Anthony de Jasay: Against Politics, reviewed by Alan Walters, in: The Guardian, February 19, 1998

This lucid and coolly argued book is, in a way, a logical (…) to Anthony de Jasay’s The State, long out of print. That book looked at the world from the state’s point of view, explaining the crowding out of civil society by government, ever more intense redistribution of income, and the effect on personal virtue and responsibility of the temptations of the welfare state. These results follow fairly predictably, if the stale, or rather the elite groups that compete to get hold of its commands, act in rational pursuit of their self-interest.

Are these perverse effects, and the latent adversarial relation between state and citizen, the necessary price to pay for civil society and a measure of security? Is submission to the power of collective choices the best individual strategy? Switching the viewpoint, in Against Politics Jasay tackles head-on the conventional argument that rational pursuit of individual self interest most destroy peaceful social cooperation. Failing a central enforcer standing above the citizenry – or so goes the standard argument along Hobbesian lines property and contract could not prevail over robbery and default.

A central argument of the hook is that while the activity of the state leads to the atrophy of the “muscles” of self-help and mutual help, its absence helps generate spontaneous cooperation and self-enforcing conventions that afford protection. In the natural conflicts of interests that are inherent in property and contract, one coalition attacks and another defends. The outcome depends on the balance of forces, which in turn depends on which is the more attractive coalition to join. Jasay argues cogently enough that coalitions which defend property and contracts are attractive. Hence a more productive, richer micro-order has always more to offer adherents. The perpetual redistribution of wealth, far from being the logical consequence of anarchy, can only prevail by way of the collective choice mechanism backed by the monopoly of state power.

A feature of Jasay’s themes is that he deduces the emergence of conventions of civility, respect for life, limb and property and the keeping of reciprocal promises from the ice-cold, unsentimental working of rational individual interest. He does not seek to deny that affection and solidarity are potent social forces. His concern is to show that social cooperation is robust enough to function even if they were absent.

A number of particular theses stand out. Only a very restricted area of political action can be judged strictly rational; collective choice offers almost limitless scope for free riding, the dissociation of benefits from the burdens that must be borne to produce them an agreed choice mechanism, such as democracy makes collective decisions dangerously easy, too tempting to make on any dubious balancing of pros and cons – liberties should not be confused with rights, for to be “for” rights is to be for the corollary obligations that weigh on others who must carry the burdens that exercise of the rights implies. And if we grant rights to some, we must impose on others the corresponding burdens.

All in all; this book Is a bold attack on the conventional wisdom of social philosophy. Instead of providing same new model of politics and ways of making it better, Jasay poses the fundamental question of its necessity and its morality. t do not know whether he will convert many of his fellow philosophers, but I do feel it would be wrong simply lo look the other way and pass on without reflecting on his arguments.

Against Politics is free of jargon, accessible to most general readers, written with clarity and simplicity. The logic is built up brick by brick, and the prose is elegant. Remarkably, Jasay retrains from making the usual case against politics – that it is bureaucratic, wasteful, blundering and corrupted by power. He is not concerned with the abuse, for the contends, with Edmund Burke, that “the Thing, the Thing itself is the abuse”.

(…) The Women’s Press, however, is struggling against gender stereotypes as diggedly as ever: for the best window display marking their 20th anniversary, the sisters promise two crates of Budweiser.

What is it with fat men at the moment? Julie Myerson’s new novel Me and the Fat Man is due shortly, while the paperback of Helen Dunntore’s Love of Fat Men and Helen (“Dirty Weekend”) Zahavi’s Donna and the Fat Man will both be published in May. The Loafer is embarking on a lengthy series of investigative lunches to discover the reason for this new literary trend.