Anthony de Jasay died January 23rd at age 94. Although he is not a household name even among academics and intellectuals, he was one of the most creative thinkers of our time and I think he will be recognized as such by future generations. He already has many fans among libertarians and classical liberals. Perhaps, as we shall see, he should have more admirers among conservatives, too.
He was an academic anomaly. His books, published by major academic publishers, and his scholarly articles were at the cutting edge of political philosophy but he was not affiliated with any university and did not have a Ph.D. (which, at least in America, is the membership card of the academic class). At age 23 he left his native Hungary to study economics in Australia and at Oxford. In 1962 he settled in Paris where he made a career in banking and finance. He retired in 1979, moved to Normandy, and devoted the rest of his life to independent scholarship.
I was privileged to know him personally, as he participated in several of the Liberty Fund conferences I directed in France from 1990 to 2009. He was nearly blind for most of the years I knew him; his wife Isabelle would read aloud for him. Our last contact was in June 2018. By that time, he had suffered a stroke from which he had not totally recovered. On June 4, I published a review of his masterpiece The State (1985) in the new Liberty Classics section of Liberty Fund's Library of Economics and Liberty. Two days later I received a nice email from him, beginning with, "You have given me great pleasure with your review of my book."
THE PROBLEMS WITH THE STATE
De Jasay's 1985 book set out the basic problem of the state, the whole apparatus of formal government. The state cannot please ("bring utility to," as economists would say) everybody because individuals have different preferences. Whatever intervention the state carries out, it will benefit some individuals but harm others. The simplest example is redistribution of money: it benefits the recipients and harms the coerced donors. Regulations and other interventions have a similar effect. The state is necessarily an "adversarial state."
Because individual preferences are subjective, there is no scientific way to weigh the costs and benefits of policy to all affected individuals and derive a net benefit or cost that is meaningful. Economics has been haunted by this problem for nearly a century but economists have generally tried to sidestep or ignore it. De Jasay took it seriously. Even if only one individual is harmed and countless others benefit, we cannot know if the utility (or satisfaction or happiness) lost by the harmed individual is larger or smaller than the utility gained by the others.
Comparing the utility of two individuals, and a fortiori between two sets of...