We at the Voluntaryist Reader have begun a series giving weekly installments of Auberon Herbert’s A Plea for Voluntaryism (part one) to the end of presenting to the world what, exactly, voluntaryism is. But there are those on the blogosphere and elsewhere who attack voluntaryism and I want to give an answer to Francois Tremblay, in particular, who has regularly criticized voluntaryism. His latest post on the subject is here. Tremblay immediately states that not only is voluntaryism a target, it is among “the roots that support the institutionalized evils around us.”
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.
Now, before getting into the heart of the debate, I want to say a word of caution regarding -isms. There are two kinds of -ism. The -ism in, say, Marxism or Judaism which denotes not only a concept or idea, but also a “school” of disciples that have handed on the tradition from generation to generation. But the -ism in, say, phenomenalism or atomism refers to a set of related ideas or concepts that, merely for the sake of convenience, are labeled together. Voluntaryism is the latter, not the former. It’s just a set of ideas about human nature, human choice and the consequences to human society about trying to restrict and rewrite these.
To start with the most obvious cases in defining voluntaryism, consider a mugger, a burglar or a rapist. The mugger threatens the life of his victim and, thus, coerces the victim to turn over what belongs to him – his wallet or whatever. Clearly, this is not voluntary. A burglar enters someone’s dwelling without their permission. We all recognize that invasion of someone’s dwelling is one of the most terrifying forms of coercion imaginable, instantly invoking episodes of True Crime. This, also, is not voluntary. And rape is clearly an involuntary act. It is an intensely personal violation of the victim – whether a woman or a man – involving forced entry into the victim’s body.
Violent crimes are examples of involuntary action but fraudulent actions are also involuntary, in that they deceive the defrauded into believing he or she has agreed to something which they have not, in fact, agreed. If you order a Blu-ray player from eBay and receive, instead, a bedpan, you will want to have the situation rectified. If eBay were to say “Well, you sent us your money and you received what we call a ‘Blu-ray player’”, you will not agree that this was actually voluntary. It was a trick to get money out of you on the pretense of giving you what you had specifically ordered in exchange. And there are innumerable variations that can be played on these two themes of force and fraud - the frauds of the stock manipulator, the intimidation of the legal bully with his batallion of lawyers, and so on. That an aggressor does not declare “I hereby aggress against thee!” does not mean that the act in question is voluntary.
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?
Tremblay continues with more wildly irresponsible claims about voluntaryism:
Voluntaryists don’t usually identify as voluntaryists, but they follow various schools, most likely capitalists and “anarcho-capitalism,” Libertarianism, and sometimes liberals (although liberals tend to be voluntaryists only on social issues).
How does he confirm any of these wild claims?
… radical feminism is an eloquent confirmation of that fact. When radical feminists address issues such as femininity, sexism, porn, prostitution, the rape culture, and so on, their opponents will without fail invoke some form of voluntaryism as a counter-argument.
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. If there’s a connection, it’s certainly not obvious even though Tremblay seems to think that it is. Sexism – if we mean by it the ugly belief in a general superiority of men and inferiority of women – is precisely an example of something that is not force or fraud.
In saying that it’s not involuntary – doesn’t involve the use of coercion – we do not mean that it is true or commendable. Nor do we mean that reprehensible values and attitudes cannot be a catalyst of social structures and behaviors that are coercive. In fact, the whole point of voluntaryist philosophy is to answer the bad values and the bad attitudes that really are bringing about a coercive, involuntary society. 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.
As an evil voluntaryist, that is, someone who espouses one of “the roots that support the institutionalized evils around us”, I was shocked to learn that I am among what Tremblay terms radical, liberationist feminists: “A sexual Liberationist would never argue that a sex act ought to be banned or that women ought to not be allowed to participate in whatever activities they deem appropriate, but she might question the choice to do so and the impact that choice has on women as a whole. With freedom comes responsibility, blah blah.” And here I thought we were disagreeing. Tremblay moves on to what he describes as his main criticism of voluntaryism:
My main criticism of voluntaryism is that it assumes actions exist in a vacuum. Like the political Libertarians, sexual libertarians can only arrive at their positive conclusions about “laissez-faire”/sexual liberation by completely omitting the institutions which embody past coercion and continue to exploit these “liberated” individuals and the energy they devote to “make the best out of it.”
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?
In capitalist thought, this is related to the myth of the heroic entrepreneur who is “rewarded” by the market for their downright ascetic self-denial in saving enough money and their skillful exploitation of their fellow humans by ever-increasing profit margins. The entrepreneur is the capitalist’s idea of a winner as well as a justification for the losers, who just weren’t ascetic or skillful enough. Social Darwinism ho!
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. In fact, one of the central complaints of Marxists has always been the “unfair advantage” of the heir, who has not had to engage in any self-denial at all. Another doozy:
There is no such thing as a “free choice,” and the residual of social patterns is not choice but rather genetics. So whatever is labeled “agency” can be more accurately described as the result of genetic diversity in humans. There is no fundamental opposition between these forces, as all social patterns are ultimately the product of the interactions of beings possessing human genetics. Where the opposition occurs is when the interests of people clash in a stratified class society (e.g. workers v property owners, slaves and abolitionists v slaveowners, women v misogynists, or, more individually, the clash between an inferior and a superior), and the issue is a solely structural one of class pitted against class.
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.
In context, Tremblay is attempting to do an end-run around capitalism by arguing that the apparently free choices we make are, in fact, coerced. Now, given that voluntaryists are criticizing the infusion of systematized coercion into the social order through the operation of the State, we agree that many of our apparently free choices are not very free or not free at all. If you want to drive, you will need a driver’s license from the State. If you want to operate a lemonade stand, you will need a license from the State. If you want to exit your country of residence, you will need a passport from the State. And so on.
It should come as no surprise that merchants and vendors – like so many vultures – swirl around the instruments of coercion in society, snapping up handling fees and quick profits. For example, tax debtors cannot easily set up a debit account with the IRS to make payments. They must either pay the debt in whole, or mail a monthly check or go through a process to set up a debit account with the IRS that takes months to go through. Or, you can have it all taken care of in the matter of a few days for the low price of $99 through a private vendor. The Marxist critique is like saying the private vendor is the problem. Eliminate the vendor and you will have eliminated the problems within society. But the entire precondition for the existence of the parasite “capitalist” vendor is the instrument of coercion itself: the State revenuer.
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. We’re all to blame “society” and then stand out front of the Capitol steps picketing for bigger entitlements. Moving on from feminism, Tremblay now argues that voluntaryism is opposed to atheism:
Voluntaryism is not just an opposition to feminism. It is also, for instance, an opposition to atheism. One of the claims made about God, and perhaps the most egregious example of religious insanity, is that whatever God declares good, in his subjective opinion, is good, regardless of what it is. But voluntaryists preach that whatever an individual wants to do should be permitted. I find it hard to see any difference between that and saying that the individual declares what is good for themself based on their own subjective opinion.
First of all, not all voluntaryists are religious and there is nothing in voluntaryism that is inherently incompatible with atheism. 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.
Arguing against voluntaryism within such a broad scope is difficult because the voluntaryist ideology is widely associated with self-ownership and freedom (“my body” -> “my choice” -> “freedom to act”). Therefore, anyone who argues against voluntaryism is believed to be arguing against freedom.
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.
In summary, I don’t think it is voluntaryists who are confused or lying when we say that we are opposed to the coercive social order that systematizes aggression. Rather, it is Tremblay and those of his ilk that are either deeply confused or lying when they characterize voluntaryism as being anti-freedom. This kind of radical Marxist and feminist rhetoric makes a pretense of deeply caring about justice, while at the same time denying one of the necessary preconditions to justice: individual choice.
You do have a choice. Freedom is possible. And whatever wrong has been done to you is not “society’s fault”, it’s the fault of individual actors, each of which have chosen at every point to perpetuate a system of coercion and bondage – the statist order. Radical Marxist and feminist rhetoric only further enables this system of bondage by giving the State its scapegoat on a silver platter: society. It’s always “society’s fault” which is the same as to say nobody’s fault. But every act of force and fraud is, in fact, somebody’s fault. The radical Marxists and feminists would do well to consider the social consequences of holding each and every aggressor individually responsible for his crimes – whether he pretends, like the abusive police officer, to do so on the behalf of “society” or not.