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Wordweb describes Leviathan as:

  1. The largest or most massive thing of its kind
  2. Monstrous sea creature symbolizing evil in the Old Testament

A recent Economist article (see The drug war hits Central America) has this usage of Leviathan:

Whatever the weaknesses of the Mexican state, it is a Leviathan compared with the likes of Guatemala or Honduras. Large areas of Guatemala—including some of its prisons—are out of the government’s control; and, despite the efforts of its president, the government is infiltrated by the mafia.

It is clear from this text and the rest of the article that Guatemala and Honduras are worse off than Mexico. If that is so, why is the word Leviathan used to refer to Mexico? From the above meaning of Leviathan, should not Mexico be the worst amongst the three? What is the typical usage of this word Leviathan?

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I would guess the author misused the word Leviathan. But maybe this is a uniquely British idiom. –  Peter Shor Apr 17 '11 at 7:01
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@PeterShor: He used it in the specifically Hobbesian way as "a strong government", not merely as "a large monster", the more general Biblical way. –  Cerberus Apr 17 '11 at 17:02
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2 Answers

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It is a reference to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes' magnum opus, Leviathan. In that work, Hobbes argues for a powerful, far-reaching state -- a leviathan, so to speak -- to curtail what he sees as man's base and destructive instincts without the hand of a strong sovereign to guide him; it was Hobbes who famously called the natural state of Man "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Hobbes did name his book after the massive beast in the Bible, but he used the reference to the Beast's massiveness in a metaphorical and positive sense to emphasize the key idea in his theory of the social contract.

In other words, what The Economist is saying is that Mexico is better off than Guatemala and Honduras because their state has capability to protect against the base state of Man. E.g., against the petty thievery, illegitimate violence, and capricious laws that plague poor, underdeveloped countries, the very same things Hobbes abhorred in his book. As you can you see, the excerpt highlights Guatemala's lack of state control over heavy arms and prisons, traditionally one of the fundamental prerogatives of government -- it clearly does not live up to the ideal Hobbes espoused in Leviathan. Mexico, as weak as its government is, is closer.

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"The Economist is saying is that Mexico is better than Guatemala and Honduras." No, it's saying the government of Mexico is stronger, not better. –  Malvolio Apr 17 '11 at 7:36
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@Malvolio: I think I disagree. In the context of Hobbesian thought, Leviathan is stronger than non-Leviathan, and therefore also better. This journalist clearly uses the word in the Hobbesian way: Large areas of Guatemala—including some of its prisons—are out of the government's control. This is the Hobbesian concept, not just "a large monster": otherwise he'd go on to say something about its size, which he doesn't. Besides, isn't it clear from context that the Mexican government functions better than that of Guatemala? –  Cerberus Apr 17 '11 at 17:01
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@Cerberus -- I haven't a clue what Hobbes himself thought on the subject but I can't think of a single modern reference (with the possible exception of this one) to "Hobbesian" or "Leviathan" that wasn't terrifically disparaging. Certainly, any even moderately intelligent person surveying the wreckage of the 20th Century must conclude that an all-powerful State is a bad, bad idea, although (and this may have been the Economist's point) anarchic Guatemala may be going too far in the opposite direction. –  Malvolio Apr 17 '11 at 17:23
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@Cerberus -- (cont'd) "isn't it clear from context that the Mexican government functions better than that of Guatemala?" The Mexican government functions more effectively than Guatemala's, but is the Economist asserting that the average Mexican is therefore better off? –  Malvolio Apr 17 '11 at 17:25
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@Jason Orendorff I disagree. The Economist is at least partially buying into Hobbes' political philosophy when they invoke Leviathan; the rest of the article, if you click through it, makes that more clear. It uses words like "collapse of the social order" and "deteriorating social situation." From such language, I'm not sure how one doesn't draw that the magazine is making a moral judgment enough to say "better" here. –  Uticensis Apr 17 '11 at 17:43
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As I have always understood it, the clue is that a strong state is a necessary evil. The Biblical monster Leviathan is a metaphor for this strong state. Yes, a strong state will cause corruption, abuse of power, and a general waste of resources, as well as injustice; but a weak state amounts to or leads to anarchy, which will cause much, much more waste and injustice. Let one King have a huge, wasteful palace, requiring burdening taxes, and kill whomever he likes; this is still to be preferred over dozens of warlords with similar courts and habits.

Moreover, with one King, at least the nation will be spared civil war, which is the greatest of all evils, with its tremendous loss of lives, trade, and resources. Hobbes had experienced the English Civil War (1642–1651), which probably influenced his conclusion. Civil war is a form of anarchy, the worst of the worst to Hobbes.

In the case of Mexico, the author means to say that, yes, the Mexican government is to a large extent corrupt, unjust, and wasteful; but at least it is strong enough to prevent anarchy, which the equally corrupt governments of Guatemala and Honduras are not. There is nothing between Leviathan and anarchy, and at least Leviathan provides some degree of stability. Of course much could be said against this position.

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