'Laws are like Cobwebs which may catch small Flies, but let Wasps and Hornets break through.' -Jonathan Swift

What is the Purpose of Government?

by Ethan Glover, Tue, Dec 23, 2014 - (Edited) Thu, Oct 20, 2016

Video Transcript:

Imagine a time before kings, presidents, or prime ministers, before the formation of society and civilization. This is what philosophers call a state of nature.

In this thought experiment, people lived freely. Without rules or formal laws. But what, exactly, does this state look like?

For 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the state of nature is a war of all against all. Mankind's basic nature is fear, insecurity, death, and turmoil. And from this constant terror, people decided to surrender some basic rights to a sovereign entity. Or what he called, the leviathan.

If one was, say, fed up with the theft of his potions, the state could pass laws to protect his goods or help him receive some sort of reparation. This protection is important for a number of reasons, but the most significant is that laws and their enforcement keep constant anxiety at bay.

For 18th century Swiss born French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the state of nature is rather different than that conceived by Hobbes. Rousseau sees natural man as independent, solitary, and peaceful. Rousseau thought people were much better off without government.

With the creation of agriculture, private property, and the division of labor however, came inequalities. Unequal access to resources created tension, enmity, and envy. People started to become aware of their limited material situation and lack of upward mobility. They became aware of their unfreedom.

This led Rousseau to claim that, "Man is born free, and is everywhere in chains."

While both philosophers describe the state of nature as a sort of beastly existence absent any morality, they disagree on some fundamentals. Rousseau sees the Hobbesian model as leading to despotism in which people have no choice but to turn to a third party to secure basic needs. Consequently, they do not freely choose their leaders.

Rousseau argues that, rather than choosing leaders out of fear, people choose to give up some power and rights at least so that citizens can be equal. Rousseau dictated that decisions ought to be made for the sake of everyone, instead of a few.

This would require that people follow a rule of law that they would follow on their own anyway. For Rousseau, people are better without government, because society means unfreedom and oppression.

Whether out of fear, or for the sake of equality, the consent to be ruled is called the social contract. So listeners, I ask, who has it right? Do people need to be kept in line, or should they remain free to do as they wish?

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