Available Now!

Available Now!
What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Awe-Inspiring Jasay

Lately I've been reading Anthony de Jasay. I stand in awe of his ability to mount a clear and devastating argument. Why I took so long to pick up The State I cannot say, but now I have done it, and I am better for it. It's a masterpiece. I have moved on to Against Politics. Awe-inspiring.Jasay's mission is to say to almost 400 years of political philosophy: Whoa, not so fast. Western politics is premised on the twin notions that society's ordered existence requires the enforcement of contracts and that the enforcement of contracts requires the state. The first, as I see it, is a tautology -- a "society" in which contracts are not by and large honored is not a society at all, assuming there's a difference between a society and a mob. The second notion, Jasay shows, is either logically absurd or circular. Of course, no social-contractarian worth his salt actually believes that any real group of people took time out from their war of all against all or from grappling with Lockean inconveniences, sat under a tree, and hammered out a social contract. Rather, a good contractarian simply maintains that rational people in either the Hobbesian or Lockean state of nature could not help but see the prudence in forming a state to ensure the enforcement of contracts.

Jasay questions this facile assumption and presents abundant evidence to rule it dubious in the first degree. For example, in Against Politics (29) he writes, "[I]t takes courage to affirm that rational people could unanimously wish to have a sovereign contract enforcer bound by no contract." This suggests the logical problem entailed in the concept state. As he says elsewhere, profferers of the contractarian argument are in the same position as someone who tries to jump over his own shadow. The argument "is either self-contradictory (contract can remedy the impossibility of contract) or circular (cooperation requires contract which requires cooperation)" (29).

I'll be returning to this subject often.


Just Ken said...

Good! I'm glad to see you've been reading de Jasay. I find him a refreshing political philosopher, and have often in discussions referred to him as an "intellectual Robert LeFevre." He's insightful in a way that few thinkers are.

Sheldon Richman said...

Thanks, Ken. I agree that de Jasay is a rare thinker. He makes you work, but it is worth the effort.