Recently, we’ve been treated to a short piece by Jason J. Campbell, “On the Evils of Privatizing America’s Prison System.” Because Blogcritics had since relegated the article to a dustbin, I refer the reader to Prof Campbell’s video.
The author’s overarching point is that privatization — a business model, at that — especially when applied to services typically reserved for and provided by the state (such as the administration of prisons, in this instance), is inherently a bad idea. And it’s a bad idea because it’s essentially immoral, violating the all-important fiduciary relationship that ought to exist between any well-conceived polity and its citizens.
By way of a detour, let’s consider a state-of-nature theory by Thomas Hobbes:
In such a condition there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing, no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.
So runs the famous passage from Hobbes’s Leviathan, describing the condition of humankind before the development of civil society.
Ever since, Hobbes’s portrayal represented a model of state-of-nature theories. The express purpose of such theories was to provide an account of the transition of a society from its pre-political form to one with a fully established and fully functioning polity – the state, for short.
I say a model because Hobbes’s was but one version with many to follow – most notably, by such philosophers as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, even Hegel. But since Hobbes was the progenitor, with him we must start.
There’s no point subjecting Hobbes’s description to severe criticism as regards its factual content or accuracy. It’s common knowledge that the account he provides is based, in part at least, on the anthropological reports of his time.
Granted, some of those reports (of the North American Indians, for instance) were considerably less damning. And they led Hobbes’s contemporaries to a different conclusion entirely – namely, “a picture stressing a high degree of order and solidarity resting on kinship, tribe, even complex confederations of tribes” (The Social Philosophers by Robert A. Nisbet, p. 27). It’s doubtful, however, that ethnological reports would have swayed Hobbes to the contrary. Empirical validity, as we shall soon see, was the least of his concerns.
It’s more fruitful to inquire into the motivation. And there were historical circumstances that demanded a patriot, any patriot, to make a stand for his country. As Nisbet explains it:
Hobbes wrote at a time of severe internal crisis in England, when the followers of the Stuarts were locked in bloody civil war with the Cromwellian Puritans, when devastation beyond anything England had seen in centuries took place in certain areas, when looting, pillaging, burning, and robbing were daily occurrences in one place or another, and when the monarch himself, Charles I, was publically beheaded. Of the effects of this scene upon Hobbes there can be no question.
[Consequently,] his sole and consuming objective became to find intellectual justification for a political order so absolute, so total in its power, that civil wars, insurrections, and crimes could not destroy the fabric of society, could not release the ugly elements of man’s essential being that had once dominated the state of nature, when – as again now during the Civil War – there was only “continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Hence Hobbes’s depiction of the state of nature in the most uncomplimentary of terms and his solution: the concept of the sovereign so absolute and all-encompassing in all its powers in order to quell any potential rebellion and social unrest while, at the same time, securing the goodwill and the unconditional consent of all so governed, thereby avoiding the charges and the possible taint of tyranny. And for Hobbes, the ideal form of the sovereign was monarchy properly reconstituted.
Be that as it may, this historical account of the man and his thought fails to do justice to Hobbes, the metaphysician (and that’s who he was first and foremost).
Indeed, aside from the political upheaval, England and the entire Christendom –was also torn by a crisis of faith.
The old view of realism, or naïve realism, whereby God was conceived as bestowing his will and instructions to the faithful through sacred texts and the signs and omens of nature, has been uprooted and replaced by a strange new dogma of nominalism.
In its extreme formulation and in matters concerning religion, it meant that
if God commands us to hate him, we are obligated to obey his command, since we have no independent grounds for doing otherwise; furthermore, we cannot have confidence that the world corresponds even to our intuitive (perceptual) knowledge of it. (See Political Theory and Modernity by William E. Connolly, p. 19.)
Or as William of Ockham had put it,” even if a thing has been destroyed the intuitive knowledge of it may be given to us (by God) and no intuitive knowledge is in itself and necessarily the knowledge that something necessarily exists: it may well be of something that does not exist.”
Hence the dilemma posed by the new worldview:
To affirm the possibility that our sense-data could be pure fiction is
(i) not only to affirm God’s omnipotence (since the latter premise was impossible to discard);
(ii) it is also to make the relation between human beings and the world upon which they stand (as) uncertain and precarious.
Consequently, Hobbes’s monumental task: to construct a political theory in such an unstable intellectual environment, where reason, experience, texts, and signs that make up the mundane world, have been disconnected from “the essences.”
To wit, he must qualify nominalism enough to give sovereignty solid ontological standing; but he must retain it enough first to give the sovereign free rein to define the common rules and second to undercut attempt by discontented subjects to appeal above the sovereign to a higher power (ibid). And in his attitude toward conflict or dissension of any kind, Hobbes was utterly ruthless.
It was of Hobbes that Edmund Burke might have been thinking when he said more than a century later that “nothing is harder than the heart of a metaphysician.”
In the interest of exposition, I have a more straightforward schema in mind: Why not view Hobbes’s project, instead, as a thought-experiment of sorts?
Unwittingly or not, that’s what he was doing. In extrapolating from the existing conditions a “pre-societal” stage, reduced to bare-bones as it were, indirectly, he was accentuating the gap that must necessarily be bridged to make the transition a fait accompli. And from Hobbes’s particular perspective, and considering the political and social turmoil in his native England: the wider the gap, the more urgent the need!
Hence Hobbes’ assessment of the state of nature where life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
The account was skewed by design – to highlight the contrast.