While the following interview was prepared by the Hayek Club Zurich, Professor Christoph Frei kindly agreed to conduct the interview with Anthony de Jasay at his home in the Normandy. We would like to thank Christoph Frei for giving us the unique opportunity to listen to one of the great liberal minds of the 20th century!
About Anthony de Jasay
Anthony de Jasay was born at Aba, Hungary in 1925. He was educated at Szekesfehervar and Budapest, taking a degree in Agriculture. In 1947-48 he worked as a free-lance journalist, his activity forcing him to flee from the country in 1948. After two years in Austria, he emigrated to Australia in 1950 and took a part-time course in Economics at the University of Western Australia. He went to Oxford in 1955 and was elected a research fellow of Nuffield College where he stayed till 1962, publishing papers in the Economic Journal, the Journal of Political Economy and other learned journals. In 1962 he moved to Paris and worked there as a banker, first in an executive capacity and then on his own account, till 1979, doing investment business in several European countries and the United States. In 1979, he retired to the Normandy coast where he still lives. He is married and has three children.
Jasay has published five books, several of which have been translated into a total of six languages, as well as numerous articles, mainly in English but also in French and German. While his initial interest and training were in economics, he has later turned to political philosophy; his writings draw on both.
Hayek Club Zurich: What do you consider the most important moment in your life that turned you into a classical liberal eventually? Which acquaintances, experiences and/or books have shaped your thinking the most?
Anthony de Jasay: Forgive me for not replying directly to your initial questions, but I am not ready to accept it in the first place. Many people have called me a “classical liberal”, and I am still not ready to accept that label. A label such as “classical liberalism” may be useful to distinguish one version of liberalism from another one, be it “American liberalism”, “national liberalism”, “social liberalism”. All these liberalisms, however, come along with some basic rules by which a social choice is rendered legitimate and accepted both for those who approve of it and those who accept it in spite of contrary preferences. Binding majority decisions in spite of the existence of minority dislike is such a basic rule of social choice. The basic rule may have subsidiary rules that make it invalid in certain situations. The basic rule, in other words, may be complemented with exceptions. Some constitutions are nicer than others. Even the nicest constitutions, take the English and the American ones for example, have at least one basic rule such as the sovereign rule of the king or a majority rule, by which one part of a society is obliged to do what it does not approve or like. Classical liberalism is like other liberalisms, except it is nicer and more acceptable according to the preferences of some. Actually, I do consider classical liberalism to be nicer than most other liberalisms (cf my essay “Two Cheers For Classical Liberalism”) but I will not ever completely accept or adopt it because it contains a rule by which one part of society imposes its rule on another part. Instead of liberalism in any form, my political philosophy is built on the concept of “ordered anarchy.“
To come back to your initial question: My “liberal philosophy” did not come to me at an important moment of my life, but rather developed or evolved in a continuous movement. My father, who died when I was 15, always treated me like one gentleman would treat another. He never tried to educate me in “liberalism”. In fact, he hardly ever used that notion. Instead, he would simply offer his own way of living as an example. With hindsight, I think he taught me liberal ethics without ever saying that this was what he was doing, and I would like to believe that I have kept this basic body of ethics throughout my life.
Other experiences may have influenced the gradual evolution of my political orientation. One was, perhaps, the last stages of World War II, when Hungary was allied in Nazi Germany in the war against Russia, and the political life of Hungary was under Nazi Germany’s influence. At that time, I did react to the political climate inspired by Nazi Germany and, hence, was very much left wing. In turn, when Hungary was occupied by the Russian army in 1945, and the government in Budapest was a “people’s democracy” under Russian tutelage, I turned predictably anti-communist and would remain so. In 1948, I left Hungary as a refugee, then lived in Austria for two years and in Australia for five years. Throughout those years, I was busy making a living, but also studied economics more or less as a part time occupation. I then spent seven years in and at Oxford. It is probably fair to say that my political formation continued during these times, not least because I was in constant touch with my two sisters who had never left Hungary and who informed me in great detail about how the country gradually adopted the social-democratic garments of a left-of-centre regime under Russian occupation.
I would venture the guess that the foundations of my theory of the state (as published later on, in 1985) were gradually developed in the Oxford and Paris years, i.e., in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. By the way, in the Spanish edition of The State, the subtitle ”La logica del poder politico” was added, which subtitle would provide a more precise indication of what the book was about.
I am being asked what I have learnt from contemporary political philosophy. I hope and trust I will not be accused of arrogance if I respond that I have not come across much substance so profound as to enrich me. In contrast, I have learned a good deal about what to avoid and what to oppose. Two of the founding fathers of all liberalisms, and certainly of classical liberalism, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, have certainly educated me into avoiding much of their heritage.
From Jeremy Bentham, we are supposed to learn that utility can be transferred from one individual to another, and even though critics have objected that interpersonal utility transfers were invalid, the latter continue to be made in various, including socialist, disguises. One generation after Bentham, John Stuart Mill taught us that the production of goods was governed by the laws of economics, but that the distribution of these goods was for society to decide (cf. “Slicing the Cake Nobody Baked” in my book on Justice and Its Surroundings pp. 186-199). Now this, of course, is an open invitation for inventing what is today called “distributive justice”, a concept that stands in stark contrast to the justice of property.
HCZ: Speaking of justice, could you please explain the essence of “strict liberalism” and of the “presumption of freedom” in a few sentences?
Jasay: The concept of freedom needs to be treated with much discipline. It is closely related to the concept of justice.
An individual is physically able to choose between any alternative that is within the constraints of his budget. These constraints enable him to walk from one point to another, but probably not to fly.
Now, Hayek at one point intended to define political freedom or the presence of freedom in society. His definition was that coercion in society has to be at a minimum. However, a minimum is a great deal if the state or society resembles Prussia—and much less if the state is like the one we see in modern Greece. In other words, Hayek seems to require coercion to be at a minimum of something which is not in itself defined, because we do not know if he has Prussia or Greece in mind. These (or similar other) requirements lead to your question about strict liberalism. Strict liberalism should be, must be independent of human history or psychology. The few lines you are requesting will possibly look somewhat empty, but at least they will be strict. A strict, liberal definition of freedom depends on elementary logic only. It requires that a statement (for instance, the statement about the act of an individual) should be a statement based on the presumption of liberty. The presumption of liberty is accepted if it is not contradicted by some argument of incontestable validity. Note that the presumption of freedom has a logical form that is identical with that of the presumption of unfreedom.
Under the presumption of freedom, a social rule that forbids certain acts is favourable to freedom, because all the acts that it does not forbid are ipso facto free. By the same token, a social rule (for instance, claims such as Human Rights) is unfavourable to freedom because all that is not recognised as a human right is vulnerable to contrary arguments and perhaps more difficult to defend as a liberty.
The presumption of innocence and of property fall into the same elementary logical form as the presumption of freedom. They are also easier to defend. The presumption of freedom and also its opposite number, the presumption of unfreedom, are independent of history or psychology, but may nevertheless have some underpinning which enables the simple logical form to have historical or anthropological support.
It is a commentary on European history that all the lands to the West of the Elbe live by the rule that everything is free unless it is prohibited and all the lands to the East of the Elbe live by the rule that everything is prohibited unless it is free. Strict liberalism looks like the logical foundation of this jocular geography.
HCZ: What would you abolish first if you could: the welfare state or the state monopoly over the issue of money? Why is that?
Jasay: I would certainly use the option of abolishing the welfare state if only I could, but I should also develop certain implications about the welfare state and its absence.
A working society in a simplified form has three components, the employer, the employee and – over and above the two – the state. The state, in its labour legislation, determines most of the characteristics of a contract between employers and employees. The employee will receive a wage the amount of which is influenced by the state and a labour union and, furthermore, part of which he receives in cash and part in kind. The part that is given in kind constitutes the cost of the welfare state. It includes a provision for an old age pension, health care, unemployment insurance, child benefit and anything else that the state considers necessary or agreeable. Though the cost of these welfare goods are really covered by the employee, it is the state that decides how much of the salary is retained for financing the welfare state and how much is given to the employee in cash. The proportion between the two is to a large extent determined through the process of democratic politics—in which the employee participates as a democratic elector. His interest is divided between welfare goods that he would like to maximise and his cash wage that he would also like to have as high as possible.
An alternative form of a working society has only two components, namely the employer and the employee, and their mutual relation is entirely a question of a contract between them. There is no state to regulate the two parties of the contract. The employee gets a salary in cash, and it is up to him how much if anything, he chooses to spend on the welfare goods he needs or finds agreeable. He may spend a provision for old age pension etc. that could be more or could be less than what he would get if this provision were deducted from his his salary by the state. Under this alternative scheme, the employee would, in other words, have his own, personal “welfare state”. Here, the ramifications of the salary and of other conditions of employment are all decided by a contract between the employer and the employee. The contract is between these two individual parties, but the context is, of course, also influenced by competition, i.e., by conditions that other contracting parties agree upon next door. The employee will seek to sell his labour productivity and the employer will seek to buy it. A labour contract concluded between the seller and the buyer will as far as possible be an optimum equilibrium in which productivity is obtained by agreement of individual contracting parties.
When a contract is concluded between an individual employer and an individual employee, there is a chance that supply and demand of individual productivities are equalised. On the other hand, when a contract of employment is concluded among hundreds, thousands, or many thousands of employees and a hand-full of employers, we are dealing with averages of productivities and it is fairly evident that the overall contract is necessarily too high for one half of employees and too low for the other half. As a rule, we might conclude that wages for large numbers of people are wasteful while contracts with individual parties will approach optimum productivity. Contracts dealing with large averages are quite convenient for the state and for labour unions, but one should not forget that they are to some extent wasteful on the side of productivity. This is perhaps an unexpected consequence of abolishing the welfare state, but it is worth considering.
In contrast, it is also worth considering that an economy without a state (or with a state without welfare) where individual employers and employees are tied together by individual contracts almost from one person with the next, with no averages, is against people’s preference for equality. Under that preference, everybody is the same and receives the same regardless of productivity, of other merits and needs. The preference for equality, especially when it is enhanced by education and reinforced by social and political culture in general, is likely to be a strong argument for the welfare state even among people who would have a liberal preference for spending their income in a way of constructing their own liberal, individual “welfare state”.
For more on Anthony de Jasay please visit www.dejasay.org.