Law and Liberty: Hobbesians vs Rechtsstaaters

Individual freedoms are tethered to law, but in what sense? We could call Hobbesian the insight into law and liberty which states that norms are addressed by the sovereign power to the individuals. The Sovereign is the only one who prescribes the law, being the individuals subject to the legal obligation. Even the limitations to the power of the government in the face of fundamental rights – such as the Due Process – are not expressed in terms of limits to the sovereign power but of commands to the public servants: for example, the imprisonment of an individual without accomplishing the legal standards of Due Process allows the government’s agents to punish their unlawful colleagues. The law is always addressed, in the last resort, to an individual by the State.

Proponents of individual liberty thus advocate equality before the law, which means simply “only one state for everyone,” or “individual rights before the state.” Examples include the said guarantee of Due Process, or a system of check and balances among the branches of the government as safeguards against arbitrary coercion by the State. However, they all have a severe difficulty in defending individual liberties without recourse to an extra-system concept, such as natural law, moral duties, or political statements. The emphasis in formal legal procedures would be the utmost in coherence between liberalism and Hobbesianism, but it is easy to slide from procedures that protect individual legal rights to devices assuring the enforcement of the law – which has the individual as its last subject. It seems it is hard to restrain oneself from invoking metaphysical rights when it comes time to advocate individual liberty.

Nevertheless, it should not be surprising that every limit to political power of the State over the individual depends on metaphysical notions, since it is a tenet of the Hobbesian insight that the power of the State is absolute. Moreover, the Minimal State – a true effort to advocate individual liberty without resting on metaphysical notions – owes to Thomas Hobbes its main inspiration.

Historical evidence suggests, however, that in the relation among power, law and liberty is the other way round. The development of common law in England and the phenomenon of the reception of the Roman law in Continental Europe show that law is not necessarily created ex nihilo by the State. The State could provide enforcement to a given system of law, as it is shown in the book System of the Modern Roman Law (System des heutigen Römischen Rechts), by F. K. v. Savigny. Moreover, the States could adapt legal notions originating in private law to elaborate procedures to follow in the public sphere. The principle “venire contra factum proprium non valet” was born in private law and today is a guarantee to the individual against the arbitrary action of the State.

This is the process of rationalization of power described by Max Weber, the German concept of Rechtsstaat or the widely known concept of “Rule of Law.” In that process of rationalization, lawyers outshone the sages, the mandarins, and the humanists in the administration of public affairs by incorporating legal procedures and principles taken from private law. There might be differences among these concepts and historical events, but their common invariances allows us to get the gist.

There is, also, an evolutionary case for the relative advantages of a Rechtsstaat over the notion of sovereignty. In the former the decisions are principle-based while in the latter they are mostly taken by expediency. Since the said principle of venire contra factum proprium non valet and other legal procedures constrain rulers’ whims, government actions are more rational, in the sense of transitivity of preferences.

Thus, in the long run, the performance of the Rule of Law is higher than the Rule of Men. Lawyers outshine mandarins in government posts and, in turn, governments run by lawyers outperform governments run by mandarins. One device to switch from a given form of State to another one is, for example, immigration: people flock to countries where the Rule of Law prevails.

What we have called the Hobbesian insight into Law and Liberty is tied up with the definition of liberty as power. Thus, the equation of law and liberty becomes a zero-sum game: the more state, the less individual liberty, and the less state, the more individual liberty. On the other hand, the definition of individual liberty as absence of arbitrary coercion engages with the concept of Rule of Law: to substitute principles for expediency reduces arbitrary coercion and, thus, enlarges individual liberty.

Does this Rechtsstaat insight into Law and Liberty dissolve the question about the dimensions of the State? Not at all. But it provides a more strategic view: a big State will demand more decisions to be taken on expediency. A small state will provide two advantages to the enjoyment of individual liberty as absence of arbitrary coercion: more decisions based on principles and a larger space for the law to evolve by its own and discover new legal principles in response to the constant changes in the society.

But even if the conclusions might be the same (a smaller State), the two insights carry within them a set of premises that ineluctably will unravel by themselves when it comes the time of a deeper controversy. Then, the Hobbesian Insight will present the disjunction between Minimal State and metaphysical boundaries to the absolute power of the State. The Rechtsstaat strain, instead, will provide a humbler but subtler position.


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