Online Library of Liberty

A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets. A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.

Advanced Search

Anthony de Jasay asks whether states should be invented if they did not already exist (1985)

Anthony de Jasay (1925-) asks whether we can trust the state to use its monopoly of force wisely and not “use it against those from whom it received it”:

The state, under either the contractarian or the Marxist hypothesis, has got all the guns. Those who armed it by disarming themselves, are at its mercy. The state’s sovereignty means that there is no appeal against its will, no higher instance which could possibly make it do one thing rather than another. Everything really depends on Leviathan giving no cause to people to rebel (Hobbes is assuming that it would not), or on the state oppressing only the right people, i.e. the workers. There are certainly good reasons, both a priori and empirical, why such assumptions should, at least some of the time, be wrong.

There are, in particular, two rival theories with the identical basic thesis that if the state did not exist, we should invent it. Both, I shall argue, rest on self-delusion. One holds that it is people in general who need the state which alone can fulfil the function of turning general conflict into general harmony. People not only need this, but are aware of their need, and by the social contract create the state and give it authority over themselves. The other theory proposes that it is the possessing class which needs the state as the indispensable instrument of class rule. The source of the state’s political power is, in some fashion, the economic power which ownership confers upon the possessing class. The two powers, economic and political, complement each other in oppressing the proletariat. The purest, least ambiguous theorist of the social contract is Hobbes, and Engels is that of the instrument-of-class-oppression theory.

Both theories have an irreducible common core: both require people (“the people” in the one case, “the capitalist class” in the other), to abdicate a de facto faculty, the recourse to force. One and the other, each in the manner proper to it, confers a monopoly of the possession (and hence obviously of the use) of force upon Leviathan, the monarch or the class state. One’s motive is fear, the other’s greed; not moral but prudential reasons.

Neither provides any good ground for supposing that the state, once it has the monopoly of force will not, at times or forever, use it against those from whom it received it. Neither is a theory of the state in the proper sense, i.e. neither really explains why the state will do one thing rather than another. Why, in fact, should it stop people from killing and robbing each other rather than indulging in some robbery and, if need be, killing, on its own account? Why should it help the capitalists oppress the workers, rather than engage in the probably more rewarding pursuit of oppressing the capitalists? What maximand does the state maximize, what is its pay-off, and how does it go about getting it? The conduct of the state is assumed (it keeps the peace, it oppresses the workers) rather than derived from its rational volition.

The state, under either the contractarian or the Marxist hypothesis, has got all the guns. Those who armed it by disarming themselves, are at its mercy. The state’s sovereignty means that there is no appeal against its will, no higher instance which could possibly make it do one thing rather than another. Everything really depends on Leviathan giving no cause to people to rebel (Hobbes is assuming that it would not), or on the state oppressing only the right people, i.e. the workers.

There are certainly good reasons, both a priori and empirical, why such assumptions should, at least some of the time, be wrong. One cannot seriously expect people in general, or the capitalist class, to take such a gamble with an essentially unpredicted state for prudential reasons, though they might do so as an act of faith. The one plausible condition under which self-interest could induce rational people to take this risk is when the likely consequences of not disarming themselves in favour of the state look more dangerous still.

About this Quotation:

Jasay imagines what it would be like to go back in time and witness the birth of the historical state. What he sees he does not like, and neither do most people. So, what people have tried to do is “invent” states which are more to their liking and they have done this in two different ways. The first is “Inventing the State: The Social Contract”; the second is “Inventing the State: The Instrument of Class Rule”; each version of which Jasay finds unsatisfactory. Jasay’s innovation in this book is to try to see the world from the perspective of the state itself, to imagine things as if the state were a person with goals and preferences which it was trying to achieve; in other words he wishes to work out “an agenda for a rational state” (or in contrast to “public choice” a theory of “political choice”). His conclusion is not a happy one because he believes he has discovered “a built-in totalitarian bias” which will tend to push all states in one direction of increasing power over its subjects: “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. 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… 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.”

More Quotations