At my current residence, my landlord issued a warning that he would fine $20 to every apartment in our complex for cleaning up cigarette butts on the sidewalk in front of the entrance to my apartment complex. Cigarette butts are a common thing to find on any sidewalk in a city, but I can understand a landlord wishing to keep its property litter-free. Yet, the problem I have with this possible fine is I do not smoke; therefore, I have nothing to do with cigarette butts being discarded onto the sidewalk. So there are two possible actions I can take if this fine is imposed: I could take the Hobbesian route and pay the fine because it is unjust to go against the sovereign (in this case, the landlord) or I could take Locke’s advice by opposing the sovereign and an unjust statute.
According to Hobbes, he would say I would have to pay this clean-up fine, regardless of how responsible I am for it. In my situation, I have entered a social contract with my landlord in the form of a residential lease. The only section of my lease that remotely justifies the clean-up fine is, “Tenants also shall maintain the Premises in a neat and orderly manner.” So even if my lease does not say that my landlord has a right to fine me, he is still in the right according to Hobbes because it was I who signed a contract putting the landlord into a position of power, “there can happen no breach of covenant on the part of the sovereign,” (Hobbes 176). Hobbes is saying that the sovereign is unable to break a contract because only the people who placed the sovereign into power are in a position to break a contract. In addition, Hobbes would say that I would have no right to object from paying the $20 because, “being thereby bound by covenant, to own the actions, and judgments of one, cannot lawfully make a new covenant, amongst themselves,” (Hobbes 175-176). This means that it would be unjust for me to approach the landlord and claim myself to be exempt from the fine no matter how innocent I am. In a Hobbesian setting, the only solution would to be to keep my original covenant and pay the fine.
On the other hand, Locke claims that I should not pay the clean-up fine. By Locke’s terms, the landlord in my situation is using arbitrary power, or governing without settled laws (Locke 323) because there is no writing in my lease that claims that the landlord has a right to charge every apartment a fine for the clean-up of a public space. As Locke claims, “the ruling power ought to govern by declared and received laws, and not by extemporary dictates and undetermined resolutions,” (Locke 324). Consequently, my landlord is no position to charge me $20 because the landlord should only take actions outlined in our contract. In addition, Locke would also suggest that it would be right for me to stand up against the landlord and to not pay the $20. Locke says that people have a right to rebel if an authority changes the laws, and the people have a right to rebel, “when either the legislative is changed, or the legislators act contrary to the end for which they were constituted, those who are guilty are guilty of rebellion,” (Locke 347). Not only is it my right to rebel the fine, but Locke is saying that it is fault of the landlord for me to rebel in the first place by creating this fine.
Both Hobbes and Locke both have several convincing points in their arguments that could dictate my action if this $20 fine of cleaning up cigarette butts is charged upon me. Which side would I choose in this situation? Locke’s side would be an easy choice because not only would it keep me $20 richer, but mostly because the power to fine for cleaning public space is not outlined in our contract. Yet, Hobbes does make a point that I agreed to put the landlord in a position of power over me. Regardless, this situation shows how the different ideals of Locke and Hobbes can be implemented at many levels of modern society.
Hobbes, Thomas. “Leviathan.” Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. Ed. David Wooton. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2008. 116-277.
Locke, John. “Second Treatise of Government.” Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. Ed. David Wooton. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2008. 285-353.