Thomas Hobbes, Political Economist: His Changing Historical Fortunes

By Taylor, Quentin | Independent Review, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Thomas Hobbes, Political Economist: His Changing Historical Fortunes


Taylor, Quentin, Independent Review


Most of the major political thinkers in the Western tradition have concerned themselves with various aspects of economic life. Plato founded his ideal republic on mankind's material needs, and its social structure is characterized by clearly defined economic arrangements. Aristotle, whose oikonomike is the source of our "economics," not only examined household management, but explored different types of economic activity, along with their political implications. Cicero wrote on the sanctity of property and against schemes of redistribution. Aquinas gave the medieval doctrines of usury and the just price their classic gloss. Machiavelli had little to say about economics, but he did advise the prince to respect his subjects' property, avoid excessive taxation, and practice frugality. Locke wrote a famous chapter on property as well as lesser-known essays on money and interest. Hume penned influential essays on trade and commerce that anticipated Adam Smith's work. Rousseau contributed an article on political economy to the Encyclopedia, and Burke wrote a notable tract on scarcity. Madison and Hamilton, the practical statesmen who authored the bulk of The Federalist, also wrote on finance, taxes, and trade. J. S. Mill wrote a famous treatise on political economy, and Hegel integrated economic life into his dialectical politics. In our own age, renowned political philosophers such as Rawls and Nozick placed economic considerations at the heart of their analyses.

An Ambiguous Legacy

Although few of these thinkers were economic theorists, most contributed something to what is commonly called political economy Locke, Hume, and Mill are perhaps the only political writers of the first rank to make major contributions to economic thought, but all recognized that neither politics nor economics exists in a vacuum. They understood that the science of politics, whether as the statesman's practical concern or as the philosopher's theoretical subject, encompassed economics. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), whose Leviathan stands among the canonical texts of political thought, shared this understanding, but he occupies a highly ambiguous place in the history of economic thought. At one end of the spectrum, Hobbes is either ignored altogether or mentioned only in passing. Near the middle, he is acknowledged for his indirect influence on subsequent pioneers of political economy, such as William Petty and the French Physiocrats. Near the other end, Hobbes is recognized for initiating a debate over self-interest and public welfare that culminated in Adam Smith's work and the classical economics it initiated. A variant of this reading sees Hobbes as the champion of middle-class values and the herald of bourgeois society. And finally, at this other end of the spectrum, Hobbes is flatly declared "the father of political economy."

What accounts for this wide range of opinion over Hobbes's status as an economic thinker when his legacy as a political thinker is marked largely by consensus? Hobbes was an absolutist who favored monarchy, but the foundations of his absolutism were "liberal" and supplied the materials for the philosophy of individual rights and limited government pioneered by Locke and Jefferson. For this reason, Hobbes is often, if paradoxically, called "the father of classical liberalism." Does his alleged association with classical economics also involve a paradox? What is Hobbes's true place in the history of economic thought?

Although a definitive answer to this question might be welcome, I cannot provide one here. I propose the more modest, preliminary goal of clarification. As we shall see, much of the ambiguity surrounding Hobbes's reputation as an economic thinker involves a failure to distinguish what he actually said about economics from the economic implications of his political philosophy. This ambiguity is also a function of the lack of agreement over the scope of "economics," which as an academic discipline tended to narrow over the course of the twentieth century. …

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