Anthony de Jasay, RIP
By Alberto Mingardi
Anthony de Jasay died on Wednesday January 23. It was my understanding that the family wanted the news not come out for a few more days, as a private funeral was arranged, but it did anyway on social media, and Pierre Lemieux dutifully reported it. Jasay’s last few years, and particularly his last months were very difficult, for him and his beloved wife Isabelle. May he rest in peace.
I’ve known Tony for the last twenty years, which means my entire adult life. We first met at a Mont Pelerin Society meeting in Potsdam, Germany. I was a very young lad, who had a hard time putting together a couple of sentences in vaguely understandable English and, of course, was pretty sure he knew it all. So, I ended up somehow pontificating to nobody less than Anthony Flew, uttering that “of course Mill was a socialist” (well, I’d be far more appreciative to poor John Stuart now, but still he won’t make it into the pantheon of my favourite liberals). Tony was engaged in far more serious talks with somebody else, but turned on his feet and managed to shake my hand: “It is a pleasure to hear that at the Mont Pelerin Society”. Ever since, Tony somehow took me seriously and I had the privilege of spending some time with him. His razor sharp mind made him a demanding friend: he enjoyed wit and humour tremendously, despised successful politicians and sloppy philosophers, and was forceful and relentless in his reasoning. He was not an easy man, yet he was a good man and a truly original thinker.
Tony was born in Hungary in 1925, in a family clearly endowed with exceptional intellectual abilities: his older sister, Magda Jászay (1920-2009), was an accomplished historian, who specialized in Italian matters. He migrated from Hungary aged 23, moving first to Austria and then to Australia. From there “he had the courage and the enterprise to send an article he had written to Sir Dennis Robertson at Cambridge who was most impressed by his quality, especially given its unpromising provenance. Sir Dennis knew about Nuffield College studentships and wrote the Warden suggesting Jasay as a strong candidate. The college would not elect students without an interview, and Tony’s Australian studentship can scarcely have been enough to justify a speculative trip. But Tony was always prepared to take serious risks. Anyway, he came and was elected”. So the story was told by I.M.D. Little, a lifelong friend of Tony, in an essay included in Ordered Anarchy: Jasay and His Surroundings, a Festschrift-like volume edited by Hardy Bouillon and Hartmut Kliemt.
Little met Tony when the latter was a student and knew him in the period he worked at “Alexanders, a small merchant bank in Paris” and later on his own, “running what now would be called a hedge fund.” Little painted Tony’s portrait as a “risk addict”, gaining lots of money but subsequently losing most of it. To the late Gerard Radnitzky, who was a true fan of Tony’s, such life experience underpinned de Jasay’s liberalism. His was a life shaped by many accidents, good and bad, upon which Tony could comment “without bitterness”, not because of super-human detachment from his own conditions but because of a genuinely speculative mind, that knew well that we delude ourselves if we think we are on the pilot seat. For many years, Tony’s eyesight got worse and worse and at a certain point, he was basically blind. Such a state was terrible for him, and very bad news for us all: it was surprising, perhaps astonishing, how he could cope with contemporary developments in the social sciences, aided by Isabelle who read papers and newspaper articles to him. Yet his blindness further isolated him for a community of scholars who always considered him an outsider. Modern academia doesn’t like outsiders, and particularly an outrageously talented one as Tony was. He was admired by some of the greater scholars of his own time, beginning with James M. Buchanan, but was seldom the object of systematic study particularly by ideological opponents, who happily took the liberty of non-dealing with such an academic non-persona, in spite of his stringent refutations of many of the current mainstream ideas in political philosophy. I don’t mean to say that, with perfect eyesight, the situation would have changed substantially: but perhaps he would have wrestled with more contemporary authors. Such wrestling would have been highly illuminating, as his reaction to Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century proves (see here).
Little stressed that the same eagerness to take risks that Tony showed as an investor pervaded his later activity as a political theorist. This was described, again by Little, as a commitment to “a profound and much-needed clarification of all the most important concepts of moral and political philosophy”. This was indeed the gist of a good chunk of Tony’s work: he did not have the attitude of the historian, who appreciates and practices contextualization, but he always cut to the chase. He had, for example, little patience with the rhetoric of “rights”, even when it was used to support libertarian positions. In his perspective, a right “is an option to call for the discharge of the matching obligation”: rights belong to (explicit) contracts. On the other hand, the use of “rights” in the realm of political philosophy claim ” solemnly to recognize that people have “rights” to do certain specific things and that certain other things ought not to be done to them” and yet “on closer analysis, these “rights” turn out to be the exceptions to a tacitly understood general rule that everything else is forbidden, for if such were not the case, announcing “rights” to engage freely in certain acts would be redundant and pointless” (“Liberalism, Loose or Strict“). If “rights” were really needed to make something permissible, it means that almost everything was prohibited before – by whom? Mind that we are not talking about the long march of freedom in history, but of a philosophical situation akin to that of the “state of nature”. De Jasay rejected contractarianism and utilitarianism too.
His case for liberalism was established upon a “presumption of liberty”: “any act a person wishes to perform is deemed to be permissible—not to be interfered with, regulated, taxed, or punished—unless sufficient reason is shown why it should not be permissible”. The burden of proof should be on those claiming an act should not be permissible, rather than the other way around. You won’t be surprised that Jasay didn’t approve of the Berlinian distinction between freedom “from” and freedom “to” (freedom “from” hunger should translate into freedom to eat when hungry, to be meaningful) and was deeply convinced that wanna-be regulators would not come up with solid arguments for restricting freedom in most cases. There is an article by Tony entitled “Freedom from a Mainly Logical Perspective“: the title really sums up his approach.
Tony’s bibliography is rich and would deserve careful study: from works complex and challenging such as Social Contract, Free Ride to books aimed at a wider audience such as Choice, Contract and Consent: A Restatement of Liberalism, which is one of my favourites. In the last few years, Tony wrote very many short pieces here at Econlib, most of which were republished in Political Economy, Concisely and Political Philosophy, Clearly. These articles are often true jewels, like such a concise and clear treatment of the issues behind the financial crisis like “Bank Debt, Sovereign Debt and the Dogs That Did Not Bark“.
Tony’s masterpiece was “The State“, his 1986 book. James Buchanan’s review includes the following lines:
Consider a selected mélange of names variously familiar to public choice political economists: Machiavelli, Hobbes, Tocqueville, Marx, Pareto, Puviani, Schumpeter, Downs, Tullock, Riker, Nozick, Niskanen, Stigler, Auster and Silver, Brennan, Becker, Bartlett, Tollison. Discard any soft spots in analysis – discussion; retain only the flint-hard predictive elements. In the process, you will get a general idea of The State.
That’s a compliment very few people have ever been paid, least of all by a Nobel laureate. The State starts with the question: “What would you do if you were the state?” Now, all grown-ups know that the “state” is not a sentient being, it is a tree with many branches, some of them desperately fighting with some others. Tony was a political realist; he knew that well and was conversant in the literature of public choice. Yet he wanted us to see that there are trends (like the inordinate growth of government in the last century) that we can better understand by focusing on the rationality of the state:
For this reason the state needs to search for other ways to maximize its discretionary power, restricting more and more whatever is left of people’s freedom. In the process, spectacular government failure will be easily turned into excuses for newer government interventions.
Such a process happens in history with ups and downs, accidents, timid attempts to “roll the state back”: but it has its own rationality, that we better consider, were we interested in turning back from the road to serfdom. The State is a great and grand book which will be read decades from now, shedding lights on modernity.
Tony was a partisan of liberty and a political realist. His comments on real-world politics were crisp and most of the times politically incorrect. He had a marvellous, dry sense of humour, which he allowed to come to surface in his shorter pieces. A great mind of our times left us: one day, a greater number of people will remember Anthony de Jasay as such.