In his 1651 book Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes argued that, in order to protect its subjects, the state—“Leviathan”—need to be all-powerful. The problem, others noted and history showed, is that a non-democratic Leviathan is a recipe for tyranny. But a democratic state will respect every citizen’s interests because we love ourselves. The democratic Leviathan loves you because he is you. This theory took many forms up to the present day.

James Sensenbrenner, a former congressman who was instrumental in the adoption of the “Patriot” Act of 2001, is part of the legions who implicitly support this theory. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, he complains that this Hobbesian law now threatens parents who object to the teachings of public schools (“The Patriot Act Wasn’t Meant to Target Parents,” October 12, 2021):

When debating the Patriot Act and other federal antiterrorism laws, nobody in either chamber of Congress could have imagined these laws would be turned against concerned parents at local school board meetings.

Probably so, but it is more a reflection of their political naïveté than a proof of anything else. The Patriot Act surprised its well-meaning supporters in numerous other ways, not to speak of the many banana republics in the world that imitated it.

Starting in the 18th century, it was discovered, both theoretically and in reality, that virtuous intentions of politicians, bureaucrats, and even voters are not what mainly fuels the democratic state. Classical liberals realized that, as individuals have different preferences and interests, it is impossible for even well-meaning politicians and bureaucrats to satisfy all with ad hoc interventions. This discovery was buttressed in the 20th century by the development of the public choice school of economics and related theories.

The same century provided many illustrations. The Leviathan that started Word War II and ran the Holocaust was, half a century before, viewed as the paragon of civilization. (For more on this point, see my “Progressivism’s Tainted Label,” review of Thomas C. Leonard, Illiberal ReformersRegulation 39:2 [Summer 2016], pp. 51-55; and my “Where Are We on the Road to Serfdom?” review of Friedrich A. Hayek, The Road to SerfdomRegulation 44:3 [Fall 2021], pp. 56-59.) Another example: who could imagine that the Communist state, which was meant to end the “exploitation of man by man,” would kill its own citizens by the tens of millions?

To summarize the whole story in a few words: Give Leviathan an inch and he will take a mile.