A Hobbesian Moment?

On January 17th, the New York Times reported that there is a little brouhaha between the FBI and NSA over this whole wiretapping business. Essentially, the NSA is flooding the FBI with all manner of “leads” they are supposed to investigate, regarding potential terrorist activity between al-Qaeda groups overseas and people (presumably, citizens and non-citizens alike) in the United States.

As the article states,

“…[I]n bureau field offices, the N.S.A. material continued to be viewed as unproductive, prompting agents to joke that a new bunch of tips mean more ‘calls to Pizza Hut,’ one official, who supervised field agents, said.”

In his Monday, January 16, 2006 New York Times column about the Alito hearings, “Judicial Gag Rule,” Bob Herbert remarks, “I can understand why the Republican Party—the party of Bush, Cheney, Frist, Abramoff and DeLay—would want such a man. But why the general public would want him is beyond me.”

Of course, he was speaking generally about Alito, with regard to the expectation that “he will almost always side with the powerful interests, whether in government or the great corporations, against the little guy.” The “little guy” in this NSA surveillance story might be, so it goes, you and me.

(Incidentally, during the January 16, 2005 broadcast of NPR’s Morning Edition, there was a humorous little radio essay by commentator Sandip Roy, “Saving the NSA Effort on Some Calls to India,” that you might want to check out).

Getting back to the matter at hand, embedded within Herbert’s broader question, and one that some other commentators and columnists have been asking, is why more Americans are not outraged by the whole NSA domestic spying issue. This story broke back in December in the New York Times, and has generated more interest it seems within the press than around the typical office water cooler.

Generally, this question has been in play since the opening act of the GWOT (Global War on Terror—or, to the more cynical, “George’s War on Terror”). Perhaps you will recall the early discussions about how far the USA PATRIOT Act would go in terms of the curtailing of civil liberties, with those in favor pointing to how little we knew about the attacks, and that we might have been able to thwart them had we been more vigilant, and those opposed citing ad nauseam the dictum commonly attributed to Benjamin Franklin, that one who would purchase temporary security with personal liberty deserves neither.

Since that time, the position of many Americans with regard to governmental powers and authorities in the conduct of the War on Terror has been simply, “if you haven’t done anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to worry about.” This seems to be the thinking in play with regard to the NSA surveillance revelations.

Of course, we have these fringe liberal groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), filing, in the words of White House spokesman Scott McLellan, “frivolous lawsuits”—as if challenging the constitutionality of a questionable law were tantamount to suing McDonalds for selling coffee that’s too hot.

Many reasons may explain why the American public seems to care little about this issue. They have been told that the targets of such activity are those who call or email overseas—especially to the Middle East (minus Israel, I would imagine). Most can’t imagine why the NSA would bother spying on them when they have nothing to do with terrorism, or politics, or anything else. Most would agree that, with limited resources, surely logic would dictate that the NSA would focus its attention on “the bad guys” and leave the rest of us alone. We’ve got nothing to worry about.

But why aren’t most American’s worried about the principle of the matter: that the Bush administration has been executing this policy without specific enabling legislation (besides the “all necessary and appropriate means” blanket authorization Congress passed to enable the War on Terror to begin), and there is no oversight whatsoever from the judiciary? There was a time when some Americans were uncomfortable with the “secret” judicial oversight provided for under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 as being too far from real checks-and-balances accountability. Not so in this case.

I have been thinking about this puzzle, and then it struck me: perhaps we have arrived at a truly Hobbesian moment in Americans’ collective belief system regarding the proper role and function of government. After the last presidential election, where there was a lot of dome scratching over why so many working-class, ordinary Americans seemed to have voted against their own economic and political self-interest, some of the more insightful found the answer: fear. Americans were afraid—of terrorism, presumably—and voted accordingly based on that fear. Americans knew they were voting for the continuation of a presidency whose secrecy makes Nixon look like Chatty Cathy. They knowingly voted for a White House that found legal reasoning for the use of cruel, unusual and degrading treatment—if not torture—during interrogations of prisoners. They voted for an Administration that flaunted international and domestic law by denying “enemy combatant” detainees—including American citizens—any access to the courts. Should we be surprised when the revelation that the NSA is conducting domestic surveillance without any court approval is received with nary a shrug?

Not if we’re living in a Hobbesian moment. This moment has been at least 30 years in the making, kind of like a trip back in philosophical time. Since the 1970s, we have gone from the Keynesian activist-interventionist state, to the Lockean “umpire” state, and now we have arrived at Leviathan. Let me elaborate.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) wrote his famous treatise Leviathan in 1651, following the English Civil War. It is the earliest of the contractarian theories of the state—the idea that the origins of government and the source of its legitimacy is a real or implied “social contract” between (some) people and the rulers. In building his theory, Hobbes used a theoretical abstraction called the “State of Nature” to describe a world prior to the existence of the state. In the Hobbesian state of nature, there is no law. In fact, there’s little of anything other than violence:

“In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, no use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no Commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as may require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”

In this state of nature, three things drive people to violence: competition, diffidence, and glory. It’s the middle one of these—diffidence—that makes the Hobbesian world what it is. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “diffidence” (now rare or obsolete) is defined as “Want of confidence or faith; mistrust, distrust, misgiving, doubt.” It is behind the dictum, “if you want peace, prepare for war.” It is the kind of mistrust that comes from not knowing what the other guy is up to. Sure, he may have one hand outstretched in greeting, but the one behind his back might have a knife in it. In the “age of terrorism,” it is the fear generated by not knowing who among us is plotting to destroy us and our “way of life.”

In Hobbes’ account, it is this mistrust that compels the people to give up their natural right to everything (since there is no law) and to defend themselves, lock, stock and barrel, to an awesome and powerful ruler, who has all of the power of protection. The “contract” is binding on all, and, in a word, it is forever. More importantly, the natural rights that people had in the state of nature are fully vested in the sovereign. Now living in safety, the people retain no rights except those granted by the sovereign. This differs significantly from the later account of the state of nature and of social contract offered by John Locke, wherein only certain natural rights are transferred to the sovereign—namely the right to execute the laws of nature (i.e., to take matters into our own hands).

Now, you may say that my little thought experiment here is extreme, to say the least. There is a great deal about Hobbes’ account that I haven’t addressed. But when the citizenry turns over its right of review, and its right to know what the sovereign is up to, and to challenge that move through “frivolous lawsuits,” then we are living in a Hobbesian moment.

[A related Op-Ed piece: see Eugene Robinson’s “Using our Fear” in the January 27, 2006 Washington Post.]


~ by de cive on January 19, 2006.

3 Responses to “A Hobbesian Moment?”

  1. Nice–I like it! As long as, of course, you’re not pronouncing it “Ho-BEES-i-an,” because that just drives me crazy. We are not, after all, considering the work of Thomas Ho-BEES. Good argument. I buy it.

  2. This comment is not to the Hobbesian point, as well put as it is, but to a related matter that adds a flavor of capitalism/psychology/human behavior to the fun mix we are witnessing. Shortly after I read your blog, I was reading in the Washington Post (1/21/05) an article about (and admittedly I am crudely summarizing/simplifying and don’t have the link; others can correct me as necessary) airline security systems and how with the “faster pass thru” system, allowing individuals to get to the head of the line, so to speak, in airports, there is a that little issue of thereby allowing access to one’s credit history, among other things, that helps make this great system “work.” The detail that jumped out at me was that individuals PAY for this privilege. How clever…once again, let people think they are getting real deal (speedy airline service, first in the security check line) by putting a price tag on it and putting those thorny privacy issues in fine print. I guess the free market will reign and set the tone–or maybe not. Did I miss something, or fail to read the notes from the meeting on this plan?

  3. Patty, thanks for your note. This is a real issue, which I hope to begin to touch upon in my next posting — soon.

    Back to the NSA surveillance case: anyone who is interested in this, especially in it constitutional aspects, must read this Letter to Congress published in the latest New York Review of Books: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/18650.

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