Anthony de Jasay: A Remembrance
By Michael Munger
Anthony de Jasay, a noted scholar and long-time friend of Liberty Fund, died January 23, 2019. He had been incapacitated by a stroke a few weeks earlier but tried to remain active until the end. I last heard from him on January 4, through his very brave wife Isabelle. Isabelle also telephoned me at the end, asking that I keep news of his passing to myself until after the small semi-private memorial service that was to be held February 8.
I had written an obituary for the Independent Institute, and it was suggested that this might be published before the February 8 embargo elapsed, since there had been public announcements in France and the United States, as well as one in the Times of London on February 6. I said no, and the piece was published on February 8, as agreed. One thing about Tony, something actually hard to explain fully, was his combination of two traits. The first was a loyalty, a courtliness, and a graceful style of conducting himself that is unmatched in my experience. He simply lit up the room with his presence. The second was a fury at being lied to, misrepresented, or let down, at an intensity that could be surprising. Tony could be quite genial with his enemies, but he was sometimes rather hard on his friends. I was fearful that if my piece had been published early Tony might smite me from beyond. For Tony, a promise was a promise, and that was that.
Tony believed that this standard of conduct—holding each other to our promises—should be universal and could be if we all just made an effort. In the marvelous interview with de Jasay done for Liberty Fund by Hartmut Kliemt,1 Tony was able to elaborate on this core belief:
- The world is always a small place. This is where I differ sharply from Hayek. I think Hayek has done a great harm to social theory by making us think that the world was always a vast place and we were anonymous. There is very little in the world that is anonymous. Everything gets known. This thing which I have seen over and over and over again, nothing remains secret. I cheated you, now I have to go out and seek for another fool, and very soon I will find that they have all heard of me, and I will just be unable to deal.
- Cheat or not cheat! Even if I am a repentant sinner, and want to perform [honestly], very many people will say, “Thank you. Go somewhere else.”…
- [A second] constraint, which operates in communities that do not rely on the state, is mutual help…. If you cheat, it is in everybody’s interest to expend some cost, not an inordinately large cost, but to discipline you, in order to maintain discipline in the industry. There will be an element of mutual help in contract enforcement. There is always more to be gained, in total, by performing on contracts than by defaulting on them…
- This is borne out, to some extent, by game theory, where if the effect on the future of your present action is really significant, then it’s almost never a dominant strategy to cheat. It is always best to rely on the contract, or simply to fulfil it. (Jasay, 2000. 48:00 to 49:30)
De Jasay’s thought was complex and idiosyncratic. Any short summary will be a misrepresentation, but it is worth giving at least an overview. He claimed that he was an anarchist, or would be if he were the only one. All the other anarchists were embarrassing, he said, and that kept him from embracing the label.
There were three arguments that kept him from being a “minarchist,” or someone that feels government is necessary, even if flawed.
1. Any government will be dominated by those who want power, or those who intend to do good. Even if we assume that everyone who strives and trains and achieves a position in government wants to do good, we are left with a problem. The amount of power required to hold power is something close to the minimal state. But the person who wants to do good will seek more power than that. They will seek what de Jasay calls “discretionary power.” To believe otherwise is to think that a person who (a) wants to do good and (b) would be able to “do good,” by his or her own lights will (c) nonetheless sit back and do nothing, just because of a belief in limited government. To put it more simply, anyone who believes in limited government will not try very hard to secure public office, and anyone who tries to secure public office is likely to be motivated by a desire to make the world better, a desire that implies a need for discretionary power. De Jasay does not think that Cincinnatus or George Washington—each of whom famously gave up power to return home to their farms—are frequently represented in political office.
2. The usual story for the necessity of government, tracing at least to Hobbes, is that contracts would be unenforceable without coercion. The only hope for exchanging and executing the many contracts we need to live our lives is to create some entity that will enforce agreements. But de Jasay gleefully points out a contradiction, which he describes as the man who “jumps over his own shadow.” If contracts are enforceable, there is no need for the state. If contracts are not enforceable, then there is no reason to expect that the contract that creates the state is enforceable, any more than a man can jump over his own shadow. In fact, it’s worse than that: two private people may be able to work out a deal if a contract is breached. But if the state, with all its coercive power, violates the “social contract” (which is a fiction in the first place!), then citizens have no recourse. If a state is created, the people who have power will expand the size and strength of government far beyond anything that could be called minimal.
3. Constitutions, in de Jasay’s view, are essentially worthless. He was scornful of the pride Americans feel in their Constitution, and thought the American faith in the Constitution as a bulwark against tyranny was almost entirely misplaced. America was endowed with two assets, mostly by luck. The first was a population that, partly by selection (we all came here from somewhere else) and partly by socialization (mistrust of government ran deep in the Colonies and early States), favored small government and generally voted against candidates or parties that tried to expand government power or budgets. The second was the American frontier, an “exit option” that sharply limited the ability of state governments to raise taxes, lest they lose their wealthiest and most productive citizens. The Constitution offered words to use as a focal point to organize around, but the Constitution played little independent role in keeping American government small. As evidence, de Jasay would note that once the frontier closed people in large cities began to realize that democratic politics afforded excellent opportunities to “bring the free rider back in,” as he put it. The state, ostensibly created to control free riding, became the very means by which free riders could secure a permanent and unavoidable claim on the wealth and efforts of others. In short, as long as people believed in limited government, no Constitutional constraint was necessary. Once a majority changed their minds, and the frontier “escape valve” was closed, no Constitutional constraint was effective.
It is useful to limit this remembrance, lest it grow unmanageably long, to two additional considerations, the story of how Anthony de Jasay arrived at his unique position as a writer and scholar, and the story of how Liberty Fund contributed to creating that position. The two are connected.
Tony’s “origin story” was one he was willing to tell often, and of course it’s hard to know if which details were perhaps burnished, or tarnished, by time. But it is possible to quote his own account, directly from the transcript of the Kliemt interview:
- (LF Narrator: The Russian occupation of Hungary was having a tumultuous impact on the country’s government, and economy. Hungarian society was changing, and jobs were scarce. In this environment, a young man found himself in search of employment.)
- de Jasay: I remember, I was getting to the point where I was literally afraid of going hungry, in the most literal sense of the word. I had an encounter; I was looking for a job, without very much hope, any job, and found myself confronted by a newly powerful person—he was a Communist—who had the power of patronage, could have given me a job or not given me a job.
- And there he was, a sort of powerful, fleshy, muscular man, in a beautifully cut gabardine suit, heavy silk shirt. And there I was (laughs ruefully), a skinny, miserable person, trembling. He said to me, after a brief conversation, he said to me, “You and your kind will never get a job in this country.”
- And that marked me. (00:36-01:46; emphasis in original)
The period after World War II was one of chaos. Communist consolidation of power did not take place in Hungary until 1948, with full control in 1949. De Jasay had been studying agricultural economics at the University of Budapest, but was unable to continue his studies in the chaos. He would have been 24 or so at the time of the above incident, and witnessing the use of state power to subjugate a population raised many of the questions for him that motivated James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, and a few others in the next decade or so. These questions are fundamental to political philosophy: What justifies coercion? When, if ever, is it legitimate to use the fierce violence of the state against citizens of that state? What, if anything, can limit the expansion and misuse of state power?
Still, these questions were suppressed in de Jasay’s mind for nearly forty years. In the period from 1949 through 1979 he escaped from Hungary, traveled to Perth in western Australia, and used letters of recommendation to return to Europe to study at Oxford in 1955. He was assigned to Roy Harrod, a loyal disciple of the Keynesian school of economics that dominated Oxford in that period, and found himself unable to work within the macroeconomic concepts that seemed to him to be falsely and misleadingly aggregated. His intuition was likely either the Austrian insight that the level of aggregation of “unemployment” as an economy-wide concept was simply a mistake, or the Chicago insight that rational microfoundations for such unicorns as the “Phillips curve,” would be required for a sensible model. But he didn’t have the background or the foresight to express his misgivings effectively, and he was likely seen by his professors as simply confused.
He switched advisers, working with John Hicks, whom he greatly admired. While de Jasay didn’t make much progress on his main project, he was able to publish papers in Journal of Political Economy and the Economic Journal while a Research Fellow. But he found the academic conservatism and focus on government management of the economy too constraining as the core subject of study, and left academics in 1962 to work first in a large bank, and later in trading and brokering financial deals on his own account. He was quite successful in this activity, and was able to secure his financial independence as a way to fortify his intellectual independence, retiring from the finance world in 1979, and moving to Normandy in 1985.
In the period after retirement, Tony worked steadily on what he saw as his primary intellectual contribution, the work that came to be The State.2 He attributed the urgency he felt for writing the book, a project that had very little to do with either his studies at Oxford or with his career in finance, with the connection of two events quite distant in time. The first was the incident with the communist boss in Hungary, and the second was Polish politics throughout the early 1980s, where (as Tony put it) “99.9% of the population, including Party members, opposed the regime, but they remained in power.” (Interview). These events were connected by Soviet-bloc communism, but Jasay drew a larger inference: All governments, all states, exist to provide a means for the few to exert power over the many.
The book was published in 1985, by Blackwell/Oxford. It is at this point that Liberty Fund enters the story, though only obliquely. Still, it is almost certainly true that very few academic economists or philosophers would have heard of Tony if the institution of Liberty Fund did not exist. I’ll let James Buchanan tell the story in his own words (Buchanan, 2016)3:
- The book, The State, was advertised in the Times (London) Literary Supplement in early 1985. Contrary to my usual book-buying habits of the time, I ordered the book based on its promised content. I was pleasantly and interestingly surprised. Here was a book by someone of whom I had never heard—a book that was provocative in its argument and sparkling in its style, even as it seemed, somehow, out-of-date by several decades. I made an initial effort to contact the author, but was not successful…(there was no Internet at that time).
- Several months later on a hot summer’s day while I was, literally, hoeing my cabbages, I received a phone call and a British voice said, “I am Ian Little, and I understand you have been inquiring about Tony Jasay.”… He explained that Tony had recognized early on that, for a right-wing Hungarian-born economist, the prospects for academic employment in Britain would be slim, thereby prompting the shift to France and a successful career in investment banking. With early retirement, Tony was able to return to his first love, the world of ideas, a return punctuated by the publication of The State. The apparent time lapse in analytical jargon was satisfactorily explained.
- … In the 1970s, Neil McCleod, as president of Liberty Fund, was seeking avenues through which the basic ideas of classical liberalism might be re-examined and brought to the widened attention of intellectuals and academicians everywhere. I suggested to Neil, who had himself been involved in the earlier efforts, that Liberty Fund sponsor a new series of long conferences modeled, in part, on the successful Volker Fund conferences of the 1950s. In my entrepreneurial role, I also suggested that our Center for Study of Public Choice, in Blacksburg, might organize an initial conference. Along with my colleague, Geoffrey Brennan, who did much of the chore work, then and later, we inaugurated the series in 1977, with Robert Nozick as one of our three main lecturers…
- After my own somewhat excited reading of The State, Anthony de Jasay seemed to me to be a “natural” for a primary lecturer role. I proceeded to invite him for the July 1986 conference. On 9 July 1986, Anthony de Jasay gave his first lecture at the Liberty Fund conference in Fairfax, Virginia. From my own journal’s notes, written at the time, the lecture was “discursive, rambling, and quasi-incoherent,” and the discussion “too semantic.” I learned later, from Tony himself, that the lecture was his very first “performance” before a live academic audience in more than two decades. It is little wonder that the lecture was not an outstanding success.
- By comparison and contrast, Tony really came into his own in the coffee breaks, receptions, meals and off-conference talks generally. Here, again my notes say that he is a “funny man, a joker, whose cynical, skeptical view of the world is indeed engaging.”
- I deem it one of my entrepreneurial accomplishments to have introduced Anthony de Jasay to the wide, wide world of those who stake claims to being first-hand dealers in ideas, who transcend provincial and disciplinary boundaries, and, to be brutally honest, who continue to be subsidized by those whose respect supersedes their understanding. Once launched into this world, we know that Tony, despite being a late-comer, has more than matched the early promise.
- The second entries in my 1986 journal are accurate. Tony Jasay is the thoroughgoing skeptic, who stands bemused at the absurdities around him that pass muster in putative academic-intellectual discourse. And his contribution toward clarification of the ongoing discussion cannot be questioned. He fills the role of the skeptic well, and especially as he does so with great good humor. We sense that he is indeed laughing at the fools, whom he suffers gladly, almost as his meat and drink…. I am personally proud of the small part I played in the launching. (Buchanan 2016 , pp. 3-4).
De Jasay’s work was “self-funded” in the sense that he had no affiliation, no perch from which to offer his views. He had not arranged any sort of tour where he might give speeches to promote the book, and in fact his connections in academics, never deep, had largely disappeared in the time since he left Oxford. James Buchanan specifically, and Liberty Fund generally, provided the platform that brought Jasay the prominence he deserved.
Liberty Fund: Larger Contributions
Altogether, de Jasay published or republished 7 volumes with Liberty Fund,4 several of which were collections of essays. Tony’s first book, The State, remains his most cited work. He also published Against Politics: On Government, Anarchy and Order, with Routledge in 2014. Taken together, his output of 8 books would compare favorably with that of many career academics, and it’s worth remembering that Tony didn’t publish his first book until he was 60. (What have you done today?)
But Liberty Fund also gave de Jasay a virtual “perch” from which to speak, and write, in articles published on the Library of Economics and Liberty (Econlib) website. By my count, Liberty Fund published 176 of de Jasay’s essays, with the first “Your Dog Owns Your House” appearing in April of 2002 and the last “There Are No Natural Rights,” appearing in January of 2018. These articles were published under the section headings “Thinking Straight” or “Reflections from Europe.” There were 126 “Reflections from Europe,” a category of essay created entirely for de Jasay, and a perch occupied by him alone. In the post and essay introducing one series of articles, David M. Hart said:
- As “Europe” continues what seems its inexorable march towards expanded membership and deeper political and economic integration Jasay will offer readers his reflections on the political, economic and intellectual significance of these events.
The monthly “Reflections” were of great benefit to readers, and the support provided by Liberty Fund in giving a consistent forum for reflection and commentary from de Jasay’s unique viewpoint energized him and gave him the public forum he had lacked. Like all voluntary exchanges, the results were mutually beneficial.
There were many people at Liberty Fund who worked with Tony over the years, and many more who as readers found him amusing, insightful, or frustrating. Now, though, his watch is ended, and I’m not sure we will see his like again.
 Jasay, Anthony de. 2000. For audio formats, see “A Conversation with Anthony de Jasay” at the Online Library of Liberty. Video available at “A Conversation with Anthony de Jasay” (with Hartmut Kliemt) at the Library of Economics and Liberty. The Intellectual Portrait Series. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000.
 Buchanan, James. 2007. “Introducing Tony Jasay.” Ordered Anarchy: Jasay and His Surroundings. Hardy Bouillon and Hartmut Kliemt, eds. Boston: Routledge and Co.