Leviathan and the ID Card

In all the stuff that’s been written about the Blair government’s ID card project, the best single piece was this Guardian column by an Oxford academic, Karma Nabulsi.

She begins by highlighting the extent to which the government’s approach to security in the post-9/11 world derives from Hobbes.

Hobbes portrays a dangerous world filled with unknown enemies perpetually striving to murder one’s family and destroy one’s property, a nation filled with untrustworthy neighbours, isolated individuals who live in fear of each other, and only the power of the state to protect society from the evils inherent in human nature. How much of your liberty do you yield to your protector? As much as he says he needs to provide you with protection.

This grim bargain is on offer today, and can be measured in every aspect of public life in Britain. If the primary purpose of the state is to provide the individual with security, this gives the state exclusive power to define the gravity of the security threat. At that point, enter the security and terrorism experts. It also allows the state to define civil and individual liberties, since these must be surrendered according to an assessment made behind closed doors. More fundamentally, political liberty is possessed entirely by the state, for in such a framework the state determines what liberties to grant to individuals. The source of sovereignty resides entirely in the state, not the individual.

This conception of the social contract, Nabulsi argues, is a totally undemocratic one. And it runs completely counter to an equally venerable (and mostly British) tradition.

The theory of the democratic state describes the nature of a social contract in the opposite way to Hobbes. Defined by British writers such as John Stuart Mill, RH Tawney and GDH Cole, among others (and continental Europeans such as Rousseau and Kant), the purpose of the contract is to protect a citizen’s liberty. Its preservation – especially the preservation of political liberty – is the supreme good. In this version of the social contract, the sovereign citizen does not surrender sovereignty, but only specific powers and functions to the state. As political sovereignty is not transferred to the state, not only are civil rights inalienable but so are political liberties, above all the right to determine and to deliberate laws. It is not simply participating in these decisions, it is actually making them.

Nabulsi points out that Hobbes made his argument to answer a specific problem of exceptional insecurity. But, she says, the trade-off he suggested is flawed.

This formula will never provide us with the security we need; instead it increases our need for it. By restoring the purpose of government as one that serves its people through preserving freedom as the supreme good, one restores citizens to their role in deliberating these decisions and cedes the public space back to its owners.

This is a very good essay because it goes right to the heart of the problem. The trouble is, it also highlights the depth of the malaise. Our democracies have been flawed for a long time by this underlying Hobbesian contract, but it took Osama bin Laden to peel back the camouflage and display in its naked illiberality. I used to think that it was partly a weakness of the British (unwritten) constitution, with its implicit embodiement of the state as the ‘Crown Prerogative’ — and that republics would be relatively freer of the disease. But the behaviour of the US in recent decades suggests otherwise. The Bush regime is Hobbesian to the core of its being.

The Tories say that, if elected to power, they will scrap the ID Card, and so they might. But I can’t see them abandoning the Hobbesian contract, for all David Cameron’s spouting about liberty and freedom. We’re screwed, basically.