Conceived in the language of John Locke (1632-1704), America has turned increasingly to the principles of Thomas Hobbes (1578-1679). Locke wrote that in the original state of nature, all humans were equal – and guided by reason, they “voluntarily entered into civil society for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and . . . property.”
For Hobbes, however, our natural state was a "war of all against all,” in which humans lived in “continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man [was] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Locke was the Founding Fathers' favorite philosopher: his emphasis on liberty and the social contract was the intellectual foundation of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But Hobbes has never been far from the surface – admonishing us that without order, liberty and the social contract cannot exist.
We can deal in the abstract with the messiness of democracy, but once the bombing starts in Baghdad or the protests break out in Ferguson, our first instinct is to restore order before all else. Only when we have imposed external control, can we permit internal liberties to be exercised. We need Hobbes before Locke.
That seems logical – so why isn’t it working? Maybe it’s because those who patrol the skies of Mesopotamia and the streets of Missouri have little understanding of the lives and communities they are charged with controlling. Locke understood, as Hobbes did not, that you cannot long impose order on people who are excluded from the social contract.