NOTE: if you’re interested in more entries against voluntaryism, check out my anti-voluntaryism category.
Voluntaryism is a popular ideology amongst people who like Anarchism but recoil at its leftist implications. By adopting the simple principle, “whatever is voluntary is ethical,” they believe that they have found the high ground, the ruler with which all other ideologies must be evaluated.
Some openly advocate a “rule by landlords,” a sort of extra-small minarchism where whoever owns the land can impose whatever laws he wishes on anyone who works or lives within his land. This is the “ultimate decision-making power” which defines the State: these landowners are effectively rulers over that land. Although they refuse to see this pretty direct deduction (but to be fair, even Rothbard was too blinded by his pro-property bias to see it), it is clear that the voluntaryists who hold to this ideology have nothing to do with Anarchism.
One famous example from the Mises forum is the question of whether we are justified in shaking off someone who is hanging for his life on a flagpole that we own. Many people there were of the opinion that “property rights” alone justified an act which is, to be clear, nothing more than murder.
Most voluntaryists recoil at the idea that their ideology might justify this sort of baseless murder, and as such adopt a “softer” position. They then try to draw a line, beyond which their belief in “property rights” becomes harmless and does not affect other people’s rights. But as I have pointed out in my past exposé of “anarcho-capitalism,” there is no line beyond which voluntaryism, in its support of “property rights,” does not suffer from this sort of contradiction, because “property rights” are by their very nature an obstacle to all other, real human rights.
In fact, we don’t need to go beyond real life to see that this is the case. Voluntaryism, under the form of STV (Subjective Theory of Value, which basically states that any price or usury people agree upon is just, by circular definition), is the core justification for capitalist exploitation. Of course, they strenuously object to the word “exploitation,” because they believe that anything voluntary is by definition good and thus cannot be “exploitation.” But this is circular reasoning.
In the same way, they object equally strenuously to any attempt to unincentivize or prevent what they see as “voluntary acts,” saying things like “you just want to tell people what they can’t do!” And yet no one disputes that we must often “tell people what they can’t do.” We don’t want to live in a society where people are free to hurt or defraud each other without being stopped, because these actions go against innate morality and go against the free will of the victim. Many “voluntary acts” are equally unacceptable (some of which I will discuss in the points below).
Even some crimes, especially clever frauds, can be said to be voluntary, but that does not make them any less criminal; like these “voluntary acts,” they rely on false beliefs in order to foster acceptance or even cheerful participation in the harming of the person’s life. Religion, I suppose, should be added to that category of clever frauds as well.
“Whatever is voluntary is ethical; whatever is not voluntary is not ethical.” Like the Golden Rule, this rule is simple and wrong. There are four main reasons why it is wrong.
1. It reduces ethics to a matter of mere personal opinion. Because of this, it goes against all other ethical principles ever put forward by man, since one may at any time hold an opinion contrary to them, even if those principles are logically sound and empirically demonstrated.
Voluntaryists, however, do their best to redefine other people’s terms so they fit within their own worldview. For instance, an Anarchist may rightly points out that the voluntaryist would allow people to form hierarchies, and that this is contrary to our goal of freedom. The voluntaryist will then generally either define freedom as “doing whatever you feel like” (omitting the fact that forming hierarchies restricts our desire to “do whatever we feel like” later on), or redefine hierarchy so as to exclude willing obedience (as if the willing or unwilling nature of obedience had any relevance to the unethical nature of hierarchies).
Also, when I discussed the arguments against STV, I briefly pointed out that there can be no “true subjectivity” in a world where indoctrination is a constant fact. The same objection can be leveled against voluntaryism in general. The voluntaryist cannot ensure that one’s opinion is really one’s personal opinion, and not just someone else’s attempt at indoctrination that was internalized in the past. And if opinions are molded by whoever has the money or power to make its message heard by the masses, then voluntaryism basically reduces itself to “might makes right.”
2. It does not take into account the coercion embodied by our institutions. In the same way that we say that commodities embody (give a concrete form to) a certain amount of labor, we can also say that institutions embody coercion. This is ignored by voluntaryists, who examine actions towards any institution in a vacuum, divorced from context, and thus do not acknowledge the coercion that was necessary for the institution to exist.
Let me give you a simple example to illustrate what I mean by this. A group of people goes around breaking people’s legs. A significant percentage of people’s legs have been broken, and now they all need crutches. Crutch-makers, who are few (since many people simply can’t work at all due to having their legs broken, and because we still need people to produce food, potable water, houses, and other vital commodities), are now forming a cartel and are asking for thousands of dollars in exchange for crutches, because there are so few crutches being made and so many people vitally need them.
My example is not an analogy, as I don’t have any specific system in mind while writing it (I am not making a statement about cartels or health care or anything like that). All I am pointing out is that the system of crutch production is dependent for its power on acts of coercion that were done “in the past,” “by other people.” The fact that it was done “in the past” and “by other people” makes voluntaryists say that the system in the present is voluntary, but the system embodies the coercion of the leg-breaking which occurred before the rise of the cartel, and would not exist without it.
This means that voluntaryists are good at identifying institutions which rely on force “in the present” and “by the people in charge,” but they are very bad at identifying these institutions when time has passed and coercion is no longer directly necessary.
For instance, the fact that land was initially distributed through coercive acts like the extermination of the natives, the enclosure of the commons, the selling of unused land by auction. These acts of coercion are embodied by landlordism, laws against squatting and beggars, “gentrification,” and capitalism as a whole, because capitalism everywhere necessitated the creation of a class of people uprooted from their land who would serve as its workers. And of course we cannot dissociate land ownership issues from that of statism, which is a form of ownership claim over a piece of land and its inhabitants.
Therefore, when voluntaryists claim that landlordism and capitalism are voluntary and therefore benign, they are not only omitting the facts of landlordist and capitalist exploitation, but they are also omitting the coercion embodied by those institutions. To take a more concrete example of this, the Zapatista revolutions were brought about because natives were chased from their land and were forced to sell their labor to the new land owners who bought their land at auction. It would do no good for a voluntaryist to point out that the work contract they signed was voluntary: the work contract is merely an extension of the violent acts of enclosure and selling.
If my point is not clear enough, the Scientology “billion year contract” might provide for a simpler example. Even though capitalists may scoff at a “billion year contract,” the concept is logically acceptable for people who believe that their souls are immortal. That issue aside, the contract is entirely “voluntary,” if you refuse to examine the fact that the person was brainwashed “in the past” and “by different people.” But this is obviously nonsense (although, since most forms of brainwashing are voluntary, I suppose that wouldn’t bother them anyway).
As a conclusion to this point, it is hard not to consider the fact that all human activity has as its cause a non-voluntary act, the act of being born and the breeding/parenting institution in general.
3. There are fundamental contradictions between the belief in “voluntary contract” and the belief in human rights. If a “voluntary contract” includes clauses which go against a person’s human rights, such as pretty much all capitalist work contracts ever written, then the voluntaryist is forced to reject human rights in favour of the contract. This can get to rather extreme lengths, as I have shown in my discussions of the Block Corollary. Basically, the voluntaryist response is to call the victims crybabies for complaining about a contract they signed “voluntarily.”
In practice, people sign such contracts because they have no viable alternatives, and a lot of this is related to point 2. The background conditions of society are molded by the coercion of the past much more than that of the present. The more power workers have in a given field, the better conditions they get, but businesses have more power than the workers. This is why they end up routinely having the upper hand and are able to demand concession from the workers which would be considered unacceptable or even absurd in any other context.
4. The term “voluntary” is weaker than the term “consensual.” What is consensual is necessarily voluntary, but what is voluntary is not necessarily consensual. For a person to perform a voluntary choice only requires acceptance on the part of the person, but for a person to perform a consensual choice requires a viable possibility of refusal. This means that the concept of consent includes consideration of structural issues (such as whether a viable alternative exists) which are not part of voluntariness. I have examined the issue of consent in detail in my entry Some considerations on consent (see part 1 and part 2).
The upshot of all this is that a totalizing system like capital-democracy, or capitalism or democracy alone, precludes the possibility of consent. The same can be applied to any totalizing system whatsoever, since by definition totalizing systems does not accept, or permit the rise of, viable alternatives. Therefore, any such system, or any part of such a system, may be “voluntary,” but it cannot be consensual.
This presents a problem for the voluntaryist, as he is either forced to abandon the notion of consent or to trivialize the non-consensual nature of whatever he is defending. Because consensus relies on structural issues which voluntariness does not, the voluntaryist can accomplish the second goal by examining actions and systems in a vacuum. In this way, the voluntaryist joins the right-winger in his stubborn refusal to consider society’s ever-present influence on people’s actions (let alone society’s role in the formation of the self). To the voluntaryist, ongoing coercion alone accounts for all social ills. If there is no coercion present, all responsibility falls on the individual. This is only one step better than the right-winger, and not a big step at that.
If the voluntaryist abandons the notion of consent on the basis that it is too restrictive, then we must conclude that his professed love of freedom is a lie. How can people be free when they are forced to live in non-consensual ways?
It is like saying that surrendering one’s wallet to an armed robber means you were free to take that decision. There is nothing voluntary about being attacked by an armed robber, but the choice itself is voluntary, in the same sense that voting or paying taxes is voluntary: one can decide to do it, or not to do it. And if we look only at the choice itself, in a vacuum, this analysis might make sense. The same might be said of the decision to surrender one’s labour or starve. But these are not the choices that make life happy or meaningful or purposeful. There is more meaning in deciding what to eat for breakfast than in any such non-consensual choice.
This is related to the principle of embodied coercion, given that most non-consensual actions or choices are the result of embodied coercion. But in certain cases, they are not. To follow the right-wing stereotype, what if a specific person is poor because he is dumb or lazy? Well, so what? His dumbness or laziness is his responsibility, but this does not turn non-consent into consent by magic. And the dumbness or laziness of any given person surely has a marginal effect on the nature of the structure that frames his choices.
The child renter argument, which I posted last year, provides an example of a distinction between a voluntary choice and a consensual choice. One may argue that the child has the voluntary choice of staying, and paying the rent, or leaving, and finding another place to live (or becoming homeless). One may also argue that the scenario as a whole is voluntary, since no coercion was involved at any step of the way. But one cannot argue that the choice is consensual: he never consented to the lease contract, and any choice he makes is surely out of necessity (either because he has no other place to live, or because he doesn’t have the money to stay).
Voluntaryism is subjectivism run rampant; it is, at its roots, a might makes right ideology, and can only lead to the perpetuation of power relations and all the suffering that comes with them. The fact that an action is voluntary is not a sufficient criterion for calling it moral or ethical. As one part of an ethical worldview, it is essential. As an independent standard, it is pure nonsense.