Friday, August 14, 2009

The Influence of Thomas Hobbes on Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 6

In some ways the government of the United States of America is an anachronism, a vestige of pre-modern political ideas from the classical era. But in other ways, much of the sentiment that lies beneath the US Constitution is square in the camp of modernity. Into this latter body of thought falls much of the writing of Alexander Hamilton. More so than John Jay or James Madison, the other two names behind the pseudonym Publius under which the Federalists were first published, much of Hamilton's political writings echo the modern transformation of the political subject epitomized by Thomas Hobbes. These echoes reverberate throughout Federalist No. 6 where Hamilton presents the argument that because human nature is ``ambitious, vindicative and rapacious,'' (¶2) and therefore a strong federal government is necessary to forestall the possibility of a future war between the newly independent colonies of North America.

Hamilton's argument in Federalist No. 6 is straightforward. After briefly stating his Hobbesian premise regarding human nature and its inherent capacity for violence, he draws out a few perfunctory implications and then immediately turns to addressing objections, using a historical narrative to highlight that objections to his thesis are Utopian rather than realistic. Concluding that objections to his premise do not have foundations in the world as it is, he suggests that it is time to move past such theoretical constructs and pragmatically build a nation on the reality of a human society as it is.

If human nature is as Hamilton (and Hobbes) describe it, several implications follow and Hamilton briefly states these in the second and third paragraphs of Federalist No. 6. It is absurd to presume that nations will not go to war if they do not have motive to do so. It is absurd to presume that politically unconnected nations which are contiguously connected by geography could peacefully coexist. The reasons for which nations go to war are infinite and consist of motives that can be ascribed to the collective as a whole, to parts of the collective, and to individuals within the collective. As examples of the first of these Hamilton gives motives as disparate as the nationalistic desire for political pre-eminence and the natural desire for peace and safety. As examples of the motives of parts of the nation, he gives commercial interests and factional rivalship. Lastly, he describes the ``private passions'' (¶3) of rulers as possible individual motives for taking an entire nation to war. So while one might be able to categorize the motives for going to war in accordance with the rule of one, the few, or the many, Hamilton asserts that the number of reasons for going to war within each category are innumerable.

With this foundation laid, Hamilton dives into the chief objection put forth by the ant-federalists, that perpetual peace is a possibility because (a) republicanism tends toward pacifism,  (b) commerce tends towards peace, and therefore (c) a commercial republic like the United States will inherently have have a twofold bent towards peace (¶8). Both of these objections by the anti-federalists are frequently echoed not only in the op/ed pages of newspapers today but also in the academic literature. The first of these assertions has come to be known by the political scientists of today as the Democratic Peace Preposition. The second of these was no small part of the basis of US foreign policy from the Eisenhower administration on and was famously presented by Thomas Friendman as the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention, that no two countries with where there exists a McDonald's has ever gone to war.

Hamilton responds to this objection with a twofold counterattack. First, he returns to his estimation of human nature and asks if nations, whether republics or not, are not still comprised of men (¶9). It would seem, that if one buys the Hobbesian estimation of humankind as an inherently violent species, then one cannot escape the conclusion that societies built of such individuals will also be inherently violent. But not content to remain in the world of theory, Hamilton then brings up the second prong of his rebuttal, the history of the world from the ancient days of Greece and Rome up to his day. He lists the constant wars of democratic Greek city states, the wars between Republican era Rome and Cathage, and continues on through history to the various wars of the League of Venice and the designs of Holland. In fact, those who follow in Hamilton's intellectual footsteps into the present maintain a list of exceptions to the Democratic Peace Proposition. And as of the writing of this essay there are at least three counter examples to the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict: the US bombing of Serbia in the nineties, the Israeli/Lebanon conflict of 2006 and the Russian/Georgian conflict of 2008.

Hamilton then points out the role of commerce in the wars of his day. Commercial interests drove conflict between Spain and Britain and between Britain and France (¶14). Hamilton does not refer to Hugo Grotius' /The Free Sea/ but Grotius' seminal work was precisely a defense of war over commercial interests, that if one nation affronts the natural rights of commerce of other nations, those other nations have a right to go to war against the nation affronting their rights. Trade between neighbors, in the Hamiltonian view, does not predispose nations towards peace. Instead, Hamiltonians hold that commerce increases the propensity to go to war. And war is precisely what Hamilton sought to avoid at all costs. While Hamilton does not mention Hobbes' Leviathan, his reasoning is identical. Just as Hobbes argues that the basis of society is that individuals give up some rights in exchange for the sovereign protecting their lives, Hamilton would have the newly independent colonies of North America give up some rights in exchange for a strong federal government to protect them from both outside threats and from each other.

And this Hobbesian idea is the very conclusion of Federalist No. 6. First, it is time to wake from Utopian idealism regarding the tendency of democracy and commerce to drive nations towards peace. Second, that it is time to work towards pragmatically building a nation that will have an enduring peace in recognition of the facts concerning human nature. Thirdly that `` neighboring nations are natural enemies unless they have a common weakness that forces them to band together into a confederate republic'' (¶20).

This argument is a powerful one. Its conclusion necessarily follows from its premises. But Hamilton also does not follow his premises to their full conclusion. If it is not possible to change human nature with regards to an inherent disposition towards violence, then a strong federal government is not only a necessity in order to prevent future wars, but that nation must also struggle until it effectively takes over the entire world. For in Hamilton's understanding of the world, it follows that no matter how large a federal union may be, it will have neighboring lands comprised of men who are entirely ``ambitious, vindicative and rapacious'' and, consequently, have designs on toppling the Unites States. Safety in such a world can only be found in in Hobbes' Leviathian once all the world is subject to a single government. Short of that set of circumstances, no nation is safe.

But perhaps such an interpretation of the ideas latent in Federalist No. 6 overstates Hamilton's view of human nature. Perhaps, rather than a necessary conclusion, he was aiming at a lower target, a conclusion that was more likely than not. Perhaps he would concede that aside from ambition, vindictiveness and racaciousness, human nature can contain virtue, nobility and charity. In this interpretation, Hamilton would be asserting that while it may not be necessary that humanity act in a warlike fashion, but it is most likely the case that humanity will act in a warlike fashion. As mentioned above, Hamilton's historical narrative seems to confirm this judgment. But note that just as Hamilton's conclusion still follow, the Hobbseian implications also still follow, just not as strongly. Rather than safety not being certain until such time as there is a singular world government, it is more likely than not that safety will not be had until the Leviathan rules all. What is lacking in Federalist No. 6 are elements like the ones John Jay brought up in earlier papers, that nations and peoples have natural boundaries. The principle put forth by Hamilton for seeking a strong central government knows nothing of such natural limits. And, in fact, the principle put forth by Hamilton is an argument against such limits having real existence save for in the minds of Utopians who do not see human nature for what it is but for what it ought to be.

Further, one can question Hamilton's assessment that warfare with neighboring lands really is more likely than not. Arguably, Hamilton's interpretation of the historical record is more than a bit suspect on three levels. First, he cherry picks his data by highlighting periods of war without admitting to any periods of peace. For example, the US has not been directly at war with any of its immediate neighbors in living memory. (Although one could argue that US support of the Bay of Pigs is a counter factual.) And Europe has nations such as Switzerland that have not gone to war in almost two centuries. Second his definition of what a republic consists of seems to be rather fungible. To say that the loose confederation of Phoenician city-states that comprised the republican era of Carthage had the same form of government as the rigid hierarchy of republican era Rome is problematic in many ways. (To be fair, the vagueness of the word remains to this day with nations as disparately organized as The People's Republic of North Korea and the United States claiming to be republics.)  If one looks at a more strict definition, such as what Fareed Zakariah refers to as constitutional liberalism which is defined as a democracy implemented with certain constitutional mechanisms such as separation of powers and civil rights, then it becomes clear that most of the democracies listed by Hamilton are not very democratic in the modern sense. Lastly, he gives a very shallow treatment of the idea that increased commerce leads to more pacific relations between nations. To say that commerce between nations in general decreases the likelihood of war says nothing over whether a particular commercial issue will lead to a particular war.

These last two points become exceedingly important in light of current themes in political philosophy that it is not only the raw fact of whether or not democracy exists, but rather the form that democracy takes that makes a country less likely to be involved in a war. Likewise, it is not merely being a commercial nation that leads this or that country to pacific values. Rather, it is only certain types of international commercial concerns that do this. In both cases, the same error is being made. The constitution of a country is being identified entirely as its written constitution and its material economic relationships. This distinction fails to take into account an important observation made by Aristotle. The constitution of the polis is not merely the written rules that govern the organization of the government, but it is also the very real relationships, dispositions, values, and desires of the people.

Consequently, a student of Aristotle would not be surprised to see the League of Venice go to war. The league, a confederation of city states intent not merely on the exercise of international trade but the domination of said trade to their exclusive benefit, had an aggressive consitutional makeup. Along these lines, some contemporary scholars argue that it is commerce driven by the productivity of a middle class that make countries engaged in trade more pacific. And, likewise, it is only when democracy is formed in nations where the government depends on the people for its existence rather than the other way around that democratization is a pacifying influence. 

But note that even if one does not buy into Aristotle, an interesting question arises. If the League of Venice had not been so commerically oriented, would they have been any less likely to pursue dominion of their neighbors? If not, then what avenue would have been open to them if not force of arms? If the League will still have been aggressive, then to the extent that they turned to trade rather than to arms, it can be fairly said that making commerce a priority did make the League more pacifically oriented than they would have been otherwise. So while Hamilton was almost certainly correct that commerce does not categorically prevent wars between neighbors, may even be the cause for warfare in particular instances, it can also be said that such commerce does make war less likely in general.

In the end, even if one agrees with the conclusion of Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 6, that a strong federal government is superior to a weaker confederacy, one is still free to reject Hamilton's reasons for coming to his conclusion. If a premise implies a conclusion, the truth of the conclusion does not necessarily imply the truth of the premise. Such is only the case if the conclusion can be true for one, and only one, reason and that reason is the premise. But, on the other hand, if the argument leading to a particular conclusion is unsound, there is no warrant for holding to that conclusion in the absence of other arguments. Fortunately, the Hobbesian argument made in Federalist No. 6 is not the only argument made by the men that stood behind Publius. As unconvincing as Hamilton's anthropology might be on the theoretical side, he put forth some very strong practical arguments elsewhere, such as in Federalist No. 7.

1 comment:

Robert Claypool said...

I don't believe that human nature is as Hobbes and Hamilton describe it. I believe that with proper education, men can be close enough to angels to not need external government of the form that Hobbes and Hamilton dictate, and that this is the best form of man. Most of the descriptions of war overlook one of the biggest reasons people go to war: Because it is fun. Who needs VR, when you can have real reality... until you get blown up or otherwise mutilated that is. Why do you think there are so many war-based video games? War is also beautiful from a certain perspective. Who cannot be moved by a war story, be it the story of a returning vet or a novel addressing various perspectives on war? The inability of Hamilton to discover the basest motive for war is a sign of his intellectual deficit.
I give Hamilton that men are ambitious and vindictive but rapacious? At any rate, I have found that men are content to fight only those who have also agreed to fight, so this is not as undesireable as Hamilton claims. Hamilton and his predecessor, Hobbes so demonize fighting that no amount of reasoning will come to a good situation.
Gotta love that "might be" in "might be thrown". Care to crunch some numbers on how frequently that is? How frequently and how violent? Calling a person, "A man must be far gone in Utopian speculations" who dares to disagree with you is par for the course for Hamiltonians. Most of the Hamiltonians approach to propping up their cause is nonsense like this.

Hamilton and Hobbes make so many compromises in an effort to achieve peace that strife is inevitable.