[the paper] [the technical appendix] [my recent comments] [errata] [end]

The Positive Political Economy

of Individualism and Collectivism: 

Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau

Published in Politics & Society, volume 28 number 2, June 2000, 265-304.


James Devine

4227 University Hall

Department of Economics

Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts

Loyola Marymount University

7900 Loyola Blvd.

Los Angeles, CA 90045-8410 USA

office phone: 310/338-2948; FAX: 310/338-1950

e-mail: jdevine@lmu.edu


 Click here for a PDF version of a close-to-final version of this paper (with a lot of small typos).

To get the Adobe Acrobat reader to allow you to read it, click here.

Click here for a HTML version of the technical appendix.

To see the discussion of the error I found in the text, click here.

 Some comments on this paper:

This is an article that arose because more than 15 years ago, I taught in an interdisciplinary course at Occidental College. In this, I was supposed to be the economics teacher, but I also had to read and talk about such bizarro stuff as plays by Euripides (bizarro only from an economist's point of view, of course). As one of the major benefits I got from the class, I got to read the most important writings of three European political philosophers, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It came as a revelation that orthodox economists were followers of Locke without knowing it. That is, they treat property rights as “natural,” as existing in a “state of nature.” (Believe me, the late Nobel Prize-winning economist Gerard Debreu and his followers actually talked about “states of nature.”) That is, they implicitly assume – along with all of the liberals, whether neo- or New Deal – that there's a consensus underlying society's property system, a tacit social contract.

Struggling over Rousseau (a somewhat deviant and romantic liberal), I realized that his ideas made sense as an equilibrium (and economists love equilibria)! In his Social Contract, people choose the “social contract” democratically, in an Assembly of all. The enforcement of this contract in turn shapes them – via censorship, a civic religion, limits on property ownership, and more – so that they accept the will of the majority and live according to the social contract. (It's a little bit like Plato's Republic, in which the Guardians are highly regulated, almost like the Marine Corps. But Rousseau proposes it for the entire community.) I also pondered Marx & Engels' comments on the social contract in The German Ideology, which suggest that a true social contract could arise only in a working-class revolution. Fiddling at my desk one day, I drew a graph showing this kind of equilibrium, but it also a Hobbesian equilibrium, in which bad social conditions encourage extreme individualism – which causes the continuation of the Hobbesian war over time.

In this vision, individuals “choose” society and society “chooses” people, by shaping their actions and personal characters. In the full model, people choose society in two ways, via individual actions in civil society and via votes in a general Assembly. Going the other way, people are “chosen” by society through the establishment of traditions and through the shaping of their personal characters. (I omit the role of in- and out-migration.) Eventually, I brought in stuff from the “public choice” and game theory literatures (along with some psychology, such as that surveyed by Matt Rabin).

In the end, there are several main situations:

  1. the Hobbesian equilibrium just referred to, where the statelessness of society encourages people to be nasty, brutish, and short. This is a situation of massive “free riding,” including free riding on the property system (stealing, fraud, invasions, etc.), which encourages the chaos to continue. This might be called Bad Anarchy, though I didn’t do so in my paper.
  2. an egalitarian Lockean situation, in which people democratically choose to support a property system. However, this is a disequilibrium, with state force being needed to induce people to comply with the property system in practice. The ideal of a political philosopher would be to minimize the role of the state, or to end the alienation of the state from civil society. Locke by no means lives up this ideal, even in the egalitarian version of his ideas. Nonetheless, his notions are utopian.
  3. a somewhat Smithian variant of #2, in which an ideal civil society and fellow-feeling (cf. Smith's Theory Of Moral Sentiments) allows the minimization of the state's use of force. But it still is necessary. Here I bring in stuff from George Akerlof, Jon Elster, and the like on the nature of tradition.
  4. since both #2 and #3 assume that there's a social contract, I discuss the problems that arise because such a contract is impossible. It turns out that even if one of these situations arise by historical accident (instead of by contract), it's likely to very unstable, allowing a slide down the slippery slope of cynicism and free-riding into the Hobbesian morass. If the existing state starts to fall apart, it's very hard to create a new one, at least in an atomistic and egalitarian society.
  5. The obvious solution to the Hobbesian situation is for a small minority to take over and force a solution – the creation of class society. (Of course, true Hobbesian situations are rare, so that the existence of class society is typically inherited from the past or imposed from the outside.) The warlords can get together because they are small in number and have more power than others (they are neither atomistic nor egalitarian). This was in fact endorsed by Locke, who by no means was an egalitarian (except in some of his pretensions), and by his prescription, which involved the limitless accumulation of capital (i.e., of power) by those with capital to begin with. This may solve the Hobbesian problem, but it creates class antagonism – and class struggle. My discussion here is the closest this very abstract paper gets to discussing the real world. As in any article that's influenced by the dominant culture of economics, it's vaguest in the realistic situations of disequilibrium. Nonetheless, I comment a bit on the possibility of social-democratic compromises which superficially simulate the nice results of an egalitarian liberal society.
  6. Rousseau's solution is to have the state limit property holdings so as to avoid the existence of classes, to force the existence of an egalitarian liberal society. Property limits (and censorship, a state religion, etc.) avoid the Lockean disequilibrium. The small size of the society allows a social contract. This allows the existence of a non-Hobbesian equilibrium (as discussed above). The problem – and I think this is a key result of my paper – is that Rousseau's equilibrium is likely to be unstable. If there are deviations from equilibrium, they tend to be amplified. It either falls apart, allowing the reappearance of Hobbesian war or class society, or it turns into a state-dominated society. This is the Authoritarian Rousseau Society. Or both, as the would-be capitalists and the state bureaucrats ally (as in the USSR at its end).
  7. There is a stable Rousseauean equilibrium – or Good Anarchy – but it involves getting beyond his shallow vision of psychology, which is very structuralist. He saw people's characters as very plastic, very moldable (beyond the posited basic instincts of individual self-preservation and empathy with others' pain). If we suggest that there are limits to society's impact on individual character – as seen in ancient Greek notions that inner happiness could be compatible with societal morality – then it's possible that there's a stable equilibrium in which people choose society and society encourages people to continue to do so and the role of the state is minimized. This is the ideal socialist society. I talk a little about how technological and sociological changes generated by capitalism make this kind of society more possible and winnable via a revolution from below – but that it is also resisted by those who benefit from class society. 

 An Error Found:

In the paper (page 294), I described a three-way conflict between Id, Ego, and Super-Ego. The error was that I said that the conflict implied a “voter’s paradox.” Given the preferences I posited, this is not true. Here’s a case where there is such a paradox:

An Internal Voter’s Paradox? The conflict of three motives may be an internal “voter’s paradox.” This is a problem a situation noted by Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, a.k.a. the Marquis de Condorcet, in the late 18th century. Suppose we see the following preference rankings:

1.      The impulsive Id prefers stealing now (S) to doing so later (D), which, in turn, is preferred to never filching (N). (S > D > N, where “>” means “is preferred to.”)

2.      The cautious Ego prefers strategic delay to impulsive theft; mindful of the consequences of being caught, it will settle for never robbing at all over smash-and-grab. (D > N > S.)

3.      The priggish Superego prefers never swiping over stealing, while seeing delaying as rank hypocrisy, which is worse than stealing. (N > S > D.)

This paradox means that an individual (“Snidely”) could be forever unable to come to a final decision. Suppose that he makes his decision by majority vote concerning two alternatives at a time. Then which action wins depends on the order in which the votes are taken:

·        if S and N are compared, then N wins, backed by Ego and Superego.

·        if N and D are compared, then D wins, backed by Id and Ego.

·        if S and D are compared, then S wins, backed by the unusual union or Id and Superego.

If the three participants vote for the three options at the same time, no option can win a majority. A persons with these three preference rankings is thus in deep difficulty.

As noted in the main text, education may minimize this problem. If successful, this would produce “single peaked” preference rankings for the three parts of the self, so that we do not see the inconsistent results above. “Single peaked” preferences would mean first that the three alternatives appear on a continuum (say S, D, N). This implies that the participants share a basic consensus about what’s right and wrong, left and right, etc. Second, each “voter” has a favorite. The further away from the favorite the other alternatives are, the less it is favored.

The priggish Superego, for example, might be trained to avoid treating the Ego’s strategic concerns as hypocritical. Its ranking would then be N > D > S. This implies that the first vote would result in N. The second and third votes produce D. A three-way vote would still not produce a majority for any of the options. But a little compromise would result in D.

[the paper] [the technical appendix] [beginning of commentary] [errata] [top]

 revised 0 XXX 0000 by James G. Devine