English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) famously described life in a state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” a condition in which one is obliged to engage in an endless war of “all against all.” For Hobbes and other Enlightenment thinkers, the purpose of government was to avoid such a fate by means of a “social contract” whereby citizens willingly surrender certain freedoms in order to enjoy the benefits of civil society. This basic construct and the ideas that flowed from it gained widespread recognition, eventually providing the basis for those self-evident truths that would give rise to the American Revolution and usher in the modern world.
What we are seeing in America today, however, in many ways represents a rejection of those truths and the notion of the social contract itself, with predictable consequences for the social order. Indeed, it seems Hobbes’ formula is being turned upside down, with misconstrued freedoms, rather than civil society, being presented as the greater good.
Regrettably, such backward thinking has a long history in this country: Many of those who collectively declared that “all men are created equal” were themselves complicit in a system that directly contradicted such a claim. By insisting on their right to own slaves, they placed themselves in the intellectually untenable position of defending individual freedoms at the expense of freedom itself.
In the same way—and for much the same reason—their modern counterparts refuse to accept that certain freedoms inevitably violate the social contract, representing rights which must be surrendered if civilization is to prevail. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the current gun debate, in which a well-funded lobby insists on interpreting the Second Amendment as an inviolable right to keep and bear military-style, rapid-fire rifles such as have been used in increasingly horrific mass killings. By taking the right of self-defense to an absurd extreme—or worse, the right to take arms against the government—the defenders of such rights threaten to destroy the very security they claim to seek.
What is remarkable, and alarming, about our current predicament is the degree to which those who claim to value social order the most are actively undermining it through an overweening emphasis on misguided principles. The guarantee of freedom of religion, for example, was clearly not intended as a license to discriminate or impose one’s views upon others, any more than the freedom to keep and bear muskets was intended as a license for the private ownership of weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, these freedoms are clearly not on a par with the right to choose whether to become a parent, practice a religion other than Christianity, speak a foreign language, or determine one’s own gender identity, freedoms frequently cited as destructive to social norms by those on the Right. The potential for abuse between these two categories is just not comparable.
In a country comprised of many differing peoples, there has never been a rightful place in America for efforts to impose ideological, political, or cultural purity. Our history simply didn’t allow for such a thing. It’s why native peoples of many tribes are still here, why the South lost the Civil War, and why we became known as Melting Pot as early as the 1780’s.
The tug-of-war between the individual’s desire for personal freedom and his responsibility to the social order, as Hobbes recognized, is integral to the concept of government. So too is a clear understanding of what is at stake in the struggle between the two. By pursuing rights that do not and cannot serve to maintain and promote the social order, our current crop of would-be populists only bring us all that much closer to the state of nature, and we’re not talking about a picnic in one of the national parks. Remember these words: “Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”