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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: April 2017

10 - Are You Better Off Now Than You Were 12,000 Years Ago? An Empirical Assessment of the Hobbesian Hypothesis


With the violence hypothesis strongly refuted by Chapter 9, an argument for the Hobbesian hypothesis needs to discuss overall welfare, as Locke did in the seventeenth century. But assessing overall welfare is much more difficult than assessing whether people are under the constant fear of violent death. Contractarians and propertarians need to show that everyone in one situation is better off than they could reasonably expect to be in another situation. Yet, none of the contractarian and propertarian literature reviewed in Chapters 3–7 provides significant evidence for it or even suggests any rigorous methodology to examine the question. Most of this literature is satisfied to imply that the Hobbesian hypothesis is somehow obvious. We are unable to provide a rigorous methodology for contractarians, and so we use an ad hoc comparison of whether people seem to be better off in several important ways that they have good reason to care about.

Hobbes's (1962 [1651]: 100) famous phrase, “the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short,” helpfully identifies four broad categories of wellbeing. Nasty and brutish are synonymous for violence, which was addressed by Chapter 9. That leaves three other categories: solitary (social and cultural satisfaction), poor (material wellbeing), and short (health and longevity). The first part of this chapter addresses these three categories in turn, and the following sections address two others. The end of this chapter discusses the issue of freedom, which is particularly important to propertarianism. We also offer a discussion of observed choice, which is the most direct evidence of consent, the ultimate category for contractarianism.

This chapter concludes with an overall assessment, and the results are tragic. In all or most of the five categories, it is reasonable to say that the average person is better off in most contemporary state societies (although not in most past state societies). But contemporary states allow so much inequality—with a bottom so low in absolute terms—that significant numbers of people are worse off in capitalist state societies than they would be even in a small-scale stateless society.