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

5 - The Hobbesian Hypothesis in Eighteenth-Century Political Theory


Contractarianism gradually gained prominence in the century or so after Leviathan. As Jeffrie G. Murphy (1978: 65) writes, it became the “dominant intellectual model which provided the structure of social and political thought in the 18th Century.” It had important effects on practical politics, even receiving mention in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Lockean property theory (not yet necessarily “propertarianism”) also increased in popularity. According to Gauthier (1979: 36), “the emergence of possessive individualists from their wanderings in the wilderness of the state of nature into the promised land of civil society is the great theme of moral and political thinkers in the developmental era of our capitalist society.”

The Hobbesian hypothesis rose in prominence as well. Adam Smith was clearly influenced by Locke's day-laborer comparison, writing:

the accommodation of an European prince does not always so much exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant, as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute masters of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages. (Smith 1976: 17)

See the online appendix for more on Adam Smith.

The Hobbesian hypothesis was probably more popular than either contractarianism or propertarianism. Edmund Burke (2014), for example, objected to contractarianism because it implies that individuals should have a choice whether to join their state, but his grounds for rejecting choice relied essentially on the same Hobbesian hypothesis. He argued, “without … civil society man could not by any possibility arrive at the perfection of which his nature is capable.”

Likewise, David Hume famously made several empirical criticisms of contractarianism. After he rejected actual consent as the justification for government on the empirical grounds that it didn't exist, he wrote, “If the reason be asked of that obedience, which we are bound to pay to government, I readily answer, Because society could not otherwise subsist” (Hume 2011: 435; original emphasis). But that is the Hobbesian hypothesis—if presumably life without society would be bad for everyone. Hume skips the need for consent by going directly from the Hobbesian hypothesis to the justification of government sovereignty by reason of necessity.