The Voluntaryist Reader tries to rescue voluntaryism.

The Voluntaryist Reader has published a response against my latest entry on voluntaryism, “Voluntaryism: it’s not just about capitalism…“, where I discuss the ramifications of voluntaryism beyond the economic realm.

There is a lot to unpack here, so let me now get into each of the points in turn.

This is puzzling since – as voluntaryists – we not only see voluntaryism as precisely the opposite, we actually define it as such. Voluntaryism is the opposition to aggression in any form, whether institutionalized or not. The only possibilities are that either a) we are terribly confused or b) we are devious liars.

What I actually said, and which he quoted right on the previous paragraph, is that voluntaryism supports “the institutionalized evils around us.” I think that’s a clear phrase: I am not talking about some deliberately vague and fluid concept of “aggression” but rather about institutional evils, whether (to borrow Galbraith’s classification in The Anatomy of Power) they involve condign power (coercion, aggression), compensatory power (economic incentives such as wages, subsidies, welfare), or conditioned power (schooling, the mass media, and in general the organization of society and its non-economic incentives).

The voluntaryist view stops at condign power and states that all other forms of power are irrelevant to freedom. This is a false view which can only lead to paradox: it really does not matter whether we do what we do because we are coerced to do so, because it’s what we must do to have the money to continue to live, or because we are conditioned to do so, we are still not free in any sense of “freedom” that matters to us.

The correct answer to the false dilemma posed here is that voluntaryists are not confused or devious liars. They do oppose “aggression.” The problem is that by opposing “aggression,” they are thereby supporting all “non-aggressive” institutional evils.

Tremblay says, “Voluntaryism … [followed] to its logical conclusion, … would say that, for instance, slave contracts should be allowed.” This is either a misunderstanding or a lie. Please, Mr. Tremblay, quote the voluntaryist – Herbert, Spencer, Tucker, Thoreau, Spooner, Nock, Chodorov, Rothbard, LeFevre – that ever said anything about slavery but that it is an odious evil, a scourge of mankind and a marring of man’s beautiful nature?

I never made the claim that any voluntaryist thinker (which would not include Tucker, who was a socialist, by the way; Spooner, on the other hand, is more of a limit case) has stated that slavery was a good thing. But certainly many of these people accepted the primacy of contracts against the primacy of human rights. I don’t know if Clayton shares this position, but there is nothing in the concept of voluntaryism that argues against it. After all, signing a contract without having a gun pointed to your head is a voluntary act, isn’t it? And indeed in the comments Clayton answered that he does believe that all contracts are voluntary by their very nature.

I have an entry in the queue called “Contract theory as an attack against human rights” which attacks voluntaryism on that basis. But until this argument has been made, I will simply say that either Clayton admits that slavery can be accepted contractually (as it was in the past with indentured servants, who were considered property), in which case he defeats himself, or he admits that slavery cannot be accepted contractually, in which case he must explain to us what concrete limit he imposes on contracts (which, according to him, are all voluntary) and why this limit is not an ad hoc rationalization. My guess is that he will impose some limit and that he will not be able to prove that it is not pure ad hoc.

How does he confirm any of these wild claims?

I am not sure why he thinks that what I wrote includes “wild claims.” The association of capitalists, “anarcho-capitalism,” Libertarianism, and liberals with voluntaryist ideas is not novel or controversial.

Now, I’m open to hearing an argument from the radical feminists or from Tremblay explaining exactly how it is that, say, femininity involves the use of force or fraud.

I’d say that the performance of womanhood is mostly the product of conditioned power, not condign power. No one is holding guns to women’s heads to force them to wear high heels. Therefore the evils of these industries must necessarily elude the narrow analysis of voluntaryists, who are only concerned with condign power.

Nevertheless, we strongly distinguish between bad values and bad attitudes – so long as they exist solely within the mind and peacefully spoken words of an individual – and force or fraud because the former is only properly answered with other words, whereas force and fraud – and only force and fraud – may be properly answered with force itself.

Again we see here the clear dichotomy between condign power and other forms of power in voluntaryist thought, made by Clayton himself. Force and fraud are more important than “bad values” and “bad attitudes,” which should only be answered with “other words.” Clayton omits to tell us when “other words” have ever alone succeeded in freeing people from “bad values” and “bad attitudes” which permeate an entire society to its core. Capitalism would have been gone a long time ago if that was the case.

Now, I might get this wrong, but I guess what Tremblay is saying, here, is that he thinks that voluntaryists hold that past aggression doesn’t matter in assessing whether present actions are aggressive or not. I would again challenge Tremblay to substantiate this: which voluntaryist I have named would hold that the slaveholder laws did not play a role in huddling slaves on the plantations, on the sure knowledge they would be wantonly punished by the authorities and their masters for attempting to escape to freedom?

I’m not sure what point Clayton think he is making here, but it’s not the same point that I’m making. My point is that actions which are considered voluntary in the present are actually often the result of institutionalized coercion in the past (i.e. you broke my legs in the past, and now you’re selling me crutches at inflated prices). Clayton’s examples, on the other hand, do not involve two different timeframes, and therefore are not relevant to the principle.

Needless to say, this is not capitalist thought, but recycled Marxist rhetoric desperately trying to jam capitalism into the narrative of class structure, status society and legal privilege. Capitalism has nothing to do with asceticism, in fact, quite the opposite. Nor does it have anything to do with rewarding self-denial.

I’m not sure where the Marxist label is coming from, but I was referring to the Misesian concept of time preference. Some Misesians argue that poor people are poor because they have high time preference and that entrepreneurs are rich because they have low time preference. I have demolished such beliefs before. But given the general importance of the concept of savings in capitalism, I am not sure why Clayton makes such a statement as “Capitalism has nothing to do with asceticism, in fact, quite the opposite,” implying that capitalism favors high time preference and hedonism. Personally, I don’t think time preference, whether high or low, has much to do with it.

Perhaps Clayton is implying that capitalist economics are similar to Marxism in that both are based on central planning, in which case I would agree, but I’m sure that’s not what he meant.

Now, it’s not even clear what Tremblay is trying to assert beyond denying free choice. If there is no free choice, then there is no moral responsibility. In other words, Tremblay should not condemn voluntaryists – or his understanding thereof – because, after all, we have no free choice in being voluntaryists, anyway. It’s just our genetics.

Now Clayton is lowering himself to pretty simplistic anti-determinist arguments, although he seems to be using them wrongly. I am not “condemning voluntaryists,” I am condemning voluntaryism. Of course I agree that voluntaryists have no “choice” in the matter. So what? What is the relevance of this truism to a discussion on whether voluntaryism supports institutional evils?

But Tremblay pushes on to exasperating extremes, “all personal problems are ultimately the result of institutional failures.” Yes, no one ever makes mistakes that they can and should learn from. No one can ever do with a little dose of sleeping in the bed they’ve made for themselves.

Again, in a reoccurring theme for this entry, Clayton seems to be confused or is not explaining the steps that lead from one proposition to the other. I agree that “all personal problems are ultimately the result of institutional failures” (and fail to see what’s “exasperating” about such a conclusion, unless one has a preexisting bias against naturalistic explanations). I disagree that “no one ever makes mistakes” or that no one should regret what they’ve done. How Clayton gets from one to the other is beyond me.

People have to deal with our institutions in the best way they can, and they can make mistakes in doing so (for example, one may mismanage money or attract the attention of cops). They may regret such mistakes. They may learn how to better deal with institutional evils. It is a skill like any other.

The confusion here may come from my use of “ultimately.” I am not saying that every personal problem is the direct and immediate result of some institutional failure. For example, social inequality does not directly and immediately break people’s legs or give them heart attacks. But it is understood that social inequality worsens health care outcomes as a whole, and thus that social inequality is ultimately one cause of bad health care outcomes.

But the difference between theodicy and subjective valuation should be obvious. God, in his role as the causer and determiner of all events, is not merely one who wishes or assays to alter the state of affairs – as a human being – but, rather, is one who brings about without fail this or that state of affairs. The individual person, on the other hand, may form whatever desires or wishes he pleases. And while we are free to answer and criticize these desires with reasons and arguments, we are not free to answer them with force. That is, not if we hope to have a society of flourishing individuals.

Again, I have no idea what this has to do with my initial point that divine subjectivism is similar to voluntaryist subjectivism. In fact, Clayton seems to be merely confirming the validity of my argument in proposing that divine intervention “brings about without fail this or that state of affairs,” which we assume includes ethical facts as well, making them entirely subjective.

Here, Tremblay has almost got the truth. To argue against freedom in the small is to argue against freedom in the large. And while coercion in the large (systematized coercion) does, in fact, result in actual coercion in the small that can appear to be voluntary (such as needing to get a driver’s license “in order to drive”), the reactionist view of denying freedom in the small is simply to shoot oneself in the foot.

I think that now Clayton has confused himself as well. He seems to be equivocating between “freedom” as in the freedom given to us by making “choices” and “freedom” as in political freedom. At least it’s the only way for me to understand the statement that I am “denying freedom [I assume, “choice”] in the small.” If Clayton did not mean to label me a “reactionist” (does he mean “reactionary”? and does he understand that what this actually means is the exact opposite of what he means?), then I have no idea at all what this paragraph is supposed to mean.

This entry is a big mess, and there is a lot of confused reasoning here, or at least reasoning that appears confused. Perhaps Clayton will clarify those for me.

I’ve already explained at length why I think voluntaryism’s insistence on only addressing condign power leads to the support of institutional evils. Because democracy is based heavily on other kinds of power (in Galbraith’s classification, compensatory and conditioned), voluntaryism is therefore less and less relevant as an ideology as the capital-democratic system keeps expanding its power and reach, and becomes more and more a support of those non-condign evils.

This is why voluntaryism today is a prominent enemy of freedom, not as an ideology (where it is mostly irrelevant) but as the vague, implicit support for various arguments coming from many different factions. Voluntaryism defends capitalism and democracy in their broad lines, although voluntaryists may object to some of their features or argue that we should fight them “with words,” which basically amounts to treating issues vital to freedom as mere differences of opinion. Quips like “it’s my body,” “it’s my property so I can do what I want,” “you agreed to a contract” and “that’s what people voted for” are used to quell dissent on a wide variety of subjects. By exposing voluntaryism itself, I hope to show people how to undo the premises which underlie these false arguments, and help bolster dissent against institutional evils.

In the end, I think Clayton has done little but bolstered my arguments by further exposing the coercive/non-coercive dichotomy at the core of voluntaryism. The more people see this kind of reasoning, the more they’ll understand that voluntaryism is a very blinkered worldview which does nothing to answer most of our present time problems. And that can only be a good thing, because it’ll accelerate the process of people talking about the systemic features of our societies which actually do sustain our present time problems, features (like private property, the free market, the Patriarchy, and hierarchies in general) which voluntaryists support with their self-righteous rhetoric.

18 thoughts on “The Voluntaryist Reader tries to rescue voluntaryism.

  1. claytonkb December 21, 2012 at 20:30

    Correction: “Clayton himself has elsewhere stated:

    If individuals and their property can be manipulated then they are not entirely free to do things in the way they see fit.”

    Voluntaryist Reader is a multi-author blog and the particular entry you linked was written by user “Neodoxy”.

  2. Chris December 22, 2012 at 23:18

    “…the performance of womanhood is mostly the product of conditioned power.” It’s not as if a voluntaryist can’t believe something like this. I would call myself a voluntaryist but I also believe that people’s decisions are influenced by the coercive power structure they live under. I don’t think voluntaryism suggests that everything voluntary is good but rather that it would be unjustified to combat voluntary interactions with the use of force. For instance, I may think it is wrong for a pimp to exploit prostitutes but I think it is at least as immoral to use violence against the pimp or the prostitutes in order to get them to stop. This isn’t because I don’t realize the prostitute’s choices are constrained by larger external factors (many prostitutes would not “volunteer” for such a life if more options were available to them). But that still only justifies advocating that individuals give prostitutes more options in the first place. Pimps meanwhile shouldn’t be pimps and we should all help each other more than take advantage of each other. However, as a voluntaryist I wish to promote these ideas through persuasion rather than force.

    • Francois Tremblay December 22, 2012 at 23:23

      Then you believe in the condign/non-condign dichotomy that I describe in the entry. That was pretty much my point in the first place.

      • Chris December 23, 2012 at 01:06

        A philosophy doesn’t “support the institutionalized evils around us” just because it stops short of criticizing all evil. That would be like saying you shouldn’t criticize one particular evil dictator because that means you support all other evil dictators.

        I wrote my comment because it runs counter to your claim that voluntaryists think of actions existing in a vacuum. I also don’t think the article that critiqued you was very reflective of the way I would do it. The way I see it, voluntaryism does not address all ethical issues. Even if the patriarchy were completely devoid of what voluntaryists define as “aggression,” any voluntaryist could still be adamantly against it for other ethical reasons. The same goes for a voluntaryists’ view of capitalism or even markets. Just because there is no “systemic analysis” inherent in voluntaryism doesn’t mean that one couldn’t employ such analysis and still call oneself a voluntaryist.

        • Francois Tremblay December 23, 2012 at 01:11

          “A philosophy doesn’t “support the institutionalized evils around us” just because it stops short of criticizing all evil. That would be like saying you shouldn’t criticize one particular evil dictator because that means you support all other evil dictators.”
          No, it’s like saying that you shouldn’t support Kim Jong-un (e.g. capitalism) just because he’s not Saddam Hussein (e.g. imperialism).

          “I wrote my comment because it runs counter to your claim that voluntaryists think of actions existing in a vacuum.”
          Okay, maybe you’re an exception. But then why are you still a voluntaryist? The only reason I can see would be that you still maintain the dichotomy.

        • Francois Tremblay December 23, 2012 at 04:06

          Let me just be clear on one point. My main vector of attack against voluntaryism is its inherent subjectivism, which is a consequence of the dichotomy. The aggression/non-aggression dichotomy is fundamental to voluntaryism: there is no way to get around it. Your personal attitude towards, say, the Patriarchy, doesn’t change those facts.

          • Chris December 23, 2012 at 06:09

            I make the distinction between aggression and non-aggression because I think force is only justified in response to aggression. I don’t look at the level of aggression in a situation as some sort of catch-all determinant of what is right and wrong. It simply tells me what is an acceptable response to what is wrong. I also don’t think it’s always obvious what should be classified as aggression and non-aggression but that is separate from wanting to adhere to the principle.

        • Francois Tremblay December 23, 2012 at 06:11

          You seem to be hell-bent in making my points for me. So… thanks again!

          • Chris December 24, 2012 at 13:23

            But you seem to think there is some sort of conflict between a consideration of that dichotomy and a consideration of compensatory/conditioned power. I see no such problem. Voluntaryism may claim that aggression is bad but it is neutral on the moral status of things that are non-aggressive. It is like how a voluntaryist is necessarily against the use of aggression to stop drug use but that doesn’t mean a voluntaryist necessarily endorses using them.

        • Francois Tremblay December 24, 2012 at 16:06

          So why in practice DO they endorse non-aggressive institutions?

          • Chris December 24, 2012 at 16:57

            I don’t necessarily endorse any non-aggressive institutions. Being non-aggressive is a good thing to the extent that you’re deciding not to do harm but that is not the only sufficient characteristic that a person or a group of people need to possess for me to endorse them. I would like people to avoid aggression AND do things to help other people without having to be forced to do it. I do favor non-aggression over aggression but that’s not saying much. People can do much better than just avoiding increasing harm.

        • Francois Tremblay December 24, 2012 at 20:48

          All right then.

  3. […] Tremblay has responded to Voluntaryist Reader’s challenge. Needless to say, there’s a lot to disagree with, here. To […]

  4. […] My reply, where I use the classification of power by Galbraith to clarify my definition, and point out a […]

  5. hart-enden December 27, 2013 at 00:54

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

    Wow, this is truly rich! I guess logic just isn’t your strength.

    • Francois Tremblay December 27, 2013 at 01:21

      Logic applies to when one makes an argument. The sentence you quoted is not in itself an argument, but a statement of someone’s intentions based on my personal experience as a voluntaryist.

    • Francois Tremblay December 27, 2013 at 15:36

      By the way, I note you did not address any of the points I raised in the entry.

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