Against Carl Watner: Debunking the Arguments for Voluntaryism.

Carl Watner is widely acknowledged as a pioneer of voluntaryism, and he has written a succinct overview of seven arguments which he believes support voluntaryism as an ideology. I’ve been accused many times of not addressing what voluntaryists actually believe, so what better way for me to accept this criticism than to examine the words of Watner himself?

Before I begin, though, I want to point out the self-righteous attitude taken by Watner throughout. Voluntaryists in general seem to believe that their non-violent position makes them compassionate, tolerant individuals who rightfully oppose coercive ideologies. Yet, as I’ve explained before, voluntaryists refuse to oppose institutions which could not exist without the past coercion that they embody (see point 2 here).

Since this embodiment of coercion is (by an overwhelming margin) more oppressive than the direct use of coercion, and in most cases provides the incentives for this direct use, the claim that voluntaryism opposes coercion and defends freedom against tyranny is fine hypocrisy. This is the “freedom” of the miscreant who throws you down a well, declares himself “non-violent,” and offers you the “freedom” to work for him or starve.

Moving on to the arguments:

The Epistemological Argument

Violence is never a means to knowledge… The advocate of any form of invasive violence is in a logically precarious situation. Coercion does not convince, nor is it any kind of argument. William Godwin pointed out that force “is contrary to the nature of the intellect, which cannot but be improved by conviction and persuasion,” and “if he who employs coercion against me could mold me to his purposes by argument, no doubt, he would… He pretends to punish me because his argument is strong; but he really punishes me because he is weak”…

This is a bizarre argument, in that it assumes that the use of violence serves an epistemic purpose. I think Watner would be hard-pressed to find any use of violence which was explicitly meant to serve epistemic ends. The purpose of violence is not to argue anything or to persuade anyone of the validity of an argument, but rather to put into effect one’s ethics into the world, whether those ethics are constructive or destructive.

Suppose that I use force to try to prevent someone from inflicting force on me. In doing so, I am not trying to persuade the other party that their course of action is unethical. Indeed, I have no delusion of being able to change anyone’s mind. I am merely trying to impart to the other party that their violence will be met with violence, pain, which is undesirable to any organism.

If we look at more large-scale examples, we also find no such attempt at persuasion. In seizing the means of production, violently if necessary, socialists are not trying to persuade the power elite that capitalist institutions are outdated or irrational or anything of the sort. There is no reason to believe that a power elite could ever be convinced of such a thing. The goal is to bring about a new form of economics; it is an inherently practical goal, not a theoretical epistemic goal.

I do agree with Watner that the use of violence can mask some epistemic insecurity or weakness. However, he fails to make the argument that it is always the case, and it doesn’t seem like a plausible explanation. This is a very Objectivist-like argument, in that it tries to psychoanalyze the motivations of one’s opponents. This method fails because it is based on ad hominems and does not reflect the motivation of people in reality; it is a very poor and mean way of making a point, let alone an argument.

The Economic Argument

People engage in voluntary exchanges because they anticipate improving their lot; the only individuals capable of judging the merits of an exchange are the parties to it. Voluntaryism follows naturally if no one does anything to stop it. The interplay of natural property and exchanges results in a free market price system, which conveys the necessary information needed to make intelligent economic decisions. Interventionism and collectivism make economic calculation impossible because they disrupt the free market price system… Also, “controlled” economies leave no room for new inventions, new ways of doing things, or for the “unforeseeable and unpredictable”…

There are many unspoken premises in this argument which make it extremely unlikely to be true. Watner speaks of “natural property” and “voluntary exchanges” following “naturally”; he seems to believe that the specific political concepts and behaviors we find normal today have always existed in the same way. This is fallacious, but it is a common fallacy because we often cannot imagine it any other way, and we are not taught that any society ever worked any other way. Watner’s assertions about what is “natural,” like most such assertions, rely on a set of political and economic assumptions:

[D]efinitions of ownership and theft tend to be thought of as straightforward, even natural. But they are not. They are, rather, the product of human decision. That decision operates to give special protection to just those types of ownership (or putative ownership) that are crucial to economic stratification. It excludes from protection-or even from clear conceptualization-those types of ownership that would undermine or at least limit economic stratification…

It is not only the legal definition of theft but those of assault, rape, spousal abuse, fraud, homicide, and other crimes as well that appear natural and neutral, even though they are, in fact, artificial and severely biased.

The Culture of Conformism, chapter 1

What Watner fails to realize, or omits from his argument, is that his “natural property” and “naturally… voluntary exchanges” only make sense within a culture of universal competition and atomistic individualism. They are not “natural” in any way, shape or form. So Watner’s main argument, that voluntaryism is “natural,” falls on its face.

As for the argument on economic calculation, Watner fails to demonstrate that a price system is necessary for intelligence economic decisions, and that systems like parecon or mutualist labor exchange, to name just those two examples, entail that economic decisions will be unintelligent.

This is complicated by the subjectivity of the very concept of “intelligent economic decisions.” The term “intelligence” is highly controversial, and Watner does not even acknowledge this. But if intelligence incorporates anything like the skillful application of knowledge to problems, then free markets, which are unguided, are by definition unintelligent and fail Watner’s criterion. For “intelligent economic decisions,” we must look to better planned systems.

Finally Watner makes the argument that a controlled economy leaves no room for innovation. Well, I think we already have plenty of innovation in our capitalist planned economy. I’m not arguing that it’s all great, but it exists. But again, he posits no principle by which innovation is prevented from existing. So this is not really an argument either.

The theoreticians and partisans of the liberal economy affirm that competition stimulates initiative and, consequently, the creative spirit and invention without which it remains dormant. Numerous observations made by the writer in the Collectives, factories and socialised workshops permit him to take quite the opposite view. For in a Collective, in a grouping where each individual is stimulated by the wish to be of service to his fellow beings research, the desire for technical perfection and so on are also stimulated… Furthermore, when, in present society, an individualist inventor discovers something, it is used only by the capitalist or the individual employing him, whereas in the case of an inventor living in a community not only is his discovery taken up and developed by others, but is immediately applied for the common good.
Gaston Leval, Collectives in the Spanish Revolution

The only point which he even tries to argue is his position that voluntaryism is natural. Unfortunately, his evidence does not support his conclusion. His argument seems to be that voluntaryism is natural because people, if left to their own devices, will engage in voluntary exchange and that this will inevitably improve their lot. Not only that, but Watner tells us that only the parties to an exchange can judge its merits.

I fail to see how this can be the case. Certainly I agree that I cannot morally evaluate an exchange from the perspective of the participants, but that’s a trivial statement. From an ethical standpoint, I can definitely evaluate exchanges on the basis of ethical principles such as egalitarianism, not exploiting people, obtaining consent at all times, and so on. Voluntaryism, being a form of ethical subjectivism, is obviously opposed to such principles, but provides us no reason to abandon them.

The Moral Argument

The voluntary principle assures us that while we may have the possibility of choosing the worst, we also have the possibility of choosing the best. It provides us the opportunity to make things better, though it doesn’t guarantee results. While it dictates that we do not force our idea of “better” on someone else, it protects us from having someone else’s idea of “better” imposed on us by force.

These are very noble sentiments. Too bad that they have little to do with voluntaryism. They do, however, provide a powerful argument for consensual systems and political structures engineered to provide a maximum of free choice, and can easily be turned as an argument against voluntaryism. Voluntaryism does not ensure that we can “choose the best” or “protect us from having someone else’s idea of ‘better’ imposed on us.” By the very fact that it is unguided, it cannot fulfill any standard of value such as the ones Watner proposes. Because of its acceptance of embodied coercion as voluntary, voluntaryism cannot protect us from coercion.

Just to give one example, I’ve argued that property rights are incoherent, but to a voluntaryist property rights are voluntary. Therefore, landlordism and capitalism (private ownership of the means of production), which are coercive against renters and workers, are approved by voluntaryism. But clearly landlordism and capitalism restrict our choices and subject us to further coercion; without landlordism we’d have more choice of where and how to inhabit, and without capitalism we’d have more choice in how to work and for what purposes.

The last sentence I quoted makes the “voluntary principle” discussed here by Watner suspiciously similar to what I call Tucker’s Theorem (that the invader’s values must be subordinated to those of the invaded). But the natural consequence of Tucker’s Theorem is a socialist society, not a voluntaryist society. It is only because voluntaryists fail to recognize the injustice of existing institutions that embody past coercion that they are unable to realize that fact.

The Natural Law Argument

Common sense and reason tell us that nothing can be right by legislative enactment if it is not already right by nature. Epictetus, the Stoic, urged men to defy tyrants in such a way as to cast doubt on the necessity of government itself. “If the government directed them to do something that their reason opposed, they were to defy the government. If it told them to do what their reason would have told them to do anyway, they did not need a government.”

Ethical naturalism is the position that the good can be reduced to some non-evaluative property (such as “the most total happiness in the world”), while ethical subjectivism is the position that the good is determined by psychological properties (such as God’s opinions or one’s personal opinions).

Here Watner seems to be arguing that voluntaryism is some kind of position of ethical naturalism (“it if is not already right by nature,” “something that their reason opposed”). But voluntaryism holds that whatever people voluntarily decide to do is good (and therefore, all free exchanges are unquestionable). This is a position of ethical subjectivism, not a position of ethical naturalism as Watner seems to be implying.

Watner may disagree that voluntaryism is a form of ethical subjectivism, but he provides no argument to the contrary in either this or his “moral argument.” Without such an argument, the argument here falls apart because Watner has no valid alternative to present to legislative enactment. All he can argue is that he, along with his fellow voluntaryists, disagrees with the competing subjectivist view that law-makers’ opinions create the good. Why should we believe voluntaryists more or less than we should believe this competing view?

The Means-End Argument

[...] Voluntaryists oppose the State because it uses coercive means. The means are the seeds which bud into a flower and come into fruition. It is impossible to plant the seed of coercion and then reap the flower of voluntaryism. The coercionist always proposes to compel people to do something, usually by passing laws or electing politicians to office. These laws and officials depend upon physical violence to enforce their wills. Voluntary means, such as nonviolent resistance, for example, violate no one’s rights… Voluntaryism does not require of people that they violently overthrow their government, or use the electoral process to change it; merely that they shall cease to support their government, whereupon it will fall of its own dead weight. If one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself.

I’m afraid I fail to understand how this is an argument for voluntaryism. The correlation between means and ends applies to all ideologies, not just voluntaryism. It is true that the State uses coercive means, but again that’s an argument for Anarchism, not voluntaryism.

The Consistency Argument

It is a commonplace observation that the means one uses must be consistent with the goal one seeks. It is impossible to “wage a war for peace” or “fight politics by becoming political.” Freedom and private property are total, indivisible concepts that are compromised wherever and whenever the State exists. Since all things are related to one another in our complicated social world, if one man’s freedom or private property may be violated (regardless of the justification), then every man’s freedom and property are insecure. The superior man can only be sure of his freedom if the inferior man is secure in his rights.

For those of you who doubt that Watner supports property rights as they exist today, here’s your proof. According to Watner, private property is a “total, indivisible concept.” Therefore my refutation of property rights also applies as a refutation of this argument.

The Integrity, Self-Control, and Corruption Argument

It is a fact of human nature that the only person who can think with your brain is you. Neither can a person be compelled to do anything against his or her will, for each person is ultimately responsible for his or her own actions. Governments try to terrorize individuals into submitting to tyranny by grabbing their bodies as hostages and trying to destroy their spirits… Furthermore, the voluntaryist rejects the use of political power because it can only be exercised by implicitly endorsing or using violence to accomplish one’s ends. The power to do good to others is also the power to do them harm. Power to compel people, to control other people’s lives, is what political power is all about. It violates all the basic principles of voluntaryism: might does not make right; the end never justifies the means; nor may one person coercively interfere in the life of another. Even the smallest amount of political power is dangerous. First, it reduces the capacity of at least some people to lead their own lives in their own way. Second, and more important from the voluntaryist point of view, is what it does to the person wielding the power: it corrupts that person’s character.

Again, I don’t understand how this is an argument for voluntaryism. I agree that the principles of the State are contrary (although not diametrically opposite) to those of voluntaryism. So what? We both agree that might does not make right, that the ends do not justify the means, and that one may not coercively interfere in others’ lives; but we disagree in what does make right, on what means are valid, and on what coercion consists of. There are a multiplicity of answers to these questions, and rejecting statist ideology does not prove that voluntaryism is the right answer.

The rest of the “argument” seems to be nothing but inane and trivial pronouncements. Only you can think with your own brain, you are ultimately responsible for what you do, power corrupts, the power to do good is also the power to do harm, and so on. While this may all be true, it’s also vacuous tripe that has no place in a serious political discussion.

Frankly, I am unimpressed by this series of arguments. They are full of unjustified non-evident assumptions and nonsensical deductions. This does not lend any credibility to either voluntaryism as an ideology or to statements that rely on voluntaryist premises. It also does not lend any credibility to self-ownership or to ethical subjectivism, which are the two pillars of voluntaryism.

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12 thoughts on “Against Carl Watner: Debunking the Arguments for Voluntaryism.

  1. Chris February 9 2013 at 19:38 Reply

    As I have written you before, voluntaryism does not say that everything voluntary is good but rather that anything that is voluntary should not be interfered with by force.

    • Francois Tremblay February 10 2013 at 1:11 Reply

      Dude, I just analyzed arguments from Carl Watner himself. If you STILL think I’m misinterpreting, then I’ve got nothing left to say to you. I did everything I could to please you people.

      • Chris February 10 2013 at 18:44 Reply

        I don’t think he argues that everything voluntary is good either.

        • Francois Tremblay February 10 2013 at 18:48 Reply

          So are you gonna refute anything I wrote in this entry or…?

          • Chris February 10 2013 at 18:53

            A big part of your argument is that voluntaryists think everything voluntary is good but I don’t see any evidence for that.

        • Francois Tremblay February 10 2013 at 18:57 Reply

          False. Only ONE of my counter-arguments is based on this, and that’s my reply to the Natural Law Argument, where I claim that voluntaryism is an ethical subjectivist position, instead of ethical naturalist as Watner claims. Do you disagree with my position? And if so, can you provide a rebuttal please? Otherwise you are wasting my time.

          • Chris February 10 2013 at 19:31

            You don’t have to say that I might waste your time. It makes me feel bad and hesitant to write anything.

            I meant it was a big part of your overall argument against voluntaryism because I’ve seen you use it multiple times.

            I don’t know whether I disagree with the conclusion of your natural law counter-argument. I’m just saying that your premise is wrong when you write that voluntaryism holds that voluntary decisions are always good.

        • Francois Tremblay February 10 2013 at 20:33 Reply

          Fine, but that doesn’t affect any of my arguments here, since you don’t disagree with any of them as far as I can tell.

  2. Dave March 26 2014 at 22:45 Reply

    The comments on your other post (at http://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/2011/03/25/the-voluntaryist-delusion/) are full of great stuff! I only hope this one fills up with as much support for voluntaryism. I’ll start it off:

    1: (Epistemological) You use lack of proof (that violence always comes from someone with “some epistemic insecurity or weakness”) as a reason to reject voluntaryism. Sure, with such proof, the argument would be a bit better, but not by much.

    2: (Economic) You judge the voluntary interaction of parties that do not include you “on the basis of ethical principles such as egalitarianism, not exploiting people, obtaining consent at all times, and so on.” You write off the more immediate and visceral personal relationship between those parties. In the post we both linked to above, you point out that consent is a better term than voluntary, but that is as close as you come to expressing an understanding the importance of the actual individuals involved in any interaction.

    3: (Moral) You ignore the existence of the individual ultimately responsible for his own behavior: “By the very fact that it is unguided, [voluntaryism] cannot fulfill any standard of value such as the ones Watner proposes.” Every human action is guided by the individual human taking that action. You have a blind spot for internal (self-)control. I think you believe in determinism as opposed to free will. That is an unfortunate cop-out for which many suffer, so if you ever have the feeling that you can make a choice, don’t be so quick to write it off.

    4: (Natural Law) Watner claims that reason and common sense tell us something. You suggest that he’s actually saying it himself, parroting what you call “ethical naturalism” – but only to go on and point out that voluntaryism is more like “ethical subjectivism”. You write “Watner has no valid alternative to present to legislative enactment,” [I assume you mean an alternative to put into practice the principles of voluntaryism] again showing that you have lost your sense of the self. The point of voluntaryism is that the self must take full responsibility for controlling its own behavior. You’re really just pointing out that voluntaryism works both as “ethical naturalism” and as “ethical subjectivism.”

    5. (Means-end) You point out that this is an argument for anarchism rather than voluntaryism. That really doesn’t rebut voluntaryism at all, but rather supports it, since voluntaryists reject electoral politics and all coercive government.

    6. (Consistency) Your argument is presented in another blog that refutes property rights, so it’s really kind of useless to all those who have stuff that they and most other people agree belongs to them. How can we encourage you to respect our claims to property that we feel we own?

    7. (Integrity, etc.) You wrote “We both agree that might does not make right, that the ends do not justify the means, and that one may not coercively interfere in others’ lives.” That’s great! But then you wrote some other stuff… I think you called it… “vacuous tripe,” oh, you were talking about what Watner wrote, although it is what got you to state your agreement with most of the voluntaryist principles. Very interesting, but not much of a rebuttal.

    To sum up, I think you are against “voluntaryism” the word, as well as property rights, because you are a socialist and have assimilated some kind of “there is no individual” meme. I suggested this in the other thread, but I will suggest it here too: Perhaps your articles should argue that it should be called “Consensualism” instead of “Voluntaryism,” rather than try to rebut something the core ideas of which are totally agreeable to you.

    This might help too: Voluntaryism argues that you and everyone else who wishes to abolish (their own) property rights (and possibly individual self-determination too) should be allowed to do so, as long as y’all don’t use coercion and/or violence, but it also argues that you should let others who wish to respect (each others’) property rights and individual self-determination and responsibility do so peacefully. I consent to all that. Do you?

    • Francois Tremblay March 27 2014 at 0:20 Reply

      Cool story bro. Way to argue for your side. I’m just bowled over I am. Geeze. Did you get your arguments out of a Cracker Jack box? Did you really want me to respond to all of these points? Because if so, you should have made much more of an effort.

      “Voluntaryism argues that you and everyone else who wishes to abolish (their own) property rights (and possibly individual self-determination too) should be allowed to do so, as long as y’all don’t use coercion and/or violence, but it also argues that you should let others who wish to respect (each others’) property rights and individual self-determination and responsibility do so peacefully. I consent to all that. Do you?”

      No, of course not. Why the hell would I not want to use force to prevent people from exploiting and defrauding each other? Go back to your rabbit hole…

      • Dave March 31 2014 at 20:11 Reply

        When you write “force,” I think you meant “coercion and/or violence,” as I wrote. I use force all the time to protect myself and others. I avoid using coercion and violence, however.

        I have felt compelled in the past to use coercion or violence “to prevent people from exploiting and defrauding each other,” but it turns out that a significant percent of the time, the violence I employed is matched by the exploiters and defrauders. Once I noticed that violence tends to achieve my goals only part of the time and cause more problems the rest of the time, I started thinking about those who see it working or failing to bring about a better situation. I realized that we are mostly examples to other people, rather than influences or controllers.

        In other words, if I pursue my sense of justice using violence, then others will pursue their sense of justice using violence, and we’ll get lots of violence whenever people have disagreements that ANYONE thinks justifies violence. It escalates. The general outcome is more violence, not less. So I’ve disavowed that method. I think it’s immoral to threaten to violate (coercion) or actually violate others in order to achieve any kind of good.

        I do not feel any safer from fraud or exploitation knowing that there are people in the world willing to do violence to protect me or prevent it. Self-defense is another story because as I see it, an attacker gives up his opportunity to enjoy my respect for his rights when he violates or attempts to violate me. If that’s what you mean by using force to prevent people from exploiting or defrauding each other, then your answer wasn’t addressing my question, but something else. By “coercion and/or violence” I mean to exclude self-defense. If that causes some misunderstanding, then what words should I use? “Force that isn’t self-defensive”? I just use “coercion and/or violence,” but I’m open to suggestions.

        Is that any better?

        • Francois Tremblay March 31 2014 at 20:43 Reply

          I’m not sure why you’re telling me all this. You’re not going to get me to agree with voluntaryism based on reframing specific words. The problem with voluntaryism is fundamentally an ethical one, not a semantic one.

          Adding the term “self-defense” does not help either because the concept of “defense” is inherently tied to your concept of what an attack is, which is tied to your concept of what a right is. I obviously disagree with your concept of rights, and therefore the term “self-defense” is not shared between us.

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