The enormous contribution of Hungarians to humanities and the social sciences is still widely underestimated. Aurel Kolnai and Michael Polanyi, to mention just two of them, are still barely known in the U.S. and even less in continental Europe. A similar case is that of Anthony de Jasay, born 15 October 1925 as Jászay Antall in Aba, in the district of Székesfehérvár. He never belonged to any intellectual school. He was the great loner among the political philosophers of the 20th century, and the most radical among the radical individualists.
Preferring to think and write for himself, he mostly ignored the academic literature. He did not think too highly of economics. Although as a young man he had himself dealt with problems in the theory of risk, Jasay once remarked that economics could teach thinking — but its outcome would be feeble. About his own contribution to the “dismal science” he said that he, like anybody else, could not solve the problems — but at least he published some learned articles in prestigious journals to justify his own existence.
“My family became poorer and poorer in the course of history,” he told me, “and I had no [better] luck either.” This is quite a common complaint among the many Central European intellectuals of Jasay’s generation. In the Habsburg Empire, his ancestors were landowners who served the Emperor and King as cavalry officers. After World War I, the new Czechoslovakian state confiscated Jasay’s mother’s considerable inheritance in Slovakia; after World War II, the Communists nationalized his father’s property in Hungary and in the Carpathian Ukraine. In vain the young Antall had prepared for running a rural enterprise. To his dismay, a communist functionary informed him that “people like you will never get a job in this country”.
In 1948 Jasay fled to Austria, making his way to Australia first, then to England, and finally to France. Jászay Antall became Anthony de Jasay, but the memory of the feisty, self-indulging face of the communist functionary, the grimace of the state, haunted him ever since. In his crystal-clear analyses, he diagnosed without sentimentality that democratic and communist regimes are not categorically but only gradually distinct along the same spectrum: the larger the state, the less liberty. Without private spheres, the individual is a victim of the powers that be — whether they are constituted democratically or dictatorially.
Up at Oxford — at that time a citadel of ‘Keynesianism’, the young economist felt out of place. In 1962 he gave up on academia and went to Paris where he worked as financial advisor to European and American banks. Profitable investments enabled him to retire, with his wife Isabelle, to a house in Normandy in 1979. There, far away from real power (like Machiavelli after his flight from Florence), Anthony de Jasay began his second life.
His own experience in communist Hungary and the events in Poland in the early 1980s inspired him to write his first book, The State (1985), in which he explored the very substance of political power. The State has been translated into several languages and has been reprinted at least twice since then. James Buchanan, the 1986 Nobel Prize laureate in economic sciences, was the first to recognize its importance.
Buchanan shared Jasay’s view that it would be a folly of monumental proportions to ignore the self-interest of the state and its agents. He admitted that the increase of political interventions corroborates the author’s hypothesis, yet he still placed his hopes on setting constitutional limits to the state. Buchanan’s American optimism clashed with the European pessimism of the Hungarian expatriate whose work mirrored the historical catastrophes of the 20th century. Jasay did not believe that in the long run constitutionalism could effectively constrain the state. He compared the constitution to a chastity belt, whose key is held by the lady. Even if she lost the key, she could always find a locksmith to open the belt – and then let nature take its course.
“The outcomes a given political system produces depend not only on the system itself but on the kind of people and the kind of historical conjuncture to which it is applied,” wrote Jasay in one of his essays, “The Best of the Worst”, in 2010. Democracy does not offer the best combination of good and bad; it is the only system “whose worst possible outcome is better than the worst possible” outcome of any other system.
In a way, Anthony de Jasay was an anarchist, though he did not believe that anarchy would be possible here and now. He was closer to those who seek to create ‘social order’ through private contracts than to the so-called ‘minarchists’ who hope to restrict state activity to a minimum. But he believed that neither goal was politically realistic.
It is one of the paradoxes of liberalism that its engagement to strengthen individual rights — even if carried out with the best intentions — contributes as much to the growth of state activity (and to the restriction of liberty) as socialist and nationalist collectivism. After all, ‘duties’ are the downside of ‘rights’. Any change in rights that is not based on free contract and the mutual exchange of agreements but is imposed by a “collective choice act” is nothing but state-sponsored redistribution (backed by the implicit threat of the coercive power of the state). Jasay felt pity for liberalism and its futile effort to pursue incompatible aims simultaneously.
Due to this effort, liberalism suffers from a greater confusion than any other ideology, including socialism. Although he had not read Carl Schmitt, let alone Pierre Manent or Jean-Claude Michéa, Jasay’s contributions to the critique of liberalism was at least as valuable as theirs — and no less radical.
In his work, Jasay did not spare even the most prominent figures of modern liberalism. He accused Karl Popper — who demanded that the state should protect the weak — of making use of infinitely elastic words like “weak”, “strong”, and “unequal” in ways that opened the door to practically any political intervention. His criticism of Friedrich August von Hayek was equally pronounced in that he rejected Hayek’s assumption that only the state could produce desirable public goods like safety without considering the need to impose limits on this process.
In one of his most brilliant essays, Jasay borrowed Lewis Carroll’s image of the ‘Cheshire cat’ gradually disappearing from his tail to the tip of its nose, until only its grin remained, to characterize a process that is happening every day and in full sight: that of a ‘property’ being sliced up into numerous ‘special rights’, which are then, through political restrictions, regulations, and other impositions, gradually withdrawn from the holder of the property — until nothing remains of the property but its empty hull.
Already when The State came out, its author’s fortunes were dwindling as swiftly as they had come to him. He lost his sight because of medical error. He earned a living by writing essays and giving lectures. This brought him regularly to Vienna, as well as Zurich and St. Gallen. It was an enormous pleasure to listen to him as he developed his thoughts in open conversation, step-by-step, as if he were writing in print. Jasay presented his thoughts with the esprit of Frédéric Bastiat, added to it a critique of the abuses of language, and added a measure of that ironic distance that characterizes Central European intellectuals — particularly those who survived the horrors of Hitler’s and Stalin’s totalitarianism.
Anthony de Jasay died on 23 January 2019.
Karl-Peter Schwarz worked as a political correspondent for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung before he retired. He was a friend of Anthony de Jasay for many years.