Introduction to Political Theory

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A twentieth-century theorist, John Plamenatz, criticised Hobbes on grounds that
if his description of the state of nature were accurate, then people would be too
nasty to stick to any agreement, and if they stick to the agreement then the state
of nature cannot be as Hobbes describes it (Plamenatz, 1992: 193–7). One of the
insights of game theory, of which the prisoner’s dilemma is an example, is to provide
a solution to this apparent paradox: what we seek is an agreement, equivalent to
the prisoners’ agreement to remain silent, but what we fear is that other people will
‘defect’ from the agreement. It follows from this that prisoner’s dilemma-type
situations are ‘assurance games’. In short, people are not nasty but fearful.
Furthermore, the real challenge is not agreeing to create a state, but maintaining
the state. Consequently the ‘game’ that models the problem is not a one-off prisoner’s
dilemma, but a repeated prisoner’s dilemma. Using a real-world example: should
you honour business contracts? If you acquire a reputation for breaking such
contracts then people will not do business with you, so it pays to be trustworthy.
Strictly speaking, this is not a prisoner’s dilemma, for the incentive structure is
changed; nonetheless, it supports Hobbes’s argument without relaxing the derivation
of political authority from self-interest.
Even if the need for a good reputation solves the first problem, it leaves unresolved
the second and third problems. The second might simply be dismissed by Hobbes –
after all, he makes no claim to the fairness of the state. All that is required is that
each individual can ask himself or herself: am I better off under this state than in a
state of nature? If the answer is ‘yes’ – and it almost certainly will be – then it is
rational to submit to the state. The third problem is trickier. We said the context to
Hobbes’s political thought was the challenge to state authority generated by religious
dissent. Given Hobbes’s model of human nature, there seems no place for religious
motivations. But if the Kingdom of God is not of this world, then contrary to what
Hobbes claims, physical death is notthe thing to be most feared. The worst thing is
separation from God. Hobbes was certainly aware of the force of theologically
grounded motivation, and argued that there should be a single state religion, with
outward conformity, but no attempt to coerce a person’s inner thoughts. What he
did not reckon with was the challenge to the stability of the state – the agreement
to submit – arising not from a clash of interests, but from differing moral judgements.
When we contract into the state we do not simply give up our natural liberty to pursue
our interests, we also give up the right to determine what is morally correct.

Hobbes and liberalism

The case for treating Hobbes as a liberal rests on a number of characteristics of his
(a) It implicitly entails a rejection of natural authority – the authority of the
sovereign derives from a contract and not from inheritance or divine right.
(b) People are equal in the state of nature because, with stealth, the weakest can
kill the strongest. Admittedly this is a claim about individuals’ physical powers

  • and a questionable one at that – rather than a claim for moral equality.
    (c) Later contract theorists fundamentally revised the nature of the contract, but
    the basic method remains, so Hobbes’s argument has proved remarkably
    productive of liberal thought.

182 Part 2 Classical ideologies

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