Welcome to Leviathan’s Couch

We are all part of a constitutional organisation larger than ourselves. The human being is a political animal, and wherever humans engage in complex association, exchange and dialogue, constitutional politics abound. Ultimately, constitutional politics is about the politics of the deep ‘close to the metalinstitutional structure of society.  Constitutional Politics are all around us.

Institutions are the rules of the game that structure human interactions and organisations.[1] Given that we live in societies, institutions are all around us. Wherever we find groups we find institutions to structure their relations. “Ubi societas, ibi ius”, ”Wherever there is society, there is law”. Wherever humans engage in complex association, exchange and dialogue, institutions abound – and so does the politics that surrounds them. We typically associate institutional politics with political institutions – those that breathe life into Leviathan, the mythical sea monster and Hobbesian metaphor for the state. Political institutions are certainly central to our story – to quote James Madison [2], “government is the greatest of all reflection on human nature”. But, importantly, the metaphor of Leviathan reflects the profound importance of a wider array of institutions than just the formal constitution of government. Leviathan represents the state, but also society – the multitudes without which the state has neither power nor purpose.

Accordingly, a ‘constitution’ is more than just the institutions that structure the state. A constitution contains the ‘givens’ in our associations, exchanges, and dialogues, and therefore constitutional rules are those that shape our associations, exchanges, and dialogues across many circumstances and across long time frames. They need not be written into what we might normally consider a “constitution” at all. Electoral rules, familial duties, and even grammar are all foundational rules for engaging with one another in a society, but they often are not included in classically defined ‘constitutions’. Constitutional politics existed long before the formal contractually inspired constitutions of the Enlightenment, and it exists in far more domains than is generally conceived.

In any case, for a healthy state and society, the ultimate objective is the same. Constitutions (whether designed or emergent) function well when they prevent Leviathan from growing too weak to resist the various currents pushing to beach it on some shore. The most successful constitutions, however, also keep Leviathan from feeding on itself [3]. This was Madison’s key insight: “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” For this to happen, it must be in the rulers’ own interest not to exceed the formal limits on its powers. Rules do not have automatic effect – they must be backed by an appropriate incentive structure. That is, people must often be incentivized to follow the rules if these rules are not in their direct self-interest. The careful crafting of incentives is a crucial element of the creation of any institutions, but the state certainly presents a unique challenge. If Leviathan is powerful enough to enforce our laws, how do we enforce the laws meant to bind our enforcer? 

Another reason to invoke the image of Leviathan is the sheer scale and complexity of constitutions. An institution can never be understood in isolation; to truly understand institutions, we must always keep an eye on how they interact with other institutions in society. Just as your character, sexual orientation, metabolism, or ability to sing on key are not the contribution of any one aspect of your DNA, our organizations often have attributes that derive not from any one aspect of their own constitution. Like you, organizations see their various parts coordinate and mutually alter themselves, and interact with their environment. Our organizations, like you, make moves to alter or revise themselves. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. 

So, the emergent, and dynamic aspects that we can observe in our societies are not built into the rules themselves, but a product of their interaction. Informal institutions are critical here, and so are the other elements of any outcome: preferences, beliefs, and what is physically feasible. The same formal institution (for instance, a veto power or an exam requirement for civil service work) can have very different outcomes in environments which differ from each other on these other factors. Institutions such as markets and rights can rarely be expected to work as they do on the neoclassical drawing board, because they depend on a complex web of historically evolved expectations and norms. We should never lose sight of this complexity and the crucial importance of society’s continuously evolving set of beliefs and informal institutions. The writing at Leviathan’s Couch proceeds from the conviction that understanding constitutional politics, especially through this lens, is more profoundly important than is often realized and offers more general insights for broader social questions than is generally appreciated. 

Something new is created by forming a group or society. An ‘organism’ of sorts that is separate and greater than the sum of its parts, not unlike the way human cognition emerges from individual synapses. Hobbes called this organism Leviathan. In this blog community, we take the constitutional organization, Leviathan itself, lay him out on a couch and put him under analysis like the Freudians of old. Coming from the perspective of Constitutional Political Economy, we are focused on plunging deep into the nature of political organization itself, and the careful philosophical, political, and economic analysis necessary to reveal Leviathan’s secrets, diagnose his ills, and develop an approach to treatment. We are concerned with a critical examination of the foundations of our societies and interested in sharing the relevance of the insights gained for broader questions about things often not considered constitutional at all. 

We welcome guests and others who wish to join in contributing to the community on a more regular basis. Leviathan’s couch aims to publish book reviews, analyses of current events through the lens of constitutional political economy and related disciplines, develop thoughts on topics connected to the themes above and more broadly, and publish controversies and discussions between people thinking and disagreeing about these issues. Moreover, we will unapologetically use this website to discuss and present our own research (don’t worry, it will be fun!)

Editorial decisions are made by our central committee of Leviathan psychoanalysts composed of Dr. Brandon Zicha and doctoral students J.D. Mussel and Joes de Natris.

[1] North, Douglas. 1990. Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[2] Madison, James, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay.[1788] 1966. The Federalist Papers: No. 51. Ed. Roy P.Fairfield. Garden City, NY:  Anchor Books.

[3] The metaphor works whether we think of ‘Leviathan’ as the state or as both state and society, and it is worth keeping both in mind. Disorders of the state – corruption, revolution, tyranny etc. – are society’s disorders, too!

[4] North, Douglas, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast. 2009. Violence and Social Orders. Cambridge: Cambridge Universty Press

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s