In Memoriam: Anthony de Jasay
On 23 January, 2019, the great Libertarian political theorist Anthony de Jasay died, aged 93. The conventional euphemisms like ‘passing away’ are misleading. They distract from the sad reality of death but also from what is lasting beyond it. As a person and as a thinker Anthony de Jasay has left a lasting impression with those who had the good fortune to meet him either in person and/or in his writings. Since I have been very fortunate in both regards, I will try to share some of my recollections as a tribute to my late friend.
Anthony de Jasay was a Hungarian born British gentleman and man of letters who happened to live in France as a British citizen. His English was immaculate, his German good. I can testify to the latter as a native speaker but can only presume that the French that he spoke at home with his wife Isabelle was as good as his English. His astonishing command of European languages was certainly due to both his natural talent and his traditional Hungarian upper-class education. This upbringing made itself felt across the board not only in his broad general knowledge but also in the elegance and ease of his conduct as a gentleman. Remarking once to me that a gentleman would take every care not to hurt other people or to treat them impolitely unless deliberately and intentionally, this was how he behaved himself. An admirer of the works of Anthony Trollope — to which he introduced me to my great benefit — Jasay felt particularly attracted to the ideal of the gentleman expressed therein. He subscribed to Shirley Letwin’s view that the Madam Max Goesler of Anthony Trollope’s novels was not only the female incarnation of a gentleman but represented the ideal almost to perfection. That Jasay thought of the role model of the “gentleman” in gender neutral terms was certainly not for reasons of political correctness. For political correctness he reserved scorn in private and in public mild irony as in the characteristically elegant initial footnote to his Social Contract Free Ride: “Wherever I say ‘he’ or ‘man,’ I really mean ‘she’ or ‘woman’.”
Social Contract Free Ride is, of course, notable not only for its first footnote. It is across the board living up to highest standards of “economic philosophy”. Even though one may have some reservations concerning how Jasay thought that free-rider problems could be overcome within the rational choice framework that he as a hard-nosed economist basically endorsed, the central points of the book stand:
- There are multiple ways a society can self-organize and can provide collective goods without the helping hand of government.
- Taking into account certain structures of the real game of life, individuals can overcome free-riding even behind the veil of individual insignificance in large numbers’ interaction.
- Though there will always be a niche for free-riding, our resentment against it tends to be more disruptive than free-riding itself – in particular when we take resort to coercive collective action to prevent free-riding in the name of “social justice and fairness”.
For Jasay, the prevailing contractarian justifications of the state that present it as a consensual remedy for free-rider problems will exacerbate the risks of relying on state-coercion. If anything, he thought, only a belief in the illegitimacy of coercive government can conceivably slow down the “democratic trend” towards removing limits to government. As a philosophical rather than a political anarchist, Jasay recommended to acquiesce to the demands of government with the mental reservation of acknowledging them as coercive and lacking the moral legitimacy of voluntary assent.
As a political theorist Jasay was deeply concerned about how opinions form in society. Like David Hume whom he admired, he concurred with Thomas Hobbes that “the power of the mighty hath no foundation but in the opinion and belief of the people” (Behemoth). The opinions supporting acquiescence should be respect for traditions and prudence not Hartian or democratic “rules of recognition” which for Jasay operated in truth as “rules of submission” facilitating the subjection of men by men. In one of his beautifully succinct and ironic metaphors, he compared constitutions that contain ‘rules of rule change’ (and enactment) in particular to those of democratic states with “chastity belts” to which the lady happens to hold the key.
One might object here that it may make a difference whether the key is dangling from the bedpost or stored somewhere in less convenient reach. That in the last resort only some kind of “opinion” may cause limiting “inconveniences” for power-seeking governments seems valid, nevertheless. Jasay’s probably most influential work, The State tries to demonstrate this with an extended “ad hominem” argument. Addressing the reader in its very first line with the query “What would you do if you were the state?” the book treats “the state, a web of institutions, as if it were a person with a mind” (introduction to second edition). The shift of perspective makes it obvious to the reader so addressed that the state, like the reader, might want to maximize its discretionary powers to do whatever seems fit.
Since Geoffrey Brennan and James Buchanan in their treatment of the tax maximizing state (The Power to Tax) did something similar, it is obvious that The State should have naturally appealed to them. In particular, Buchanan was taken by storm and surprise. Until The State was published in 1985, Buchanan had never heard of the author. Buchanan had an excuse since after leaving Oxford for a twenty-year spell in banking, Jasay had been practically forgotten by academics. Impressed by his reading as he was, Buchanan contacted Ian Little who was mentioned in the foreword to The State. As a close friend of Anthony de Jasay, this renowned economist could provide first-hand information. The upshot of all this was that on the initiative of James Buchanan, Anthony de Jasay was invited to a Liberty Fund Colloquium organized by Buchanan and some of his colleagues in the United States in 1986.
This was, as the famous final line in Casablanca runs, the “beginning of a beautiful friendship” which involved Liberty Fund as an institution and many persons working for or associated with it. Tony’s deteriorating eyesight that eventually would lead to complete blindness increasingly became a matter of common concern among his friends. How he and his wife Isabelle struggled through adversity and somehow managed to churn out high quality papers and comments – many of them published by Liberty Fund – against almost all odds impressed all of us. Gentleman and gentlewoman went on without making their struggle felt to the outside world. Though I found it sometimes heartbreaking to see how tedious producing academic texts can be if the author cannot read and cannot type, it was always a great pleasure to read the results of their toils and to discuss them when visiting Anthony and Isabelle de Jasay at their home in rural Normandy.
When Tony had his first stroke a couple of years ago, things became complicated almost beyond control and the great man — understandably — felt deserted not only by his health but even by his friends and admirers. We could, in the classical sense in which Jasay’s favorite ‘British Moralists’ used that term, “sympathize” with his desperation but there was not much he would let us do. Now we have to accept an even greater final loss. Yet, Anthony de Jasay’s memory as a person will live on among all who had the privilege to know him personally.
Irrespective of intellectual fads and fashions, Jasay’s ideas will survive their creator. Selfish as I am I had perhaps rather their creator back, but I am most grateful that the website on which these lines appear will provide an ideal environment to keep Jasay’s intellectual legacy in easy reach of future readers. Anthony de Jasay’s highly original ideas as a philosopher-economist and adversary of the state and its philosophical justifications will last for times to come.
Hartmut Kliemt is a retired professor of philosophy and economics of the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management and guest professor for behavioral and institutional economics, Justus-Liebig-University, Giessen, Germany.