Equity and Political Economy in Thomas Hobbes

The forthcoming article “Equity and Political Economy in Thomas Hobbes” (https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12507) by Lee Ward is summarized by the author below.

Equity and Political Economy in Thomas Hobbes

What can a seventeenth-century English political philosopher possibly teach us today about the challenges confronting the contemporary liberal democratic state in the age of Brexit and Trump? Actually, quite a lot, especially if that thinker is Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes has long been recognized as one of the founding figures of the modern idea of the state. Indeed, for decades Hobbes has been cited as one of the great authorities that established a distinctive philosophical anthropology of the acquisitive, bourgeois individual, the protection of whose property rights provides the legitimate end of the night watchman, minimalist classical liberal state.  This is to say, Hobbes is often considered to be one of the theoretical inspirations for a definition of liberalism that is inseparable from free market economics. 

In this study, I argue that Hobbes’ theory of the state and economics has been too often misunderstood.  Hobbes in fact reminds us that classical liberalism was not only about individual rights, especially property rights.  It was also built upon a normative idea of equality, or what Hobbes terms “equity,” which means that Hobbes’ conception of the state cannot be reduced to an instrumental device simply devoted to protecting property rights and the sanctity of contract.  In this study, I demonstrate that Hobbes’ account of political economy presupposed considerable scope for government action with respect to regulation of markets and redistribution of wealth; government action in service of the natural law principles of equity and fairness. 

Hopefully by reexamining a figure as familiar as Hobbes with fresh eyes, this study will encourage us to reconsider what we think we already know about the classical liberal tradition, a version of which continues to influence contemporary liberal theory and practice. If Hobbes is not the apostle of acquisitive capitalism that we have long been told he is, then perhaps the classical liberal political tradition is more diverse than we have long assumed it to be.  With this possibility for a new perspective about the origins of the liberal idea of the state, we may be able to better understand and critique contemporary liberal democratic states as they face deep challenges of legitimacy in the age of austerity and populism.  Arguably Hobbes has never been more relevant than today. 


About the Author: Lee Ward is Professor, Department of Political Science, Baylor University. Their research “Equity and Political Economy in Thomas Hobbes” (https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12507) is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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