Liberty Matters

The Continuing Relevance of Jasay


As Hartmut Kliemt makes clear in his essay, Anthony de Jasay has made important contributions to our understanding of the foundations of social order.[16] What I would like to focus on is how these contributions offer a rich and open-ended research program that has ongoing relevance for a number of contemporary issues.
“Real-World” Anarchy
One of Jasay’s main contributions was to point out a key tension in constitutional political economy (1985, 1997). A common argument for the necessity of the state is as follows. Left to their own devices, rational individuals have an incentive to renege on agreements and take advantage of others. Other rational individuals, aware of these incentives, will refrain from engaging in exchange and cooperation. In order to break out of this situation, the logic goes, an external third-party enforcer is necessary. This third party is the state, which has a monopoly on force. In principle the state can resolve the dilemma by enforcing agreements, adjudicating disputes, and punishing defectors. The dilemma posed by anarchy and narrow self-interest seems to have been resolved.
Not so fast, says Jasay. The proponents of this story have stopped their analysis too soon. The state, too, is populated by rational actors. This means that if rational actors will violate their agreements absent the state, those same actors who operate the machinery of the state will also violate their agreement to serve as the neutral enforcer of agreements. This incentive for defection is especially problematic since force has been centralized in the hands of the state. Constraints on state actors are typically proposed as a solution to Jasay’s challenge. But, as he notes, constitutional constraints are unlikely to remain fixed precisely because state actors, who control both amendment and enforcement of constitutions, will have an incentive to change the constraints that bind them (see Jasay 1985, ch. 4).
Where does this leave us in terms of understanding how social cooperation can emerge? Jasay argues that the presumption that individuals, absent the state, will always and everywhere defect on their agreements is inaccurate. Given the significant gains associated with peaceful cooperation, the incentive to find ways to cooperate is often quite strong, especially when we move from one-shot interactions to repeated dealings.
While important purely in terms of political philosophy (see Buchanan 1986), Jasay’s work in this area also has important implications for understanding the operation of the world. A common assumption made by social scientists and policymakers is that a strong centralized state is necessary for peaceful cooperation and order. Jasay calls this assumption into question by forcing us to remove the romantic blinders of the constitutionally constrained, productive state. In doing so, it becomes clear that it is very possible that a situation of anarchy is superior to monopolized force in the hands of a dysfunctional state. 
Consider the most recent Fragile States Index. Of the 178 countries ranked, the governments of 77 percent fall into the categories of “Very High Alert,” “High Alert,” “High Warning,” “Warning,” “Low Warning” or “Less Stable” in terms of their likelihood of failure (The Fund for Peace 2015). In other words, a large majority of the world’s governments today look nothing like the strong yet limited state that enforces contracts while refraining from engaging in predatory actions against citizens. In stark contrast, they look much more like Jasay’s (1985) rendering of the state, which uses its power to engage in self-interested and often predatory behaviors against the very citizens it purports to protect and serve.
Jasay’s insights and arguments have gained a foothold in the academic discussion. Raghuram Rajan, the former chief economist of the IMF and current governor of the Reserve Bank of India, has argued that too often social scientists, when discussing policy, assume a perfect world with complete institutions. A more appropriate baseline, he argues, would be to “assume anarchy” since all societies have incomplete institutions to varying degrees. In line with Jasay’s insights, what Rajan is suggesting is that we can’t simply assume that institutions operate as we want them to operate. Instead, social scientists need to focus on the world as it actually is, with all its flaws and imperfections.
Further, a number of scholars have studied how private individuals have developed mechanisms of cooperation in the absence of a well-functioning government. (See, for example, Benson 1989, Fearon and Laitin 1996, Scott 2009, Leeson 2014, and Stringham 2015.) What these authors find is that, in many cases, private individuals are able to benefit from the gains from exchange not just in the absence of the state, but often in the shadow of a predatory state. In addition, some of these scholars have moved beyond situations of repeated dealings to also study how individuals have developed complex signaling mechanisms to allow individuals to take advantage of one-shot interactions (see Leeson 2014). 
Whether they explicitly recognize it or not, these authors are all building off of the insights of Jasay regarding the ability of private individuals to solve coordination problems in order to secure the benefits from peaceful cooperation and exchange. Jasay’s insights on this topic provide the foundation for the “progressive research program” in anarchy (see Boettke 2005), which is crucial for understanding issues at the heart of development economics and international relations, among other fields of study.
Social Engineering 
Governments do not sit idly by, restricting their activities to producing only productive “public goods.” Instead, they actively intervene in economic, social, and political arrangements to engineer outcomes that align with the preferences of those in positions of power. These interventions can take place domestically—e.g., interventions in the domestic economy—or internationally—e.g., conditional aid, military intervention, and occupation. In either case it is assumed that well-intentioned and enlightened “experts” can engage in social engineering to bring about the desired state of affairs. Here, too, Jasay’s body of work is relevant on two related margins.
Jasay recognizes that rules guiding social behavior can either emerge spontaneously or through imposition. In both cases the resulting rules will guide the behavior of those who must live under them. However, as Kliemt discusses in his opening essay, Jasay elevates emergent conventions over imposed rules since the former are the result of unrestrained freedom, while the latter fail to appreciate the voluntary recognition of those who must live under the rules. This is relevant to classical liberals and libertarians, who often disagree about the role of foreign policy and state intervention in other societies.[17]
In addition, Jasay also emphasizes the practical difficulties with social engineering. He notes that “[t]he hard part in political theory is to excogitate, not what we ought to want, but how to get it. It is easy enough to call for institutions ‘designed to’ do this, that and the other. The puzzle and the pain begin when the institutions that will do these things have actually to be ‘designed,’…” (1997: 117). Further, it is not just that efforts at social engineering may fail, but also that they may generate significant harms. “All we could tell the social engineer is that we want the engine to run sweetly and reliably, but we could suggest no way for him to find out how to make it run so.… It will very likely ruin the engine before it does” (1997: 117).
Jasay’s critique of social engineering is grounded in his broader critique of efforts by policymakers and supposed experts to rely on consequentialist reasoning to make interpersonal comparisons across members of society. (See Jasay 1985, 1996, 1997.) According to Jasay, “[b]etween the good and the bad consequences, where neither is either greater or smaller than or equal to the other, no balance can be struck, and consequentialist reasoning is simply out of place” (1996: 9). There is simply no way for the social engineer to know how to design institutions that maximize the wellbeing of people even if they are driven by benevolent, other-regarding intentions, a heroic assumption in itself.
Summing Up
I have only scratched the surface of the ongoing relevance of Anthony de Jasay’s body of work. Jasay made significant contributions to political philosophy and theory. It is important to recognize that these contributions have a variety of “real world” applications to a range of issues that deal with matters of individual freedom and flourishing. If our goal as social scientists is to understand the world as it is, and to understand what, if anything, can be done to improve it, then Jasay’s work deserves careful reading and consideration.
[16.] See also the Summer 2015 issue of The Independent Review, which includes a symposium on the contributions of Jasay. <>. The Independent Institute has kindly offered to supply a complimentary copy of their Summer "Symposium on Anthony de Jasay" to any reader of this online forum. If you would like a free copy, please send your details (name and snail mail address) to <>.
[17.] See the January 2015 issue of Reason for a symposium on the theme of “In Search of Libertarian Realism.” <>.
Benson, Bruce. 1989. “The Spontaneous Evolution of Commercial Law,” Southern Economic Journal 55(3): 644-61.
Boettke, Peter J. 2005. “Anarchism as  Progressive Research Program in Political Economy,” In Edward Stringham (ed.), Anarchy, State, and Public Choice, Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, Ltd., pp. 206-19.
Buchanan, James M. 1986. “Review of The State,” Public Choice 51(2): 241-43.
Fearon, James D. and David D. Laitin 1996. “Explaining Interethnic Cooperation,” American Political Science Review 90(4): 715-35.
Jasay, Anthony de. 1985. The State. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund. OLL online edition: </titles/319>.
_____. 1996. Before Resorting to Politics. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, Ltd.
_____. 1997. Against Politics: On Government, Anarchy, and Order. New York: Routledge.
Leeson, Peter T. 2014. Anarchy Unbound: Why Self-Governance Works Better than You Might Think. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
Rajan, Raghuram. 2004. “Assume Anarchy? Why an Orthodox Economic Model May Not Be the Best Guide for Policy,” Finance & Development, September: 56-57. Available online: <>.
Scott, James C. 2009. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Stringham, Edward P. 2015. Private Governance: Creating Order in Economic and Social Life. New York: Oxford University Press.
The Fund for Peace. 2015. “Fragile States Index 2015,” Available online: <>.