Anthony de Jasay: Against Politics, reviewed by Charles Richardson, Routledge, 1997

Against Politics

Liberals, conservatives, pragmatists, libertarians, ‘classical liberals’ and others can all agree, at times, on reducing the power of the state in some or other respect. Everyone accepts that reduction in the power of government is at least sometimes desirable. But what is bound to stir controversy in any circle is the claim that the state itself can and should be dispensed with. This is the claim that Anthony de Jasay sets out to defend in this lively and important collection of papers.

For most people, the existence of the state is simply taken for granted. Anarchism was once a powerful political movement, but its violent tactics last century brought it into disrepute and it has not had much of a run anywhere since the Spanish Civil War. Even among political philosophers, at least until about 30 years ago, justification of the state was not taken seriously as a problem. The radicalism and intellectual ferment of the 1960s, however, brought new life to political philosophy. In 1970, Robert Paul Wolff set off something of a new debate by arguing that government power necessarily infringes individual autonomy – an argument which in its own terms seems to be unanswerable.

Wolff’s left-wing anarchism found echoes among proponents of the free market; Murray Rothbard (1970, 1973), Linda and Morris Tannehill (1970), and David Friedman (1973) all defended the possibility of doing without government and providing protection services on the market. This position was taken seriously enough to receive an extended reply by Robert Nozick in his landmark Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974; compare Wolff 1977), although it had been earlier and more summarily dismissed by Ayn Rand (1964).

Since then the literature on the subject has blossomed, joined by public choice economists, game theorists, ‘law and economics’ specialists, as well as more traditional, historically-minded political philosophers. But the debate is still a rarefied one, and the genuine advocates of a stateless society constitute a rare species. Why is the case for the state so often allowed to pass without argument?

It seems to me that justifications for the state, when they are offered (and leaving aside what David Lewis in another context (1986: 133) calls ‘the incredulous stare’), fall into the following categories:

Mystical justifications – the state is necessary because it embodies the divine will, or the legitimate monarch, or the objective moral law, or some such. Rand’s claim that government is ‘the instrument of objectivity in human relationships’ (1964: 114) fits into the same category. In the cold light of the late twentieth century, these justifications have a somewhat risible quality, and need not detain us further.

Idealist justifications – the state is needed to realise some abstract ideal that society should be committed to. The ancients talked about promoting ‘virtue’; some modern conservatives still talk along these lines, but ‘equality’ is now a more popular suggestion. Whatever the alleged purpose, the forcible commitment of all to a common ideal is fundamentally illiberal. As de Jasay says, ‘the content and drift of political philosophy depend to no small extent on whether it admits the concept of the common good, or rules it out as gobbledygook’ (69).

The argument from force – because competing providers of physical force cannot be allowed, government has to exist as a monopoly supplier of force.

The public goods argument – in the absence of the state, vital public goods could not (or would not) be provided.

These last two arguments can get run together in the debate; it is sometimes taken for granted that the reason force has to be a monopoly is that it is a public good; the most basic of all public goods. De Jasay does not always avoid this confusion as clearly as he might (e.g. 123-124). But in fact the argument about the special nature of force is separate. Friedman (1973) is one who understands this; he addresses the arguments about the market supply of coercion first, and only refers to the public good problem in a later chapter when he comes to talk about national defence (a topic de Jasay unfortunately neglects).

Concern about force

No-one disputes that force is sometimes a necessary thing. It is required as an ultimate sanction against criminal opportunism, to deter and punish theft, rape, arson, and similar activities that threaten the peace of society. When people worry about supplying force on the market, however, their worry often is not that it will be undersupplied, but that there will be too much of it – that the mafia and other competing suppliers will turn our front yards into battlegrounds (this was Rand’s problem). I think there is little doubt that this is the most serious objection on the public mind; more than anything, such social chaos is what the term ‘anarchy’ conjures up.

Here de Jasay is on firm ground when he argues that government itself is ultimately lawless. He regards the social contract as a dangerous fiction; it obscures the fact that government, precisely because it commands overpowering force, is bound only by such constraints as it chooses to accept. In other words, the choice is not between force on an unconstrained market and force somehow magically constrained by constitutions or other devices. No constitution can be set in stone, and since the benefits of an expanding state are perceived as costless to the individual, the pressure is always towards expansion and redistribution. Some of de Jasay’s most depressing passages concern the inevitability of redistributionist coalitions forming and successively despoiling one another, at the expense of everyone’s long-term welfare (e.g. 83-88, 132-138).

Nor does de Jasay succumb to the popular idea that the provision of force is exempt from redistributionist concerns. Advocates of ‘minimal government’ implicitly claim that protection of person and property can be provided on some objective, impartial basis. But as de Jasay says,

No matter how austere a notion of ‘need’ for such goods we adopt, even a bare night-watchman service assuring public safety must involve collectively deciding who shall bear what part of the cost. Setting a global standard for the common benefit to be provided is, no less inevitably, a political matter with distributional consequences(132).

The argument from the special nature of force, however, is at least on the right track. Force is special; it is uniquely invasive in terms of free will and human autonomy. If our options are restricted by forcible inter-vention, our capacity to act freely is abrogated. But this argument cuts both ways: if force is such a dangerous thing, isn’t this all the more reason not to set up a monopoly specifically dedicated to it? After all, competing suppliers of force might at least restrain one another, but the state creates a whole profession in which success depends on one’s effectiveness at coercion.

All the more reason, too, that if Thomas Hobbes is right – if justified coercion, which we admit we cannot do without, really is a public good (or, putting it in the language of game theory, if its supply is a ‘Prisoners’ Dilemma,’ where the rational pursuit of competing interests leads to a suboptimal outcome) – then we are in a lot of trouble. Because, as de Jasay makes clear, if the public good problem prevents a private, voluntary solution to providing enforcement, then for exactly the same reasons it would prevent any effective limitation of government power. The state is just people, not ‘other’: if we cannot limit one another, we cannot limit our agents in the state either. So the redistributive state will grow without end – the dismal picture that he paints in the first half of the book.

However, all is not lost. As de Jasay argues in the second half of the book, and particularly in the long essay ‘Before Resorting to Politics,’ it is far from clear that contract enforcement is a public good. This is where recent results in game theory are particularly relevant. Axelrod (1984) showed experimentally that co-operation can in fact emerge over time, even in conditions that (taken in isolation) look like Prisoners’ Dilemmas, because people have an interest in continued co-operation from others in the future. Conventions can become established which provide for reciprocal co-operation.

Later writers (Taylor 1976, Sugden 1986, Schmidtz 1991) have extended these conclusions to the basic organisation of society. De Jasay follows them in arguing that ordered anarchy is a possibility, because life in fact is not much like a prisoners’ dilemma. He is suitably scathing about those who think it is – ‘To a practising business man, the idea of dealing with nameless unknowns must be nigh incomprehensible’ (210). Analysing in their simplest form the ‘property problem’ (how to get people to respect property rights) and the ‘contract problem’ (how to get them to keep their promises), he argues that the second is more fundamental: ‘if contracts can be relied on, any other convention can be made enforceable, for compliance can be contracted for’ (206).

De Jasay concludes that, in the small group, the benefits of contract enforcement can be internalised and it will be provided as a private good. He then applies this result to society at large. But what about the large group problem, which is supposed to rule out this sort of extrapolation? Nonsense, says de Jasay. Large groups are not homogenous, they are collections of small groups. Here, although he does not stress the point, lies the importance of the institutions of civil society and the networks of individuals that promote cooperation: a role for social capital.

Public Goods Again

What about other public goods? It’s hard to believe they are the main reason for public support for the state; a public that will tolerate competing police forces will probably tolerate, say, competing water suppliers. But economists may quibble, arguing that even if the enforcement problem is solved privately, huge transaction costs may still require coercion to supply some other public goods at a desirable level.

At this point many libertarians have been misled by a failure to distinguish two questions: roughly, ‘what should be done’ and ‘who should do it.’ A libertarian who defends some new law – for example, new mechanisms to protect the rights of children – may find it hard to answer the charge, ‘But how can you support new laws? You don’t believe in government at all!’ Libertarians have to learn that it is perfectly coherent to reply, ‘This is a problem that requires the use of enforcement, so whoever is making the laws should be doing something about it. In our society, that happens to be government. Sure, I believe that ideally it wouldn’t be government, it would be the market, but that’s another story.’

Instead, libertarians often deny that genuine public goods exist. De Jasay equivocates on this point – he insists, rightly, that being a public good is a matter of degree; Hayek is criticised for ‘accept[ing] the textbook division of the universe of goods and services into two exogenously determined halves, public and private’ (124). But it seems wrong to argue that it is (therefore?) a matter of decision. He therefore fails to give due regard (despite a passing mention on 171) to the argument that the state is necessary because there are public goods – relief of poverty would be one candidate – whose provision by any means other than large-scale coercion is, due to transaction costs, hopelessly inefficient.

This argument doesn’t in fact convince me, but it needs to be addressed, perhaps by tools other than those de Jasay uses. One route would be by stressing the moral importance of personal autonomy, or what are (misleadingly) called ‘natural’ rights.
(De Jasay notes the importance of deontological morality here, although it may be that he gives utilitarianism unduly short shrift). Complementary arguments might come from the work of public choice economists, who, by studying how government really works, have exposed the idiocy, even in its own terms, of most of the state’s activity. The result might be the acceptance of small-scale coercion (i.e. by non-monopolisitc agencies) to provide public goods, justified by some sort of hypothetical contract argument.

One reason de Jasay doesn’t take the public good argument as seriously as I think he should is that he is resolutely opposed to making interpersonal comparisons of utility. Much of economic reasoning, not to mention reasoning about a hypothetical social contract, is to him therefore simply meaningless. But this attitude strikes me as far too precious. We make such comparisons all the time; no doubt roughly, no doubt incompletely, no doubt without a solid theoretical basis (but how many other sorts of empirical judgements could we say that about!). A theory that tells us that all statements of the form ‘X gained more from that transaction than Y did’ are just meaningless is unacceptable.


Despite the room for disagreement on such points, this is an extremely rich and fruitful book. De Jasay is sometimes wrongheaded: his analysis of rights versus liberties (158-171) is interesting but, in my view, will not hold water. He can also be, shall we say, grumpy – some of his rhetoric has an elitist or undemocratic tone to it, and his constant carping about redistribution tires after a while.

Moreover, the second half of the book at least partly contradicts the first. By refuting the arguments (such as the large group problem) that purported to show ordered anarchy to be impossible, he throws some doubt on his own arguments to the effect that limited government is impossible. If we can enforce contracts privately against one another, maybe we can use some of the same techniques to enforce them against the state, and construct institutions that would effectively limit its power? Then again, if we really can do without the state, why would we bother just trying to limit it? As David Friedman (1973:147) says, ‘Anarchy at least might work; limited govern-ment has been tried.’