Hobbes can help us understand issues of governance.

Both the AM and FM stations on my radio this week were broadcasting opinions about bills that address what is and isn’t allowed during an abortion.  New York and a few other states have recently considered bills that spell out the details of what the law requires and what it allows during an abortion.  AM stations are saying that these rules amount to legalizing infanticide.  AM broadcasters that I’ve listened to seem to think that there are only perfect babies waiting to be born in abundance to perfect mothers (which is to ignore babies that have genetic defects and other physical problems or mothers with significant health challenges or poverty).  FM stations are saying that the details of these legal specifications will affect few real life instances and therefore don’t matter so much in a wider scheme of consideration.  How polarizing!  The polarity of these views accomplishes nothing that I care about.

Why does our state or federal government have to write any more legislation about abortion?  Why is this topic everyone’s business instead of the business of persons who are facing this decision?  Why can’t people in the legislature and in broadcasting leave this topic alone?  Aren’t they discussing this topic just to get people riled up?  This is a topic where different people will differ in their opinions, probably forever.  And that brings us to the nation-state system where disagreements are commonplace.

The founding of the nation-state system happened under the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.  Its plan was inspired by Italian city-state trading communities. The nation-state system was set up to allow regions to operate under their own local laws where they could differ from other regions.  War and diplomacy were recognized as political tools to negotiate disagreements.  Because the nation-state system respects differences, those differences persist.

The nation-state system is the same system that operates now somewhat in opposition to globalization.  Today’s globalization operates under the free flow of capital which we call financialization under the ideology of neoliberalism.  Currently there isn’t a legal system that consistently regulates neoliberal trade or warfare.  Some nation states respect natural rights and some don’t but neoliberalism does not respect the natural rights of people but instead tries to forge global and local agreements to protect the resource acquisitions of corporations.  Going back to an important time in history, three years after the birth of the nation-state system, Thomas Hobbes wrote Leviathan in 1651.  The word Leviathan refers to government which is an artificial entity somewhat like a machine that people create in order to govern society for the sake of “peace and common defense” (p. 132).

Hobbes was interested in issues of happiness, peace and freedom within the nation-state system.  Hobbes thought that governments are created to help people to be happy but also he noticed that there isn’t a perfect set of things that a government can do to make everyone happy because different people want different things.  In considering freedom, Hobbes wrote “What it is to be free…A FREEMAN, is he, that in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindered to do what he has a will to do.” (p. 159) and “LIBERTY or FREEDOM, signifieth, properly, the absence of opposition”.

Hobbes goes on to say that “there is no common-wealth in the world, wherein there be rules enough set down, for the regulating of all the actions, and words of men; as being a thing impossible: it follows necessarily that in all kinds of actions by the laws praetermitted, men have the liberty, of doing what their own reasons shall suggest” (pp. 160-61).  If Hobbes were with us, he might say that in trying to regulate all the intimate details of people’s lives and choices, Congress or the state government is making only mistakes.

When Hobbes wrote Leviathan, he gave a lot of power in his discussion to the sovereign, but he also wrote about what people want and what kinds of limitations there are that governments can’t escape.  In returning to considerations about laws regulating abortions, it is helpful to recognise what no one can escape.

Every baby that is born needs a healthy and safe environment which not every mother can provide.  Some women are sick or poor.  Giving birth risks a woman’s life and although society can’t exist without the generosity of women willing to give birth, not every woman should or can give birth.  Women who give birth can be the best person to accomplish the dedicated care that babies need and in most circumstances they do it with the help of a father.  Of course other caring people can also raise a baby.  But this world isn’t perfect at all and people aren’t perfect either.  Foster care and adoption aren’t perfectly safe for babies.  If a new technology could supply an artificial uterus to grow a baby, would it change the argument?  Would people stop trying to make pregnant women carry a baby to term and then raise that child in adverse circumstances?  How would society protect babies born without mothers?  Fortunately we don’t have a machine uterus and mothers choose in our culture to either give birth or not.

When I consider the radio broadcasters of this week’s abortion bill discussions, I’m glad to rely on mothers to choose for themselves.  I turn to tolerance when it comes to the exercise of a uterus.  Let each woman decide what she can do according to her own will, ability and conscience.  The government doesn’t need to write more laws about it.  The Congress and state governments have other duties to attend to that aren’t about regulating everyone’s choices.

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Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, edited by Michael Oakeshott with an introduction by Richard S. Peters, Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, original copyright, 1651, this copyright 1962.

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