Please also see the special “Symposium on Anthony de Jasay” in the Summer 2015 issue of The Independent Review.

Anthony de Jasay has died. Tony described himself as an “independent scholar and philosopher, ” a nicely enigmatic phrase. He used words intentionally; one assumes he endorsed the multiple meanings of “independent.”

Tony was independent, first, in the sense that he worked for himself. His academic career was interrupted between 1962 and 1979, when he worked in banking and payroll finance market in Paris. Before that, he had been a frustrated (and likely frustrating) student at Oxford, He wrote, argued, and gave lectures because he was interested in the world, not because he is obliged by contract or university affiliation to deliver “publications.” After his work in Paris, he “retired” to Normandy, and lived there for the next 40 years until his death.

But Tony was also independent in a second, larger sense. Though he was a loyal friend, on a personal basis, he had no loyalties to ideologies or academic teams. He reminded me (if I may be forgiven a Lord of the Rings reference) of the Ent, Treebeard, in this regard, as Tony was not altogether on anyone’s side, because no one was entirely on his side. He would say that he might call himself an anarchist, but only if he was the first to be able to use and define the term. Given the connotations the word has taken on, he thought it nearly meaningless as a label, and rarely used it. Trying to conform to a set of views just to belong to a team would have been a threat to his independence.

Original Influences

I cannot say that I knew Tony well, at least not as well as I’d like to have known him. We spent time together at a couple of conferences, one of which afforded me the honor of being his designated escort for a walk back from the restaurant to the hotel (Tony was long almost, and was recently entirely, blind). He was amazingly patient with this affliction, a terrible thing to happen to a scholar. When I had trouble with my own eyes, in the early ‘Teens, he was solicitous about how my recovery was going.

Our correspondence, which sometimes took the form of frequent emails, but which was more commonly sporadic, was all directed through his (now) widow, Isabelle. It was not Tony’s way, as it was not Isabelle’s, to want to dwell on the details of this, but given Tony’s considerable correspondence and writing output over the 20 years of his eye problems Isabelle’s role as partner should be recognized.

Tony’s “origin story” was one he was willing to tell often, and of course it’s hard to know which details were perhaps burnished, or tarnished, by time. But it is best to quote his own account, from the transcript of the marvelous interview conducted by Hartmut Kliemt (de Jasay, 2000):

(Narrator: The Russian occupation of Hungary was having a tumultuous impact on the country’s government, and economy. Hungarian society was changing, and jobs were scarce. In this environment, a young man found himself in search of employment.)

AdJ: I remember, I was getting to the point where I was literally afraid of going hungry, in the most literal sense of the word. I had an encounter; I was looking for a job, without very much hope, any job, and found myself confronted by a newly powerful person—he was a Communist—who had the power of patronage, could have given me a job or not given me a job.

And there he was, a sort of powerful, fleshy, muscular man, in a beautifully cut gabardine suit, heavy silk shirt. And there I was (laughs ruefully), a skinny, miserable person, trembling. He said to me, after a brief conversation, he said to me, “You and your kind will never get a job in this country.”

And that marked me. (00:36-01:46; emphasis in original)

The immediate post-war period was one of chaos; Communist consolidation of power did not take place in Hungary until 1948, with full control in 1949. De Jasay had been studying agricultural economics at the University of Budapest, but was unable to continue his studies in the chaos. He would have been 24 or so at the time of the above incident, and witnessing the larger process of the use of state power to subjugate a population raised for him—independently—many of the questions that motivated James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, and a few others in the next decade or so. These questions are fundamental to political philosophy: What justifies coercion? When, if ever, is it legitimate to use the fierce violence of the state against citizens of that state? What, if anything, can limit the expansion and misuse of state power?

Still, these questions were suppressed in de Jasay’s mind, for nearly forty years. In the period for 1949 through 1979 he managed to escape from Hungary, traveled to Perth in western Australia—then (and now) an extremely remote part of the world—and used letters of recommendation to return to Europe to study at Oxford in 1955. He was assigned to Roy Harod, a loyal disciple of the Keynesian economics that dominated Oxford in that period, and found himself unable to work within the macroeconomic concepts that—in his independent mind—seemed to be falsely and misleadingly aggregated. His intuition was likely either the Austrian insight that the level of aggregation of “unemployment,” as an economy-wide concept, was simply a mistake, or the Chicago insight that rational microfoundations for such unicorns as the “Phillips curve,” based in actual expectations would be required for a sensible model. But he didn’t have the background, or the foresight, to express his misgivings effectively, and was likely seen by his professors as simply confused.

He switched advisers, working with John Hicks, whom he greatly admired. While de Jasay didn’t make much progress on his main project, he was able to publish papers in Journal of Political Economy and the Economic Journal while a Research Fellow. But he found the academic conservativism and focus on government management of the economy as the core subject of study as too constraining, and left academics in 1962 to work first in a large bank, and later trading and brokering financial deals on his own account. He was quite successful in this activity, and was able to secure his financial independence as a way to fortify his intellectual independence, moving to Normandy in 1985.

Intellectual Contributions

I have seen Tony compared to Frédéric Bastiat, or H.L. Mencken. But in fact he was sui generis. His aspirations for contributions to the formal, analytic side of political philosophy were much more ambitious that than those of either Bastiat or Mencken. But like them he sought to expose deep truths, using simple language, and humor.

In de Jasay’s work there is a sturdy and amused optimism. He seemed to say: Sure, much of what the world believes is nonsensical, but how delightful it is to examine these fatuities in detail and expose them simply and concisely. It may be that academic philosophers and economists may find his political economy essays to be rather too simple, and too concise, but academic scholars are not Jasay’s primary audience. He wrote to persuade and inform the educated public, who are in his view likely the only audience still open to persuasion or learning.

De Jasay’s political philosophy had two overarching themes, which could be found in one way or another in almost all his work. At the risk of caricaturing, these two themes might be summarized this way:

  1. The basic classical liberal catechism we teach young scholars, with property rights founded on Locke, and “market perfection” founded on notions of competitive market equilibrium and the Welfare Theorems, is deeply flawed. The better approach is a property rights theory founded on Hume, and an economic based on the foundation of the promotion of mutually beneficial transactions and personal autonomy for all market participants. Academic economics has relatively little to do with markets, or for that matter anything else worth thinking about.
  2. One should be skeptical of contractarians—and here de Jasay would include his greatest proponent and benefactor, James Buchanan; Tony was, after all, independent. Private contracts are quite useful, but notions of “social contract” contain a fundamental contradiction: if it is true that no contract can be enforced, and that we need the state, how can we expect that the state will be bound by the contract to which it is a party? This is more than a reconjuring of Juvenal’s flip question, “Who Will Guard the Guardians?” It is instead a fundamental challenge to anyone who requires that contracts can only enforced by a higher level entity. In no time, the social contract theorist is obliged to adopt some variant of the primitive metaphysician’s, “It’s a turtle, resting on another turtle. It’s turtles all the way down!”


In addition to his published books, most of which in recent years were imprints of Indianapolis-based Liberty Fund and edited by Hartmut Kliemt, de Jasay wrote dozens and dozens of essays, on many subjects. Liberty Fund was also a publication outlet for this work. De Jasay’s first “on-line” essay for Liberty Fund was “Your Dog Owns Your House” (April 22, 2002), and it was brilliant, brilliant enough to paraphrase at some length. (I should note that Tony told me several times that my version of his story was too light-hearted; but I like my version and we’ll just have to disagree. I can be independent, too.)

Suppose Alphonse needs a new roof on his house, and Batul is a competent roofer selling this service at competitive prices. It is likely there is a range of mutually beneficial exchanges that might in principle be negotiated. Perhaps Alphonse values the new roof at $10,000 and Batul knows that her burly crew of roofers can install a new roof, including Batul’s reservation profit, the price of shingles, and all labor, at $5,000. The price they agree on may depend on local conditions, but if there are several roofing companies and the cost of labor and shingles is common to all agreements, the price will be something close to $5,000. Competition drives prices to the cost of production.

However, this “cost of production” notion is facile. How will the agreement be enforced? It is possible that Batul is simply honest by nature, and that Alphonse is, also. Thus after their handshake Alphonse might advance $2,000 to buy shingles, and Batul might show up with shingles rather than running off with the money. And Batul might complete the job to the precise specifications of the agreement. And then Alphonse might pay the remaining amount he agreed to pay at the time of the handshake.

Or, they might not. Anticipating these problems reduces the expected value of the handshake agreement for both parties. What they would like to do is specify additional terms for the arrangement; these terms are often gathered together under the dismissive title “transactions costs,” but they are costs of agreement no less than the labor or the shingles. In a repeated interaction cooperation might emerge, but no homeowner needs a roof more often than once every 20 years or so, if the roof is competently installed.

Which means that both parties would be better off, and would be willing to set aside additional funds in the contract to negotiate coercive punishment of the other party—and for themselves!—in the event that the contract is breached. Alphonse would be willing to pay, and Batul would be willing to pay, something extra for a third party to extract some painful or expensive bond, even if that agreement in effect coerces Alphonse himself and Batul herself. In Oliver Williamson’s terms, the “Fundamental Transformation” is a problem: before we sign the contract, both of us recognize that breach is a problem and we seek a strategy that commits us to comply. After the contract is signed both of us expect the other party—and may ourselves try—to find a hole in the arrangement and exploit it. My present self seeks to bind my future self to comply, because if I can do that I can get a better net price in the contract.

Alphonse and Batul might hit on a clever solution: buy a big powerful sharp-toothed dog, and train it. This seems expensive, but someone may well have foreseen the value of such a commodity and be willing to provide just this sort of dog. Let’s say the dog’s name is Tee. So Tee the dog is purchased. Tee’s job is simple: bite the legs of anyone who breaches an otherwise valid contract.

The whole point of renting Tee is to ensure that the costs of obeying contracts are less than breaching. In equilibrium, if Tee is well-trained (he cannot be bribed with doggy treats), there will be no biting and contracts always bind. This means that Tee can be rented out to many pairs of potential transactors, because Tee has very little to do. Everyone is happy, and contracts are easily negotiated because enforcement is cheap and sure.

So far, so good: de Jasay never disputes the value of credible commitments to secure private contracts. His quarrel comes when contractarians, particularly of the Rousseauvian “Social Contract” stripe, use a mythical form of this argument to justify actual states. De Jasay reserves special scorn for those who argue that contracts would be unenforceable without a state, and then simply (as he puts it) “jump over their own shadows” to say that a larger, “social” contract is the answer. Who, pray, could be expected to enforce that contract, the one from which all other contract enforcement is derived?

And that’s where the trouble comes in. Remember, Tee is a big strong dog, so big and strong that it is difficult to resist him if he attacks. That’s the point, actually, because you want to make resistance so expensive it never happens. But then it may be difficult to restrain Tee to his role as neutral third-party enforcer. Alphonse will likely return home from work some night and find Tee sitting on the couch, drinking Alphonse’s best scotch and cleaning the house Kalashnikov.

“Get off the couch! Put down my gun, and stop drinking my scotch!” demands Alphonse.

Tee looks up coolly. “This isn’t your scotch, or your gun. In fact, this isn’t even your house. You wouldn’t have this house without my protection. I think there need to be some changes around here.”

Now, from Alphonse’s perspective, and from all of those who contracted for enforcement, the agreement was straightforward and limited: Tee was paid for his services, and there is no further obligation. After all, it’s true that the house wouldn’t be worth much without a roof. But we don’t see the roofer, Batul, demanding more money just because “your house wouldn’t be habitable without my roof!”

Security seems to be different, perhaps because it involves force and perhaps because it seems so fundamental. But there is nothing special about protection, any more than there something special about other household services that are contracted for. Once the bill is paid, that’s it; the owner of the protected house has no further obligation.

Alphonse tries to argue this, but it’s too late; the dog is advancing threateningly. Alphonse shouts, quickly, nervously: “Bad dog! Bad, Tee! Stay! Stay, Tee! StayTee! State!” Tee has become the state.

All we need are private contracts, and so long as only private contracts are involved no enforcement mechanism will be dominant enough to renegotiate. Competition among enforcement providers will be enough to limit the illegitimate use of force. The problem occurs when the private contracts we all need, which must be limited to just the terms agreed on, elide into a mythical “social contract” where “we all agreed” (no, we didn’t) that a state would provide security. There is nothing to keep the state from renegotiating that mythical “contract; it’s only a few steps from using the social contract approach to having President Obama lecturing business people in 2012:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

De Jasay would answer that it is true that there are roads, and bridges, and teachers. But we paid for those things, and continue to pay for them. There is no continuing obligation; even though my dog protects my house, my dog does not own my house. It’s just another contract.

De Jasay illustrated the problem his 1999 review essay of Buchanan and Congleton’s Politics by Principle Not Interest (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

If man can no more bind himself by contract than he can jump over his own shadow, how can he jump over his own shadow and bind himself in a social contract? He cannot be both incapable of collective action and capable of it when creating the coercive agency needed to enforce his commitment. One can, without resorting to a bootstrap theory, accept the idea of an exogenous coercive agent, a conqueror whose regime is better than anything the conquered people could organize for themselves. Consenting to such an accomplished fact, however, can hardly be represented as entering into a contract, complete with a contract’s ethical implications of an act of free will. (p. 109; emphasis in original)

That is, while it may be true that consenting to be coerced in private contracts is possible, because it is implied by the nature of the contract itself, the notion of coercion in a social contract is quite different. One might accept, in Jasay’s paraphrase, the Hobbesian logic that some “coercive agent” is useful, and might cheerfully comply with its order, if only to avoid being bitten. But there is no contract or consent, and in fact we cannot even act “as if” there had been contract or consent, because it was the very impossibility of those things that gave rise to the (ostensible) case for a state in the first place.

Final Words

Though he was blind, Anthony de Jasay’s vision of political economy and philosophy encompassed large vistas, yet missed no details. He was a paradox, a fierce critic and a sincere and true gentleman. He was honestly and openly grateful for the assistance in advancing his work provided by many, especially James Buchanan, but rarely referenced or tried to integrate his work in the main stream of political economy or philosophy. His was an independent but productive watch. And now his watch is ended.

de Jasay, Anthony. 1999. “On Treating Like Cases Alike.” The Independent Review, 4 (1): 107–118.

de Jasay, Anthony. 2000. “The Intellectual Portrait Series: A Conversation with Anthony de Jasay” (with Hartmut Kliemt). Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000. Accessed 2/6/2019.

de Jasay, Anthony. 2002. “Your Dog Owns Your House.” April 22. Library of Economics and Liberty. Accessed 8/22/2015.