Against Politics: On Government, Anarchy, and Order

By Shaffer, Butler | Freeman, May 1999 | Go to article overview

Against Politics: On Government, Anarchy, and Order


Shaffer, Butler, Freeman


Against Politics: On Government, Anarchy, and Order

by Anthony de Jasay

Routledge 1998 256 pages $75.00

While studying political philosophy in college, I often pondered: why should my preferences for liberty have to depend on philosophical principles rather than my personal will? Why should it not be sufficient simply to declare that I do not choose to be coerced by a political system? Such a proposition did not seem to me to be so out of the ordinary-after all, the marketplace operates on such voluntaristic assumptions with obvious success.

That inquiry led me to other questions, such as, "Why isn't personal liberty the presumed condition in human society, with the burden of proof placed on those who would restrict it?" The "social contract" theorists' answer that we have agreed to the state's restrictions on our liberty rang hollow in the face of the tyrannical and butcherous regimes that had come to represent the modern world of nation-state politics.

To those who share this love for liberty, and who have likewise been troubled by such questions, Anthony de Jasay's book will prove worthwhile. In a lucid and intellectually invigorating manner, he challenges the classic justifications that have been offered on behalf of state power: from social contract theory to the public goods and economies-of-scale rationales, he thoughtfully analyzes, and casts doubts on, the case for the authority of the state.

De Jasay's explorations of the concept of "limited government" reveal an awareness of the difficulties inherent in all forms of collective behavior: namely, that "collective choice is never independent of what significant numbers of individuals wish it to be." In any kind of political system-including a democratically constituted one-it is impossible for political authority to remain "limited" except by imposing on it a higher sovereign authority, whose own actions must, in turn, be supervised by an even higher sovereign power, ad infinitum. The United Nations, for example, has been given some measure of authority to control the excesses of nation-states, but what will control the United Nations?

"Limited government with popular sovereignty," de Jasay tells us, "is precarious," dependent on widespread acceptance of certain philosophical propositions. The case for liberty, in other words, is never stronger than the insistence by each of us that it be preserved. Liberty must crumble when its philosophical foundation does.

De Jasay has no sympathy for such traditional fictions as "the common good" as a basis for state power. …

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