Liberty Matters

About Jasay’s Alleged Anarchism

Coyne, Munger, Stringham, and Kliemt all concur with Jasay in accepting basic tenets of the Public Choice approach to politics. We accept that the same model of rational choice-making should be applied across the board. We share basic sympathies for anarchist ideals even if out of practical necessity we may be reluctant archists.
Jasay against Government
For Jasay reserving certain decisions to a collective choice process in a state may be unavoidable but is inherently morally inferior to individual choice-making.[20] He accepts acquiescence with state power but strongly opposes arguments that suggest endorsing state activity as being legitimized by positive individual consent. In particular, Jasay regards as subversive for liberty social contractarian constructions that claim that state power can under certain conditions be normatively treated “as if” based on individual voluntary consent. Political theory should not conceal that under collective rule citizens are subjected to the collective will even if they participate in its formation. For him there is no legitimacy in collective choice per se. He would accept Michael Munger’s remark, that real individual agreement to pursue some aims, ends, or values collectively by means of clubs (including firms, etc.) bestows legitimacy on such enterprises. Yet since this transfer of legitimacy via real individual agreements is ruled out for the state as a whole, the state is normatively deficient as compared to anarchy.
Is Jasay an Anarchist and If So in What Sense?
Edward Stringham states that if “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.” This point is well taken,[21] but it deserves to be emphasized that somebody who does not endorse, say, “natural rights” or Kantian transcendental arguments in favor of anarchy need not thereby become an advocate of the state. When Stringham says that “anarchists ... should welcome Jasay into their club,” this provokes the “Groucho Marxian” remark that Jasay would not like to be taken in by a club of normative anarchists who – as most anarchists – start from the presumption that some obligations and the rights based upon them exist without being the results of human creation.  As Bentham – whom Jasay otherwise regards as an evil force – stated in his Anarchical fallacies:
But reasons for wishing there were such things as rights, are not rights; -- a reason for wishing that a certain right were established, is not that right -- want is not supply -- hunger is not bread.[22]
If it comes to what Stringham calls analytical anarchism, Jasay would be happy to join the club, though. That “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” (Stringham) is welcome as well. As far as the amazing self-organizational powers of inter-individual coordination and agreement are concerned, analytical, historical, and empirical studies of such processes – as conducted by Coyne and Stringham themselves and in the literature they draw attention to – will be more persuasive than any theoretical argument. Yet they do not by themselves answer fundamental questions of legitimacy.
Voluntariness and Acquiescence
The final sentences of Michael Munger’s fine comment read:
The reason that Jasay is not an anarchist is that he concedes that, despite the failure of contractarian justifications, rational individuals would certainly acquiesce, and might even want to acquiesce—something close to voluntary endorsement—to the empirical fact of the existence of the state.  Just don’t call it voluntary.
In his later work Jasay increasingly started to share the typical philosophers’ preoccupation with the language in which we express our ideas and views. For him, whether we call something “voluntary” matters. He would certainly ask what it means that “rational individuals … might even want to acquiesce.” If it is in the rational self-interest that individuals acquiesce, then they would in this sense, of course, want to acquiesce. But facing a man with a gun, we would want to comply with his wishes as well. Even though starting from Hobbesian premises, Jasay would not call this voluntary in any normatively relevant sense. For him it matters how the “thing” with which we acquiesce has been created. A comparison of acquiescence with established state rules and acquiescence with established conventions can illustrate what is at issue here.
As far as the necessity of acquiescence is concerned, conventions are normatively no other than state-enforced rules. For instance, for an individual who lives in the UK driving on the left-hand side of the street is not any more a free choice than is paying his taxes. Even if “the rules of the road” were not backed by government they would still not be chosen by the individuals subjected to them.
How easily even smart people can fall into traps here becomes obvious from Christopher Coyne’s statement: “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.” I fully agree with the “former” part of the sentence while the latter (starting with “while the latter fail”) seems expressive of a latent contractarian assent-based conception. Whatever the merits of such a conception it certainly cannot be Jasay’s.
At the risk of beating this to death, in Jasay’s scheme it must be the way conventions are created that makes them superior to rules enacted under a collective choice rule (first part of Coyne’s sentence). But once conventions exist we must acquiesce with them the same way as we must acquiesce with state-enacted rules. There is, contrary to what Coyne assumes, no “voluntary recognition of those who must live under the rules” (second part of Coyne’s sentence).
Incentives and Opinions
As one of the last hard-nosed economists standing, Jasay sticks to the fundamental premise that “people would act economically; when an opportunity of an advantage was presented to them they would take it.”[23] Once in place state-sponsored rules and conventions via enforcement influence their opportunity sets and thereby guide individuals no matter how the rules were generated.
I believe that his strong rational-choice focus on incentives – independently of the nature of the source of their enforcement – does not cohere well with Jasay’s view that the liberal immune system can be subverted by mistaken opinions concerning the legitimacy of collective choice. Why care so much about the difference between acquiescence and endorsement, which can be relevant only in shaping our intrinsic motivation and beliefs, if in the end only substantive incentives or extrinsic motives matter?[24]
Anarchy within the State?
It is certainly desirable that within a state there is a sphere in which private dealings among citizens are protected.[25] Yet Jasay doubts that limited government can be part of a dynamically stable political equilibrium. Not only is anarchy always threatened by states external to it, the quasi-anarchy within the state that protects quasi-anarchy against external invading states stands to be subverted by its own protector. Yet, granting that there may be an inherent proclivity of any state to become “total,” no state will succeed totally in this. As Christopher Coyne, referring to some of the relevant literature, states, “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.”
However, the argument that “residual anarchy” persists has another more philosophical side, too. Taking seriously the old riddle “quis custodiet custodes ipsos,” or “who will guard the guardians,”[26] we need to be aware that on the top of rule enforcement by the state there must be some kind of nonstate created order – at least within the top group of the “guardians” – otherwise there would have to be a state to create the state order, ad infinitum.[27] As expressed in my initial essay, I believe that an economic model of case-by-case opportunity-taking behavior cannot explain how power in society is constituted. Genuine rule-following behavior of at least some individuals is necessary to bestow the power on those who are then using the organizational structures based on such voluntary compliance of some to exploit others. In this sense quasi-anarchical order creation is part of the fabric of non-anarchical order.
Will the State Ever Whither Away?
The state will not go away simply because it is normatively flawed. The state is such a potent instrument of exploiting others that once invented it will be used for exploitative purposes. The fact of the state’s existence does not justify its claims to act on behalf of the collectivity. For this view Jasay has merely scorn. Yet he is aware that once the state is invented it will stay around due to its superiority as an instrument of aggression and exploitation of others.[28]
As far as the withering away of the state is concerned, the situation is hopeless. However, as long as relatively limited Western governments persist, the situation is not too serious yet. Jasay’s work can serve as a reminder to all of us not to take for granted what James Buchanan once stated: “better in the West.” Since “the power of the mighty hath no foundation but in the opinion and belief of the people[29], critical discussions of liberty and responsibility as in the present dialog may contribute to forming opinions that may help to restrain the mighty.
[20.] See also the transcript of a part of the intellectual portrait series provided by David Hart as a supplement to the present debate. </pages/lm-jasay>. The audio is here </titles/959>.
[21.] I have a suspicion, though, that some of my colleagues in this dispute here might – other than Jasay and I – endorse a contractarian justification of collective choice that allegedly makes collective authority a matter of prior consent. I will criticize this kind of romantic ideology – hinted at by Michael Munger – once it will be put forward explicitly rather than implicitly.
[22.] Jeremy Bentham, Anarchical Fallacies: Being an Examination of the the Declaration of Rights issued during the French Revolution (1796) in The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1838-1843). Vol. 2. </titles/1921#Bentham_0872-02_6148>.
[23.] John Hicks, Causality in Economics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1979), p. 43.
[24.] I am not saying that Jasay should not care. Quite to the contrary, I believe that he deserves praise for caring. I only say that this is not completely in harmony with his rational choice approach to politics.
[25.] Interestingly enough, German adherents of the subsidiarity principle do not only cite the papal encyclical “Quadragesimo Anno,” but typically refer to Abraham Lincoln: "The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves – in their separate, and individual capacities. In all that people can do individually as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere." Abraham Lincoln, "Fragment on Government," circa July 1, 1854, in Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (8 vols., New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 2: 220-21. <>.
[26.] See more recently also, Jasay, Güth, and Kliemt, in Jasay, Social Justice and the Indian Rope Trick (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2014).
[27.] In a way this is Jasay’s point that the social-contract institution itself cannot be based on a contract.
[28.] That a workable anarchic order of some legal complexity like Iceland, until about A.D. 1100, was located on an island which was also hiding behind a name signaling bad conditions – “Ice-” rather than “Green-“land – was not accidental.
[29.] (Hobbes 1682/1990: 16) Thomas Hobbes, Behemoth: The History of the Causes of the Civil Wars in England (1668) in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury; Now First Collected and Edited by Sir William Molesworth, Bart., (London: Bohn, 1839-45). 11 vols. Vol. 6. </titles/770#Hobbes_0051-06_540>. See also, Thomas Hobbes, Behemoth (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).