A good idea from... Hobbes

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The Independent Culture
IT SEEMS absurd to obey the government. Given how much money is coming in to government coffers, it surely wouldn't make that much difference to the state if I stopped paying tax for a while, whereas it would make an enormous difference to me and to the kind of restaurants I could afford. And seeing what a good driver I am, and how pressing many of my engagements are, why shouldn't I be able to drive really fast down the motorway, police intransigence aside?

Such fantasies of life without government began to obsess one of Britain's greatest political theorists, Thomas Hobbes, during the troubled winter of 1649. The nation was in chaos. The parliamentary forces in the English civil war had sliced the head off King Charles I a few months earlier, and Oliver Cromwell's troops were facing the threat of counter- revolution from royalist armies. The ordinary rule of law had, in some parts of the country, broken down entirely. Hobbes was appalled, and set out to write a book that would remind people of the need to obey one central authority, and to submit to all its commands, however imperfect.

Hobbes didn't want to moralise to his readers. Instead, he wanted to appeal to their most egoistic impulses by showing them that, even if it sometimes didn't seem that way, it was entirely in their own interest to obey the government. He did this by outlining - in the most beautiful prose - what would happen if there was no government; what would happen in what he called "the state of nature". Hobbes stated that men were essentially unfriendly, stand- offish, power-driven creatures, whose natural disposition was to "distrust and dread each other". If left to their own devices, people would soon start to compete for scant resources. "Many men at the same time have an appetite to the same thing; which they can neither enjoy in common, nor yet divide it." Murder and gang warfare would follow, a "continuall feare, and danger of violent death". Man's "perpetual and restless desire for power" would lead to a "war of all on all". "During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called warre." To sum up the chaos, in one of the more famous sentences written in the 17th century, Hobbes stated that life without one central authority was sure to be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short".

It was by showing how awful life was without government that Hobbes could then propose that it was really in everyone's interest to lay aside their immediate impulses and obey authority. In the short-term, this of course frustrated many of our desires, but - argued Hobbes - in the long-term it was the only way to guarantee that at least some of our desires could be fulfilled. It was in the interests of all of us to limit our interests, for a man to be "contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow men against himself".

It is a principle which we are always prone to overlook when driving very fast down the motorway or filling in a tax return## form.