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

Anthony de Jasay

Anthony de Jasay (1925-2019) 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.

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.”