Leithart’s reflections in my last post reminded me of Patrick Deneen’s essay on Hobbes and the role of the modern state as the universal defender of its citizens’ liberties that I read recently. Perhaps the Athenian example shows the patterns that Deneen discusses are older than Hobbes, but the essay still works, I think, for the modern state. Modern states are much larger than the ancient Athenian city-state and their aspirations to and achievements of power throughout larger territories have been very consequential for modern life.
Deneen argues that the philosophical underpinnings of progressive liberalism can be found in Hobbes, who argued for a state that superseded other institutions.
William T. Cavanaugh describes in his excellent study of the rise of the modern state, Migrations of the Holy, how Hobbes’s new arrangement promised liberation, not oppression:
For Hobbes, the individual was not oppressed but liberated by Leviathan. In his view, the State is not enacted to realize a common good or a common telos, but rather to liberate the individual to pursue his or her own ends without fear of interference from other individuals. In the peculiar new space created by the state, the individual members do not depend on one another; rather, they are connected only through the sovereign—as spokes to the hub of a wheel.
The rise of the state hinged on the promise of liberation of the individual from the constitutive constraints (as well as rights and liberties) of non-state organizations and institutions. The state acted as liberator of an oppressed humanity; its power, concentration, and extent increased as a necessary counterweight for the control of non-state institutions. Thus, Robert Nisbet wrote in his classic work The Quest for Community, “The real conflict in modern political history has not been, as is so often stated, between State and individual, but between State and social group.”
The only liberty that could be recognized was the liberty of individuals to “pursue his or her own ends.” The ancient rights, privileges, immunities and liberties of institutions—the Church, universities, guilds, localities—were redescribed as forms of oppression. The increased power, even intrusiveness, of the state, was justified not as a form of oppression, but rather in the name of liberation of the individual. The protections against distant, abstract, and impersonal forms of power, understood to be protections of local liberty, were dismissed as parochial limitations and antiquated restrictions. As Lord Acton accurately described in his History of Freedom,
The modern theory, which swept away every authority except that of the State, and has made the sovereign power irresistible by multiplying those who share it . . . condemns as a State within the State every inner group and community, class or corporation, administering its own affairs; and, by proclaiming the abolition of privileges, it emancipates the subjects of every such authority in order to transfer them exclusively to its own. . . . It recognizes liberty only in the individual, because it is only in the individual that liberty can be separated from authority, and the right of conditional obedience deprived of the security of limited command.
As Hobbes’s illustration to the Leviathan so eloquently depicted, an increasingly “liberated” citizenry, resulting from the diminishment of constitutive memberships in social groups and associations, would be connected only through one bond, one relation, one connection—the state.
Foremost in Deneen’s mind in writing this is the Health and Human Services mandate that forces almost all employers to provide for contraception (including some abortifacients) in their insurance plans. He notes that its defenders “described the HHS mandate as the necessary requirement that will liberate women from the “coercion” of the Church that seeks to restrict their access to free contraception—including abortifacients—and sterilization. The expansion of state power is justified for its liberative effects, freeing women from the oppression of an antiquated institution (its irrelevance was reinforced by frequent citation of the questionable statistic that 98% of Catholic women use contraceptives).”
This is as good a place as any to express my wish that the Catholic and evangelical critics of this measure would not only make their case based on religious freedom but also on liberty more broadly. Their request for broader exemptions basically says that it’s OK to coerce other employers into providing insurance that they may or may not want to provide, but just not us. The religious liberty implications are of course enormous, but so is the idea of limited government.