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

Anthony de Jasay

The political theorist Anthony de Jasay (1925-2019) 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.

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.