses, or else that doesn’t prove anything one way or the other.

And laws and regulations don’t promote ethics and decency. At best, they promote fear and panic paralysis; at worst, they can be used by villains to exploit and oppress others.

I think you passed over this point too quickly last time, too, so I’ll make it again: Leviathan is people. Its laws are written by people, interpreted by people, and enforced by people; the “rule of law” is the rule of legislators, lawyers, and cops. If people are as untrustworthy as you’re arguing, then why should we trust the sort of people who seek power?

OP:

Of course I lock my doors and don’t leave my wallet lying around. I do not expect the Leviathan to to be able to stop all crime at all times. This is impossible. But I do expect it to deter crime to a very large extent, because it imposes penalties on those who enact in your words ‘predatory behavior’. There is a two tiered effect, because due to the panopticon principle, a would-be criminal can never be sure whether they will get caught for a crime, or they won’t–meaning they are less likely to attempt this. What guarantees of safety, recourse, or any forms of protection of any form are guaranteed by Anarchy? Absolutely none. Zero. An Anarchic world promises nothing more than chaos; an endless, arbitrary cycle of revenge. Half a loaf of bread is not the same as none at all. Laws do promote ethics, morality and civility by setting standards of them based on rationality. They also provide you freedom, and this what you’re crucially missing: You would almost certainly not survive the conditions of of an Anarchic society. Whatever you had would be taken from you by brute force by a dog with bigger teeth. In fact, the only reason you have a concept of what Anarchy is, is because you were born into a world in which the rule of law protects you from it, and has liberated you from it. You can only conceptualize what Anarchy is because you know what it is not. If the script were flipped, freedom would be beyond your comprehension; you would be like an animal, the entirety of your life and energy of mind devoted to securing food and not being killed and eaten.

I understand your point about the Leviathan being composed of people, who are fallible, and are also subject to acting in their own interests. That is why, again, we have separation of powers, reviews, and right to trial by juries–a collective of peers. We have anti-corruption laws, anti-collusion laws, anti-discrimination laws, and anti-monopoly laws. The whole of law is, indeed, predicated on defending the rights and freedoms of the individual.What you are doing is looking at the instances where these mechanisms fail, and making the absolutely fallacious conclusion that you would have more liberty and freedom without protections of the state. It is a juvenile, immature contention. Why should you trust the people who ‘seek power’? You should not. It is not the people who are significant; it is the Laws themselves, and the writing of Laws, and the ideas behind them that you should put your faith in. By all means–distrust the people who are meant to uphold them. Hold them to account. Unless the citizenry do this, what we would end up with would be…well. Anarchy. Do you have any idea how many people had to die to bring you, through generations of tyranny, insanity, oppression, and dark age after dark age, the freedoms and liberty you enjoy? There are so few people living or dead who can boast such a claim. It is invaluable. Priceless. We are having this conversation right now because of it.

Me, closing:

Here we come to the root of our disagreement: you have “faith” in Leviathan and call life under it “freedom,” and I don’t. Here’s why.

“It is not the people who are significant, it is the Laws themselves, and the writing of Laws,” you wrote, ignoring the low quality of the people writing those laws. Take a hard look at the average Congressman and tell me again that I should have faith in anything they created. Or instead of Congressmen, contemplate the average bureaucrat, or a few circuit-court judges…

I do look at the instances where Leviathan fails in its advertised purpose, and so do you, I’m sure. And the conclusion I come to is not that the bad apples I’ve seen are the only ones in the barrel. I know I don’t see everything Leviathan does, so I judge it based on what I have seen, both good and bad, instead of having “faith” that everything I can’t see is hunky dory and above board.

And as for “freedom”…

Under Leviathan, we’re free to have a chunk of our earnings extorted from us. (It’s a little under 40% in the US.) If we object, we risk being robbed, kidnapped, or murdered. No one jumps out of an alley at us with a knife; instead, it’s done regularly, on a schedule, and it’s often relatively painless, like milking or sheep shearing. What were you saying about living like an animal?

Under Leviathan, we’re free to be murdered whenever competing governments feud over territory or control of tax cattle. (Search “wars by death toll.”)

And when we aren’t being milked or slaughtered, we’re being herded, corralled, and leashed. Not all laws – not even most laws – have anything to do with ethics or decency; most of them have to do with the distribution of advantages and the satisfaction of our masters’ whims, prejudices, and power lust. And if we pull back too hard on the leash, jump out of the corral, or do anything else that annoys or inconveniences our herders, then we’re free to be killed, and quickly, before other tax cattle follow our example.

You call all this “freedom” and “liberty,” as opposed to the “tyranny” and “oppression” that you imagine is safely in the past. You call this “safety” and “protection,” as opposed to the “chaos” you imagine life would be without it.

I don’t. Call me “juvenile” if you want, but I don’t see anything especially mature about plodding along with the status quo.

P.S. A society with ethics is preferable to one without. That’s enough reason for me to act ethically; I can tell right from wrong and socially constructive from socially corrosive actions without the help of some ambitious mediocrity with a flag lapel pin. I don’t think I’m unique in this, either. So much for lawmakers being necessary to promote ethics and life without them being nasty, brutish, and short.

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