“Hobbes and the Science of Indirect Government”

Harvey C. Mansfield, The American Political Science Review, v. 65, no. 1 (Mar., 1971): 97-110

In this essay, Mansfield takes up the simultaneously revolutionary and conservative aspects of Hobbes’ political science, considering especially the elevation of theoretical questions (i.e., questions of representation) over practical ones (i.e., questions of good and bad).



Government as men know it today almost everywhere is indirect. It does not admit that it rules the people, for it claims to be the representative of the people; the people govern themselves through their representative. They are not ruled directly by others, because the government has its source in themselves and its legitimacy in fidelity to their purpose, however that may be ascertained. Nor do the people rule themselves directly; their self-government must be accomplished by agents appointed out of themselves and given sovereign powers in an artificial, public status.

To maintain this indirect government, the people must ask political questions in an indirect form. The direct political question is whether the law or the command by an officer of the law that a citizen encounters is decent, good or useful. Instead of this question, or before it, citizens under representative government must ask whether the law or the command is truly representative, that is, whether in some manner it comes from themselves. If it has come from themselves, they can have no complaint or remedy against it unless they challenge the very idea of indirect government. For to complain against a bad law merely because it is bad implies that government ought to rule directly when it knows better than the people what is good, and to have a remedy against a bad law merely because it is bad implies that the people, knowing best what is good for itself, ought to rule itself directly without intermediates. Thus today politics is seen in terms of giving effect to the aspirations of the people at home and abroad for self-realization and self-determination. Citizens criticize their governments, and governments condemn other governments, not primarily for what they do but for failing to represent the people in doing what they do.