Contra Hobbes: Peace and Political Government are Opposites

Drawing of frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan. Public domain.
Drawing of frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. Public domain.

“Hereby it is manifest,” Thomas Hobbes wrote in 1651’s Leviathan, “that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called War; and such a war as is of every man against every man.”

Hobbes’s solution to the absence of a “common Power” was a “covenant” with a “sovereign” who would act on behalf of all — what we today call “the state” or “government” — thus bringing an end to the terrible war he discerned.

So, how well has that worked out for us?

Hobbes wrote in the shadow of the Thirty Years’ War, concluded by the Peace of Westphalia, which created the state as we know it. Casualties in that war are estimated at eight million.

Here are some  death tolls for a select few of Earth’s near-constant wars since the consolidation of the Westphalian nation-state model in the late 19th century with the unifications of Germany and Italy, and subsequent struggles between/within nation-states:

World War One: 40 million
Russian Civil War: 9 million
Chinese Civil War: 11.6 million
Second Sino-Japanese War: 25 million
World War Two: 85 million
Korean War. 4.5 million
Vietnam War: 4.3 million
Nigerian Civil War: 3 million
Afghanistan Conflict: 2 million
Second Congo War: 5.4 million

The verdict was certainly in by 1918, when Randolph Bourne died and his essay “The State” was published posthumously. The takeaway line:  “War is the health of the state.”

Hobbes’s “sovereign” suggestion, as taken, didn’t end war. It put war on steroids.

Political government as we’ve constructed it is geared toward maximizing death to increase its own power and expand its own reach at the expense of everyone. We’ve still got perpetual war of  every man against every man. Only now it’s highly organized, well-funded, and waged for the benefit of the political class.

As Leon Trotsky — a “state-ist” himself, but one who hoped for a “withering away” of political government into communism — put it in 1937’s The Revolution Betrayed:

“Whatever be the programs of the government, stateism inevitably leads to a transfer of the damages of the decaying system from strong shoulders to weak. … State-ism means applying brakes to the development of technique, supporting unviable enterprises, perpetuating parasitic social strata.”

What private commercial interest, operating under a weak state or no state at all, would have invented the tank, the aerial bomb, or the nuclear warhead? Such weapons only promise profitability in the context of a strong, powerful states waging war with each other.

I’m often told that my anarchist philosophy and my goal of reaching, at least, a “panarchy” under which each individual chooses a governing entity instead of remaining trapped in the Westphalian Model’s geographic “sovereignty” trap, are unrealistic fantasies worthy only of dismissal.

But if unrealism is a disqualifying factor, Hobbes’s “sovereign” and the state as we know it have, unlike my ideas, had their chance … and are clearly failures when it comes to ending war.

As we stare down the barrel of nuclear holocaust, it’s clearly time to re-think how we do government.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.


Capital Punishment Places Too Much Trust In An Untrustworthy Institution

Electric Chair at Sing Sing. Photo by William M. Vander Weyde. Public Domain.
Electric Chair at Sing Sing. Photo by William M. Vander Weyde. Public Domain.

On Valentine’s Day in 2018, Nikolas Cruz murdered 14 students and three school employees at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. More than four years later, a jury determined that Cruz’s crimes made him eligible for the death penalty, but did not unanimously vote to recommend that penalty. That absence of unanimity means Cruz will instead serve life in prison without the possibility of parole.

While it’s a stretch to say that the jury made the right decision — the vote was 9-3 in favor of death — those three votes did prevent it from making the wrong decision.

Yes, some crimes are so heinous that they merit death.

If Cruz had been killed at the scene of the crime, in immediate defense of innocents and when split-second decisions had to be made, I’d be the last to criticize his killers.

But trusting the state with the power to kill disarmed prisoners in cold blood and with premeditation is never a good idea, for two reasons.

One is that any time we trust the state with power of any kind, mistakes will inevitably be made.

The other is that any time we trust the state with power of any kind, political considerations will affect how that power is exercised.

The difference between most mistakes and political considerations and this particular type is that in most cases the damages can be at least partially remedied. The victims can take the government to court or vote  the calculating politician out of office. Those wrongly convicted of crimes can continue to seek exoneration and freedom.

But dead is dead. The executed prisoner can’t be freed. No damage award can make the executed prisoner whole. If the governor who signed a death warrant because he needed that 1% edge in the polls from the “tough on crime” crowd loses his next election, the executed prisoner can’t rise from the grave and take up his or her life where it left off.

The Death Penalty Information Center’s Innocence Database lists 190 persons sentenced to death in the United States, but later exonerated, since 1973. The group also provides 20 examples of actual executions of likely innocent convicts.

Does Nikolas Cruz deserve to die? In my opinion, he does.

Do the rest of us deserve to live with the possibility of wrongful execution hanging constantly over our heads? No.

To spare the innocent, we must deny the state power to kill the guilty.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.


So Long as There are Nukes, We Had Better Hope We Live in a MAD World

Operation Upshot-Knothole - Badger 001

Opening a column with statistics and dates may not be the best way to get your attention, but these three statistics and single date are important, so please take note:

The median age in the US is 38.5 years.

The median age in Russia is 39.8 years.

The median age worldwide is 31 years.

The Cold War ended, more or less, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, 31 years ago.

To put it a different way, half of humanity and close to half of Americans and Russians in general can’t remember the days of “Mutual Assured Destruction.”

Put simply, MAD was a situation in which at least two world powers (the US and the USSR) possessed enough nuclear weapons, in enough locations, to ensure that if one of the two decided to go nuclear on the other, both countries (and likely the world) would be reduced to lifeless, radioactive wastelands.

Those of us who came to adulthood before 1991 grew up in constant knowledge of our own prospective annihilation on, at most, a few minutes’ notice.

It wasn’t a good feeling.

On the other hand, I guess it worked. We’re still here, anyway.

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about the possibility of “limited” nuclear war using “tactical” weapons. That talk is based in speculation that Vladimir Putin might resort to a nuclear strike in Ukraine. Whether that speculation is really warranted is an interesting question and one I can’t answer for you, since I don’t work at the Kremlin.

What’s far more dangerous than that speculation is additional speculation over what the response from other nuclear powers would be if the Ukraine war DID “go nuclear,” even in a small way.

The problem with nukes is that the genie is out of the bottle. They’ve been around since 1945 and used twice (Hiroshima and Nagasaki). They’re not going to get un-invented, nor are the regimes which possess them likely to give them up (we should work toward that, but don’t bet the ranch on it happening).

That being the case, the notion that hey, maybe we could live with nukes being used here and there, in very special cases, by very special regimes, and just pile on some more sanctions or throw a non-nuclear cruise missile or two at the rogue state to express displeasure, is madness … which is the opposite of MADness.

The way — the  ONLY way — to get through this crisis or any other without popping the cork on Armageddon is for every regime decision-maker  in the world to know, down in their guts, beyond a shadow of  doubt, that if they use nukes, nukes will be used on them.

Even that might not work, but it’s the only thing that ever HAS worked.

If any one regime goes nuclear, even in a small way, and gets away with it, every other nuclear power on earth will consider itself free to do the same, and sooner or later it will exercise that option.

There must not be a third time.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.