A Call to Order in the Hobbesian Jungle

“Why do we have a government at all?”

Occasionally, I have the chance to ask students this question. After examining the unintended consequences of government policies and discussing the economics of politics (i.e. public choice economics in the tradition of James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock), the rosy picture of government from their high school civics classes has been, with any luck, irreparably damaged. We see how many times government policies actually make problems worse, not better. Given that’s the case, would it be better to not have a central government at all?

With very few exceptions, most of the time students look at me like I have two heads. What do you mean, do we need a government? Of course we need a government. They stare at me, questioning my sanity.

I push them to elaborate. “Ok. That’s an acceptable answer, but one-word answers have absolutely zero persuasive power. Can you tell me why?”

At this point, someone usually mentions the idea that government is the fundamental tool for preserving order in society. Without it, there would be absolute chaos—rape, pillage, and plunder lurking around every corner.

While many of the students I encounter are quite bright, they aren’t the first to make this argument—not by a long shot.

In his 1651 book, Leviathan,Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) made a similar argument. To Hobbes, the default state of mankind is…less than kind. Instead of trading with your neighbor to increase your wealth, Hobbes argued you’d be more inclined to club him over the head and steal his stuff. It follows that government exists to provide order where there would otherwise be chaos. Without government life would be “nasty, brutish, and short.”

There is great debate on the fundamental state of human nature. Whether people are inherently “good” or “bad” is not really of primary concern in this discussion. In fact, we can assume that people are generally inclined to bludgeon their neighbor. Does this make government necessary? Stated differently, is there a solution to the “Hobbesian problem” without the “Hobbesian solution” of government?

There are a variety of reasons to think that self-governance or anarchy (properly defined as the absence of a centralized government) would work better than people tend to think. First, we can observe that for most of human history, there was no such thing as a central government. In present day, the world is still anarchic on an international level—there is no “world government” (unless you count the U.N. Seriously, let’s not kid ourselves). If, in fact, government was necessary, centralized governments should have arisen quickly in human history.

We can also see how a variety of groups have worked throughout the course of history to solve highly complex social problems outside of or absent a state. Take, for example, the creation of language, currency, and even the origins of English common law. These were all developed through a system of private interaction. A variety of people used both formal rules (e.g. contracts) and informal rules (e.g. customs, social norms, etc.) to create enduring institutions that continue to benefit mankind.

In fact, a growing body of literature is illustrating that private forms of governance have been, and continue to be, an important way of organizing human behavior. In his book, The Invisible Hook, economist Peter Leeson demonstrates how some of the most brutal and untrustworthy members of society–pirates–were able to privately create and enforce rules to make individuals better off and decrease conflict. In their book, The Not So Wild, Wild West, Terry Anderson and Peter Hill explore how people out on the American frontier created their own systems of governance and illustrate that the “Wild West,” was actually much more tame than we tend to believe from watching John Wayne movies. Most recently, economist David Skarbek examined how yet another unsavory group—hardened convicts—are able to govern themselves both in and outside of prison via a system of gangs in The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System.

Certainly, a blog post cannot do justice to the theoretical and empirical arguments for self-governance. But as I tell my students, self-governance or anarchy may give us more than we think. Too often, when we encounter problems in our society and throughout the world, our default solution is to suggest more government, more regulation, and more oversight. But the answer may not be so simple. In fact, we’d do well to remember that, throughout our history, individuals acting in their own self-interest have developed some pretty amazing solutions to very serious problems!

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.
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