Nederland, Colorado. A town in Boulder County that had embraced marijuana dispensaries for profit, found itself just outside a wildfire that burned 600 acres in July, 2016. Two homeless men were charged with fourth-degree arson for failing to put out their camp fire. The townsfolk reacted in anger, pointing to the increasing number of homeless people in the nearby national forest. Officials had been forced to deal with “more emergency calls, drug overdoses, illegal fires and trash piles deep in the woods.” Some residents urged the U.S. Forest Service to crack down on the homeless by imposing tighter rules on camping, or banning it altogether in certain parts of the woods most popular with the homeless. An analysis drawing on the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, a seventeenth-century English philosopher can be employed to reveal a broader perspective on the problem.
In his masterpiece, Leviathan, Hobbes theorizes that people in the state of nature once made a social contract wherein they ceded their political freedom to a sovereign, who could forestall civil strife and war. Self-preservation is the dominate motive here. In agreeing to give up some freedom to a system of laws and police, agreeing to be bound by them, people believe themselves more likely to survive.
Social-contract theory more generally is not limited to the political dimension. In living in society, people agree to give up some of their economic self-sufficiency that comes from living off the land. Economic interdependence comes from specialization of labor, trade, and even the use of money. In an economy, people are interrelating parts rather than being wholly self-sufficient. As recessions and the loss of particular industries demonstrate, being a part in an economy is not necessarily best for a person’s self-preservation.
Therefore, it is hardly surprising that people for whom the socio-economy—a system of interdependence—does not make self-preservation more assured would head to a forest to live off the land. The homeless in the national forest near Nederland can hardly be blamed for doing what is necessary to survive. Hobbes maintained that people have the right (of self-preservation) to fight off execution even though the punishment is issued by a sovereign who rightly holds all political (and theological) power.
To be sure, a state of nature in a forest located next to a modern society may be inherently problematic. That one homeless man camping long-term in the national forest outside of Nederland asked a forest official when the trash would be picked up points to the problems entailed—problems that would not exist were we all in the state of nature. If modern society can no longer tolerate people living in the state of nature, then places must be found for the extricated humans within the socio-political economy consistent with their self-preservation.
In the E.U., the operative principle is solidarity. Social policy is the typical means by which governments implement the principle wherein self-preservation is taken to be a human right that a society is obligated to protect. In the U.S., the principle is scant—eclipsed perhaps by that of economic liberty within interdependence. Hence, the safety net within American society has gaps. It is only natural for people falling through them—for whatever reason—to seek self-preservation outside of society. It is also natural for people accustomed to the safety in society to fear the human landscape outside of society, where liberties given up in society are taken back up. These liberties are feared by the people in society as they have given them up in exchange for safety. Therefore, we can see, using Hobbes’ theory, that it is in the interest of the residents of Nederland to petition the government of Colorado to accommodate the forest people back in society rather than continue to fight their nearby presence by pushing them further away from society.
1. Jack Healy, “As Homeless Find Refuge in Forests, ‘Anger is Palpable’ in Nearby Towns,” The New York Times, August 21, 2016.