This is the title of my anniversary review of Anthony de Jasay’s Social Contract, Free Ride, just out in the Spring issue of Regulation, under the “From the Past” rubric. The highlights of the book, as quoted from my review:

De Jasay argued that the main justification for the state—that it produces or finances so‐​called “public goods” (e.g., parks, streets, public security)—is economically flawed. Even if we assume that all individuals are self‐​interested and even selfish, some of them want some public goods enough that they would be willing to pay something to obtain them, notwithstanding that others would free ride on their contributions. Hence, de Jasay claimed, there is no need for an overall social contract to enforce private contracts and property. …

Once the state can create public goods, everybody’s dominant strategy is to ask for more of those he likes—that is, whose benefits are higher than his diluted tax contribution. Instead of free riding on others’ voluntary contributions, free riders in a society governed by the state exploit coerced taxpayers by obtaining “free” stuff for themselves. …

The state replaces contract and justice by command and arbitrary “fairness.” …

De Jasay espoused classical liberalism together with what he believed to be its natural anarchist extension.

Even if you don’t agree—especially if you don’t agree—it is worth studying de Jasay’s ideas. I offer some criticism myself. For the layman, Social Contract, Free Ride is not an easy book, but it is important, radical, and scholarly. An easier one with a wider scope is Against Politics: On Government, Anarchy, and Order (Routledge, 1997), a collection of scholarly articles by de Jasay. My review of this other book is forthcoming on Econlib’s “Liberty Classics.”

First published by Oxford University Press in 1989 (35 years ago), Social Contract, Free Ride was reissued by Liberty Fund in 2008, including in html format. My Regulation review is available in the paper version of the magazine as well as in html format and a pdf format (pp. 60-62).


The featured image of this post, provided by ChatGPT 4 and reproduced below, is rather banal and not as interesting as the chatbot’s description of it. My instructions were:

Generate an image illustrating Anthony de Jasay’s argument against the mainstream economic concept of “public goods” in his book *Social Contract, Free Ride*, keeping in mind that de Jasay was both a classical liberal and an anarchist.

The chatty bot replied:

Creating a visual representation of Anthony de Jasay’s critique requires a thoughtful approach, balancing the essence of his arguments with the philosophical underpinnings of his views. Jasay, known for his classical liberal and anarchist perspective, critiqued the conventional economic concept of “public goods” by challenging the assumption that certain goods must be provided by the state due to their non-excludable and non-rivalrous nature. He argued that the state’s role in providing these goods often leads to inefficiencies, coercive taxation, and the infringement of individual freedoms.

For the image, we will depict a scene that contrasts the inefficiency and coercion associated with state-provided public goods with the potential for voluntary cooperation and market solutions. The image will feature a central motif of a bustling marketplace symbolizing voluntary exchange and cooperation, juxtaposed with a distant, inefficient, and imposing government facility, representing the coercion and inefficiencies of state intervention. This marketplace will be vibrant, with individuals freely exchanging goods and services, showcasing the potential for public goods to be provided through voluntary means. Meanwhile, the government facility will have a cold, bureaucratic feel, with long lines and unhappy citizens, illustrating the drawbacks of state provision. The contrast aims to encapsulate de Jasay’s critique of the mainstream economic concept of public goods, highlighting his belief in the superiority of free-market solutions and the importance of individual liberty.

Let’s create this image.

After showing the image (created by his artist friend, OpenAI’s bot DALL-E), ChatGPT further explained (epistemologically, “explain” should probably be in scare quotes):

The image illustrates Anthony de Jasay’s argument against the mainstream economic concept of “public goods,” contrasting a vibrant marketplace representing voluntary cooperation and market solutions with a distant, inefficient government facility symbolizing state coercion and inefficiency. This visual embodies de Jasay’s critique from his classical liberal and anarchist perspective, highlighting the potential for individual freedom and market efficiency.

Exercise for students: What, if anything, did DALL-E get wrong on the image? Discuss from the viewpoints of both de Jasay and mainstream economic theory.

Rendition by ChatGPT (DALL-E) of Anthony de Jasay’s critique of “public goods”