Interviews with Anthony de Jasay

There are not a lot of (English) interviews with the social philosopher Anthony de Jasay. An hour-long spoken interview was conducted by Hartmut Kliemt in 2000 as part of Liberty Fund’s Intellectual Portrait Series.

In March 2010, the Gary Johnson for President blog featured a brief written interview with Anthony de Jasay – a surprising choice considering Jasay’s consistent pessimism about (electoral) politics and democracy.

During the summer of 2010, I conducted an extensive written interview with Anthony de Jasay about themes that are usually not treated in his writings, and asked him to further elaborate on existing themes. Topics covered in this interview include his motivation to produce social philosophy and commentary, contractarianism, philosophy of science, sovereign debt default, voting, neoclassical economics, David Hume, money, evolutionary psychology and rational choice, his own assessment of his (past) writings, and the effect of his poor eyesight on future projects. This interview is now available in the Fall 2011 issue of the Independent Review.

A close inspection of his answers in the Independent Review interview reveals a thorough pessimism about the prospect of legal and political strategies (or any social strategies) to contain the power of government. Jasay strongly objects to being classified as a contractarian, but his outlook on the inevitability of political coercion and exploitation indicates a rather bleak “Hobbesian” view of human nature – a tendency in his works that was also identified by Nobel laureate James M. Buchanan in the Anthony de Jasay festschrift Ordered Anarchy.

Anthony de Jasay sees himself mainly as a philosophical anarchist who questions the moral and economic legitimacy of the State. The best we can hope for is that making the case for “ordered anarchy” may increase the support for reducing, or at least not increasing, the State at the margin.

Strict contractarianism or anarchist conventionalism

The June 2011 issue of Economic Affairs features my review of Anthony de Jasay’s most recent collection of articles, Political Philosophy, Clearly: Essays on Freedom and Fairness, Property and Equalities.

As in all his works, in this book Anthony de Jasay uses a non-cognitivist knife to cut through all the incoherent, but influential, arguments about “fairness,” “rights,” and “the public good” that have been offered as a rationale for government.

As I note in my review, in this collection Jasay also offers his analysis of the State’s monopoly on the use of “legitimate force”, the taboo on “taking the law into one’s own hands” and its effects on crime. His analysis has similarities to what the paleo-conservative writer Samuel Francis has called “anarcho-tyranny”, a situation in which rules against violence, theft and vandalism are poorly enforced (or even deliberately ignored) but the coercive power of the state is used to engineer an egalitarian society and suppress freedom of speech.  Before Francis, these tendencies in modern liberalism were identified in James Burnham’s ‘Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism.

Until recently, I had a difficult time understanding Anthony de Jasay’s arguments against moral contractarianism. It seemed to me that Jasay could only conceive of contractarian arguments as arguments in favor of collective choice, ignoring thinkers such as the individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker and, more recently, Jan Narveson, who use a contractarian framework to argue against the state. But upon more closely inspecting Jasay’s (increasingly) Humean ideas on justice I think I have a better understanding of what his fundamental objections against the contractarian approach are.

An important key to his objections can be found in the following quote from his book The State:

People who live in states have as a rule never experienced the state of nature and vice-versa, and have no practical possibility of moving from the one to the other … On what grounds, then, do people form hypotheses about the relative merits of state and state of nature? …

Anthony de Jasay’s starting point in social philosophy are the spontaneously evolved rules that facilitate mutual benefit. These rules were not “established” through a one-time agreement but through an incremental process of mutual adjustment by individuals. A danger of all forms of moral contractarianism is that it shifts the locus from such spontaneously evolved rules to subjective and arbitrary debates about what the terms of hypothetical contracts should be. For example, if we cannot agree to the terms of a social contract because some participants want a more interventionist state, should the social contract exercise be considered a failure or can the parties that want the least government interference just proceed and consider that person “outside” of the social contract? It is hard to imagine how such a question can be answered in a satisfactory manner from within the contractarian framework without introducing some kind of meta-contractarian framework, which in turn… and so forth.

The philosopher David Gauthier has argued that agreements that do not satisfy certain conditions (his revised Lockean Proviso) might be unstable because some people will have a strong incentive to ignore or re-negotiate them. It is quite conceivable that social contracts that do not reflect mutual advantage are inherently unstable and will be pulled towards less government, but ultimately such questions about stability can only be answered empirically.

In light of Jasay’s preference for actual contracts, as opposed to hypothetical contracts, I have often been tempted to call Jasay’s position “strict contractarianism” or “strong contractarianism.” Obviously, strict contractarianism is inherently anarchist because there is no way that any government can be considered to be “agreed to” by all the parties (and their descendants) who are presumed to be obliged to it, either explicitly or tacitly. Is the difference between strict contractarianism and conventionalism just semantics then? There is an important element in Jasay’s thinking that cannot be incorporated by any kind of contractarian thinking, and that is his refusal to place himself outside of society (or in the “state of nature”) in an effort to determine what the ideal terms of social interaction should be. It might seem strange to present this as a virtue but it would not surprise me that it is exactly this attitude that gives rise to what we would call a free society.

Albert Jay Nock on the origin of the state

In his article “Anarchist’s Progress” the writer Albert Jay Nock dryly observes that many authors have speculated about the origins and legitimacy of the State but that few of them actually bothered to investigate how states come into being and survive.

So I set about finding out what I could about the origin of the State, to see whether its mechanism was ever really meant to work in any other direction; and here I came upon a very odd fact. All the current popular assumptions about the origin of the State rest upon sheer guesswork; none of them upon actual investigation. The treatises and textbooks that came into my hands were also based, finally, upon guesswork. Some authorities guessed that the State was originally formed by this-or-that mode of social agreement; others, by a kind of muddling empiricism; others, by the will of God; and so on. Apparently none of these, however, had taken the plain course of going back upon the record as far as possible to ascertain how it actually had been formed, and for what purpose. It seemed that enough information must be available; the formation of the State in America, for example, was a matter of relatively recent history, and one must be able to find out a great deal about it. Consequently I began to look around to see whether anyone had ever anywhere made any such investigation, and if so, what it amounted to.

I then discovered that the matter had, indeed, been investigated by scientific methods, and that all the scholars of the Continent knew about it, not as something new or startling, but as a sheer commonplace. The State did not originate in any form of social agreement, or with any disinterested view of promoting order and justice. Far otherwise. The State originated in conquest and confiscation, as a device for maintaining the stratification of society permanently into two classes — an owning and exploiting class, relatively small, and a propertyless dependent class. Such measures of order and justice as it established were incidental and ancillary to this purpose; it was not interested in any that did not serve this purpose; and it resisted the establishment of any that were contrary to it. No State known to history originated in any other manner, or for any other purpose than to enable the continuous economic exploitation of one class by another.

Nock’s observation still applies to much of what we call political philosophy. There is no shortage of ideas about what the State should do but there is little interest in what it actually does and how that might constrain what we can reasonably expect from it. Such an attitude would strike us as an odd approach in science but when the topic involves human interaction strange assumptions about the malleability of humans and institutions guide the mind.

Nock’s complete article is available here.

Anthony de Jasay on liberalism, democracy and conventions

Despite losing his eyesight, Anthony de Jasay still publishes some of the most thought-provoking papers in social philosophy. In a recent article for the Institute of Economic  Affairs, de Jasay inspects the foundations of liberalism and observes that:

In contrast to made law whose legitimacy is ultimately hypothetical, vulnerable to logic and cannot be confirmed, rules that arise spontaneously have the great strength of being immune to problems of legitimacy…The liberal principle of ownership is neither derived from nor enforced by any authority. Its content is a set of liberties the owner may employ, notably the liberty of use, usufruct, contract and disposition.

Building on these Humean concepts of justice, de Jasay is clear that liberalism, properly conceived, is not compatible with government and political democracy:

The term ‘liberal democracy’ has in recent decades become the standard way to refer to the liberal form of government. The first principles of liberalism are fully compatible only with ordered anarchy, a spontaneously emerging framework of conventional rules. Even imperfectly liberal orders are biased towards small government. Democracy has historically been associated with a dynamic, expansionary area of collective choice, in the shape of big government. Coupling ‘liberal’ and ‘democracy’ could hardly be more incongruous than ‘smallbig government’….Whether by conviction or by dire need, democratic governments are condemned by political competition constantly to press against the frontier that divides individual from collective choices. They must willy-nilly swallow up and regurgitate a part of the resources produced by society, a part large enough to attract a winning coalition in the face of competition by rivals similarly seeking to form a winning coalition.

In his recent publications de Jasay more explicitly contrasts the role of conventions with government-made law and contractarian approaches to justice. In one of his strongest essays to date, “Fairness as Justice,” he critically reviews game theorist Ken Binmore’s book Natural Justice and highlights the difference between bargaining and conventions and its consequences for the doctrine of fairness:

While bargaining solutions presuppose an intent to agree, conventions are adhered to without anybody agreeing with anybody else. Nobody intends to initiate them. They may be imagined to start from some random bunching of behaviour into a patterned subset within a patternless set of behaviour of the population…Justice in compliance with spontaneously emerging self-enforcing rules supersedes unenforced considerations of fairness; it does all the work in its sphere and leaves none over for fairness.

“Fairness as Justice” is included in Anthony de Jasay’s most recent collection of essays, Political Philosophy Clearly: Essays On Freedom And Fairness, Property And Equalities.

Anything that’s peaceful

Libertarians spend a non-trivial amount of time arguing for the obvious. At best, such arguments are redundant because there is no widespread believe that violence or threats of violence are a good thing. At worst, these debates hurt the prospects for a society with less violence because theories about the existence of  “natural rights” are rightly a source of  ridicule. The idea that “rights” just exist out there in the world without actual individuals engaging in contracts to establish rights is not going to persuade anyone with a sober mind.  In that sense, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard and the (early) Robert Nozick did not do the renaissance of classical liberalism a favor.

A similar problem is encountered with terms like “liberty” and “freedom.” There have been extensive debates about the meaning of liberty as if there is a God-given “real” meaning of the word that just lies out there waiting to be discovered. Many libertarians would argue that we should seek a free society. But as Anthony de Jasay has noted, “The question of whether freedom is valuable or a free society is good ought not to enter at all into a properly thought-out political doctrine, liberal or other. It should be resolutely ignored. Whichever way the question were answered would, it seems to me, inevitably steer us in a teleological direction, and undermine the foundations on which the society that we could consider free might stand and survive. ”

“Consequentialist” libertarians have rejected the emphasis of “moralist” libertarians on (absolute) rights and liberty and have argued for evaluating public policies in light of their consequences. Liberty founder R.W. Bradford (1947-2005) repeatedly held the moralist libertarians responsible for the poor acceptance of libertarianism.  But it is hard to see why conventional consequentialist libertarianism would do much better. Most people do not come into this world seeking to optimize some kind of social welfare function or overall efficiency. In this sense consequentialist libertarianism is even further removed from reality – a point that has been well recognized by former utilitarians like Jan Narveson.

A small minority of libertarians have hopes of reconciling egoism and libertarianism. These authors often spend considerable time making the case for ethical egoism. For people who tend to look at such questions from the perspective of empiricism and modern science such investigations are rather excessive. The interesting question is not so much whether there are objective moral truths but what happens when people who have left such beliefs behind interact.  This question can be approached from a Hobbesian perspective or from an evolutionary perspective. But what often is discovered is a general desire to discourage and prohibit violence.

It is not likely that Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard will be remembered for their breakthroughs in moral philosophy but what these authors have in common is their identification of classical liberalism with non-aggression. This re-conceptualization of classical liberalism has been an important breakthrough because it enables to see things like “regulation” and “public policy” in fairly non-ambiguous physical terms. If one strips away all the rhetoric about “rights” and “democracy” one is left with a State that mostly engages in violence and threats of violence against peaceful people. One of the major contributions of modern libertarians has been to show this is the case – even when the State only claims a  “monopoly on violence” to solve public goods problems.

Contra libertarians such as R.W. Bradford, the desire for peace is neither outdated nor ineffective. People may differ on the importance of “negative” or “positive” liberty or growing “the economy” but few people go out in public  speaking out in favor of violence against the innocent. The main task of libertarians is not to look for “justifications” or “foundations” but the demystifying of the State and the defense of anything that’s peaceful.