The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Wednesday, August 25, 2004
NOTES ON "VOLUNTARY": I knew a guy in college who kept insisting, aggravatingly, that everything in the world is voluntary. Even if Hitler sends 77 goons to your door to haul you away or kill you trying, he would tell me, you decide whether to go. If you say no and you get killed, you've made your choice and you're facing the consequences.

There's another argument that says that nothing, or almost nothing, is voluntary. All our decisions are caged by circumstances; all our choices are trade-offs. That which we do for the sheer joy of it takes up only a minute portion of our day. One way or another, the rest is socially determined, probably for someone else's benefit.

Call the first view the existentialist perspective, and the second the Marxist. Taken to extremes, they degenerate into sophistry or paranoia; but both contain important elements of truth. The first reminds us that even the worst tyrannies (except, of course, the tyranny of nature) would disappear without popular acquiescence. The second reminds us that, however useful the classical liberal concepts of coercion and consent may be in other contexts, as a practical matter there isn't much difference between not being able to go to Alaska today because the government is willing to kill you to keep you from going there and not being able to go to Alaska today because it's too stormy to fly.

The libertarian version of voluntarism asks a simpler question: Am I being prevented from doing what I want because of direct physical coercion (or fraud) by other human beings? It ignores the questions raised by the existentialist and Marxist critics. That is not in itself a bad thing: just because you care about physical coercion doesn't mean that you can't also care about other issues. The well-rounded thinker will bear all three models in mind. They all have their uses, even if, thanks to the nature of the language, they all use the word "voluntary" in different ways.

I originally wrote the above paragraphs in a listserv debate with a socialist who felt that wage-labor isn't voluntary. He kept pointing out the constraints on the choices of the people on the bottom of the economic ladder; another guy, a LeFevrian libertarian, kept telling him that it would hardly help a poor man to constrain his choices even further. I tried to argue that these were separate issues: that you can believe in the freedom to engage in wage-labor while still disliking the idea of a society in which the vast majority of people have to work for someone else. (You might even wonder if coercion had something to do with creating such a state of affairs.) Similarly, you can argue that a woman has the right to be a prostitute without favoring a society in which prostitution is the only way 80% of the population gets laid.

My wise words brought everyone together, and we all committed ourselves to fight both for greater liberty and for the eradication of poverty. I kid, I kid. Actually, I think we went off on another semantic tangent.


posted by Jesse 12:02 PM
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