“Do We Need Government?”
Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau & The Social Contract

Press Start for “Do We Need Government?” by 8-Bit Philosophy, where classic video games introduce famous thinkers, problems, and concepts with quotes, teachings, and more.

Episode 19: What’s the Purpose of Government? |
Written by: Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau & The Social Contract

Written by: Matt Reichle
Created & Directed by: Jared Bauer
Narrator: Nathan Lowe
Animation Producer: MB X. McClain
Original Music & Sound by: David Krystal (http://www.davidkrystalmusic.com)
Academic Consultant: Mia Wood
Producer & Additional Artwork by: Jacob S. Salamon

Do We Need Government?
(The Social Contract)

Imagine a time before kings, presidents, or prime ministers: before the formation of society and civilization. This is what philosophers call a state of nature. In this thought experiment, people lived freely, without rules or formal laws. But what, exactly, does this state look like?

For seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the state of nature is a war of all against all. Mankind’s basic nature is fear, insecurity, death, and turmoil.  Because people are selfish, the scarcity of resources leads to ruthless competition. And from this constant terror people decided to surrender some basic rights to a sovereign entity or what he called The Leviathan.

If one was, say, fed up with the theft of his potions, the state could pass laws to protect his goods or help him receive some sort of reparation. This protection is important for a number of reasons, but the most significant is that laws—and their enforcement—keep constant anxiety at bay. This, in turn, allows people to live lives free from the fear of violence.

For eighteenth century Swiss born, french philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the state of nature is rather different than that conceived by Hobbes. Rousseau sees natural man as independent, solitary, and peaceful.

Rousseau thought people are much better off without government. People in the state of nature were in tune with the environment, lived simple lives, and were generally gentle — perhaps largely because Rousseau imagined little competition for resources.

With the creation of agriculture, private property, and the division of labor, however, came inequalities: unequal access to resources created tension, enmity, and envy. People started to become aware of their limited material situation and lack of upward mobility—they became aware of their un-freedom. This led Rousseau to claim that “man is born free, and is everywhere in chains.”

While both philosophers describe the state of nature as a sort of beastly existence absent any morality— they disagree on some fundamentals.  Rousseau sees the Hobbesian model as leading to despotism, in which people have no choice but to turn to a third party to secure basic needs. Consequently, they do not freely choose their leaders. Rousseau argues that rather than choosing leaders out of fear, people choose to give up some power and rights, at least so that citizens can be equal.

Whether out of fear or for the sake of equality—the consent to be ruled is called: the Social Contract. For Rousseau, people are better without government—because society means un-freedom and oppression. In order to limit government Rousseau dictated that decisions ought to be made for the sake everyone instead of a few. This would require that people follow a rule of law that they would follow on their own anyway. In this way the government is more beholden to the people.

For Hobbes this view would never work. After all, people’s mischievousness, brutal nature, and selfishness require a strong government to keep people in line—an appeal to people’s goodness and the general will would end in pandemonium.

So listeners I ask, who has it right? Do people need to be kept in line or should they remain free to do as they wish?

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