English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

A recent Economist article (see The drug war hits Central America) uses something called a Hobbesian trap like this:

Central America has fallen into a Hobbesian trap: the better-off make private arrangements—there are five times as many private security guards as policemen or soldiers in Guatemala, and four times as many in Honduras—and therefore block efforts to levy the tax revenues necessary to strengthen the state.

A simple Google search turns out to be unhelpful. What is this Hobbesian trap? What is the origin of it? What is a typical context where a writer can employ it?

share|improve this question
Reminds me of the tragedy of the commons: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons – EsperantoSpeaker1 Oct 7 '15 at 16:16

Thomas Hobbes believed that human beings are essentially ruthless competitors, with only their personal interest at heart. Living in a state of anarchy, each man would crave another man's possessions and make his life a living hell. That is why an all-powerful state is necessary.

But why should it be a hell? Cannot men co-operate spontaneously? They cannot, says Hobbes, because they fundamentally distrust one another. Suppose I did not know what my neighbour was after, and suppose he were as strong as I was. He might intend to rob me or use me as his slave. I'd need a club to defend myself, though I was not planning to attack him myself. He, seeing my club, and not knowing what to expect of me either, would feel the need to forge a sword. For fear of the sword, I'd build great walls, and a cannon just in case. In no time, both of us would be occupied with protecting ourselves most of the time, says Hobbes, instead of producing something useful. We would have fallen into the Hobbesian Trap. And, where there are weapons and suspicion, war is inevitable. So freedom and distrust lead to waste and violence.

The fact that there are so many private guards in Guatemala shows that a large part of its resources go towards this unproductive business; if the state could handle it, a far lower number of policemen would be able to serve both me and my neighbour at the same time. (A complicating issue, and a reason why this probably isn't a good example of a Hobbesian Trap, is that the police are corrupt and fail to operate effectively; some parties probably even feel forced to protect themselves against the police.) Hobbes says everyone will fall into this trap where a strong state with a monopoly on violence is lacking.

A good example of a metaphorical Hobbesian Trap is an arms race, such as the one between America and the USSR, or Iran and Iraq during Saddam Hussein, or the countries of Europe prior to World War I. Note that a politician may abuse the Trap, by exploiting the distrust of his nation with regard to other nations in order to quell internal disagreement and strengthen his own position.

Consider also the Prisoner's Dilemma: the fact that one prisoner does not trust the other causes them both to make the wrong decision, resulting in a situation much worse for each than if they had worked together.

Theft causes shopkeepers, being forced to spend money on locks and security systems, to increase the prices of their wares. The thieves in turn then have to purchase at greater cost: they need the wares in any case, and the shopkeeper's security measures prevent them from stealing the wares. So both thieves and shopkeepers are worse off than if thievery didn't exist; but, if there were no security system, thievery would again pay off, etc. etc. This is not a pure example, since it is only the thief that is homini lupus—not the shopkeeper too, as it should be in a true Hobbesian Trap.

share|improve this answer
Love your answer, @Cerberus, except for the bit calling an arms race and the Iran-Iraq war a "Hobbesian trap." Can a massively coordinated arms race such as the Cold War, undertaken by the vast bureaucracies of 2 superpowers really be called Hobbesian? I don't think everything destructive and senseless need fall under that penumbra; to me, "Hobbesian" is more associated with pre-state societies and petty warlordism. E.g., more Mogadishu than Moscow. In fact, I think your examples, rather than being an exemplar of a Hobbesian trap, demonstrate the dangers of taking Hobbes' philosophy too far. – Uticensis Apr 18 '11 at 1:33
@Billare: I see your point. I agree that the organized, non-individual aspect of the parties in a global arms race is non-Hobbesian. The philosopher wasn't thinking of this when he described the war of all against all. Even so, the trap of mutual distrust causing violence is itself akin to the way Hobbes imagined individuals would act in anarchy; it is basically a metaphor, where a nation stands for a man and its arsenal for his club. It was in this metaphorical sense that the journalist intended it. Do you think such a metaphor would clash too much? I am not entirely uncharmed with it... – Cerberus Apr 18 '11 at 23:41
@Billare: In addition, I think Hobbes might feel that enduring war between the players of the global community of nations would be worse than having one great super power, dominating the others and thus preventing war. (He was probably not aware of the potentially pacifying effect of mutual assured destruction, as by the nuclear bombs of the Cold War.) – Cerberus Apr 18 '11 at 23:46

As I mentioned in my answer to a related question, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes loved the idea of an all-powerful state. And, you may or may not have previously heard of one of the most influential definitions of a state, given by the first political scientist, Weber, which describes it as as an entity with a "monopoly on violence." Therefore, Hobbes would have abhorred the idea a state without a monopoly on violence, with private security guards and such, because Hobbes regarded civilization as precious and easily lost -- a weak state, without a monopoly on violence, leads eventually to a failed state, then to power vacuum, then to anarchy, a trap that is quite hard for Man to extricate himself out of. And thus we get the Hobbesian trap.

share|improve this answer

This is probably a confusion for the phrase "Hobson's choice" - which basically means "take it or leave it".

As Wikipedia says:

On occasion, speakers and writers use the phrase "Hobbesian choice" instead of "Hobson's choice". They confuse the philosopher Thomas Hobbes with the relatively obscure Thomas Hobson. Notwithstanding that confused usage, the phrase, "Hobbesian choice" is historically incorrect.

share|improve this answer
When using Wikipedia, trust... but verify. – MT_Head Jun 14 '11 at 6:12

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.