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"Equity and political economy in Thomas Hobbes"

by Ward, Lee (2020)


Thomas Hobbes is often viewed as a seminal figure in the development of the homo economicus philosophical anthropology central to the acquisitive, bourgeois morality of liberal modernity. The present study challenges this interpretation of Hobbes as an antecedent to free market ideology by arguing that his political economy presupposed a complex relation between contract, law, and social networks of credit informed by prudence and robust norms of equity. The normative claims of equity permeate Hobbes's holistic account of political economy and inform his vision of liberal statecraft that gave priority to prudential judgment against economic determinism, especially as Hobbes understood trade, taxation, allocation of resources, and the provision of social welfare. I will conclude by reflecting upon how Hobbes's political economy both reveals the internal diversity within the liberal intellectual tradition and can help us to better understand and critique contemporary liberal states and democratic theory.

Key Passage

Hobbes clearly recognized the importance of labor in the national economy: “A man’s labour also is a commodity exchangeable for benefit, as well as any other thing” (Lev 24.4.160). However, contra Macpherson, there is no indication that the selling of one’s labor is not subject to the same considerations about price gouging and concentration of wealth that Hobbes raised with respect to corporations and taxes. Moreover, immediately following his statement about a person’s labor being an exchangeable “commodity,” Hobbes referred to small countries that have grown powerful “partly by the labour of trading from one place to another” (Lev 24.4.160). Hobbes, then, conceived of labor in broad terms, including not only manual production, but also a wide range of economic activities in which exchange is inseparable from the labor involved.  (p.831)


Thomas Hobbes, Equity, Political Economy, Statecraft, Liberalism, Classical Liberalism, Social Contract, Contract Theory, Taxation, Free Market


On Hobbes

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