Liberty Matters

Against Politics: Anthony De Jasay’s Pioneering Work on Analytical Anarchism


Why was the state created, does it create order, and is there any way it can be constrained? Asking big questions like this, Anthony de Jasay has received praise from economists and philosophers alike. James Buchanan (1986: 241) describes Jasay’s The State as a "solid, foundational analysis, grounded in an understanding of economic theory, informed by political philosophy, and a deep sense of history," and Gerard Radnitzky (2004:99) describes Jasay as "one of the most significant social philosophers of our age." In his essay in this symposium, Hartmut Kliemt discusses Jasay’s critique of contractarianism and Jasay’s views on rights and conventions, and Kliemt concludes by asking whether Jasay is “an anarchist after all?” Kliemt writes:
Though his persistent criticisms of statism have made Jasay popular among many who have anarchist leanings, it is misleading to refer to him as an anarchist. With the anarchists he shares the belief that coercion by collective mechanisms of governance can not be legitimized by agreements of individuals. But he does reject the typical anarchist’s reliance on a priori knowledge of rights and entitlements.
Although Kliemt is correct to point out that Jasay has a different conception of rights and entitlements than many other anarchists, that does not qualify Jasay as an advocate of the state or disqualify him as an anarchist. In this essay I will argue that regardless of how he labels himself, Jasay is indeed an important contributor to the research field of analytical anarchism.
Toward a Theory of Ordered Anarchy
As Merriam-Webster points out, anarchy has two main meanings, 1 “absence of government” and 2: “a state of lawlessness.” Where the first definition simply describes the political setup, or lack thereof, without describing how the society would look, the latter describes an endstate, chaos, that almost everyone rightly opposes. Because most people think the two meanings go hand in hand, many advocates of ordered anarchy, perhaps including Jasay, are averse to identifying as anarchists. I am unaware of him referring to himself with that specific term. But Jasay consistently analyzes government as a coercive institution that cannot be constrained, and he discusses how order comes about independent of government. In his book Against Politics: On Government, Anarchy, and Order Jasay (1997: 5) writes, “The main burden of Part II is to show that certain social virtues, achievements, and functionally valuable institutions are, as Hume has suggested, prior to government, and their preservation is not contingent on political arrangements. Some foundation stones are thus laid for a theory of ordered anarchy.” Despite what Kliemt might say, I believe all anarchists should we should welcome Jasay into their club.
Normative versus Positive or Analytical Anarchism
As Boettke (2005, 2012) points out, writing and research on anarchy can be classified as normative or positive (and the two are often intermixed). Normative discussions advocating anarchy often take the form “Is the state justified?”, “Do individuals have a right to ignore the state?”, or “How would this be solved in my ideal world?”, whereas positive discussions of anarchy often take the form “Does the state exist to create order or to extract resources from the public?”, “Are advanced markets possible without government?”, or “How have markets solved this type of problem throughout history?”
Although I believe both types of discussions are useful, as an economist, my research tends to focus on the latter type of questions. For example, were the first stock markets created after government started enforcing complex contracts, or was the enforcement private? Or: was electronic commerce made possible only after government created an international framework to identify and punish fraud, or were the problems solved privately? In my book from, Private Governance (2015) [] with Oxford University Press I document how in each of the world’s first stock markets government officials viewed complicated contracts in financial markets as forms of gambling and did not enforce them. Nevertheless, brokers relied on various mechanisms including reciprocity, reputation, and more formal private governance to enable sophisticated contracts including forward contracts and options. In the case of electronic commerce, private entities like PayPal figured out how to prevent international and quasi-anonymous fraud ex ante rather than relying on government enforcement ex post.
The research is not “How do I think contracts should be enforced in my ideal world?” but instead, “How did private parties solve problems for hundreds of years?” Someone who observes the history cannot say, “My theory says that markets are only possible when government enforces contracts, so government must have enforced contracts in these markets,” when government didn’t. When studying positive questions, both advocates and opponents of anarchy should be able to agree on many issues, such as whether a particular market actually operated without government enforcing contracts.
As such, the research or arguments along these lines may be more likely to be of interest to others who do not share normative premises about whether or not the state is immoral.
Although Jasay makes many explicitly normative claims, much of Jasay’s work can be classified as positive, or analytical, anarchism, and I believe that is why Buchanan finds Jasay more compelling than other libertarian anarchists whom Buchanan (1979: 282) dismisses as “romantic fools who have read neither Hobbes nor history.”
Moving beyond “Let’s Assume Positive Outcomes”-Style Arguments 
Jasay does not dismiss prisoners’ dilemma-type problems (the idea that people would be better off cooperating but individually have incentives to cheat), and he avoids hand-waiving tricks like, “There would be no cheating in my ideal world.” Instead Jasay asks under what conditions might we see cheating and under what conditions might we see cooperation.
Where others posit that government is needed to solve prisoners’ dilemmas, Jasay questions whether shifting the problem to the government eliminates them. Arguments like (1) “Humans are imperfect and are often bad”; (2) “therefore we need a government comprised of humans to control their fellow men” assume that bad traits disappear when people become government officials.
Jasay questions the idea that creating a monopoly of law enforcement helps eliminate prisoners’ dilemmas at all. Jasay (2008: 144) argues “that state monopoly of rule-enforcement leads to soft, sluggish, and ineffective punishment. As a consequence, rules will be poorly enforced, and public order and the security of person and property undermined.”
Positive Discussions about the Possibility of “Ordered Anarchy”
What is the alternative to a monopoly of rule enforcement? To Jasay the choice is not between state and chaos. He discusses how private options existed before the centralized state:
When rule enforcement was a diffuse, decentralized function, non-corporal punishment mainly took the form of fines for the benefit of victims and plaintiffs. Kings saw obvious advantage in diverting this income stream from victims and plaintiffs to themselves. Stripping civil society of rule-enforcing functions also stripped it of much of the justification of possessing arms and maintaining organized forms of exerting force. (2008: 139)
To Jasay law and order existed before government and was subsequently undermined by it. Jasay also argues against the Hobbesian-style contractarianism popular among authors like Buchanan and makes the case that any supposed contract between the people and the state assumes that contracts made in a state of anarchy are possible. If so, what makes that order possible?
Rather than assuming the ubiquity of conflict under anarchy, Jasay points out successful cooperation can have positive payoffs.
Nobody has, to my knowledge, bothered to ask the obvious question: why in a Hobbesian world should coalitions form only for attack and never for defense? What happens if, in any conflict over property, both the attacker and the defender are free to attract allies? Why can’t we make the commonsense assumption that the force of the coalition gathered to back a given side in the conflict will be proportional to the “payoff” (gain or avoided loss) the side would get if it won the conflict  (1997: 198)
Jasay discusses various private solutions to prisoners’ dilemmas including how repeat interaction eliminates cheating associated with one-shot games. Jasay makes the case that in the real world, repeat interaction among individuals is not the exception but the norm.
Jasay writes:
In the large group, individuals are alleged to lack the incentives that would lead them to choose cooperative solutions in the same kind of repeated, game-like interactions that take place in small groups. This belief is based on a putative analogy between social groups with many members and n-person indefinitely repeated prisoners’ dilemmas where n is a large number, or the players are anonymous, or both. This analogy is almost totally false, and based on elementary mistakes.
Jasay argues that the world is instead comprised of many small games or subgroups from which people can be invited or disinvited. Parties seeking repeat interaction have to work to maintain “a reputation that influences his chances of being invited or admitted to other games.” (Jasay 1997: 205). My own research on stock markets in 17th-century Amsterdam (Stringham 2015, chap 4), 18th-century London (Stringham 2015, chap 5), and 19th-century New York (Stringham 2015, chap 6) found that brokers needed to act in a reliable manner or else they would be excluded from the club. The order is not attributable the state, but to private means.
Concluding Thoughts
As a major questioner of the idea that government is contractually created for the benefit of the citizenry or that it can instructed to work on the citizens’ behalf, and as a major questioner of the idea that order is attributable to government, Jasay’s work is clearly a contribution to the “economics of ordered anarchy” (Jasay 1997: 185).
Kliemt may be correct that Jasay adopts a different approach to rights than self-identified anarchists like Murray Rothbard, David Friedman, or Bruce Benson, but in no way does that qualify Jasay as an advocate of government. Similar to how classical liberalism includes different advocates of rights, contractarianism, economic efficiency, or utilitarianism, anarchism can be consistent with various moral frameworks. But much of Jasay’s work focuses on means-ends analysis and questions many assumptions or leaps in logic by advocates of the state. These specific arguments, no doubt, have normative implications, but they are strictly positive. Whether or not Jasay self-identifies as an anarchist, he is one of the most important contributors to the research program on analytical anarchism.
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Buchanan, James M. 1986. "From Redistributive Churning to the Plantation State." Public Choice, 51: 241-43.
Jasay, Anthony de. 1997. Against Politics: On Government, Anarchy, and Order. New York: Routledge.
Jasay, Anthony de. 2008.. “On the Monopoly of Rule Enforcement.” Journal of Private Enterprise 23(2): 135-148.
Long, Roderick. 2003. "Review of Justice and Its Surroundings by Anthony de Jasay." Independent Review, 8(1): 120.
Radnitzky, Gerard. 2004. "Anthony de Jasay: A Life in the Service of Liberty." Independent Review, 9(1): 99-103.
Stringham, Edward. 2015. Private Governance: Creating Order in Economic and Social Life.  New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. <>.