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Anthony de Jasay on the proliferation of predators and parasites in the modern state (1998)

The political theorist Anthony de Jasay (1925-) believes that interest groups (made up of “predators” and free-riding “parasites”) will continue to proliferate in the modern state given its current structure of incentives:

With the state as a source of reward for interest groups, free riding loses most of its destructive potential as a check on group formation and group survival. In terms of the “ecological” parallel used above, prey, predator and parasite no longer balance each other out. The defensive reactions of the prey are blunted: there is no market mechanism to signal society that a given interest group is raising its claims upon it; its exactions are screened from it by the size and complexity of the state’s fiscal and other redistributive apparatus. Moreover, while the mechanism of bilateral contracts between consenting parties works symmetrically, in that it is as efficient in concluding acceptable as in rejecting unacceptable terms, the democratic political process is constructed to work asymmetrically, i.e. to concede a large variety of group claims rather than to deny them. Hence, even if the “prey” were specifically aware of the “predator,” it would have no well-adapted defence mechanism for coping with it.

… it is reasonable to impute to the state of nature—as to an ecological system containing prey, predator, and parasite—some equilibrium in the group structure of society. Equilibrium hinges on the destructive potential of the free-rider phenomenon. The latter limits the number and size of interest groups which manage to form. The resulting universe of groups, in turn, determines the tolerated number of free riders, and the actual volume of their “parasitical” gains consistent with group survival. …

With the state as a source of reward for interest groups, free riding loses most of its destructive potential as a check on group formation and group [245] survival. In terms of the “ecological” parallel used above, prey, predator and parasite no longer balance each other out. The defensive reactions of the prey are blunted: there is no market mechanism to signal society that a given interest group is raising its claims upon it; its exactions are screened from it by the size and complexity of the state’s fiscal and other redistributive apparatus. Moreover, while the mechanism of bilateral contracts between consenting parties works symmetrically, in that it is as efficient in concluding acceptable as in rejecting unacceptable terms, the democratic political process is constructed to work asymmetrically, i.e. to concede a large variety of group claims rather than to deny them. Hence, even if the “prey” were specifically aware of the “predator,” it would have no well-adapted defence mechanism for coping with it.

Moreover, “predator” groups, in terms of my argument about the relative cheapness of cohesive political action, can survive and feed upon society almost no matter how infested they may be with their own free-rider “parasites.” As a corollary of this, the parasite can prosper without adverse effect on the predator’s capacity to carry and nourish it. More of one thing does not bring in its train less of another. Any large or small number of free riders can be accommodated in a population of interest groups which, in turn, can all behave as at least partial free riders vis-à-vis the large group that is society.

The above might suggest the sort of unstable, weightless indeterminacy where interest groups can, at the drop of a hat, just as soon shrink as multiply. Having no built-in dynamics of their own, it takes stochastic chance to make them do the one rather than the other. Any such suggestion which would, of course, run counter to the bulk of historical evidence (to the effect that more often than not, interest groups increase in number and influence over time), is as good as barred by two further features implicit in the interaction of group and state. First, whether or not the granting of a group reward is successful in winning the support of the group and reinforcing the state’s tenure of power, it will generally increase the state’s apparatus, the intensity and elaborateness of its activity, for the granting of each group reward requires some matching addition to its supervisory, regulatory and enforcing agencies. By and large, however, the more the [246] state governs, the greater tend to be the potential rewards that can arise from successfully soliciting its assistance and hence the greater the pay-off to group formation. Second, each grant of a group reward shows up the “soft touch” character of the state caught in the competitive predicament. Each grant, then, is a signal to potential groups which consider themselves similarly placed in some respect, improving in their eyes the likelihood of actually managing to obtain a given potential reward if they organize to demand it.

On both these scores, therefore, the bias of the system is to cause interest groups to proliferate. Whether the process is first set off by the state’s offer of a favour or by a group’s demand, is a chicken-and-egg question of very limited interest. Regardless of the initial impulse, the incentives and resistances appear to be arranged in such ways as to cause redistributive policies and interest group formation mutually to sustain and intensify each other.

About this Quotation:

Jasay believes that in a state of nature an equilibrium of sorts is achieved between the productivity of a group and their willingness to allow this to be drained away by the activity of “predators” and free-riding “parasites”. The emergence of the state breaks this equilibrium between prey and predator and the non-productive predators are able to proliferate as the complexity of the system often hides the true identity of the beneficiaries and the real costs to the prey. The result is a huge increase in the number of predators and the ancillary free-riders they support. The more the state does, the more there are opportunities for interest groups to take advantage of this; and the more vested interest groups are seen to thrive, the more others try to join the band wagon. The net result according to Jasay is that in the modern welfare state “redistributive policies and interest group formation mutually sustain and intensify each other” to the very great detriment to liberty and prosperity.

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