Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes’s symbolic explanation of the political aspects of society is well understood by those who have not read his Leviathan. It is also understood by some, though not all, who have read it with sympathy.

Hobbes’s people have self-preservation and domination of others as their salient aims, with no other aim being equal, let alone superior. We understand this as selfishness. Every member of society enters a contract with every other, with no contracting party harming the preservation and self-domination of any other. There is an entity, Leviathan, created by everybody’s contracts with everybody else, which is charged with the preservation and enforcement of all the contracts, so that the contracts are doubly secured, like the belt and braces of a pair of trousers. It could be remarked that a party contemplating the harming of another must reckon with resistance or retaliation, not of the victim, but of the totality of every other contracting party as well as of Leviathan itself.

See Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan. Online Library of Liberty. Volume 3 in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes.

It is also understood by most, though not by Hobbes himself, that Leviathan is not only very large, but it keeps getting larger with time relative to the society whose members have created it. In exchange for assuring that the contracting parties do not break their engagements (which they try not to do in the face of the resistance or retaliation of every other contracting party in society), Leviathan can require obedience to its commands by the contractors, though only within some limit, which corresponds to that laid down in a constitutional monarchy.

“Warre” as the natural state of society

“… And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which neverthelesse they cannot both enjoy [and which is scarce], they become enemie… endeavour to destroy, or subdue one an other.”1

Hobbes understands by “warre” not only the breaking of a contract, but also the situation in which such a break becomes possible by virtue of its inadequate defence. In other words, peace is the place in which self-preservation is defended, with every other position corresponding to “warre”. “Warre” is a position where a contract could be broken, even if it remains unbroken. “Warre” is the natural state of things, and peace is a position defended by the social contract of everybody else as well as by Leviathan.

As the outset, it was remarked that of those who have read Hobbes, some do not understand him. This article is now at a point where the author joins those who do not understand Hobbes.

“When two people desire the same thing, the outcome is not necessarily and not even probably ‘warre’. Commerce is another possible outcome, and there are others as well.”

When two people desire the same thing, the outcome is not necessarily and not even probably “warre”. Commerce is another possible outcome, and there are others as well. Hobbes is very clear on neither of these people being constrained by laws of any sort, but being governed solely by interest and capacity. The thing they both wish to possess is tradable, and the owner is willing to sell it at its own valuation, but not otherwise. The owner as trader and the exploiter are both governed by the same sort of rationality that should lead them to their optimum outcome devoid of any passion. The behaviour of the owner could be described as a function of his valuation of the good, the marginal cost of his defence of it, and his estimate of the valuation put on it by the exploiter. The exploiter could be described by a function which included his valuation of it, the marginal cost he would incur if he tried to get possession of it, the estimated probable marginal cost of the defence put up by the owner, and the marginal cost of his own attack. The area where the two behaviour functions overlap would include the locus where “warre” between the rivals could take place. The statement that two players wanting a thing that only one of them can possess would lead to “warre” is an overstatement. The peaceful possession of things of value and their exchange is also contradictory to Hobbes’s theory, especially in long distance-trade across several countries during ancient times where there was little or no law or custom of protecting transit trade between Venice and Egypt or between Scandinavia and the Black Sea.

The overstatement of “warre” as the natural outcome of interaction seems a possible way for Hobbes to explain why everybody is eager to conclude a contract with everybody else, and why this universal “social” contract entails the creation of a Leviathan which supresses “warre”. Manifestly, the social contract between two or more people, without Leviathan, would not be sufficient to eliminate “warre” if two persons both desire the same thing that only one of them can possess.

“… with forces united”

“And from hence it comes to passe, that where an Invader hath no more to feare, than an other mans single power; if one plant, sow, build, or possesse a convenient Seat, others may probably be expected to come prepared with forces united…”2

These words are arguably the most responsible for formulating the social theory of Hobbes. Without it much of the rest would fail to have a formally acceptable argument.

Social contract theories do not incorporate violent fights among the contracting parties. In a sense, they are designed to eliminate violent fights at least as regards the division of power and wealth. If there were such fights in the social contract, that is to say if the contract was loose and permitted the violation of its own purpose, the contracting parties in the fight would at least have the facility to engage in the fight on equal terms as between attack and defence. The social contract would not systematically favour the attack or defence of one party against the other contracting party. At least implicitly, Hobbes’s social contract is the same as the others in that it does not systematically favour attack over defence or vice versa. Indeed, like all the others it really excludes violent fights by the contracting parties as a possibility. However, Hobbes does admit and even insists on one possibility, which in his social contract should be commonplace, namely an attack by a union of the many against one or a few. The attackers, for a reason that Hobbes does not explain, are systematically more powerful than the defenders. This result seems to be compatible with Hobbes’s social contract, which is for that reason faulty and must be perfected. This is why the Hobbesian social contract must reserve a place for a Leviathan, which is infinitely more powerful than any “united force” that could be formed in the population included in the social contract, and would in fact be supressed.

Many books have been written about Leviathan and many more will very likely follow them. In this article, it would be only bearably possible to point to their multitude, and mention two arguments from the many that may have more merit than they usually have in the literature.

For more on these topics, see the books The State by Anthony de Jasay; The Man Versus the State, Chapter 4, by Herbert Spencer; and The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan, by James M. Buchanan. For more on the principal-agent problem, see “Corruption, Parasitism, and the Abuse of Agency,” by Anthony de Jasay, August 1, 2011.
Library of Economics and Liberty.

One is that Leviathan obeys what are called self-referential rules which it has chosen and which it has the faculty to change. This should always be remembered when it is a question of the state behaving constitutionally.

The second characteristic of Leviathan that merits particular regard is what economists call the principal-agent problem. It occurs when a principal will engage an agent to act for him, and the agent will act partly or not at all in the interest of the principal, but partly or totally in his own interest. It is often the case that no matter how cleverly a contract ties the agent to the principal there will always be some aspect in which he will be able to act in his own interest and against those of the agent, although some principal-agent problems are more malicious than others. The chief executive of a company who is the agent of the shareholders, but considers his own personal interest above those of the shareholders, is a frequently quoted example, but any number of cases could be discovered in ordinary life if we looked hard enough. The interest of the state as opposed to its citizens is one where you can never look hard enough.


Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan. Bracketed material added. Online Library of Liberty, 1651, 1985. Page 184.

Ibid., page 184.


*Anthony de Jasay is an Anglo-Hungarian economist living in France. He is the author, a.o., of The State (Oxford, 1985), Social Contract, Free Ride (Oxford 1989), Against Politics (London, 1997), and Justice and Its Surroundings (Indianapolis, 2002). His most recent publications include Political Philosophy, Clearly (Indianapolis, 2010) and Political Economy, Concisely (Indianapolis, 2010). His next volume, Economic Sense and Nonsense: Reflections from Europe, 2007-?2012 (a volume in The Collected Papers of Anthony de Jasay), edited and with an introduction by Hartmut Kliemt, is forthcoming from Liberty Fund.

The State is also available online on this website.

For more articles by Anthony de Jasay, see the Archive.