While studying political philosophy in college, I often pondered: why should my preferences for liberty have to depend on philosophical principles rather than my personal will? Why should it not be sufficient simply to declare that I do not choose to be coerced by a political system? Such a proposition did not seem to me to be so out of the ordinary — after all, the marketplace operates on such voluntaristic assumptions with obvious success.
That inquiry led me to other questions, such as, “Why isn’t personal liberty the presumed condition in human society, with the burden of proof placed on those who would restrict it?” The “social contract” theorists’ answer that we have agreed to the state’s restrictions on our liberty rang hollow in the face of the tyrannical and butcherous regimes that had come to represent the modern world of nation-state politics.
To those who share this love for liberty, and who have likewise been troubled by such questions, Anthony de Jasay’s book will prove worthwhile. In a lucid and intellectually invigorating manner, he challenges the classic justifications that have been offered on behalf of state power: from social contract theory to the public goods and economies-of-scale rationales, he thoughtfully analyzes, and casts doubts on, the case for the authority of the state.
De Jasay’s explorations of the concept of “limited government” reveal an awareness of the difficulties inherent in all forms of collective behavior: namely, that “collective choice is never independent of what significant numbers of individuals wish it to be.” In any kind of political system — including a democratically constituted one — it is impossible for political authority to remain “limited” except by imposing on it a higher sovereign authority, whose own actions must, in turn, be supervised by an even higher sovereign power, ad infinitum. The United Nations, for example, has been given some measure of authority to control the excesses of nation-states, but what will control the United Nations?
“Limited government with popular sovereignty,” de Jasay tells us, “is precarious,” dependent on widespread acceptance of certain philosophical propositions. The case for liberty, in other words, is never stronger than the insistence by each of us that it be preserved. Liberty must crumble when its philosophical foundation does.
De Jasay has no sympathy for such traditional fictions as “the common good” as a basis for state power. Noting that “[n]ine-tenths of practical politics is the making of nonunanimous decisions by some, which hurt others,” he proceeds to explain how an alleged “common good” need not, in fact, “be good for, nor desired by, any individual, past, present, or future.” The result is social engineering, which he defines as “a series of political decisions making people allocate their efforts and wealth otherwise than they would if allowed to do it as they saw fit.” Even Hayek
comes in for criticism for his treatment of “public goods.” Hayek’s vision of “social order,” de Jasay explains, would make “the state’s place in society . . . ad hoc, open-ended, [and] indeterminate.”
In a politicized society that no longer distinguishes between positive law that is imposed by the state and common law that arises out of human customs, practices, and expectations, de Jasay’s resurrection of the distinction is not only refreshing, but essential to the case for nonpolitical systems of social order. The cult of state power appears to be in retreat in the minds of increasing numbers of people, and de Jasay’s analysis is most useful in sweeping aside the dust-laden assumptions and faithfully chanted doxologies on which such power has rested.
Economic and systems analysis, “chaos” theory, and a growing spiritual revulsion at what state collectivism has wrought in this century alone have combined to fuel a resurgent interest in the processes of “spontaneous” order. Such order depends on a concept of “rights created by voluntary contracts,” which, de Jasay tells us, are derived from property which, in turn, is not a “right . . . but a liberty to act upon owned objects.”
Those who understand the distinction between “rights” and “liberties,” and of how “property” and “liberty” are inextricably intertwined, will appreciate de Jasay’s analysis. To those who wish to challenge the foundations of all systems of collective authority, his book will be of great value in confronting the arguments that have been historically offered on behalf of such systems. The author’s title is, in the end, perfectly descriptive, for the book indeed makes the case against politics and in favor of liberty as the means of establishing order in human society.
Butler Shaffer is professor of law at Southwestern University School of Law.