Why the politics of national security means that we’re all living in failed Hobbesian states.

Political fear is universal, but its language is particular. Racism is one language of fear; risk assessment is another. There is little doubt, however, that security — whether national or domestic — is the most potent and pervasive language of all.
Security is the one good, political theorists like John Dunn and Bernard Williams agree, that the state must provide. It has the ability, like no other argument, to mobilize the resources and attention of the state and its citizens. It has arguably inspired — and, in the case of nuclear deterrence, certainly threatened — more devastation and destruction than any other ideology of the modern era.
It has also provided the single most effective and enduring justification for the suppression of rights. Why that is so — why security has furnished what appears to be the strongest reason for eliminating or otherwise limiting rights — is the question I’d like to address here.
At first glance, this may seem like a question that answers itself. When people are afraid for their lives, they will do anything to protect themselves and their families. And when the safety of the nation or the state is threatened, it too will do whatever it takes to defend itself. Limiting the rights of its citizens is the least of it.
That is the theory, at any rate, and it is commonly associated with Thomas Hobbes, whose name is often invoked as the guiding intelligence of our times. But if we look closely at what Hobbes said we find a more interesting and revealing argument about how fear works to abridge rights and limit freedom.
Contrary to popular understanding and scholarly accounts, Hobbes does not argue that the state of nature is a condition where people are naturally driven by their instinct for self-preservation to submit to an all-powerful sovereign. What he does argue is that the state of nature is a condition where people cannot agree upon the basics of morality — about what is just and unjust, good and evil, and so on — and that this disagreement about morality is a leading source of conflict.
The one thing — the only thing — people can agree upon is that each person has the right to preserve his own life and to do whatever he believes is necessary to preserve it. No one, whatever his beliefs, can condemn another person for fearing for his life and trying to preserve it. Acts of self-preservation are blameless and thus are acts we have a right to do.
But as soon as we acknowledge this right, we confront a problem: not only do we have the right to preserve ourselves, but we also have the right to do whatever we think is necessary to preserve ourselves. In the state of nature, each individual is the judge of his own situation, the judge of whether or not he is in danger and of what he must do to protect himself from danger. “Every man by right of nature,” Hobbes writes in Elements of Law, “is judge himself of the means, and of the greatness of the danger.”
But when each of us is the judge of whether we are in danger and of we must do to protect ourselves, we inevitably find ourselves, for reasons unnecessary to explore here, in a state of war. What seemed initially to offer the basis for agreement and the resolution of conflict — the right of each person to seek his own preservation — turns out in the state of nature to generate more conflict, more instability, and less self-preservation.
Though this is by no means what Hobbes had in mind, think of the public controversy in this country over “Stand Your Ground” laws in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case. Though these laws presume to draw upon an intuitive appeal to the notion of self-defense, that notion, in practice, can rest upon a highly specific, and by no means universally shared, understanding of a threat: for some, an unarmed black teenager in a hoodie is a self-evident danger; for others, he’s an unarmed black teenager in a hoodie. Whatever side one takes in that controversy, the mere fact that it is a controversy suggests — with Hobbes — that the right of each people to seek his own preservation does not settle a conflict; it is the source of conflict.
The only solution to this problem, Hobbes concludes, is to create an all-powerful sovereign to whom we cede this basic right — not the right to defend ourselves from certain and immediate danger (a right no one can rationally cede) but the right to be the judge of what might threaten us and of what actions we will take to protect ourselves from what might threaten us. When we submit to sovereign power, Hobbes says in Elements of Law, we are forbidden “to be our own judges” of our security, for the sovereign, Hobbes adds in Leviathan, is he “to whom in all doubtfull cases, wee have submitted our private judgments.”
Returning to the language of fear, we can say that in the state of nature, the fear of death or bodily destruction entitles us to do anything we think might protect us from real or sincerely perceived dangers (as the defenders of George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin, essentially claim). Under the sovereign, however, that fear does not so entitle us — unless, again, we, as individuals, are immediately and incontrovertibly threatened. Once we agree to submit to the sovereign, he becomes the decider of our fears: he determines whether or not we have reason to be afraid, and he determines what must be done to protect us from the objects of our fear.

Author: Corey Robin
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