The Indian Rope Trick.

Author:Munger, Michael
Position:Book review

* The Indian Rope Trick

By Anthony de Jasay

Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2014.

Pp. xi, 189. $14.50 paperback.

Anthony de Jasay says he is "an independent scholar and philosopher." He uses words intentionally, so one assumes he endorses the ambiguity. He is independent, first, in the sense that he works for himself. He writes and gives lectures because he is interested in the world, not because he is obliged by contract or university affiliation to deliver "publications."

But he is also independent in a second, larger sense. He is not entirely on anyone's side because no one is entirely on his side. He has said that he might be an anarchist, provided he were the first one to be able to define the term anarchist. Given the connotations the word has taken on, he thinks it nearly meaningless as a label, a threat to his independence.

So I won't pretend to try to classify him or his views except to say that his work-- from the sustained arguments in The State (1985) and in Social Contract, Free Ride (1989) to the essays in the recent twin edited volumes Political Philosophy, Clearly (2010) and Political Economy, Concisely (2010) (all published by Liberty Fund)-- provides insights and challenges that scholars of all perspectives should take seriously.

Jasay's most recent work takes something of a new direction. In The State, he argued that the very notion of a contract enforcer hired because contracts are unenforceable is illogical. Contractarians ignore the fact that the "state," once created, will have interests of its own and that paramount among these interests is survival. In the case of the state, Jasay argues that survival means growth. We cannot rely on a state to enforce or even honor contracts when its purpose for existing is to protect itself first.

In Social Contract, Free Ride, Jasay took a more consequentialist turn. The argument many people use to justify the state is that--absent state enforcement--people will free-ride, taking benefits but shirking when it comes time to pay the costs. So the state is created to solve "commons" problems. Jasay argues that such a system cannot possibly work because the biggest commons of all is the state's budget. Each of us can take benefits unrelated to the amount of taxes we pay or in fact anyone else pays. Thus, citizens themselves have an irresistible incentive to parasitize the body politic. Far from curing the free-rider problem, creation of a state budget makes free riding worse--far worse, in fact. The "social contract" creates for the first time a career opportunity for full-time free riding in the form of rent-seeking opportunities and raids on the enormous public purse.


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