Academic journal article The Cato Journal

Justice and Its Surroundings

Academic journal article The Cato Journal

Justice and Its Surroundings

Article excerpt

Anthony de Jasay Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2002, 351 pp.

Justice and Its Surroundings is a brilliant work. It is also at times a difficult and a challenging work; the argument sometimes requires substantial effort to follow and it often challenges one to rethink long-settled matters. It is well worth the effort.

The book starts with a simple claim: "A thing is what it is, and not something else" (p. vii). Making distinctions is the starting point of wisdom; it helps to avoid confusion and all of the negative effects of confusion. According to Jasay, "by promoting clear thought ... one would be doing a greater service to the good society than by promoting good principles" (p. vii). Jasay devotes his formidable intellect to achieving that goal with regard to justice and the various other topics that "surround" it, such as order, freedom, distribution, agreement, property, choice, and so forth. In his effort to clarify issues of justice rather than to propagate good principles, Jasay subjects to critical scrutiny the principles and proposals of many with whom he is otherwise in substantial agreement, including classical liberals such as F. A. Hayek and Robert Noziek. They are spared no more than are welfare-state "liberals" and socialists such as John Rawls, Brian Barry, Thomas Scanlon, and David Miller.

Part One ("The Needless State") deals with the problem of social order generally. In those chapters Jasay reveals himself as a social choice theorist of the first order, combining remarkable clarity with insight and wit. He builds on the work in his pathbreaking book Social Contract, Free Ride in which he reformulated the problem of public goods and demonstrated that the state is neither necessary for the provision of public goods, nor the product of a "social contract." Jasay continues that debunking of the myth that the state is a necessary condition of order and shows, rather, that order is a necessary condition for the state. The argument and evidence are significant for many reasons, but they are primarily relevant to the problem of justice because they undercut the claim--heard over and over from legions of political philosophers, none of whom ever adduce any evidence to sustain it, and for whom it is an unshakable article of faith--that all entitlements are creations of the state, and therefore that it is the prerogative of the state to distribute them as it sees fit. Rather than taking that claim on pure faith, Jasay considers it an empirical and contestable claim. If it is not true, then one influential set of arguments regarding justice is seriously undercut. All those who believe the extreme positivist claim that all entitlements and all order are products of the state (see, for example, Cass Sunstein and Robert Holmes, The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes: "Rights are powers granted by the political community" [p. 17]; and Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel, The Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice: "There are no property rights antecedent to the tax structure" [p. 74]) should read Jasay. Ignoring him is, quite frankly, an act of cowardice. Since we know, of course, how courageous academic upholders of statist orthodoxy are, there can be little doubt that Jasay's books will be widely read.

The arguments presented in Part One are of great moment. Once you have understood them, the world doesn't look quite the same, rather like the first time one grasped the concept of "opportunity cost" in economics. The key chapter (which can be read in isolation from the others) is "Prisoners' Dilemma and the Theory of the State," which appeared originally in The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics and the Law. According to Jasay, "The theory of the state, with strong consent to its authority, continues to be reproduced on the basis of a prisoners' dilemma whose social significance seems to shrink remarkably under an analytical stare" (p. …

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