In Chapter 15 of the latest “Mandalorian” season, the Mandalorian enlists the help of a former acquaintance, Mayfeld, on one of the bounty hunter’s many side adventures. The purpose of the mission and its results are irrelevant for the purpose of this column. The statement the show tries to make on mankind, governmental rule, and contemporary times is worth a discussion. While passing through a poverty-stricken area of that episode’s planet, Mayfeld compares the rule of the Empire to that of the Republic and exclaims, “Everybody thinks they want freedom, but what they really want is order.”
Mayfeld’s observation highlights a classic debate still in existence today. Does mankind seek freedom or order? The continuing COVID pandemic has brought this struggle to the fore and showcased the different expectations people have of government. The roots of this debate form a part of America’s cultural heritage.
Those who came to America from England brought with them two sides of this ongoing debate. Having observed the English Civil War as an aging academic, Thomas Hobbes wrote his greatest treatise on the nature of man, Leviathan. The gruesomeness of the war led Hobbes to conclude that man, in his state of nature, was naturally inclined to violence. Man resorted to depravity, Hobbes argued, for the purpose of security, safety, or glory. All men were equal, but only because they held an equal ability to kill one another. For these reasons, Hobbes concluded that man’s life would be “poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Man, Hobbes opined, would enter a social contract with an absolute monarch, or Leviathan, that would impose strict control over its citizens. For the benefit of safety and security, man would yield his self-determination to government for his preservation.
John Locke offered an opposing take on man and the role of government. He also witnessed the English Civil War, but Locke was a young boy when it broke out and did not view it to the same extent Hobbes did. For Hobbes, the fight over religion (Catholic versus Protestant) led to the war, which meant government had to control the practice of religion. Locke argued man’s freedom and rights originated with religion, specifically God. He believed that the Creator had given man the right to life, liberty, and property. The social contract Locke advocated in his Two Treatises on Government saw the people give their consent to a government that would protect their ‘God-given’ rights. If the government did not protect those rights, Locke felt that man had the right to replace the government.
Locke and Hobbes’ opposing views on man’s nature and the role of government continues to play out today. The current pandemic shows these two schools of thought clashing daily in America. Should the government force people to quarantine, enforce mask protocols, and stifle religious practice in the name of safety as some states have done? Or should the government make sure its citizens have a chance to use their property (business) to pursue life and liberty?
On a recent trip to Orlando, I overheard a conversation between an amusement park worker and a guest. The guest said, announcing he was from California, “I wish our governor would open up our (amusement park).” The park employee replied, “Our governor allowed this place to open.” Is this concentration of power in the executive branch what the framers envisioned when they crafted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution? America has become a place where a single person, the governor, is imbued with the authority and power to determine personal prosperity.
Hobbes would expect authoritarian actions from state executives because man needs the government to keep him safe from himself. Control, as the Mandalorian’s friend says, is preferable to freedom. Clearly, other states have taken a different path. These states found a way to keep business going, open houses of worship, and enable people to make decisions, which allow them agency over their lives, businesses, and property. In Locke’s view, the government needs to ensure man’s God-given rights and allow him to be prosperous; otherwise, the state’s citizens have a right under the social contract to replace the government. The problem is the dichotomy in ideologies that exists is not between countries, as it did in the Cold War, but the contrast exists in the same country. But is the contrast that great?
Recent legal actions by state legislatures and citizens in Michigan, New York, and California have challenge the more draconian actions governors have taken. This gives hope that the ideas of Locke, upon which our founding documents are, in part, based, are still relevant even in a pandemic. The citizens of this country want protection from the virus and each other, but still want to exercise what Locke would call “their God-given right” to earn an income, thrive in business, and provide for themselves.
In 1956, sociologist C. Wright Mills published The Power Elite. His work warned that power was being too concentrated at the highest levels of business and government in America as the country harnessed its resources to fight communism. The same argument can be made today. COVID has allowed power within America to become centralized. If the people due not hold the government accountable, through the ballot box or courts, to uphold their Lockean obligations, then Mayfeld may be correct . . . the majority prefers control over freedom. With all due respect to the imaginative Star Wars universe, the ‘new hope’ is that people want freedom over control.
Dr Mel Deaile is the author of ‘Always At War,’ a book on organizational culture in SAC under Gen LeMay. He received his doctorate from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Air University, U.S. Air Force, or Department of Defense.