Our new book, The Wake-Up Call, deals with a lot of big questions—the rise and fall of the West, the fate of global government, the growing democratic distemper. But it was written in a small world—the English countryside during lockdown, Rutland and Hampshire, to be precise. And it was haunted by a figure who combined big thoughts with very rural pastimes, a man born in the very English town of Malmesbury and who excelled in catching jackdaws with pieces of cheese: Thomas Hobbes.
A philosopher who died more than 300 years ago is hardly the most obvious guide to the world of the coronavirus. Yet a new Hobbes is exactly what the West needs right now.
When he published Leviathan, in 1651, Hobbes was a double exile: he fled to France with his fellow royalists to escape the English Civil War and its regicidal leader, Oliver Cromwell, but then fled back to England, and to Cromwell’s tender mercies, when his book angered his fellow royalist exiles. Yet Leviathan changed the world.
A new Hobbes is exactly what the West needs right now.
Leviathan was the first Western book to think about government systematically. Hobbes argued that we are all naturally aggressive; to save ourselves from our worst natures, we should hand over freedoms to a ruler—Leviathan—who provides us with security. Although totalitarians ever since have used “security” as an excuse for enslaving us, Hobbes’s message also had its liberal side: people gave their rights to Leviathan of their own free will, and the state’s legitimacy came from protecting them. There is a contract that both sides must keep.
East to West and Back Again
Hobbes opened a door through which other great thinkers walked: John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and many more. Their ideas were at different times inspirational, revolutionary, liberal, conservative, and mad. But combined with new technology, these ideas propelled the West forward through a series of revolutions that created the nation state, the liberal state, and the welfare state.
These ideas not only built the West; they trounced the East. In Hobbes’s time, life in Europe was close to how he famously described life in a state of nature: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” China was the world’s superpower—producing nearly a quarter of the world’s G.D.P. and ruled over by a sophisticated mandarin civil service selected by rigorous examinations from across the entire empire. But China ossified: its scholars studied and then re-studied Confucius, ignoring the scientific and philosophical revolution under way elsewhere.
Now it is the West that is in danger of ossifying. The East has done a far better job of handling the pandemic than the West. New York City and London are about the same size as Seoul. Yet Seoul has lost four dozen inhabitants to the pandemic while London has lost 6,000 people and New York more than 20,000. And don’t accept any of the excuses that this is cultural conformity: Seoul is the home of Parasite, K-pop, and some of the world’s craziest nightclubs. The gap any traveler notes between the shoddiness of New York’s airports and Asia’s gleaming new ones also applies to education and health.
This ought to provoke a frenzy of debate about government from public intellectuals in the United States. This frenzy may indeed happen. The point of our book is to make it happen. But so far the signs of Hobbes-like thinkers are not exactly plentiful.
Seoul has lost four dozen inhabitants to the pandemic while London has lost 6,000 people and New York more than 20,000.
The political establishment is intellectually lazy. Conservatives have only one answer—make government smaller—as if ungoverned states such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo were the ultimate aim. America’s Democrats are so hamstrung by their loyalties to public-sector unions that they can’t think about reform. In Europe the social-democratic center is too busy trying to fend off political destruction to have any new ideas. As for the populists themselves, Boris Johnson is making it up as he goes along, while those in Donald Trump’s administration seem to have come from the world before Hobbes, a medieval court rooted in patronage.
People who are paid to think have been particularly disappointing. When we were young, ideas still mattered. One of us sat at the feet of Isaiah Berlin. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, she had Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in her handbag. What ideas are there now in the public space? John Rawls still has his followers, as does Robert Nozick, but the debate on campuses is about things like equality, race, and gender.
Donald Trump’s administration seems to have come from the world before Hobbes, a medieval court rooted in patronage.
Why is there a gap? One reason is the West’s success: most modern political thought begins from the assumption that we all live in functioning democracies (so let’s discuss something else, like identity). Public intellectuals have been driven so mad by Trump and Brexit that they blame all the West’s problems on these populist gargoyles—but they are as much a symptom of the malaise as a cause.
There is also a destructive professionalism. Academics have become like modern-day Thomist scholars (or indeed the Confucius-obsessed Chinese), debating and re-debating arcane minor details. It is hard to imagine a thinker as broad as Berlin or Hayek being given a university chair in the United States nowadays—let alone Hobbes.
Here was a man who for most of his life had been a somewhat dilettantish history tutor. A lot of the time, he preferred to go hunting. But intellectually he was bold. Like Berlin, he was prepared to think big—to look at how the state can be re-engineered and justified to meet a combination of practical needs and moral imperatives. We desperately need somebody with that sort of chutzpah today.
John Micklethwait is the editor in chief for Bloomberg. Adrian Wooldridge is the political editor for The Economist. Their new book, The Wake-Up Call: Why the Pandemic Has Exposed the Weakness of the West, and How to Fix It, is out now from HarperVia