Society Without A State
AGAINST POLITICS: ON GOVERNMENT, ANARCHY, AND ORDER
Anthony de Jasay
London: Routledge, 1998, 256 pgs.
Anthony de Jasay is one of the few genuinely original thinkers in contemporary political
philosophy. Like James Buchanan,
he begins from the public-choice approach. Unlike his eminent colleague, he endorses full
To do so, he must confront a formidable obstacle. Most members of the public choice school
contend that a state is
necessary: they view libertarian anarchists such as Murray Rothbard as idle dreamers. The
starting point of the school is
self-interested rational actors. All social institutions, the school holds, must be explained in terms
of individuals' choices.
Absent a state, why would I ever keep an agreement I had made with you to do something
for you in the future, in return for
your present payment? A familiar argument from game theory shows that in many
circumstances, defection pays. Only an
external agency of coercion, the state, can enable a system of social cooperation to get off the
Against this popular view, Mr. de Jasay deploys an ingenious argument. If we cannot trust
rational individuals to keep their
agreements, why should we trust the state to exercise its job of enforcement as rational actors
intend? The agents of the state
are themselves self-interested actors, no more altruistic than anyone else.
"It is crucial to the understanding of the putative resolution of the dilemma of contract [by an
external agent]." Mr. de Jasay
writes, "that while an enforcing agent can, under certain conditions, enable the parties to pass
non-cooperative to (conflictually) cooperative games by entering into binding commitments, the
interaction between the
agent and either party remains a two-person non-cooperative game. Nothing proves the
possibility of a binding contract
between the parties and enforcing agent; there is no meta-agent that could, and would, enforce
this contract" (pp. 18-19).
I have included this long quotation to give readers a taste of Mr. de Jasay's style. He is a
rigorous thinker, whose work
demands close attention. And it appears that our author will have to exercise all his rigor and
ingenuity to extricate himself
from a predicament. Most public-choice theorists, to reiterate, argue that a state is needed to
enforce contracts. Mr. de Jasay
argues that a state will not solve the difficulty: an agreement to form a state will give rise to the
same problems its
establishment was supposed to resolve.
Has not our author printed himself into a corner? If individuals cannot enter into enforceable
contracts, and the state cannot
do so either, what is left? Are rational actors doomed to a Hobbesian war of all against all?
Our author discovers an escape. It is the initial argument of the public-choicers that is at
fault. Contrary to James Buchanan
and many lesser eminences, it is sometimes rational for self-interested agents to enter into
binding contracts, and to keep
them, without the aid of an external agent. No state is needed to generate law enforcement and
other public goods.
How can this be? The argument to the contrary appears ironclad. Suppose I offer to trade you
one of my apples for one of
your oranges. Should you be dense enough to fork over your orange, why should I now give up
my apple? If I do not, I shall
have both an apple and an orange.
You, of course, are in fact no such dolt as our conjecture supposes. You realize what will
happen and do not surrender your
orange. Thus, no exchange at all takes place, even though, by hypothesis, each of us would have
been better off had we been
able to carry through this simple act of barter. For supposedly rational agents, we have not done
very well. But how is the
dilemma to be escaped?
Mr. de Jasay maintains that the argument just given errs by taking bargains one at a time.
True enough, if only one exchange
between two persons takes place, it will be rational for each to violate the terms of an agreement
to exchange goods.
Take the money and run! You won't be seeing your trading partner again. If, however, we do
not confine our attention to
single exchanges, "one-shot prisoner's dilemmas" as the trade jargon has it, the situation looks
entirely different. If you
think it likely that you will be involved in a series of exchanges with someone, then it is indeed
rational for you to keep your
promises. If you do not, others will not make contracts with you in the future. The "rational"
contractors we have imagined,
who always find promise-breaking in their interest, are in fact short-sighted.
Further, if it is rational to keep bargains, why do we need a state? Our author's earlier
argument has shown that if
agreements cannot be enforced, the state cannot help: his new argument shows that one does not
need a state to enforce
contracts. Why then establish one? It is either unneeded or futile. (Of course, if one is established
through agreement, de
Jasay's second argument seems to show that this agreement can also be kept.)
I am inclined to believe, but am not at all sure, that Mr. de Jasay's argument that the state is
superfluous is correct, on the
assumptions he sets forward. It all depends, it seems to me, on what view one takes about the
force of the backward
induction paradox under uncertainty. Fortunately for readers, I am not going to explain this, in
large measure because I
doubt my own grasp of the issues. Suffice it to say that, given his starting point, Mr. de Jasay
makes a good case.
But is his starting point the best one to adopt? Mr. de Jasay attempts to derive all human
institutions, to reiterate, from the
behavior of rational self-interested actors. In particular, ethical principles, on this view, are not
true in themselves: they
must be derived from self-interested behavior that does not presuppose them.
If, then, I do not steal your wallet, I refrain not because I see that theft is intrinsically wrong.
Rather, I see that it is in my
self-interest to bind myself to a rule against theft, provided that enough others do the same.
This view rests squarely on ethical skepticism. If ethical principles are true, then the question
of belief does not depend on
self-interest. Just as I believe that "2+2=4" because I see that it is true, so, I should contend, I
accept "theft is wrong"
because I see that it is true.
Mr. de Jasay rejects this sort of ethical rationalism. In his view, no interpersonal agreement
can be reached on "value
judgments." We can ask whether value judgments are consistent; but the individual value
judgment, as such, is incapable of
being assessed by reason. "It is perfectly possible for me to share your value judgments, but it is
compelling for you to share mine, never a matter of straight practical inference, and never a bow
to the rules of rationality"
Mr. de Jasay's skepticism appears to land him in another predicament. He strongly supports
the free market; but on his own
view of ethics, why should anyone with value judgments of a different kind from his care about
this? If I have authoritarian
value judgments, why should I not try to impose them on Mr. de Jasay? From an objective point
of view, these value
judgments are no better, and no worse, than his own.
As you might expect, Mr. de Jasay has an ingenious response. In a situation where value
judgments clash, we should adopt
a position of "moral minimalism." Is it not reasonable to assume that we should be free to act as
we like, provided that I
harm no one else? If I do not care for Mr. de Jasay's writing style, the burden of proof is on me to
show that he must change
it. If I cannot do so, he is free to write as he wishes.
I cannot think that this proposal solves the difficulty posed by conflicting value judgments.
Let us grant him his premise that
you are at liberty to do something unless it can be shown that you are required not to do it. It
does follow that you have a
liberty-right to perform the act in question. That supposes that everyone else has an obligation
not to interfere with you.
And to show this requires showing that their liberties may be restricted. At most, our author
shows that while absent
argument to the contrary, I am free to act as I like, others are also free to try to stop me. That may
be acting as they like.
Agree with him or not, one can always learn a great deal from the work of Anthony de Jasay.
As Mr. N. Stephan Kinsella
has noted, Mr. de Jasay is a master of criticism; perusers of his essays on Karl Popper and F.A.
Hayek in this collection will
encounter a polemicist of formidable gifts. Let us hope he does not see this review: if he does, I
am in for it.