Does anybody remember the 1989 monster-movie called “Leviathan”? It’s like “Alien,” except that this time the giant DNA mutants were created by the Russkies. You see, while the Russians were down on the ocean floor trying to breed a half-man, half-fish, things got out of hand, and their ship ends up on the bottom of the ocean full of skeletons. Then come the Americans—da da da DA da DA!— who find the ship, and what are they interested in? The vodka, of course. Alas, it was the same vodka the Russians were using to drug their guinea pigs, so pretty soon you got an undersea city full of zombie Americans that keep sprouting new limbs and teeth in the palm of their hands.
Today everyone is talking about “Leviathan,” though, of course, it’s not the movie (despite some obvious similarities). Just where did this concept come from, and what are its implications for modern society?
In his classic book Leviathan (1650), Thomas Hobbes uses basic facts of human nature to argue for an absolutist government. Wrote Hobbes:
Hitherto I have set forth the nature of man, whose pride and other passions have compelled him to submit himself to government; together with the great power of his governor, whom I compared to LEVIATHAN, taking that comparison out of the two last verses of the one-and-fortieth of Job; where God, having set forth the great power of Leviathan, calleth him king of the proud.
Canst thou draw out
leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a
Hobbes believed that all people are ruled by the desire for pleasure and the avoidance of pain, and so they always act out of self-interest. Hobbes then considers what life would be like without any form of government. He concludes that the result would be war and that the life of man would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Having alarmed the reader with this nightmarish vision, he offers his remedy—the absolutist state. Hobbes reasoned that only this kind of state could provide the peace and security all men desire. An absolute state has the authority to crush dissenters before they damage peace and security. This authority is usually seen as belonging in the hands of one individual (the sovereign), but this point is not essential. What is essential is that authority should speak with one voice as conflicting dictates undermine the security of the subjects.
The concept of government as leviathan is certainly apropos today. As we all know, September 11, 2001 witnessed a fundamental shift in U.S. foreign policy. According to Tom Berry:
The Bush foreign policy is a melding of backlash politics and visionary grand strategy. The backlash is directed against all forms of feckless liberalism so detested by the neoconservatives, and the vision embraces the opportunities and potential of U.S. power. Backlash and vision are linked by the conservative internationalist penchant for the nation-state as the sole building block of international affairs.
The backlash driving the new U.S. foreign policy arises from conservative disdain for liberal and progressive internationalism. The conservative internationalists, led by the neoconservative ideologues, are determined to undermine the entire framework of multilateralism championed by liberal internationalists like Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. It is this multilateralism, along with its attendant norms and treaties, that constrains U.S. power.
Berry shows how big government gets that way: It takes over new turf in time of crisis, then hangs on to much of it after the crisis is over. Governments thus exploit crises as opportunities to confiscate ever-greater powers. After each crisis, the amount of power recently added to government’s stock might shrink somewhat, but very seldom back to what it was prior to the crisis.
Yet another obvious example of leviathan is taxation. In his Lectures on Jurisprudence, Adam Smith wrote: “No doubt the raising of a very exorbitant tax, as the raising as much in peace as in war, of the half or even the fifth of the wealth of the nation, would, as well as any gross abuse of power, justify resistance in the people.” Two and a half centuries later, tax revenues in most Western countries are well over a fifth, and often around a half, of people’s incomes. Government revenues reach 44% of GDP (gross domestic product) in Canada, 49% in France, and more than 60% in Sweden. The resistance of the people against what public choice economists call the Tax Leviathan is scarcely to be found.
Numerous writers have documented the remarkable and alarming growth of Big Government in America. Their conclusion is a disturbing view of American prospects. Whether traditional constitutional restraints or the unique operation of a mixed economy can avert what they fear as a march into socialism or fascism, no one knows. I agree with R. C. Sproul Jr.: “The state has authority given it by God. To disregard that authority is to invite the judgment of the Ultimate Authority. The state is to punish the wicked with the sword. And they frequently go beyond that authority, poking their elephantine nose where it doesn’t belong. Our duty is to obey, to walk the extra mile, when such does not cause us to sin. But bowing the knee to Caesar, whether it be at the temple in Rome, or at the office of the school superintendent, is sin.”
If only the Russkies in “Leviathan” had watched the 1961 Japanese classic “Octama”. They would have known how quickly things can go wrong when men try to play God.
May 26, 2003
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.