Can We Ever “Prefer” the State of Nature?

Last night, I posted a quote from The State (Anthony de Jasay) arguing that states exist, in relation to one another, in a situation that bears a strong resemblance to a Hobbesian “state of nature.” Despite this–the fact that there is no super-state to act as the final and sole arbiter of any dispute between states–we see that the lives of states tend not to be nasty, brutish, and short, but, in most contemporary cases, relatively stable.* At least, they are more successful than Hobbes anticipated that individuals would be under a similar arrangement. While reading, I was similarly struck by an earlier argument the author makes dealing with the difficulty of observed preferences for the state over the state of nature in literature and daily conversation.

In the opening pages of The State , de Jasay poses two questions that strike at the core of the assumptions held by other writers as to the origins of the state.

If there were ever people in the state of nature, and as a matter of repeated historical fact it took violence to impose a state upon them, it seems pertinent to ask, Why does standard political theory regard it as a basic verity that they preferred the state? The question really breaks down into two, one “ex ante” and the other “ex post”: (i) Do people in the state of nature prefer it to the state? and (ii) Do people, once in the state, prefer the state of nature to it? These questions very sensibly allow for people’s preferences to be related, in some way, to the political environment in which they actually happen to live.

In a footnote here, de Jasay refers to a passage from Michael Taylor’s 1976 Anarchy and Cooperation , which I believe makes his point even clearer. “If preferences change as a result of the state itself, then it is not even clear what is meant by the desirability of the state.” (Both the passage and the footnote come on p. 18 of the edition linked to in the post I made yesterday.)

de Jasay is basically arguing that there is no objective basis by which people can evaluate the state versus the state of nature, since, during that evaluation, they must exist in one of those arrangements. The fact of existing under that arrangement, in turn, has altered their preferences in such a way so as to influence their opinions either toward or against the arrangement under which they currently live, while they remain for the most part in the dark as to the other arrangement.

People who live in states have as a rule never experienced the state of nature and vice versa, and have no practical possibility of moving from the one to the other.

To illustrate, de Jasay uses the historical example of certain Native Americans who have demonstrated a preference for remaining in an environment closer to the state of nature side of the spectrum.

The American Indian people studied by Clastres typically live in the state of nature, a condition which has little to do with the level of technical civilization and everything to do with political power…

Theirs are, according to Clastres, true affluent societies, easily capable of producing surpluses but choosing not to do so, a two-hour working day being sufficient amply to provide for what they consider adequate subsistence. Though there is little or no production for exchange, there is private property; there could be no private hospitality, no invitations to feasts without it. There is no obvious obstacle to the division of labour and hence to capitalism, but the goods that the division of labour may provide are not prized. Work is held in contempt. Hunting, fighting, story-telling and party-going are preferred to the sort of goods labour could produce. The question is staring us in the face, Is it because of their preferences that the Indians abhor the command-obedience relation inherent in the state, and choose to stay in the state of nature? Or is it living in the state of nature which predisposes them to like, above all else, the tangibles and intangibles that typically go with it?

de Jasay concludes that this question has been overlooked in much orthodox political philosophy, and that a reconsideration of the state’s origins is necessitated as a result.

My contention here is that preferences for political arrangements of society are to a large extent produced by these very arrangements, so that political institutions are either addictive like some drugs, or allergy-inducing like some others, or both, for they may be one thing for some people and the other for others. If so, theories that people in general (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau), or the ruling class (Marx, Engels) mount the political arrangements that suit them, need to be approached with much mistrust.

While I read this, I remembered a political philosophy seminar from my freshman year in college, in which we read Locke, Rousseau, and Spencer, among others. Most of the kids in the class were not particularly interested in political philosophy, it being a freshman seminar, and thus rejected the idea of the state of nature wholeheartedly. Appeals were made to central heating, indoor plumbing, and all other varieties of modern conveniences as evidence of the superiority of the state over the state of nature. de Jasay’s The State , it seems, would have been helpful to us then.

*For more on the idea of the “international state of nature,” see the video below. Peter Leeson, author of The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates , points out that 25% of world GDP is created through super-stateless international trade held together by little more than reputation and private arbitrage.

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