The State

Anthony de Jasay, courtesy of the author
Jasay, Anthony de
(1925- )
Display paragraphs in this book containing:
First Pub. Date
Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, Inc.
Pub. Date
12 of 33

1. The Capitalist State

Closing the Loop by False Consciousness


False consciousness helps people adjust their preferences to what their peace of mind requires, and prepares them for supporting an adversary state.


The most unselfish state could not pursue other ends than its own.


The political hedonist looks to the state for "pleasure," for utility, for the furtherance of his interest. Were he to recognize that the state cannot administer things without also governing men including him, so that he is liable to be coerced and constrained, he would still expect to enjoy a positive balance between the pleasure he derives from the state's help and the pain he may suffer from being hindered by it.*44 In fact, his general idea of the state is that it is none other than the professional producer of such a positive balance. If he had a different conception, he could still be a supporter of the state but not a political hedonist.


The state is equipped with powers to pursue its own pleasure, its "maximand." Were it to be a near-minimal state, it would still have at least the latent capacity to equip itself with powers to do so. Its maximand may be a sole and supreme end or a "pluralistic" bundle of several ones, weighted more or less heavily. If the latter, it will juggle them as the feasibility of attaining each changes with circumstances, giving up some of one to get more of another, in order to reach the highest attainable index of the composite maximand. Some of these ends may, in turn, perfectly well consist of the individual maximands, pleasure-pain balances or utilities of its several subjects. In good faith, one should imagine an unselfish state which has no other ends in the bundle it seeks to maximize than several individual maximands of its subjects or of an entire class of them (e.g. the capitalists or the workers). In better faith still, one could seek to define the state which is both unselfish and impartial as one whose composite maximand consists solely of the individual maximands of all of its subjects, great and small, rich and poor, capitalist and worker alike in a spirit of true unity and consensus. Comic as the idea may look when set out like this, it should not be laughed out of court too fast, for (set out in softer lines) it represents most people's notion of the democratic state, and as such it is a very influential one.


By virtue of having to weigh them—for there is no other way of fusing them into a single magnitude, an index to be maximized—the state must, its unselfishness and impartiality notwithstanding, transform its subjects' ends, assimilating them into one of its own, for the choice of weights to be applied to each subject's end is nobody's but the state's. There is a quite unwarranted belief that in democracy, the state does not choose the weights, because they are given, incorporated in some rule which the state cannot but follow as long as it stays democratic.


A typical rule of this sort would be one-man-one-vote, which assigns a weight of one to every elector whether the state likes him or not. The fallacy of this belief consists in the passage from votes to ends, maximands. The tacit assumption that a vote for a political programme or for a team in preference to another is approximately the same thing as an expression of the voter's ends, is gratuitous. The existence of a social mechanism, such as elections, for choosing one out of a severely limited set of alternatives, such as a government, must not be construed as proof that there exists, operationally speaking, a "social choice" whereby society maximizes its composite ends. This does not invalidate the simple and totally different point that being able to express a preference for a political programme and for a person or team to wield power in the state, is a valuable end in itself.


If the state, in pursuit of impartiality, were to borrow somebody else's system of weights (to be applied to the several ends desired by its subjects), for instance, that of the sympathetic observer, the same problem would reappear, albeit at one remove. Instead of choosing its own weights, the state would choose the observer whose weights it was going to borrow.


None of this is new. It is merely a particular way of reiterating the well-known impossibility of aggregating individual utility functions into a "social welfare function" without somebody's will deciding how it should be done.*45 The particular approach we have chosen to get to this conclusion has the merit, however, of showing up fairly well the short-circuit going straight from the state's power to the satisfaction of its ends. If the state were its subjects' father and its sole end were their happiness, it would have to try and reach it by passing along a "loop" consisting, in some manner, of the several happinesses of the subjects. But this is made inherently impossible by the "layout" (plurality and conflict among the subjects, combined with the state's power to decide conflicts). The layout inevitably contains a short-circuit. Thus the state's end-fulfilment is quite direct, bypassing the loop going the long way round, via the social contract or via class rule and the satisfaction of the subject's ends.


The capitalist state, as I have argued (pp. 32-3) is one to which it is logically possible (but only just) to attribute some imprecisely defined maximand ("butterflies"), lying outside the realm of goals which can be attained by making its subjects do things. For the essentially negative reason that it is best not to erect an apparatus for exerting power lest it should fall into the wrong hands, such a state would govern as little as possible. Since it would take an austere view of demands for public goods and of claims by third parties for amending, supplementing or otherwise overruling the outcomes of private contracts, there would be little common ground between it and the political hedonist who wants to get his good out of the state.


If a subject is to be contented, in harmony with a capitalist state, it would help him to be imbued with a certain ideology whose basic tenets are: (1) that property "is," and is not a matter of "ought" (or that "finders are keepers"); (2) that the good of the contracting parties is not an admissible ground for interfering with their contracts and the good of third parties only exceptionally so; and (3) that requiring the state to do agreeable things for the subject greatly augments the probability that the state will require the subject to do disagreeable things.


The first tenet is quintessentially capitalist in that it dispenses with a justification for property. Some say that Locke has provided an ideology for capitalism. This seems to me off the mark. Locke taught that the finder is keeper on condition that there is "enough and as good" left for others, a condition calling out for egalitarian and "need-regarding" principles of tenure as soon as we leave the frontier and enter the world of scarcity. He also taught that the first occupier's right to his property springs from his labour which he "mixed" with it, a principle on a par with the several others which make the ownership of capital contingent upon deserts: "he worked for it," "he saved it," "il en a bavé," "he provides work for many poor people." (If he did not do any of these meritorious things, what title has he got to his capital? Already the case of "his grandfather worked hard for it" becomes tenuous because it is twice removed from such deserts.) To the extent that the rise of capitalism was accompanied by no political theory which sought to separate the right to property from notions of moral worth or social utility, let alone succeeded in doing so, it is true that capitalism never had a viable ideology. This lack, in turn, goes some way towards explaining why, in the face of an essentially adversary state and its accompanying ideology, capitalism has shown so little intellectual vigour in its own defence, and why such defences as it has managed to muster have been poor advocacy, lame compromises and sometimes offers of honourable surrender.


The second basic tenet of a proper capitalist ideology should affirm the freedom of contract. It must affirm it in particular against the idea that the state is entitled to coerce people for their own good. On the other hand, it would leave it ragged at the edge where it could cut into the interests of people not party to the contract whose freedom is being considered. The raggedness is due to a recognition of the indefinite variety of possible conflicts of interest in a complex society. It would leave the contract unprotected against a certain indefiniteness of right, of either too much or too little regard for the interests of those outside, yet affected by, a given contract.


This danger, however, is to some extent taken care of by the constraint arising out of the third tenet. The demand of A to have the state protect his interest which is affected by a contract between B and C, should be tempered by his apprehension of the consequential risk of finding himself under increased subjection as and when the claims of others are being attended to, for that is liable to mean that his contracts will be interfered with. These offsetting motivations can be more formally expressed as two imaginary schedules present in people's heads. For every person A, there should be a schedule of benefits (in the widest sense) that he would expect to derive from the state's progressively increasing degrees of concern for what could be called third-party interests in the deliberately neutral vocabulary I am attempting to use in discussing contracts. Another schedule should list the negative benefits (costs) which he would fear to suffer as a result of the state's escalating solicitude for the well-being of others. It is, of course, vain to pretend to empirical knowledge about such schedules even if it is admitted that they express something which is liable to exist in the heads of rationally calculating people. However, it could be suggested that poor people (and not only poor ones), people who feel helpless, who think they usually get the worst of any bargain, would have a schedule of expected benefits from state intervention which was, at any practicable level of the latter, always higher than the corresponding schedule of expected costs. In other words, they could never get too much help from the state, and never mind the restrictions, servitude and pain that this may entail. Conversely, rich people (but not only the rich), resourceful, self-confident people who think they can shift for themselves, could be regarded as carrying in their head a sharply rising schedule of negative benefits which soon mounts above the schedule of positive benefits at any but the most minimal scale of government activity.


I advance no hypothesis about the scale and shape of the cost-benefit schedules which describe real people's attitudes to these questions, nor about the ones they "ought to" have if they all had the very highest order of political wisdom, insight and understanding. The implication of this duality is that the consequences of calling in the state to further one's interest are complex; they are partly unintended, and also largely unforeseen. People endowed with the political talents that take them as close as possible to perfect foresight would, therefore, presumably have different attitudes from those who assess proximate consequences only.


This concept of individual costs and benefits as a function of the state's concern for third-party rights will serve for the purpose of defining adherents to the capitalist ideology as people who consider (a) that as government intervention increases, the total disadvantages they will suffer increase faster than the total advantages; and (b) that the former exceed the latter at a level of state activity which is somewhere short of the actual level, so that when living in an actual state, such people expect that they would feel better off if there were less government interference with free contracts.


This does not, of course, mean that people adhering to the capitalist ideology must seek to go all the way and attain the state of nature. It means, however, that at the margin of actual experience they would seek to restrain and "roll back" the state. It means that in terms of the direction of change, they would find congenial the capitalist state which (as we have seen) has intelligible reasons of its own to put restraints upon itself.


Such a state, it cannot be said too often, is an abstraction, an expository device. So is the person adhering to the capitalist ideology. He is not necessarily the abstract capitalist. He may be the abstract wage-earner. His identification with an ideology which (we contend) is the one par excellence conducive to the proper functioning of capitalism is not, as the Marxist theory of consciousness would have it, a necessary consequence of his role in the prevailing "mode of production." He need not "exploit"; he may be "exploited." His consciousness with regard to the state can (if it really must!) be tautologically derived from his interest; if his personal pain-and-pleasure, cost-benefit, help-or-hindrance calculus tells him that he is better off under less government, he will be for less government. No a priori reason stops a wage-earner from reaching this conclusion, any more than it stops a real-life capitalist from wanting more government. Marxism, at least "vulgar Marxism," would condemn both for false consciousness, for failing to recognize their "real" interest which (again tautologically), is completely derived from their class situation. However, enough has been said by now to make clear that we find no convincing reason to suppose that a person is somehow making a mistake if his ideology is not the one purportedly "corresponding" to his class situation. A capitalist and a worker may both be allergic to the state they know; they often are; their reasons may well be largely the same.


All theories of the benign state, from divine right to social contract, carry the tacit assumption that the satisfaction or happiness of the state is for some reason and in some manner attained through the happiness of its subjects. No good reason is offered for this, nor a plausible manner in which it could take place. Therefore, there is no warrant for this rather demanding assumption, least of all when it is made tacitly. Rational action by the state links its power to its ends in a natural short-circuit, without passing along the long and winding loop which is, so to speak, the locus of the subjects' own conception of their good. With the best will in the world, no state, not even the most direct democracy or the most enlightened absolutism, can make its power run round such a loop. If it has heterogeneous subjects, it can at the very best, in the limiting case, further its own composite conception of their several goods.


False consciousness can, with luck, close the loop; for subjects need only believe that their ends are no different from the ends the state is in fact furthering. This, it must be supposed, is the meaning of "socialization." Such a result is promoted by the state's ability (and in particular by the role it assumes in public education) to render society relatively homogeneous. It is closely allied to the process alluded to at the beginning of this chapter whereby people's political preferences adjust to the political arrangements under which they live.*46 Instead of people choosing a political system, the political system can to a certain extent choose them. They need not with Orwell's Winston Smith, actually come to love Big Brother. If substantial numbers or perhaps a whole class of them develop sufficient false consciousness to identify their good with what the state is actually providing, and accept the collateral subjection without doubting the attractiveness of the bargain, the basis is laid for consent and harmony between the state and civil society, though the state is, inevitably, a presumptive adversary of its subjects.

Notes for this chapter

The political hedonist could be defined as a person who signs the social contract because he holds this particular expectation. It is not unreasonable to argue that in no version of contractarian theory is the social contract signed by anybody for any other reason than the expectation of a favourable pleasure-pain balance, properly interpreted. If so, the fact of agreeing to the social contract is alone sufficient to define the political hedonist.
This is known in the trade as Arrow's Impossibility Theorem, after its first rigorous statement by K. J. Arrow in Social Choice and Individual Values, 1951.
Jon Elster, "Sour Grapes," in Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams (eds), Utilitarianism and Beyond, 1982, has a penetrating discussion of what he calls adaptive and counter-adaptive preferences, and which bear some relation to what I call, in the present work, "addiction" and "allergy." He insists on adaptation and learning being distinct, notably in that the former is reversible (p. 226).

It seems to me difficult to affirm that the formation of political preferences is reversible. It may or may not be, and the historical evidence can be read either way. My intuitive inclination would be to regard it as irreversible, both in its adaptive and counter-adaptive manifestations. The question is of obvious importance if one form of government can, so to speak, "spoil the people forever" for another form of government. . The Adversary State

End of Notes

12 of 33

Return to top