Hobbes or Locke?

17/09/2012 § 2 Comments

Crooked Timber has critiqued a post by Brad DeLong in which he argues that economists are Lockean not Hobbesian. This is a continued source of puzzlement to me. I do not understand why DeLong does not understand the US political economy. He has mentioned on several occasions (here and here, for example) that he used to believe a technocratic core of bureaucrats and politicians were interested in maintaining economic stability, including 6%-ish unemployment. To his credit, he seeks to mark his beliefs to market, to update them with new information. But I think he truly believes that a Lockean economics describes the bureaucrats and politicians around him, when it does not.

Which means my response to Crooked Timber is that economists view the world as some combination of Hobbes and Locke because it is.

I should say that this is something with which I struggle daily. I do not know when Locke should prevail or Hobbes. It doesn’t help that New Zealand has found a different point on the continuum than the US, and so my calibration is off. As a result, I try to observe and understand when it is socially appropriate to obey principles and when it is socially appropriate to jettison them. Because that, to me, is the essence of the difference. We are either a society of laws and principles by which we agree to live for mutual benefit, or we are a society in which we seek our own private benefit regardless, and only a stronger sovereign compels us to conform. In practice, we are somewhere in between, and some meta-principle determines when we choose one or the other.

A few incidents over the years have shown me the value of Hobbes’s insights. One was the mining of Nicaragua’s harbours in the 1980s. The US government, acting through the CIA, placed mines in the harbour of Managua, Nicaragua. The US had not declared war on Nicaragua. It wasn’t acting through proxies, or providing materiel. The US government went into another country and placed explosives there. Then, when Nicaragua tried to follow international law and took the US to the International Court of Justice, US simply said that it could and would ignore the Court. A law that can be ignored is no law. It was thus clear that international relations were not about principles and law for mutual benefit, but about a contest for power.

I also read the book Gomorrah. The book discussed the impact of organised crime around Naples, Italy. One of the interesting bits was the description of the changes over time. The modern bosses were interested in wealth — on displaying their success through houses, cars, jewelry, etc. By contrast, the old bosses, according to the book, were interested in power — they wanted to control people’s lives.

That desire for control is much more about Hobbes than Locke (or Adam Smith). Some people do desire unchecked power. They are not thwarted by laws or principles, but by superior power. I think that is a fact about people, and it has implications for society and the economy.

Specifically, it has implications for the US economy. The Republican party is interested in power. The party exists to control government and thereby control people’s lives. It is not in the Republicans’ interest to see the economy improve. It is not in their interest to permit a Democratic president to appear successful. The US unemployed, like the Nicaraguan fishing boats or a Neapolitan crime journalist, are simply collateral damage.

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§ 2 Responses to Hobbes or Locke?

  • Brad DeLong says:

    Perhaps because I talk to lots of economists, and know how they think?

  • Bill says:

    I have to side with CT on this one. Microeconomic models that economists use for thinking about the world do tend to be Hobbesian. Institutional models tend to be Lockean, but often have a fairly Hobbesian genesis story. Public choice theory is thoroughly Hobbesian. Macroeconomic theory, in a sense, is more about observed regularities than personal motivations. I guess in those circles economists can be whatever they want.

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