Josiah Tucker - Wikipedia

I’ve mentioned Josiah Tucker some years back, a sadly neglected and obscure political and economic thinker who lived in the late 18th century. Generally considered on the side of the Whigs and political liberals, however he charted a middle path between Filmer, the political philosopher well known for his “Patriarcha” and defence of the divine right of kings, and Locke for his social contract theory. His main thoughts on political order could be found in his work “A Treatise Concerning Civil Government in Three Parts”. In his first part he extensively critiques Locke and his followers concerning the origins of civil government. It is his second part, where he proposes his own conception, which would concern us here.

Tucker procedure parallels that of Locke in that he does not proport to begin with the actual historical origins of civilisation but with an abstraction. However, he does not begin, as Locke does, with a “state of nature”, an original position where fair and equal persons can bargain with one another to arrive at a social contract. Rather, he follows the procedures of economics and begins with a sort of abstract model which strips the parties and agencies of their particularities to get a certain fundamental human traits, like the “economic man” operating ceteris paribus.

Tucker asks us to imagine that God, instead of creating Adam and Eve, created 100 people instead. What features would they have? First, they would be born with certain innate “natural” desires and capacities, e.g. the ability to communicate with one another, (maybe something like Chomsky’s thesis that our brains are encoded with a language from the start), that they are naturally gregarious, people innately *want* to associate with each other and seek the company of others, but most crucially, they would be endowed with different talents and skills.

In this village, it is very soon discovered that some people are better at doing some things than others. Thus, for the people in this village to satisfy all their wants, there would, inevitably, arise a natural division of labour as some people specialise in certain tasks over others, so that they can provide each other with a variety of goods which they cannot produce themselves. The people providing it are driven by natural affections to help one another, the pleasure of seeing others satisfied, the people receiving it are driven by the natural affection for gratitude whereby they will return the favour with goods of their own, or if they had no goods, by promises of service. (Indeed as Christ said, even the heathens know how to be good to those who were good to them.)

Political hierarchy and authority as such arises *naturally* from this basic division of labour, and this sense of gratitude which those receiving such services will feel towards their “benefactors”. Long before the Iron Law of Oligarchy, Tucker already observes that in every organisation, from the smallest parish to the greatest law making bodies, an elite with certain skills at leadership would arise:

//… there is found to exist in Human Nature a certain Ascendency in some, and a Kind of submissive Acquiescence in others. The Fact itself, however unaccountable, is nevertheless so notorious that it is observable in all Stations and Ranks of Life, and almost in every Company. For even in the most paltry Country Village, there is generally speaking, what the French very expressively term, Le Coque de Village: – A Manm who takes the Lead, and becomes a kind of Dictator to the rest. Now, whether this arises from a Consciousness of greater Courage or Capacity – or from a certain overbearing Temper, which assumes Authority to dictate and command, – or from a greater Address, that is, from a Kind of instinctive Insight into the Weakness and blind Sides of others, – or from whatever Cause, or Causes, it matters not. For the Fact itself, as I said before, is undeniable, however difficult it may be to account for it. And therefore here again is , another Instance of great Inequalities in the original Powers and Faculties of Mankind: – Consequently this natural Subordination (if I may so speak) is another distinct Proof, that there was a Foundation deeply laid in Human Nature for the political Edifices of Government to be built upon; – without recurring to, what never existed but in Theory, universal, social compacts, and unanimous elections.//

Thus, contra Locke, Tucker does not believe in the need for representative governments, social contracts, elections, etc, etc, to ground political authority. Political authority arises from a natural division of labour whereby those with skills and talents at leadership will “naturally” assume command, others, out of gratitude for services rendered at organisation or protection, will “naturally” submit. Tucker is willing to call this a “quasi-contract” in a sense that there is a give and take which arises from natural relations, but he is adamant that this political relation is not the product of explicit elections or contracts.

(To make a slight detour, we can think of this as what Chinese Law calls “Civil Juristic Relations”. Broadly modelled on German law and Continental Systems, Civil Juristic Relations are quasi-contractual relationships which people can form with each other. It is like a contract in that these civil relationships are formed by the people themselves rather than the government, but it is not not a contract because it could be formed unilaterally by just one party, and is much more expansive in its scope in that it is not tied strictly to merely economic or commercial relationships as common law contract law is. Contract law, on this conception, is a *subset* of civil juristic relations in that it involves two parties and is normally commercial in nature. Thus, a leader could, unilaterally, promise to render some sort of service to the masses, while naturally he cannot unilaterally oblige them to obey him, the people would initially go along with the leader, but upon receiving the services promised, whether victory in war or in economics, may decide on their part to pledge and promise fealty and loyalty from hereon. Thus, not a contract in the common law sense of having hammered out an agreement at the beginning promising and exchange of goods and services, but I think would better fit the Continental/Chinese “Civil Juristic Acts” conception in that different parties can unilaterally make promises at different stages of the evolution of civic relations. Tucker himself would later discuss the “Gothic Constitution” of the British political order so I think this is the correct lens to understand this.)

An objection which Tucker addresses is that, if his conception is correct, then a political order can only be maintained by great leaders and geniuses of the first rate, and that we cannot have any authorities unless we get a succession of Caesars. Tucker’s response here is brilliant and deserves a quote in full:


“ACCORDING to the foregoing Hypothesis, the higher Powers in every Country should be Heroes of the first Magnitude;—or if not Heroes in War, they should at least be endowed with the greatest Genius, the most distinguished and useful Talents in the Arts of Peace. For we are told, that it is their Superiority of natural Endowments, which, like Water finding its Level, laid the Foundation of Civil Government. Whereas, were we to turn from this ideal Perfection, to the plain, simple Fact, we shall find that few of the ruling Powers, especially crowned Heads, are wiser, or better, or braver, or more usefully employed than other Mortals. Moreover, according to the foregoing Representation of the Matter it should also follow, That on the Demise of any of these super-eminent, exalted Beings, a Kind of Dissolution, or at least a Suspension of Government ought to ensue, ’till another Non-pareil could be found out, in order to fill [worthily and properly] the vacant Throne.”


THIS Objection, smart and plausible as it may appear, is wholely grounded on a Mistake, which being removed, the Objection vanishes. The Mistake is this, That what was necessary, or expedient at first, must continue to be necessary, or expedient ever after. Whereas the Course of Nature in almost every Instance plainly proves the contrary.

SIR ISAAC NEWTON and Mr. BOYLE had most extraordinary natural Talents and Sagacities in their respective Provinces; which they improved by almost incessant Industry and Application. Their Discoveries in Astronomy, Mathematics, Optics, Natural Philosophy, Mechanics, Chemistry, &c. &c. &c. are wonderfully great and curious. But doth it follow, that every Man must have the Genius of a BOYLE, a NEWTON, in order to be benefited, or enlightened by their Discoveries? And now, that they have led the Way, may not Men of very moderate Capacities, be able to tread in their Steps? Nay I will go farther, and even ask, may not an illiterate Mechanic [illiterate, comparatively speaking] by Dint of mere Use and Practice, and by the Advantage of having good Models before his Eyes;—may not even such an one be able to construct, or to manage some of their most curious Machines in a much better Manner than the great Philosophers themselves could have done, had they been alive? Surely he may: For nothing can be more obvious, than that the Man, who cannot invent, may nevertheless by Means of daily Use, and Habit, be able to improve on a former Invention, greatly to his own Advantage, and that of others.

THE Case in Politics is much the same; or rather it is a still stronger Confirmation of the foregoing Remark. For tho’ it may be necessary to have an Hero to found an Empire;—or [to come still nearer to the Plan of the preceding Chapter] tho’ it may at first require some extraordinary Efforts of an uncommon Genius, to form an Hundred Pair of independent Savages into a regular Community, and to bind them together with the Bonds of Civil Society,—yet when this is once done, and good Order and Harmony well established,—Things will then go on, in a Manner, of their own accord, if common Prudence be not wanting.


Nay, what is still more to our present Purpose, it is observeable, that great Geniusses are likely to do more Harm than Good, if there should happen to be a Succession of them in the same Government, for two, or three Generations. The active Spirits of such Men, and their excentric Dispositions will not suffer them to remain in a neutral State; so that they will certainly be employed either for the better, or for the worse. And as Ambition, and the Lust of Power are the reigning Vices of the Great, it is therefore but too probable, that they will become bad Neighbours to other States, in Proportion, as they shall have less Occasion for exerting their Abilitics at Home: Or if they should confine their Attention chiefly to their own Territories;—can it be a Doubt which Course they will take. Whether to encrease, or diminish the Privileges of their own Subjects?—In short. Woe be to the Country, which happens to be cursed with a successive Race of Heroes: Long Experience hath too fatally confirmed this Observation. And the Misfortune is, that the Subjects of these victorious Princes, are, generally speaking, so blinded with the Glare of Glory, and so intoxicated with the Fumes of Conquest, that they will be content to be enslaved themselves, provided they shall be so happy as to be employed in the glorious Work of enslaving others.—It must, I think, be allowed, that a Romulus was necessary to found Rome, and to bring that Set of Banditti, which he first drew together, into some Degree of Order and Regularity, by obliging them to submit to the Rules of Justice among themselves, and the Laws of Civil Government.—But after those good Ends were in Part accomplished, the mild, pacific Disposition, and the steady and temperate Conduct of a Numa, were much fitter to constitute a Successor, than the dangerous Abilities of another Romulus.//

Thus, he makes the very practical observation that not only is a stable polity one where the system should be able to function with man of moderate or modest talents at the helm, but also that people with “great spirit” are not able to function well in a stable society and their ambitions would tend to draw the nation into more wars and chaos than necessary. Napoleon may found a great empire but his very temperament and ambition however became his downfall when he was not content with his conquests and needed to subjugate more and more people until he was utterly ruined.

In conclusion, I think there is much to commend about Tucker’s “realist” theory of political order, it avoids I think the mythologisation of the reactionaries for a divine right of kings or patriarchs or whatever, while also the other liberal myth of Locke’s social contract hammered out between equals in some ideal state of nature. Rather, by economic reasoning and abstraction, he teases out the “natural” observable features of mankind and formulates a model which would explain the workings of political order, in that sense, it is a “realist” theory rather idealist. As such, I think his arguments and philosophy merits much closer attention and study.

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