The Retreat to the State of Nature

The Tea Party’s Denial of the Enlightenment

Taming Leviathan

The economic views embraced by the Tea Party movement understand of big government as the major cause of America’s financial woes. An expansive, gargantuan and leviathan-like state is not only inefficient in delivering public services, but also has no right to decide what is right or wrong for private individuals. “Freedom to choose” said Milton Friedman in the 1960s, while calling for a retreat of the Keynesian welfare state in the name of private sector efficiency and individual freedom. Echoing neo-classical economics, the Tea Party movement calls for limited government and fiscal austerity through the reigning in of public spending particularly in services such as healthcare and education. However, this popular resurgence of neo-liberal ideology should be viewed with a critical eye, particularly because of its fiercely oppositional and almost phobic attitude towards the role government in society. We must ask therefore whether such a staunch and borderline-paranoid perception of government is in some way detrimental to American national unity and to its democratic process.

            The fierce rejection of government, accompanied by a deep suspicion of politics, in fact implies a denial of democratic values and traditions. Brought to its logical extreme, economic libertarianism attempts to remodel social interactions upon individuals inhabiting a state of nature devoid of an intrusive government. This represents a denial of the social contract, a rejection of democratic politics and the refutation of the politics of the enlightenment (with all of its flaws of course).

The Nightwatchman State

            Both libertarian and neo-classical economic theories –which the Tea Party movement broadly seems to subscribe to- believe that government should be limited for two main reasons. Firstly because individuals possess the inalienable right of self-ownership: they own themselves and the fruit of their labor. Government therefore has no right to coercively redistribute what they have acquired through the sweat of their brow. In addition, government has no right to force individuals to do anything which they don’t consent to, for example buying health insurance[1]. The second reason why government should be limited is that government formulates public policy on the basis of what it considers to be the common good. However, as David Hume and J. S. Mill have taught, and as F.A. Hayek has re-iterated, there is no way of discerning what this common good empirically is, as every single individual has a divergent conception of it. Centralized national planning (such as healthcare or education programs) should therefore be resisted[2].

            Without burdensome regulation and heavy taxation, so the theory assumes, private companies and entrepreneurs will be able to deliver efficient services which cater to specific consumer needs. The role of government in society is therefore minimal, as its main concerns become protecting the nation’s borders, protecting citizens and property, providing a just legal framework and enforcing private contracts[3]. There is of course disagreement over the extent to which government should be limited. Hayek and Friedman are critical of a complete laissez fair order; while, in Robert Nozick’s utopia, government should limit itself only to the protection of citizens and the enforcement of contracts, thereby merely acting as a night watchman.

The Retreat to the State of Nature

            Brought to its logical extreme, the doctrine of limited or minimal government implies the remodeling of society upon a world in which political participation and democratic deliberation are replaced by voluntary interactions between individuals in the state of nature. In its most extreme form, economic libertarianism does away with the idea of a community of consenting citizens while retaining solely individual natural rights. Moreover, it implies that the political act of national self-determination could be in some sense morally wrong because it offends the natural liberty of the individual by imposing laws and norms decided through a collective process.

            But what is the state of nature exactly? As employed by the social contract theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it referred to a condition of mankind before it entered civil society and before it erected authority or government: in short, before real society existed. A brief look at three of the most important social contract theorists will help us understand this concept better.

For Jean-Jacques Rousseau the state of nature is a hypothetical thought experiment used to determine mankind’s natural conditions, impulses and behaviors. Humans in the state of nature are neither good nor evil[4]. They live in a primitive world which is scarcely populated, where individuals are isolated from one another and where the only concern is that of self preservation. The impulse of self-preservation is however tempered by our inborn capacity for compassion, so that natural law tells us to “do good to yourself with as little possible harm to others”[5]. Humans become evil and selfish once they enter into society, when they begin to establish relations amongst themselves based on natural inequalities such as strength and intelligence.

            For John Locke, the state of nature is one where god created all humans free and equal. Natural law, which is discoverable by men through the application of their reason, tells individuals that everyone as god’s children possess the right to enjoy their life, liberty and property. “The State of Nature has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: and Reason, which is that Law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions”[6]. However, in Locke’s state of nature, every man possesses the ability to exact his or her own justice, a condition which leads to the “State of War”. Individuals should therefore alienate this ability to a government established by the consent of the governed and ruled by law.

            Finally, for Thomas Hobbes, the state of nature is one in which every individual is solely concerned with preserving his or her life. The instinct of self –preservation inevitably clashes against that of others in the competition for scarce resources. This leads to the omnium bellum contra omnes: the war of all against all, and “it followeth, that in such a condition, every man has a Right to every thing; even to one anothers body.”[7]. As a result, the life of man in the state of nature is “poore, nasty, brutish and short”[8]. Only a complete surrender of all rights to a powerful sovereign, which will keep all individuals in awe, will allow for a condition of peace. 

The Libertarian State of Nature

            In  Anarchy State and Utopia (1974), Robert Nozick founds his theory of the minimal state upon Locke’s state of nature, in which humans are born with the inalienable rights to their life, liberty and possessions. More importantly, we are all born with the right of self-ownership: we own ourselves and the fruit of our labor. Mankind in the state of nature is thus in a “state of perfect freedom” [9], a condition which Nozick, as a libertarian, aims to preserve. However, in this state there is no institution which provides for the fair distribution of justice, thus every individual may exact his own justice inevitably leading to the “state of war”. For Locke, men should therefore erect a government to which they all consent, thereby instituting a social contract between citizens and governors based on trust and the rule of law. Nozick, however, does not agree. There is no real need for such a process as something resembling the state may arise out of the state of nature through an “invisible hand explanation”.

            Nozick believes that individuals in the state of nature will spontaneously bond together in “protective associations”. Such voluntary associations would protect their members’ life, liberty and possessions. Eventually, out of the maelstrom of competing protective associations one would muscle out competition and establish itself as the “dominant protective agency” [10]. This dominant protective agency fulfils the basic Weberian role of the state: providing for the monopoly of legitimate force within a territory, which for Nozick, qualifies as a minimal state. This is an “invisible hand explanation” of the emergence of government from the state of nature, as it arises spontaneously without a conscious collective effort[11].

“We have explained how, without anyone having this in mind, the self-interested and rational actions of persons in a Lockean state of nature will lead to single protective agencies dominant over geographical territories; each territory will have either one dominant agency or a number of agencies federally affiliated so as to constitute, in essence, one.” (Nozick 1974, p. 118)

The Invisible Hand vs. the Social Contract

            Nozick’s minimal state therefore emerges directly out of the state of nature and models itself upon natural and spontaneous behavior of individuals interacting in the state of nature. This is in direct contrast with the whole of the social contract tradition upon which the democratic politics of the enlightenment are founded. All three of the social contract theorists we have looked at propose some sort of contract between individuals and a sovereign body with the specific aim of lifting ourselves from the state of nature.

            Thomas Hobbes believed that in order to stop the “war of all against all” we must institute a commonwealth so as to give up our rights to a sovereign which will establish peace and prohibit the private use of force:

“A Common-wealth is said to be instituted, when a Multitude of men do Agree, and Covenant, every one, with every one, that to whatsoever Man, or Assembly of Men, shall be given by the major part , the Right to Present the Person of them all.” (Leviathan, Part II, Chap. XVIII)

For John Locke it is the duty of man towards God to establish a government by consent which protects the natural liberties of individuals through the rule of law:

“And thus that, which begins and actually constitutes Political Society, is nothing but the consent of any number of Freemen capable of a majority to unite and incorporate into such a Society. And this is that, and only that, which did, or could give beginning to any lawful Government in the World.” (Second Treatise  §99)

Finally, for Rousseau, individuals cannot subsist in the state of nature and are thus required to come together and establish a sovereign body through the social contract:

“This act of association produces a moral and collective body made up of as many members as the assembly has voices, and which receives by the same act its unity, its common self, its life and its will…As for the associates, they collectively assume the name people and individually call themselves Citizens as participants in the sovereign authority, and Subjects as subjected to the laws of the State.” (The Social Contract, Book 1, Chap. 7)

Nozick’s idea of the minimal state does not lift people out of the state of nature, but is aimed specifically at reproducing the conditions of “perfect freedom” found in such a state. Yet, the idea that a government may arise spontaneously through an “invisible hand mechanism” represents a denial of the social contract theory tradition. The establishment of the minimal or “night watchman” state  is bereft of a founding political moment of collective self-determination. This implies a veiled attempt of denying social and national unity, democratic deliberation and citizen participation. It also implies a denial of the categories of the citizen and of government which are the participants of the social contract.

European and American democratic traditions are not perfect. Carole Pateman has revealed a sexual contract hidden within the idea of the social contract, thereby exposing the displacement of the female sex. Similarly, Bikhu Parekh and James Tully have shown how western democratic politics exclude different cultures through the establishment o universal rights[12]. However, the complete denial of democratic politics represented by a libertarian retreat to the state nature is very dangerous. The democratic politics of the enlightenment should be exposed for their colonialist, misogynist and exclusionary characteristics, but they must also be used as a platform on which to construct a broader participatory and more inclusive democratic framework. Let us not deny the social contract. Now, more than ever, we must revive it so as to counter the grave democratic deficit which is crippling our political and economic institutions.


  • Hayek, F.A. 1944. The Road to Serfdom
  • Hobbes, T. 1996. Leviathan, ed. Tuck, R. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
  • Locke, J. 1988. Two Treatises of Government, ed. Laslett, P. Cambridge University Press
  • Nozick, R. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Blackwell: Oxford
  • Rousseau, J. 1984. A Discourse on Inequality, Penguin: London
  • Rousseau, J. 1997. “Of The Social Contract” in The Social Contract and other later Political Writings” ed. Gourevitch, V. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
  • Steger, M.B., Roy, R.K. 2010 Neoliberalism: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press: Oxford

[1] Nozick 1974, p ix

[2] Hayek 1944, p 79

[3] Steger & Roy 2010, p 14

[4] Rousseau 1984, p 98

[5] Rousseau 1984, p 101

[6] Locke, Second Treatise §6

[7] Hobbes, Leviathan, Part 1, Chap. XIV

[8] Hobbes, Leviathan, Part 1, Chap. XIII

[9] Locke, Second Treatise, §4

[10] Nozick 1974, p 17

[11] Nozick 1974, p 18

[12] See Carol Pateman’s Sexual Contract (1988), Bikhu Parekh’s Rethinking Multiculturalism (2002), and James Tully’s Strange Multiplicity (1995)


Filed under democracy, Democratic Theory, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Libertarianism, Neo-liberalism, neoliberalism, political philosophy, political theory, Social Contract, Tea Party, Thomas Hobbes, Uncategorized

4 responses to “The Retreat to the State of Nature

  1. Alan Hertz

    I have a question, Giulio — not for you, but for Nozick. Why is private property somehow deemed natural? Surely in a state of nature desirable possessions and preservable value will end up in the hands of those who can get them and hang on to them. And if someone stronger takes them, what is wrong with that? I can’t see why the idea of possession, let alone that of contract, is natural at all. So I can’t see why a libertarian government would be justified even in protecting one or guaranteeing the other.

    Nozickism has always struck me as an imperfectly imagined utopia, imperfectly imagined by someone with property he would like to protect, with tenure and book contracts he would like to protect. In other words, bullshit.

    Can you help?

    • Why is property deemed a natural right?

      First of all, Nozick is basing his libertarian theory of property on the Lockean state of nature. He is drawing conclusions and erecting a theory of limited/minimal government upon Locke’s initial premises. Nozick, however takes for granted Locke’s reasoning without looking into the historical context explaining why Locke believed that property should be a natural right. He is therefore basing his theory on a flawed interpretation of Locke’s ideas regarding the state of nature, natural law and natural rights.

      Locke’s true aim was not a justification of capitalist property relations as both Nozick and some Marxist-leaning theorists (Macpherson and Leo Strauss) believe. Locke’s aim in coming up with a theory in property was to counter the theory of the divine right of kings expounded by Sir Robert Filmer in Patriarcha. According to Sir Filmer, God gave the world solely to Adam. Everything under the sun belonged to Adam, both objects and people. As monarchs are supposedly the representatives of Adamic power on earth, it follows that they enjoy Adam’s same rights.

      As a Calvinist natural theologian Locke could not accept this. Locke was convinced that God had created individuals free and equal. Moreover, God had not given the earth and its objects solely to Adam but to mankind in common. The resources of nature were therefore available to everyone. This however, did not deliver a theory which allowed subjects to retain private property. Locke therefore stated that one of the laws of nature is that when someone mixes his or her labor with an object in the commons, he or she owns an exclusive right to it.

      Locke’s aim in constructing a theory of property is therefore two-fold. Firstly, it is to disprove Filmer’s theory that God gave the world solely to Adam and his representatives. Secondly a theory of property and self-ownership is needed to actually prove that individuals are born free and equal, and that their duty towards God and each other is to erect a legitimate government by their consent which will protect their property and establish the rule of law.

      Locke’s theory of property in the state of nature is more of a thought experiment to prove that individuals are born free and that they own themselves. True property relations and legitimate protection of property are possible solely after the social contract occurs and government is erected.

      Nozick ignores all of this. For him it is enough to accept Locke’s state of nature as an actual human condition. However, Locke is never clear that his state of nature actually really existed. He gives the examples of Native Americans as people resembling a society living in such a state. Ultimately, for Locke, property is truly established in government and law. It is thus a positive act dependent on the practice of politics in parliament, not (empirically) a negative natural right.

      Nozick would counter your criticism -that the strongest would take property- by stating the first axiomatic principle on which Libertarianism is founded: non-aggression. For Nozick, non-aggression and self-ownership (of one’s person and possessions) are the first and most important principles guiding a libertarian minimal government. He however understands of aggression solely as a physical concept (theft, fraud, assault) while ignoring indirect aggression (inequality, asymmetries of information in the marketplace, skewered power relations); and always assumes that the market-place (as a perfect entity) is able to fairly distribute justice more than a government can.

      Ultimately, Nozick is founding his theory on a flawed conception of the state of nature. All social contract theorists never assert that it actually exists, or that mankind, in modernity, could actually live in it. Moreover, I find the idea that natural rights could actually exist in the state of nature frankly ridiculous. Personally, I think that property and contract, understood in their modern form, are concepts possible solely after we (or our representatives) have collectively decided to the laws guiding and defining them. Natural law and natural rights are more like guiding principles, which have no meaning whatsoever unless they are enforced and protected by law and citizen participation/vigilance.

      The idea that we may live in a society devoid of a government representing the commons, as you have pointed out, serves only the interests of the strongest and provides for no true barriers to the formations of monopolies.

      • Alan Hertz

        That was a big help. Thanks! Seems to me that “non-aggression” as a principle need not apply to property. If someone steals my car without hurting me or anyone else, I can’t see how that is more violent than my purchase of the car in the first place. It is simply another kind of transfer of ownership. Why should one kind of transfer be protected and the other kind not? I can’t even see why Locke’s notion that I have invested my labour in the car applies: I haven’t. I may have worked to get the money to buy the car, but of course the thief has worked to steal it. S/he could argue that his labour constitutes an investment just as much as mine does.

  2. Firstly, even in Nozick’s minimal government there would be some sort of limited legal framework based on a few key natural rights. As the right of self-ownership is transferred to the car I have bought with the money I have earned, stealing a car equates to a direct aggression to the person’s body. The libertarian counter-argument to the idea that the thief had invested labour in the act of stealing is that the act of stealing occurs without the other person’s consent. Violating private permission and consent is therefore another act of aggression on the private individual.

    Secondly, buying the car can never be a violent affair for Nozick because it is a form of contract: a legal voluntary exchange between a buyer and a provider which involves both parties’ express consent.

    Lets remind ourselves that for a libertarian, as long as there is consent between the two parties involved, the contract is legal and government has no right to intrude or forbid it. This applies for selling drugs and prostitution for example.

    In addition, even Locke recognised that once mankind had appropriated all natural resources and land, individuals without land could sell their labour for a wage. His rights to “life, liberty and estates” are extended to moneyed relationships. And wage relationships always involve a voluntary exchange based on consent.
    Of course, any Marxist would disagree here :)

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