The Voluntaryist Reader defends voluntaryism, round 2.

If you’ve been following the little debate between the Voluntaryist Reader and myself on the topic of whether voluntaryism is pro-freedom or anti-freedom (I take the latter position, obviously), you may have noticed that the Voluntaryist Reader posted its second response last week.

I have made my argument clear on my first response; voluntaryism is anti-freedom because it manufactures a sharp division between coercion and non-coercive forms of power, and only condemns the use of the former. This leads voluntaryists to accept institutions which embody violence (i.e. which only have their power because of past violence) as well as institutions which use non-coercive power (such as conditioning, brainwashing, financial rewards and punishments, etc).

So let me now go through Clayton’s response. I will put quotes from his entry in normal type and, when necessary for context, what he is responding to in bold type. I will discuss every point, but I will not go through them in order this time, because there are definite lines of dialogue at play here. First, the dialogue on whether my basic appraisal of voluntaryism is correct. Clayton first says:

The voluntaryist view stops at condign power and states that all other forms of power are irrelevant to freedom.

What voluntaryist ever said this? Any form of force or fraud – even if disguised, even if systematized – is “on the table” to be answered with force, if necessary.

Yes, of course, but voluntaryists don’t believe that conditioned or compensatory powers are “force or fraud,” do they? At least when I was a voluntaryist, I didn’t think they were. Surely there is something strange about calling, for example, racist worldviews a form of force or fraud, and yet racism is clearly not conducive to freedom. In what can be seen as a continuation of this dialogue, Clayton also states:

by opposing “aggression,” they are thereby supporting all “non-aggressive” institutional evils.

“I don’t support X” does not imply “I support all non-X.”

I never said it did, I am saying that this is what voluntaryists actually believe. Granted, any voluntaryist can be against capitalism, for instance, but ey would do so despite eir voluntaryism, not because of it.

To back my point, I would note that voluntaryist.com, a primary hub of voluntaryist materials maintained by Carl Watner, has a list of his entries for the Journal of Libertarian Studies (whose list of past editors is a who’s who of “anarcho-capitalists”), and the people whose articles are featured on his site are almost all capitalists. And was it not Watner himself who said:

“The freedom to discover truth” is what competition is all about. It is only through voluntary exchanges that the truth of the market place can be discovered. “The subjectivity of human wants implies that only individuals participating in an exchange can be the legitimate judge of their own interests. Competition is a learning process” where self-ownership and property rights “provide an incentive to make individuals responsible for their mistakes and give them an incentive to learn.”

That sounds like Atlas Shrugged, not like Das Kapital. If Clayton wants to present other examples of voluntaryist thinkers who hold to different positions, then I’d like to hear them, but his own list:

Herbert, Spencer, Tucker, Thoreau, Spooner, Nock, Chodorov, Rothbard, LeFevre

Contains a grand total of one socialist (Tucker, although it is hard for me to call a voluntaryist someone who said that “Socialism is the belief that progress is mainly to be effected by acting upon man through his environment” and who was a crusader against rent, interest and profit, which are all voluntary), one dubious anarchist (Thoreau), one Georgist (Nock), and six capitalists. This hardly makes his point.

On the issue of conditioned power:

This looks to me like scapegoating or collective punishment – something I would hope had gone the way of Yahweh and the Amalekites. We first surmise that high-heels are a sign of a systematized, coercive element in society. We then move – through judicial or legal activism or outright tyranny – to fine and penalize people who are not the cause of the wearing of high-heels. Why should they be punished if they are not the cause of the behavior which, by the way, we have only tentatively agreed might be a sign of some other, subtler coercion?

Clayton first surmises that high heels (to continue my example, although if I had known we’d have a discussion about it, I might have chosen a clearer one) are the result of a [systemic] coercive element in society, in short a hierarchy (the patriarchy). Then he says that we fine and penalize people for it?

Is this what Clayton thinks I want to do, that I want to fine and penalize people in the name of high heels? Then he is in error. Obviously a systemic problem must be given systemic solutions; if force is to be used then it must be used to enable these solutions, not to punish individuals. Putting individuals in jail is not the solution to social problems. And as a determinist, I don’t believe in punishment as a valid social goal anyway.

Returning to the example of high-heels: who should be held liable under law for the coercion which we are surmising to exist from the symptom of high-heel wearing? Vera Wang? Coach? Cosmopolitan? Men, generally? Who exactly is the cause of the oppressive wearing of high-heels by women through the operation of “non-condign power”?

Again, I never said that any individual or group should be punished in the name of high heels. This has already been reviewed. I don’t really want to continue this line of discussion because I don’t want there to be further misunderstandings about me wanting to punish people, which would probably happen if I discussed what I think are the causes of anything. I want to make sure that issue is settled first.

And now, ending this line of discussion:

When has the use of force ever succeeded in changing the discussion? The fact is that every form of systematized aggression has its foundation in verbal arguments that legitimize wrong behavior. It is mental laziness to short-circuit the process of argumentation and reach for the blunt instrument of force (law). The correct solution, the only possible solution, is to answer incorrect arguments with correct arguments.

Every revolution has “changed the discussion,” if only for a while. But that aside, Clayton seems confident in his assertions, but I am not. I don’t think systemic aggression has as foundation verbal arguments that legitimize wrong behavior. To me, it seems that the verbal arguments are, most of the time, rationalizations of the wrong behavior. The sort of things that legitimize wrong behavior (like dehumanization, objectification, prejudice, elitism) are more like appeals to emotion than like properly formulated arguments. But I could be wrong on that.

My bigger problem here is that Clayton is trying to portray himself as the “reasonable” person who seeks only to offer truth against falsity. One has to wonder if the Zapatista would have the freedom they have today if they had kept “answering incorrect arguments with correct arguments” to opponents who didn’t (and still don’t) give a shit about their welfare. When they took arms in 1994 (in a still ongoing struggle) and risked their lives for freedom from the Mexican government and the capitalist elite in Southern Mexico, were the Zapatista simply being lazy? I’d like to hear what Clayton thinks about that particular situation.

To assert that we should counter falsehoods with truths, and that this is sufficient, implies a number of things: that our opponents are concerned with truth, that our opponents want to listen to the truths we’ve constructed, that our opponents have the same moral intuitions that we have, and so on. It seems to me that any opposition which shared these traits would resemble no elite that has ever existed. Again I could be wrong on that, but it seems to me that Clayton is implicitly setting up somewhat of a straw man.

Now, the dialogue on the issue of contract. My position is that voluntaryism by definition allows all contracts, including those which go against human rights, up to slavery. Clayton replies:

I ‘believe’ that a contract is voluntary in the same way that I ‘believe’ that a bachelor is an unmarried man – the relationship is definitional. Furthermore, to pit “contracts against… human rights” is nonsense. The word contract simply means “an agreement”. While contract law, even in the best case, is much more complex and problematic than a simple agreement, the whole idea of a contract is merely an elaboration of that simplest, voluntary act which is every human’s right: to make an agreement.

All contracts are voluntary by definition, and contracts cannot break human rights because it is an elaboration of the right to make agreements. This is a strange position, but first let me ask a question: what is the justification for this “right to make agreements”?

It seems obvious to me that such a right does not exist. For one thing, a principle cannot be a right if it infringes on the already established rights of other people. But Clayton has assumed that such a thing cannot exist by definition, so we’re trapped in a circular path here. He has simply defined the problem away. Perhaps the issue of slavery contracts will clarify this:

Slavery is clearly an involuntary arrangement and there are several reasoned, factual arguments we can follow to see why a “contract” which is supposed to legitimize a condition of slavery simply cannot – none of which are ad hoc. The simplest arugment is Rothbard’s argument based on the inalienability of the will, that is, the fundamental human right to change one’s mind:

I see no reason to deny that we have the right to change our mind. But it seems to me that by pulling this argument, Clayton is nullifying all contracts. After all, contracts are designed to ensure a future outcome, not for the present; a full belief in “the fundamental human right to change one’s mind” would make the very notion of contracts invalid. This is not a problem for me, since I don’t uphold contracts as a necessary or even particularly desirable way of organizing society, but it is obviously a problem for Clayton.

It seems to me that unless Clayton breaks out of his strange “definition” and acknowledges that contracts can go against human rights (as they most certainly do in our reality), there can be no further dialogue on this subject. Perhaps he could borrow a page from “anarcho-capitalist” Hans-Hermann Hoppe and argue that it’s okay for contracts to include sexual harassment clauses because women secretely like it.

And now, to address the remaining topics. First, market exchange:

… market exchange, being based on power imbalance, is itself a “manipulation” of people’s values and desires.

I don’t know what “market exchange” is as against simple exchange, but what voluntaryist has ever said that exchange in the present order is free of manipulation? Quite the opposite…

But on this point, we agree. Once the first inch of systematized aggression has been tolerated, the entire social order becomes infused with it – every interaction is tainted with the manipulation of the State and its enablers and cronies in the media and the corporate power complex. What, exactly, is Tremblay refuting here?

Unfortunately I cannot find the quote Clayton refers to, although I am sure I did write it. I must have edited it out, in which case I apologize. I do not remember what I was replying to. If I had to guess, I was probably pointing out the contradictions of voluntaryists believing that the “free market” is distorted by the list of things he gave and gives people wrong motivations, even though the “free market” itself does this very same thing. Clayton’s reply is excellent: my only objection is that eliminating all these things does not eliminate the manipulation of people’s values and desires, it only eliminates some of its sources and allows other sources to take the fore (such as wealth inequalities, marketing, work hierarchies, etc).

And finally, on the issue of institutional failures:

I have no disagreement with this – my disagreement is with the idea of institutional determinism, which is what it sounded like Tremblay was espousing. If behavior is determined by the institutional facts, then there is no individual responsibility, only collective responsibility.

I believe that the issue of responsibility is more complicated than either option taken alone. We do have individual responsibility, in that it makes sense to prevent someone from harming others, regardless of the causes of the harmful action; but the actions of individuals are primarily caused by social conditioning, therefore all instances of individual responsibility necessarily also entail a systemic, collective responsibility. It is simply not possible to dissociate the two.

At this point we could have an elaborate discussion of our respective positions on how human beings make decisions, and so on, but I don’t really see the point. It’s entirely possible to define voluntaryism without reference to “choice,” “free will” or individual responsibility at all (e.g. “voluntaryism is the desire to eliminate all uses of violence or threats of violence from social relations”), so even if he does believe in some contra-causal mental faculty, I do not hold that against him. However, I can’t stop myself from wondering why Clayton keeps coming back to my social constructionist position. Perhaps he can clarify this in his response.

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3 thoughts on “The Voluntaryist Reader defends voluntaryism, round 2.

  1. [...] And finally my round two, where I continue my analysis of the issues presented and lob a few questions of my [...]

  2. cyanidecupcake April 28 2014 at 2:34 Reply

    “My bigger problem here is that Clayton is trying to portray himself as the “reasonable” person who seeks only to offer truth against falsity. One has to wonder if the Zapatista would have the freedom they have today if they had kept “answering incorrect arguments with correct arguments” to opponents who didn’t (and still don’t) give a shit about their welfare.” LMAO! pacifists had better not see this.

    • Francois Tremblay April 28 2014 at 2:41 Reply

      Pacifism is an attractive ideology but it can be an unthinking dogma as well. Violence is not always a possible answer, but when it is, it should be on the table. The Zapatista were probably right to rebel, as the ensuing conflict showed. Was there a better means to achieve their end? Again, one can’t really predict what would have happened otherwise, but probably not. It’s not like the Mexican government was ever gonna say, “oh yea you indigenous people are right after all, capitalism sucks and we should just abandon the power elite that puts us in power.”

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