On the drive into work this morning, I heard a BBC World Service report on the riots in London and other cities in England. When things get rough like this, it provides a little insight into things we take for granted. In particular, I’m thinking of the basic nature of government.
Thomas Hobbes and John Locke are two of the bigger thinkers in this arena. I may have not understood them fully when I read them in the first place and less so in the years that have passed since. But, my Cliffs Notes version is that Locke had this vision of government as a social contract where, in a state of nature, people are basically reasonable and tolerant and government is mostly just a way to do things better. Hobbes had a harsher view, where we choose government only because the alternative is worse. The state of nature, Hobbes suggests, is a war of all against all where the life of an individual is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Government is a way of selecting a Leviathan as a sort of super-predator to keep the other predators at bay. You’re at the mercy of the Leviathan, but that’s preferable to hordes of lesser predators.
I tend to think that Hobbes view of the state of nature was the more realistic one. The rioting reinforces this notion. I know there are some who have these cowboy notions that, since they are armed, they can protect their own stuff nicely without the help of the government, thank you very much. But, in the absence of Leviathan, there is just going to be escalation – you and your puny gun is no match for ever larger gangs of armed looters.
That said, government can’t govern efficiently without the bulk of the public being quiescent. In that sense, the consent of the governed is necessary. It seems to me their are two primary paths for obtaining the acquiescence of the governed – overwhelming force by the government, scaring the populace into submission; or, one way or another, making sure the bulk of the governed have a skin in the game — i.e., they benefit from the government and have something to lose if it falls whether it be a loss of protection of their own property; loss of income coming from the government; or something else.
If the government is only protecting the property of other people, and it’s not paying you off; it had best make sure you are afraid, otherwise you’re likely to regard laws and other government dictates with indifference if not disdain.
And, a complete side note on the nature of reporting. That BBC report had the reporter closely interviewing a rioter about why he was doing what he was doing. When the rioter spouted some nonsense, the reporter was quick to press the issue and cross-examine him about seemingly contradictory positions. I could only think that we’d be much better served if reporters were quicker to question the wealthy and powerful in the same fashion.