In 1651, a gentleman scholar who readily admitted that “fear and I were born twins” published one of the great books on government. Thomas Hobbes had survived the notoriously bloody English Civil War by fleeing to France — and his great philosophical concern was personal safety. Life in a state of nature was, he observed, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” because people were always fighting. So, he argued, citizens should contractually give up their freedoms to a ruler who could offer them protection. The state’s legitimacy depended on it fulfilling that contract and keeping its citizens safe, a revolutionary idea at a time when kings, like his former pupil Charles II, claimed their position came by divine right. For Hobbes, who also managed to survive the Great Plague in 1665-66 and died in his bed at 91, our contract with “Leviathan,” as he called his book, depended on its ability to keep us safe.
If Hobbes were alive today, he would feel vindicated. Around the world, fear is on the march — and, in order to be protected from this terrible virus, we are willingly surrendering basic rights, even the freedom to leave our own homes, to Leviathan. The Covid-19 pandemic has made government important again. Not just powerful again (look at those once-mighty companies begging for help), but also vital again: It matters enormously whether your country has a good health service, competent bureaucrats and sound finances. Good government is the difference between living and dying.