Alberto Mingardi  

Anthony de Jasay on "rights"

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One of the many treats of Econlib are the articles of Anthony de Jasay. Mostly renowned for his remarkable book The State, De Jasay is among the most brilliant libertarian political thinkers.

This month he has a profound article on "distributive justice." The point he raises is a very interesting one. Conventions and laws historically build to restrain the "might is right" approach to political power. But he sees modern redistributionism as the return of "might is right": the almighty sovereign no longer being a king, but rather a collective sovereign, blessed by majority rule. De Jasay thinks carefully on how words in politics are symbols that both cover and enable a certain kind of measure or action. His conclusion is worth quoting in full (but read the whole thing, too):

When cave man became civilised, "might is right" was gradually restrained by the rule of justice, which was almost certainly a better evolutionary strategy for groups. Nearer our own age, two loopholes open up in the restraint, and are getting larger. Both are powerfully widened by the corruption of language.

As collective choice acquires the power to make rule-making rules that supplement or replace conventional rules, it typically excludes certain options and permits others. (...) The state is called upon to protect property against all comers except against itself. This is justified by the supremacy of the public interest over rules governing property. Public interest is supreme because no argument can long sustain the proposition that the interest of the public is not supreme. Thus, an elementary sleight-of-hand using a truism pierces and widens a loophole for distributive justice to rise above the rule of ordinary justice.

The other and equally convenient loophole is created by the persistent employment of the word "equal" as a moral qualification. Thus, "equal" comes to stand in relation to "unequal", and "equality" to "inequality", as "good" stands in relation to "bad", "true" to "untrue", "faithful" to "faithless" or "just" to "unjust". A more equal distribution of resources is eo ipso better than an unequal one, and no argument to the contrary could resist the charge of perversity or heartlessness. Distributive justice, by attempting to make the distribution of resources more equal, is serving justice.

It is the great good fortune of this somewhat shoddy doctrine that its demand coincides with what the modern form of collective choice, namely majority rule, produces, for majority rule is might disguised as right. By the same token, it is the great good fortune of democracy that its manner of awarding the control of government namely redistribution, happens to coincide with what distributive justice, a doctrine of moral superiority, demands of it. "Might is right" is back with a vengeance.

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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy

COMMENTS (12 to date)
R Richard Schweitzer writes:

To this reader (and collector) of de Jasay's works, it was somewhat disconcerting and confusing to read his references to "collective choice."

Michael Oakeshott stated that issue very clearly:

There is no such thing as collective choice

Can an argument be made that there is; if so, how is the choice determined and what makes it "collective?"

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Perhaps "collective choice" is to be understood in this context as the predominance of particular interests which become aggregated interests and then form coalitions of aggregated interests.

Sound familiar?

Thank you for this Alberto. I find it stimulating because de Jasay's ideas parallel mine in several ways.

About "Might Makes Right"
Notice that the concept "Might Makes Right" seems immediately wrong, eo ipso wrong! (Thanks for introducing me to that fancy new word.) "Might makes right" evinces war cries of opposition: Down with Might Makes Right! These forces will rapidly stomp into the ground anyone who seems to uphold "might makes right". Now, for you students of philosophy, has might made right? I wrote a paper on this for advanced libertarians.

About the Intellectual Portrait Series
I have just watched once again the hour-long interview with de Jasay to which Alberto provided a link. About that interview, it is one of over 20 great interviews which Liberty Fund has in its Intellectual Portrait Series. I know because I watched the entire series two years ago. Before that time I had wanted for many years to watch the series. But I, an independent scholar of mere middling means, never could get the DVDs until a time when, having returned to graduate school, I could use my University's interlibrary loan to fetch DVDs from libraries all over the eastern US. The price charged by Liberty Fund (unless it has changed during the past two years) is about $20 each, or $400–$500 for the series. I believe this is an unfortunate pricing policy which stifles distribution; I hope Liberty Fund will make the video interviews more available. Note: I believe Liberty Fund makes the audio track of the interviews available for free, or at least I found that on their website two years ago. But for me the video is vastly better: I can see the great scholar's face as he talks.

About the Usefulness of Constitutions in Confining the Scope of Government
In the linked interview de Jasay argues that written constitutions are just about useless in restraining the growth of governments. The great success of the US, he argues, did not come from its Constitution. I have offered a similar argument.

R. Richard Schweitzer asks in comments above if there can be such a thing as "collective choice".

I hold libertarian values and resent the coercive organization of the state, but I believe that human organizations routinely make choices that no one individual could make alone. Many large tasks require the effort of more than one person, and if society is voluntary then all of the contributors to a task must concur, in a way, in the collective choice. I argued this theme in a 1997 paper which is perhaps too abstract. Now I am trying for a longer and more careful development of the theme in a blog.

I wonder if Mr. Schweitzer would offer this argument: Collective choice is an illusion because every organization is made up of individuals — each of whom can and will decide independently? If so I answer with an appeal to a broader point of view, to the biology of organizations. Each of us humans is made up of many cells, each of which probably has some autonomy in its choice of actions. I as a person make no choice which cannot be ascribed to the independent, individual choices of my cells. So the argument which holds that an organization of humans cannot make a collective choice can be adapted to hold that an individual human comprised of many cells cannot make a collective-cells choice.

I will puff up my chest and claim that I as an individual (human organization of many cells) can make choices. Similarly the head of a firm or a state can claim, while speaking in that representative role, ability to make collective choices, or so it seems to me.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Mr. Hammer,

Perhaps you take a different view of the results of cooperation and adjustments (as well as of force and power)in their pursuits of their separate (if sometimes common) interests by individuals in a social order (human organization). Still, it is a result not a choice. The result was not the objective of the individual actions (or choices).

Thank you, Mr. Schweitzer for your reply. I would enjoy continuing this discussion carefully, striving to develop a shared language, a shared set of meanings in the words we exchange. But probably it is not reasonable to undertake such a discussion in this medium.

In the essay linked by Alberto, I wonder if de Jasay is suggesting that we can overcome sloppy thinking and misuse of language. I will suggest otherwise in my own yet-to-be-written essay: I believe our words almost always have fuzzy meanings. Natural language could not succeed if perfect definitions were required. (Others have already argued a similar point. Footnotes pending.)

vikingvista writes:

"Each of us humans is made up of many cells, each of which probably has some autonomy in its choice of actions. I as a person make no choice which cannot be ascribed to the independent, individual choices of my cells."

Human cells are capable of choice? Or was this intended purely as a metaphor?

Choice involves a decision among choices. Only choice-capable entities selecting among a specific set of potential actions are actually choosing. If choice exists, as opposed to actions devoid of choice, then it can only be strictly applied to those entities actually choosing.

Literally speaking then, a "collective choice" can only refer to a unanimous choice among the individual members of the collective. Any other usage of "collective choice" merely refers to an algorithm for determining who, among disagreeing members of a collective, gets to choose and who does not.

And given the enormous number of possible actions that could be decided upon, and the enormous variations in preference ordering and intensity among individuals within a large collective, any imposed (i.e. non-unanimous) "collective choice" in a large population, including any form of compulsory democracy or republicanism, will invariably be a form of microminority rule.

This is true even given the fact that even the smallest minority necessarily has its decisions at least indirectly informed by the emergent social order within which they are immersed.

Yes, I am assuming that most biological cells have a variety of physical actions which they are capable of performing, and that at each moment some process internal to those cells chooses which if any of those actions to undertake.

Indeed I suppose something like "choice" goes on at lower levels. Consider the construction of DNA in sexual reproduction. When an offspring's DNA is being constructed from two parents' DNA, for each offspring gene some process chooses which one of the two parent genes to copy. I am not a biologist, but I recall they taught stuff like this in second millennium biology classes.

If you have any ambition to clear up your understanding of my claims, you might be aided by An Engineer's View of Morality Set in a Model of Life.

vikingvista writes:


Is there any unpredictable action that you don't consider to be the result of choice? Brownian motion? Fire progression? Particle position in a slit experiment? Hurricane landings?

If there is not, how is "choice" not synonymous with "unpredictable"? If there is, what distinguishes unpredictable choice from unpredictable nonchoice?

@vikingvista: Thank you for the question. I had not considered this angle.

Yes: In the model of life which I am presenting there is a category of unpredictable events, events not the result of a choice of some living thing.

vikingvista writes:


A more concise question might be, "How does your system differ from animism?"

The move of human societies away from animist beliefs was probably not arbitrary or human-prejudicial. It likely was empirical, having to do with the distinction between those actions that through repeated experience are seen to be affected by communication and those that are not. Over time, people would notice no discernible effect on their attempted communications (i.e. prayers) with sliding raindrops, tumbling stones, human disease, and wild animals. But all day long they would see a stark difference with their communications with other humans who commonly appear to behave as though they knew very specifically what you wanted.

Although the inability to affect an entity through communication doesn't mean that entity lacks a decision-making capacity (perhaps there is an impenetrable communication barrier, or perhaps you are being ignored by the entity). But the fact that through the ages nobody has convincingly ever experienced anything that would reasonably suggest such a capacity surely raises reasonable doubt. It raises a reasonably question about whether, e.g., a storm, a sliding raindrop, a worm, a wind-up toy, or a human cell are at all different when it comes to their abilities to make choices.

@vikingvista: Thank you for the thought provoking question; it shows how I need to work to be more clear. Unfortunately we have veered away from the subject of Alberto's original post. I believe it would be better for us to continue this in email, or in comments on my Perceived Order blog.

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