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Introduction - Anthony de Jasay, The State 
The State (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998).
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What would you do if you were the state?
It is odd that political theory, at least since Machiavelli, has practically ceased asking this question. It has devoted much thought to what the individual subject, a class or the entire society can get out of the state, to the legitimacy of its commands and the rights the subject retains in the face of them. It has dealt with the obedience the hopeful users of the state’s services owe it, the manner in which they participate in making it function and the redress the victims of its eventual malfunction can claim. These are vitally important matters; with the passage of time and the growth of the state relative to civil society, they are becoming steadily more important. Is it, however, sufficient to treat them only from the point of view of the subject, what he needs, wants, can and ought to do? Would not our understanding become more complete if we could also see them as they might look from the state’s point of view?
The present book is an attempt to do this. Braving the risks of confusing institutions with persons and the difficulties of passing from the prince to his government, it chooses to treat the state as if it were a real entity, as if it had a will and were capable of reasoned decisions about means to its ends. Hence it tries to explain the state’s conduct towards us in terms of what it could be expected to do, in successive historical situations, if it rationally pursued ends that it can plausibly be supposed to have.
The young Marx saw the state “opposing” and “overcoming” civil society. He spoke of the “general secular contradiction between the political state and civil society” and contended that “when the political state... comes violently into being out of civil society... [it] can and must proceed to the abolition of religion, to the destruction of religion; but only in the same way as it proceeds to the abolition of private property (by imposing a maximum, by confiscation, by progressive taxation) and the abolition of life (by the guillotine).”1 In other isolated passages (notably in “The Holy Family” and the “Eighteenth Brumaire”) he continued to represent the state as an autonomous entity, going its own way without, however, offering a theory of why this should result in “overcoming,” “confiscation,” “contradiction,” why the autonomous state is an adversary of society.
As Marx moved toward system-building, he fell in with the main body of political theory whose unifying feature is to regard the state as essentially an instrument. Thus, for the mature Marx, and more explicitly still for Engels, Lenin and the socialist thought they continue to inspire, the state became a tool, subservient to the interests of the ruling class and assuring its dominance.
For non-socialist mainstream theory, too, the state is an instrument, designed to serve its user. It is seen as generally benign and helping to further the purposes of others. The shape of the instrument, the jobs it performs and the identity of the beneficiary may vary, but the instrumental character of the state is common to the major strains of modern political thought. For Hobbes, it keeps the peace, for Locke it upholds the natural right to liberty and property, for Rousseau it realizes the general will, for Bentham and Mill it is the vehicle of improving social arrangements. For today’s liberals, it overcomes the incapacity of private interests spontaneously to cooperate. It forces them to produce collectively preferred volumes of the public goods of order, defence, clean air, paved streets and universal education. Under a stretched definition of public goods, its coercion also enables society to reach for distributive justice or just plain equality.
There are, to be sure, less starry-eyed variants of the instrumental view. For the “non-market choice” or “public choice” school, the interaction of private choices through the instrument of the state is liable to overproduce public goods and fail in other ways to attain preferred outcomes.2 This school deals with the unwieldiness of the tool that is the state and its potential to hurt a society that tries to wield it. Nevertheless, the state is a tool, albeit a defective one.
What, however, are defect, faulty design, inherent malfunction? And what is internal consistency? On the way from democracy to despotism, does Plato’s Republic degenerate? Or is it conforming to its own purposes?
A first step to an adequate understanding of the state is to think about an environment without one. Taking our cue from Rousseau, we tend gratuitously to associate the state of nature with savage and perhaps not very bright hunters at the dawn of history. It has become our conditioned reflex to think of it as some early, primitive stage of civilization, a more advanced stage both requiring, and being required for, the formation of a state. As a matter of empirical fact, this is as it may be. As a matter of logic, it does not follow from the sole necessary feature of the state of nature, which is that in it the participants do not surrender their sovereignty. No one has obtained a monopoly of the use of force; all keep their arms. But this condition need not be inconsistent with any given stage of civilization, backward or advanced.
Nation states are in a state of nature and show no inclination to pool sovereignty in a superstate. Yet contrary to what Hobbes is usually taken to have implied, most of them manage to avoid war a good deal of the time. They even cooperate in armed peace, most conspicuously and bravely in international trade, investment and lending, all in the face of sovereign risk. Social contract theory would predict that in these areas, there will be international thieving, default, confiscation and beggar-my-neighbour behaviour, and contracts will be worthless bits of paper. In effect, despite the lack of a superstate to enforce contracts across national jurisdictions, international cooperation is not breaking down. If anything, there is some movement the other way. International relations tend to cast doubt on the standard view of people in the state of nature as myopic simpletons clad in animal skins clubbing each other on the head. Instead, there is some reason to hold that the more civilization advances, the more viable becomes the state of nature. The fearfulness of advanced armaments may yet prove to be a more potent enforcer of abstinence from war, saving people from a “nasty, brutish and short life,” than were such historic super-states as Rome, the Carolingian or the British Empire, though it may be too soon to tell.
Among men and groups of men, it is harder to judge the viability of the state of nature than among nations. Civilized men have long been the subjects of states, so we have no opportunity to observe how well they would cooperate in the state of nature. Hence we cannot even pretend empirically to assess the difference it makes to have a state. Would people honour contracts in the absence of an enforcing agent possessing the monopoly of last-resort force? It used to be held that since it is every man’s interest that all other men should keep their word and that he should be free to break his, social cooperation could not be maintained on a voluntary basis. In the technical language of decision theory, a properly constructed “prisoners’ dilemma” could not have a non-imposed cooperative solution. Recent contributions of mathematics and psychology to the social sciences teach us that if men confront such dilemmas repeatedly, this need not be so. Results teach them, and expected results induce them, to cooperate spontaneously. Any argument that, since the state must force them to cooperate, they would not have done so without being forced is, of course, a non sequitur.
On the other hand, the longer they have been forced to cooperate, the less likely they are to have preserved (if they ever had it) the faculty to cooperate spontaneously. “Those who can, do,” but the converse, “those who do, can,” is no less true, for we learn by doing. People who have been made to rely on the state never learn the art of self-reliance nor acquire the habits of civic action. One of Tocqueville’s most celebrated insights (though he had more subtle ones) was in fact about English and American “government” which left both room and need for grass-roots initiatives and, by benign neglect, induced people to run their own affairs, and French “administration” which did neither. The habit-forming effects of the state, the dependence of people’s values and tastes on the very political arrangements which they are supposed to bring about, is a basic motif which keeps surfacing throughout my argument.
Its other basic and recurrent element is the waywardness of cause and effect in social relations. State action may or may not achieve its intended effect, for its proximate incidence gives no sure clue to the ultimate one. Nearly always, however, it will also have other effects, possibly more important and longer-lasting ones. These unintended effects may, in addition, also be positively unwanted, unforeseen and, in the nature of the case, often unpredictable. This is what lends such a gooseflesh-raising quality to the bland view that politics is pluralistic vector-geometry, and that civil society governs itself and controls the state, which is just a machine to register and execute “social choices.”
The argument of this book is arranged in five chapters, spanning the logical (though not the real-time) progression of the state from one limiting extreme, where its ends do not compete with the ends of its subjects, to the other where it has come to own most of their property and liberty.
Chapter 1, “The Capitalist State,” first deals with the roles of violence, obedience and preference at the birth of the state. It then sets out to deduce the characteristic outline of a state which, if it existed, would not be in conflict with civil society. I call it “capitalist” to stress the decisive character of its treatment of property and contract. Its conception of good title to property is that finders are keepers. It does not interfere in people’s contracts for their own good (which also excludes its compelling them to conclude a comprehensive, omnilateral social contract designed to overcome their free-rider temptations). It does not indulge such compassion and sympathy as it may harbour for its less fortunate subjects by forcing the more fortunate to assist them. By the same token, it is also a policy-less, minimal state (“The Contours of the Minimal State”).
It seems anomalous if not self-contradictory for the state both to have a will and to want to minimize itself. For this to be rational, its ends must lie beyond politics, and be unattainable through governing. The purpose of governing, then, is merely to keep out any non-minimal rivals (preventing revolution). There has of course never been such a state in history, though the style and overtones of one or two in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries do faintly suggest it.
The “political hedonist” who regards the state as the source of a favourable balance in the calculus of help and hindrance, must logically aspire to a more than minimal state and would invent it if it did not exist.3 Political hedonism on the part of the individual subject underlies the wish for a more comprehensive and less optional scheme of cooperation than the patchwork of contracts that arises from voluntary negotiation (“Inventing the State: The Social Contract”). On the part of a hypothetical ruling class, political hedonism is supposed to call for a machine assuring dominance (“Inventing the State: The Instrument of Class Rule”). Both versions of political hedonism presuppose a certain gullibility as to the risks of disarming oneself to arm the state. They involve a belief in the instrumental character of the state, made to serve the ends of others and having none of its own. Yet in any non-unanimous society with a plurality of interests, the state, no matter how accommodating, cannot possibly pursue ends other than its own. Its manner of resolving conflicts, and the respective weights it attaches to the ends of others, constitute the satisfaction of its own ends (“Closing the Loop by False Consciousness”).
The questions whether political hedonism is sensible, prudent, rational, whether having the state around us makes us better or worse off, whether the goods the state, acting in pursuit of its interest, chooses to produce are what we should have chosen, are addressed again in chapter 2 in relation to reform, improvement and utility, and in chapter 3 in such contexts as one-man-one-vote, egalitarianism (both as a means and as an end) and distributive justice.
While violence and preference may stand respectively at its historical and logical origins, political obedience continues to be elicited by the state through recourse to the old triad of repression, legitimacy and consent, the subject of the first section of chapter 2. Legitimacy is obeyed regardless of hope of reward and fear of punishment. The state cannot, except in the very long run, breed more of it at its choice. In getting itself obeyed, its alternatives are reduced to various combinations of repression and consent (though of course it will count the blessings of such legitimacy as it may enjoy). The consent of a minute fraction of society, e.g. the camp guards in a camp state, may suffice to repress the rest. Rewards, such as they are, then accrue thickly to the consenting minority; repression is spread thinly over the vast majority. A reversal of this pattern corresponds to greater reliance on consent.
For reasons which look valid at the time, though in retrospect they may be regretted as weak or foolish, the repressive state usually finds it opportune over time to seduce some of those it used to repress and to lean more on consent (“Taking Sides”). This process combines steps towards wider political democracy and moves to do good, with an adversary, divisive role for the state, for it is now soliciting the support of broad sections of society by offering them significant rewards to be taken from other, perhaps narrower but still substantial sections. A by-product of this process of creating gainers and losers is that the apparatus of the state grows bigger and cleverer.
It seems to me almost incontrovertible that the prescriptive content of any dominant ideology coincides with the interest of the state rather than, as in Marxist theory, with that of the ruling class. In other words, the dominant ideology is one that, broadly speaking, tells the state what it wants to hear, but more importantly what it wants its subjects to overhear. Rather than the “superstructure” of ideology being perched on the “base” of interest (as it is usual to place them), the two hold each other upright. There may well be no ruling class in a society, yet state and dominant ideology will thrive and evolve together. This view is advanced to justify the attention devoted to utilitarianism (“Tinker’s Licence” and “The Revealed Preference of Governments”), an immensely powerful though now mostly subconscious influence on past and present political thought. The utilitarian operations of “mending,” judging changes in arrangements by their expected consequences, and comparing utilities interpersonally so that the state can, in evaluating a policy, deduct the harm it does to some from the greater good it does to others and strike a balance of greater happiness, lend a moral content to acts of government. The doctrine which recommends such operations represents the perfect ideology for the activist state. It provides the moral ground for policies adopted by the state when it has discretion in choosing whom to favour. However, when the question whom to favour is no longer discretionary, but is prejudged for the state by the rise of electoral competition, interpersonal comparisons are still implicit in its affirmations that what it is doing is good or just or both, rather than merely expedient for staying in power.
Social justice as the avowed objective, the ethical excuse for seductive policies, is seemingly a break with utilitarianism. A basic continuity between the two as criteria for justifying policies, however, results from the dependence of both on interpersonal comparisons. One compares utilities, the other deserts. Either comparison can provide a warrant for overriding voluntary contracts. In both, the role of the “sympathetic observer,” of the “discerning eye” performing the informed and authoritative comparison, falls naturally to the state. Stepping into this role is as great a conquest for it as is the derivative chance to favour, among its subjects, one class, race, age-group, region, occupation or other interest over another. However, the discretion to choose whom to favour at whose expense, which the state enjoys when it first sets out to assemble a base of support by reform and redistribution, is almost bound to be short-lived. The argument of chapter 4 offers reasons why it tends to vanish with political competition and with society’s progressive addiction to a given redistributive pattern.
A fully fledged redistributive state, at whose behest “the property-less come to legislate for the propertied,“4 and which in time transforms the character and structure of society in largely unintended ways, has its doctrinal counterpart, its ideological match. The development of neither can be very well conceived without the other. Chapter 3, “Democratic Values,” deals with the liberal ideology which is dominant when the state, depending increasingly on consent and exposed to competition for it, overwhelms people while serving their ideals.
In agreeing to and, indeed, aiding and abetting the advent of democracy as the vehicle for moving from rule by repression to rule by consent, the state commits itself to certain procedures (e.g. one-man-one-vote, majority rule) for the award of the tenure of power. The procedures are such that the state, in search of support, must proceed by a simple headcount. Its policies must, putting it crudely, simply create more gainers than losers instead of, for example, favouring the most deserving, those it likes best, those with more clout, or some more subtle objective. “More gainers than losers” can always be more lucratively achieved by condemning to the role of losers a number of rich people than the same number of poor people. This rule is, however, merely expedient. It may not command the approval of bystanders who do not expect to gain from its application. Some of them (including many consequential utilitarians) might prefer the rule “create more gains rather than more gainers” and forget about the headcount. Others might want to add “subject to respect for natural rights” or, possibly, “provided liberty is not infringed,” either proviso being sufficiently constricting to bring most democratic policies to a dead stop.
Consequently, it helps a good deal if the liberal ideology establishes a case or, to be on the safe side, a number of parallel cases, for holding that democratic policies do create democratic values, i.e. that political expediency is a reliable enough guide to the good life and to universally prized ultimate ends.
I look at four such cases. One, whose great advocates were Edgeworth (impeccably) and Pigou (more questionably), seeks to establish a strong presumption that equalizing income maximizes utility. My counter-argument (“Through Equality to Utility”) is that if it makes sense at all to add different persons’ utilities and maximize the sum, it is more reasonable to hold that it is any settled, time-honoured income distribution, whether equal or unequal, that will in fact maximize utility. (If there is a case for equalizing, it is probably confined to the new rich and the new poor.)
A more fashionable, if less influential, case constructed by John Rawls recommends a modified, tempered egalitarianism as corresponding to the principles of justice. I take issue on several grounds with the principles he derives from the prudential interest of people negotiating about distribution in ignorance of their selves and hence of any differences between them. I dispute the purported dependence of social cooperation, not on the terms which willing participants settle bilaterally among themselves in making actual cooperation unfold, but on the readjustment of these terms to conform to principles negotiated separately, in an “original position” of ignorance set up for the purpose. I also question the deduction of principles of justice from democracy rather than the other way round (“How Justice Overrides Contracts”). In the section “Egalitarianism as Prudence” I challenge the alleged prudential character of a certain egalitarianism and the roles assigned to risk and probability in inducing self-interested people to opt for it. In passing, I reject Rawls’s bland view of the redistributive process as painless and costless, and of the state as an automatic machine which dispenses “social decisions” when we feed our wishes into it.
Instead of contending, in my view unsuccessfully, that certain economic and political equalities produce final, uncontested values like utility or justice, liberal ideology sometimes resorts to a bold short cut and simply elevates equality itself to the rank of a final value, prized for its own sake because it is inherent in man to like it.
My main counter-argument (“Love of Symmetry”), for which there is perhaps unexpected support in Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Programme” and in a priceless outburst by Engels, is that when we think we are opting for equality, we are in fact upsetting one equality in making another prevail. Love of equality in general may or may not be inherent in human nature. Love of a particular equality in preference to another (given that both cannot prevail), however, is like any other taste and cannot serve as a universal moral argument.
Somewhat analogous reasons can be used against the case that democratic policies are good because, in levelling fortunes, they reduce the pain people suffer at the sight of their neighbour’s better fortune (“Envy”). Very few of the countless inequalities people are liable to resent lend themselves to levelling, even when the attack on difference is as forthright as Mao’s Cultural Revolution. It is no use making everyone eat, dress and work alike if one is still luckier in love than the other. The source of envy is the envious character, not some manageable handful out of a countless multitude of inequalities. Envy will not go away once chateaux have all been burned, merit has replaced privilege and all children have been sent to the same schools.
Incentives and resistances, the exigencies of staying in power in the face of competition for consent and the character of the society whose consent must be elicited, should duly lead the state to adopt the appropriate pattern of policies for taking property and liberty from some and giving them to others. However, would not this pattern, whatever it was, be bound to remain hypothetical, and property and liberty inviolate, if the constitution forbade the state to touch them, or at least laid down fixed limits to what it may touch? It is to come to terms with the constitutional constraint on democratic policies that chapter 4, “Redistribution,” starts with some remarks on fixed constitutions. It is suggested that the ostensible constraint of a constitution may be positively useful to the state as a confidence-building measure, but that it is unlikely to remain fixed if it does not coincide with the prevailing balance of interests in society. The prospective pay-off from amending it is available as an inducement for a coalition of the required size for passing the amendment (though this is not a sufficient condition for triggering off constitutional change).
The mechanics of obtaining majority support under democratic rules are first considered in a highly simplified abstract case in the section “Buying Consent.” If people differ from each other only in how much money they have, and if they vote for the redistributive programme under which they gain most (or lose least), the rival programmes offered by the state and the opposition will be closely similar (one being marginally less bad for the rich than the other). Under the spur of competition for power, everything that can safely be taken from the prospective losers has to be offered to the prospective gainers, leaving no “discretionary income” for the state to dispose of. As a consequence, its power over its subjects’ resources is all used up in its own reproduction, in merely staying in power.
A less abstract version (“Addictive Redistribution”) where people, and hence their interests, differ in an indefinite variety of respects, and the society within which preponderant support must be obtained is not atomistic but can have intermediate group structures between man and state, yields results which are fuzzier but hardly less bleak for the state. Redistributive gains tend to be habit-forming both at the individual and the group level. Their reduction is apt to provoke withdrawal symptoms. While in the state of nature the integration of people into cohesive interest groups is held in check by (potential or actual) “free riding,” the emergence of the state as the source of redistributive gains both permits and incites unchecked group formation to exact such gains. This is so in as much as state-oriented interest groups can tolerate the free riding among their members that would destroy market-oriented groups.
Each interest group, in turn, has an incentive to act as a free rider in relation to the rest of society, the state being the vehicle permitting this to be done without meeting serious resistance. There is no reason to expect the corporatist ideal of constituting very large groups (all labour, all employers, all doctors, all shopkeepers) and having them bargain with the state and with each other, greatly to alter this outcome. Thus, in time, the redistributive pattern becomes a crazy quilt of loopholes and asymmetrical favours along industrial, occupational or regional dimensions or for no very apparent rhyme and reason, rather than along the classic rich-to-poor or rich-to-middle dimension. Above all, the evolution of the pattern increasingly escapes the state’s overall control.
In the section “Rising Prices” the group structure of society promoted by addictive redistribution is assumed to impart an ability to each group to resist or recover any loss of its distributive share. One symptom of the resulting impasse is endemic inflation. A related one is the complaint of the state about society becoming ungovernable, lacking any “give” and rejecting any sacrifice that adjustment to hard times or just random shocks would require.
The social and political environment resulting in large part from the state’s own actions eventually calls forth a widening divergence between gross and net redistribution (“Churning”). Instead of robbing Peter to pay Paul, both Peter and Paul come to be paid and robbed on a growing variety of counts (much gross redistribution for a small and uncertain net balance); this causes turbulence and is destined to generate disappointment and frustration.
The state has, at this stage, completed its metamorphosis from mid-nineteenth-century reformist seducer to late twentieth-century redistributive drudge, walking the treadmill, a prisoner of the unintended cumulative effects of its own seeking after consent (“Towards a Theory of the State”). If its ends are such that they can be attained by devoting its subjects’ resources to its own purposes, its rational course is to maximize its discretionary power over these resources. In the ungrateful role of drudge, however, it uses all its power to stay in power, and has no discretionary power left over. It is rational for it to do this just as it is rational for the labourer to work for subsistence wages, or for the perfectly competitive firm to operate at breakeven. A higher kind of rationality, however, would lead it to seek to emancipate itself from the constraints of consent and electoral competition, somewhat like Marx’s proletariat escaping from exploitation by revolution, or Schumpeter’s entrepreneurs escaping from competition by innovation. My thesis is not that democratic states “must” all end up doing this, but rather that a built-in totalitarian bias should be taken as a symptom of their rationality.
Autonomy of action in the passage from democracy to totalitarianism need not be regained in a single unbroken move, planned in advance. It is, at least initially, more like sleep-walking than conscious progress towards a clearly perceived goal. Chapter 5, “State Capitalism,” deals with the cumulative policies likely to carry the state step by step along the road to “self-fulfilment.” Their effect is so to change the social system as to maximize the potential for discretionary power, and to enable the state fully to realize this potential.
The agenda for increasing discretionary power (“What Is to Be Done?”) must first address the problem of decreasing civil society’s autonomy and capacity for withholding consent. The policies the democratic state managing a “mixed economy” tends to drift into will unwittingly erode a large part of the basis of this autonomy, the independence of people’s livelihoods. What the Communist Manifesto calls “the winning of the battle of democracy” in order “to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state” is the completion of this process. The socialist state thus puts an end to the historical and logical freak of economic power being diffused throughout civil society while political power is centralized. In centralizing and unifying the two powers, however, it creates a social system which is inconsistent with, and cannot properly function under, the classical democratic rules of awarding tenure of state power. Social democracy must evolve into people’s democracy or the next best thing, the state now being powerful enough to enforce this development and ward off systemic breakdown.
“Systemic constants” versus the variables of the human element are considered in the context of private and state capitalism (“The State as Class”) to assess the place of the managing bureaucracy. As the thesis that separation of ownership and control really means loss of control by the owner is untenable, it must be accepted that the bureaucracy has precarious tenure and its discretionary power is limited. The nice or nasty disposition of the bureaucrats manning the state, their “socio-economic origin” and whose father went to which school, are variables, the configurations of power and dependence characterizing private and state capitalism respectively are constants; in such phrases as “socialism with a human face,” the weight of the constants of socialism relative to the variables of the human face is best seen as a matter of personal hopes and fears.
In state capitalism more inexorably than in looser social systems, one thing leads to another and, as one inconsistency is eliminated, others emerge, calling in turn for their elimination. The final and futuristic section of this book (“On the Plantation”) deals with the logic of a state which owns all capital, needing to own its workers, too. Markets for jobs and goods, consumer sovereignty, money, employee-citizens voting with their feet are alien elements defeating some of the purposes of state capitalism. To the extent that they are dealt with, the social system comes to incorporate some features of the paternalistic Old South.
People have to become chattel slaves in relevant respects. They do not own but owe their labour. There is “no unemployment.” Public goods are relatively plentiful, and “merit goods” like wholesome food or Bach records, cheap, while wages are little more than pocket money by the standards of the outside world. People have their ration of housing and public transport, health care, education, culture and security in kind, rather than receiving vouchers (let alone money) and the corresponding onus of choosing. Their tastes and temperaments adjust accordingly (though not all will become addicts; some may turn allergic). The state will have maximized its discretionary power, before eventually discovering that it is facing some new predicament.
An agenda for a rational state gives rise, by implication, to an inverted agenda for rational subjects, at least in the sense of telling them what must be done to help or to hinder it. If they can purge any inconsistent preferences they may have for more liberty and more security, more state and less state at the same time—probably a more difficult undertaking than it sounds—they will know how far they want to assist or resist carrying out the state’s agenda. On such knowledge must depend their own stand.
[1. ]K. Marx, “The Jewish Question,” Early Writings, 1975, pp. 220, 226, 222.
[2. ]As one of the founders of this school puts it, welfare economics is about market failures, public choice theory is about government failures (James M. Buchanan, The Limits of Liberty, 1975, ch. 10). Note, however, the different tack adopted by certain public choice theorists, referred to in chapter 4, pp. 270-1, n. 38.
[3. ]The term “political hedonist” was coined by the great Leo Strauss to denote Leviathan’s willing subject.
[4. ]Marx, “The Jewish Question,” p. 219.