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29 - Failing to Control: Accountability in Historical Perspective

from Part VI - Economics and Civil Society

Biancamaria Fontana
Affiliation:
University of Lausanne
Roberto Baranzini
Affiliation:
Centre Walras-Pareto, University of Lausanne
François Allisson
Affiliation:
Centre Walras-Pareto, University of Lausanne
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Summary

For Pascal, a few sceptical remarks

An Old Problem

The belief that no human agent is entirely dependable, that humans – taken both individually and en masse – are prone to error and vice, that, in short, nobody can be trusted, is one of the few certainties (if a disheartening one) around which Western political theory has confidently built its precepts since classical antiquity. For all their differences, Greek and Roman authors as well as the writers in the Christian tradition converged on this simple assumption: because human agents are unreliable and people represent a threat for one another, the primary task of any political authority is to ensure the safety of its subjects from the hazardous behaviour of their peers.

In Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, for example, the establishment of absolute power was justified precisely by this necessity of mutual protection. It was because individuals feared and mistrusted one another that they agreed to submit to the rule of a ‘common reason’ – represented by the absolute monarch or by some ruling body invested with similar prerogatives – thus preferring the certain evils of repressive authority, to the far worse uncertainties of anarchy. Whenever the sovereign failed in its task to grant safety and protection, the compact that constrained the subjects to obey its diktats would be dissolved, and the subjects themselves would be restored to the hazardous freedom of the state of nature.

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Economics and Other Branches – In the Shade of the Oak Tree
Essays in Honour of Pascal Bridel
, pp. 413 - 424
Publisher: Pickering & Chatto
First published in: 2014

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