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With Coronavirus Comes the Hobbesian Leviathan

As public health becomes the highest priority, big government steps into the chaos.

The frontispiece of the book Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes; engraving by Abraham Bosse (1651) (public domain)

Many thoughtful observers—including here at TAC—have warned that civil liberties, and perhaps freedom itself, could fall victim to the coronavirus. They have a point, but on the other hand, there’s a virus out there, and beating it by any means necessary seems to be the predominant concern right now. 

Thus the mainstream media, which only a month ago was warning about the dangers of racism and xenophobia, is now substantially on board with strong public health measures. 

For instance, on March 19, The Washington Post published a survey of actions taken by various Asian countries tagged with this remarkable sub-headline: “Big Brother looks after you.” As the Post explained, “Singapore used its FBI equivalent, the Criminal Investigation Department, to effectively interrogate every confirmed case with stunning granularity—even using patients’ digital wallets to trace their footsteps. Those caught lying face fines and jail time.”  

It would appear that the Singapore Civil Liberties Union—if there even is one— doesn’t have much clout in that Confucian city-state. 

Looking to another Asian country, the Post added, “Taiwan tracks infected people’s whereabouts via smartphones: Stray too far from home and you receive a message; ignore it and the police will pay a visit.”  

As if on cue, a Taiwanese tweeter added independently on March 21, “My phone, which is satellite-tracked by the Taiwan gov to enforce quarantine, ran out of battery at 7:30 AM. By 8:15, four different units called me. By 8:20, the police were knocking at my door.” Now that’s some serious big government—and most people in Taiwan seem to support it. 

Indeed, that same Post story concluded, “Experts agree…that Western governments must be prepared to limit their citizens’ movements, mandate isolation for positive cases and track contacts regardless of privacy concerns.” 

In that same severe spirit, on March 22, The New York Times headlined, “Italy, Pandemic’s New Epicenter, Has Lessons for the World.” According to the Times, “The country’s experience shows that steps to isolate the coronavirus and limit people’s movement need to be put in place early, with absolute clarity, then strictly enforced.”

As we can see, it’s almost as if the Times is yearning for the make-the-trains-run-on-time days of Il Duce, Benito Mussolini, in the ’20s, or at least the heavy hand of Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the ’90s. 

To be sure, none of the media’s sudden celebration of discipline and order has translated into support for Donald Trump, who has routinely been accused these past three years of being an authoritarian—or worse. 

Interestingly, when the moment of truth came, Trump wasn’t nearly as dictatorial as some might have feared—and as others might have hoped. Yes, he has mostly closed travel with China, Mexico, and the EU (actions that just about every major country in the world followed, providing a mostly unheralded victory for Trumpism). Yet the 45th president has hardly been draconian on issues of domestic order and economic mobilization. Indeed, as of this writing, the president seems inclined to loosen up substantially; that is, he is said to be in tune with his libertarian economic advisers, not his orthodox public health experts. 

Thus many governors—including Democrats leading big states such as California, New York, and Pennsylvania—have found themselves to the “right” of Trump. That is, they are issuing “stay at home” orders, thus making them appear, for better or worse, tougher than the presumed tough guy in the White House. 

We might pause to observe that toughness is the real face of public health. In recent decades, public health has been seen as a “liberal” profession, arguing for gun control, worrying about climate change, coddling the homeless, and the like. Yet when a genuine medical emergency comes along, the public health calling rediscovers its ancient muscles—and flexes them. That is, thousands of years of accumulated experience spring back to life, and a lot of illiberal words, such as “quarantine” and “triage,” are bandied about once again, as well as newer concepts, such as “social distancing” and “social media monitoring.” 

Yes, today, plenty of stern atavisms are making a comeback. One is reminded, for instance, of what Cicero wrote 2,000 years ago: Salus populi suprema lex esto, “The health of the people shall be the highest law.” (We can note that salus can be also be translated, less medically, as “well-being” or “safety.”) Yet by any translation, Cicero’s bluntly utilitarian words have always been resonant, even in give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death America; they serve as the motto, for instance, of the State of Missouri, as well as many other local jurisdictions.

And if one sees the health and well-being of the people as the highest law, then today, a lot of friendly shibboleths must get shattered. 

In his 1987 book Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government, libertarian scholar Robert Higgs argued that crises explain why the state gets larger. It was the Depression, two world wars, and the Cold War that bulked up Uncle Sam—and once he got big, he never got small again. 

The “Leviathan” in the title of Higgs’ book, of course, refers to Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 classic of political science, Leviathan or the Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiastical and Civill. (That’s how they wrote in the 17th century; hereafter, we can modernize Hobbes’ language for clarity.) 

As Hobbes famously put it, life in a state of nature—that is, outside of a state of government—is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In Hobbes’ telling, there was no such thing as a “noble savage,” only ignoble savagery. “During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe,” Hobbes added, “they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war, as is of every man, against every man.” In other words, to Hobbes’ reckoning, nothing was worse than no government and no order. 

We can note that Hobbes was writing in the wake of the English Civil War of the 1640s. Having lived through the “horrible calamities that accompany a civil war,” Hobbes believed that just about any government had to be an improvement. And so people had to come together—not necessarily voluntarily—for mutual support, through a “common power to keep them all in awe.”  

To Hobbes, this awe-inspiring creation, this Leviathan, was entirely man-made; it was the government itself. Hobbes thought of the state as an “artificial man,” composed of the very people for “whose protection and defense it was intended.” And it was through this new creation that “sedition, sickness, and civil war” could be checked.

Thus we come back to public health. As we have seen, with its liberal veil stripped away, public health is, well, Hobbesian in its scope and Leviathan-like in its scale. It’s all about abridgments of freedom: surveillance, quarantines, movement controls, mandatory vaccinations—whatever it takes to keep people healthy. 

Not everyone supports such tough measures, of course. Nevertheless, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a health scholar and former FDA chief in the Trump administration, tweeted this blunt assessment of the alternative to Hobbesian public health on March 23: “So long as covid-19 spreads uncontrolled, older people will die in historic numbers, middle aged folks doomed to prolonged ICU stays to fight for their lives, hospitals will be overwhelmed, and most Americans terrified to leave homes, eat out, take the subway, or go to the park.”

Gottlieb’s harrowing description of the virus on the loose sounds a bit like Hobbes’ description of life in a state of nature. Which is to say, if they must choose between being at risk and being under control, most people will be happy with the latter. 

So we can see: it’s the fear of chaos—including, but certainly not limited to, public health—that grew the state in the first place, and it’s continuing fear that keeps the state big. 

As long as there’s fear, there will be…Leviathan.

about the author

James P. Pinkerton is a longtime contributing editor at The American Conservative, columnist, and author. He served as longtime regular columnist for Newsday. He has also written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, National Review, The New Republic, Foreign Affairs, Fortune, and The Jerusalem Post. He is the author of What Comes Next: The End of Big Government--and the New Paradigm Ahead (1995).He worked in the White House domestic policy offices of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and in the 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992 presidential campaigns. 

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