The Tragedy of the Leviathan


From the frontispiece of Leviathan, 1651. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1651, Thomas Hobbes published a volume of theory whose conclusions continue to play out in world politics to the present day. It was called Leviathan, and its namesake has come to describe the hegemonic, hierarchical power structure that Hobbes argued was necessary to form a peaceful, civilized society. Hobbes started from one core assumption of Christian doctrine: that humans are naturally evil and selfish. Left to their own devices in what Hobbes famously called a “state of nature”, the strong will ruthlessly take advantage of the weak without fail, leading to chaos, destruction, and misery. In Hobbes’s view, the only institution that could keep human beings in line was a chain of command that came straight down from God, who bestowed his blessing upon a sovereign king, who in turn delegated his God-given authority to those below him as he saw fit, and used violence to maintain his power as needed.

This theory espousing the necessity of Leviathan has far-reaching effects, but one of its less-noted yet highly significant aspects is that it validates private landownership. If society cannot function without a ruler, then every realm must have its hegemon, down to the family garden. In any occupied land, there should be no question of the chain of authority. Every householder therefore fences his plot and is allowed a kind of conditional monarchy over his small dominion. At each level of power, the teeth of the Leviathan await any who would step beyond their rights. The echoes of this idea can be heard in Garrett Hardin’s seminal 1968 essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,” which is now widely read by students of economics. Hardin argues that any resource system where many users can access the resource is destined for destruction as the users inevitably take more from the stock than can be replenished. The argument follows from a Hobbesian assumption that humans are basically unwilling to cooperate or invest their effort towards a common good unless forced to, favoring their own “rational” self-interest instead. (We could argue over whether depleting a resource everyone depends on is rational, but that’s another matter.) In response to this problem, Hardin and most of his successors have asserted the need for either governmental administration of such resources (direct control by the Leviathan), or a regime of private property rights (individual control, backed by the Leviathan).

In the Hobbesian view, lands held in common are destined for ruin by their uncooperative inhabitants, and the people destined for suffering at the hands of their more powerful neighbors. If we take the perspective from this assumption, a bit of twisted logic becomes comes into view – an idea that, I believe could be argued, propped up colonialism. If one assumes that humans are basically evil, and therefore violently savage to one another if not for external authority and a rigid power structure, what does one think when encountering a culture that doesn’t build fences? Cultures that held land in common, like the peoples of North America, couldn’t be anything but brutal savages, in the Hobbesian calculation. If such people were existing in something close to a “state of nature,” then were they not sadly in need of authority, and a proper fear of God? Land sparsely populated by savages and unfenced is effectively “empty” land, free for the taking and in need of civilizing. Best claim it for the national good, divide it into 160 acre homestead tracts and start building fences.

The irony should be obvious. Belief that the basic nature of human beings is evil and self-serving has abetted the violent oppression and degradation of other human beings. Colonialism is surely only the most drastic example of the phenomenon. This is one reason I have recently dug into the work of Elinor Ostrom, a political and economic theorist who won a Nobel Prize in economics in 2009, for her work on what she terms “polycentric governance” of common pool resources.

I said “most” of Garrett Hardin’s successors accepted the Hobbesian tragedy of the commons narrative. Ostrom was one of the outliers. Beginning in the 1970s and continuing until she passed away in 2012, she worked to explain how people don’t brutally savage one another in situations involving scarce, vital resources. She discovered early in her career that many studies, across multiple academic fields, described successful coordination between the users of a resource in order to fairly, nonviolently control distribution of that resource. The studies also reveal a number of failures, (fallibility, after all, is an unchanging constant of human nature) but those too are instructive. Ostrom showed, ultimately, that people are, in fact, capable of self-organization without imposed authority from above. She spent her career advocating for greater attention to this fact, and more thoughtful study of what makes such organization succeed or fail. Other researchers have distilled Ostrom’s attitude into a prescient maxim called “Ostrom’s law:”  if it works in practice, it must work in theory. At this disheartening time, with our social and ecological systems at the brink of so many different disasters, we might do well to take her advice and see what happens when we problem-solve based on how things have been and could be, rather than how we assume they must be.


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