Ross Kenyon — Choice, Consent, and Voluntaryism After the Death of Neutrality

Mutual Exchange is the Center’s goal in two senses—we favor a society rooted in peaceful, voluntary cooperation, and we seek to foster understanding through ongoing dialogue.

Mutual Exchange will provide opportunities for conversation about issues that matter to the Center’s various publics. A lead essay, deliberately provocative, will be followed by responses from inside and outside of C4SS. Contributions and comments from readers are enthusiastically encouraged.

Ross Kenyon’s essay, “Choice, Consent, and Voluntaryism After the Death of Neutrality,” raises some critical questions about what we consider a free choice, notes a few problems with voluntaryism, and points to some potential coping strategies for our condition’s quagmire. Responses from TBA.

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“The customs of different lands and the palaces of princes are good as long as they don’t cause any pain, but the custom of washing that they have here is worse than being flagellated.”

– Sancho Panza, Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes, trans. Grossman, 675.

I’d like to pose a few questions to our readers and my colleagues in the hopes of receiving some enlightening responses, ideally with more brevity than my own grappling with this problem.

Imagine you are raised in a household and community which teach that the highest good is something we would generally consider to be unjust, such as being totally submissive to your spouse and where your minute deviations are punished with physical violence.

You might choose it in some nominal sense, being honored at entering your society’s most honored institution, but to what extent can we really say you made a free choice?  The temptation to say that you were brainwashed is almost overwhelming, and despite the obvious risk of existential bad faith, this charge regarding the influence of socialization still seems to hold quite a bit of weight and cause rightful concern in the hearts of outsiders.

However, could not the newlyweds cast the same charge against us? We’ve been brainwashed (or the less pejorative ‘socialized’) into thinking that some voluntary social combinations are acceptable and some are not, so how can we avoid seeing this dilemma through a prism of prejudice composed of our own habitus and facticity? There is no objective position of which I know where we can all step back and evaluate these claims neutrally, and our trying to do so may be a deceptive way of denying our epistemic limitations.

Before stating some of the options I think are available with regard to this problem, I’d like to take a few paragraphs to preempt some of the arguments that I expect from voluntaryists.

Thoughts such as those above are one of the major reasons that I have come to find voluntaryism to be inadequate at best and, as we’ll see later, propagandistic at its worst, at least as it is typically framed. The idea that we should respect whatever someone has chosen regardless of the cultural institutions they have been socialized into is a tenuous agnosticism that makes “non-violent” (we’ll address this later) social relations virtually unassailable. It is for this reason that people call the Hayekian obsession [1] with spontaneous order nihilistic, because if no one ever has the local knowledge necessary to effectively evaluate the choices of another, we are paralyzed in critiquing anything that is cultural, that is, outside of what voluntaryists consider physical acts of aggression. Outside of theoretical abstraction, this approach gives us no real guidance regarding social relations beyond “don’t hit, don’t steal,” which pretty much everyone on the planet seems to already agree with, but they really just disagree on who should hit who and when depending on what sort of political paradigm they support.

Furthermore, I entertain some serious doubts about the ability of social order to be completely voluntary even if we grant that the spouses’ choices were taken with full autonomy. While I enjoy how David Hume empathizes with but problematizes voluntaristic society for practical reasons in Of the Original Contract, on a more abstract level, I don’t think voluntaryism is as useful an idea as people try to make it.

Consent is an important political principle, dare I claim it’s one of the most important. Indeed, we want a social order that people can give authentic commitment to; I want people to respect what I believe I’ve earned not because of the social capital or physical force that I can muster against them, but because my possession is in accord with a principle of justice which they find acceptable. However, I do not think that consent can do all of the philosophical work necessary for organizing society nor for totally validating the choices of others as demonstrated above. If consent/all things being voluntary is our ultimate political principle, then a few primitivists could legitimately halt the civilizing of the whole world.

You want to build a house there on that “unused land?” Sorry, primitivists don’t consent. Property is not voluntary in the minds of voluntaryists: respect it or meet their gun in the room. They linguistically manage this turnabout because they use the word “coercion” not merely to denote the imposition of an external will as the word is commonly understood, but instead conflate it with aggression, which is the unjust imposition of an external will. Property is a coercive act which they don’t consider coercive via their linguistic schema, and thus a major involuntary institution gets smuggled in under the header of “voluntaryism” in a deceptive way.

If these questions were not already difficult enough with stable concepts, all of these terms come with plenty of semiotic baggage, are best understood when used in specific social contexts, and are often very indeterminate. “Productive/active/unused/abandoned/land/property,” “rationality,” and even coercion and voluntary are all domains for discourses of power with much (though possibly not all) of their meaning absent except for what ideology produces for them.

The good news for voluntaryists is that there is no way around this for any political philosophy unless everyone agrees about politics. The primitivists might hurl a javelin into your gut for clearing some woodland for a sedentary home, and thus require their own brand of political carnage to prevent settling in accord with their vision of good and evil, same as we all do. [2] This is what humans do, and it may be time that we look social cooperation in the face and acknowledge that at its base, it’s less pleasant than our politics would like us to believe.

Realizations such as this have reinforced my sentiment that political philosophy is very difficult. I understand why Rousseau hated civilization (though he should have applied his suspicion equally to “primitive” social organization), and why Freud theorized that our having to suppress many of our desires just to get along in society takes a significant mental toll.

My statements so far are not arguing against the tenets of voluntaryism per se, but are meant to serve as an encouragement for voluntaryists to stare squarely at their particular application of political violence. If one disagrees with their deductive system of private property rights, then violators will be met by coercion, and one does not have the option to opt-out of that social contract regardless of consent.

In other words, social structures being absolutely voluntary is not actually what voluntaryism is about, and thus its proponents should probably refer to themselves as market anarchists, liberal anarchists, anarcho-capitalists, or if I may coin a neologism, “mostly-voluntaryists,” or at least communicate in a way that doesn’t obscure voluntaryism’s coercive nature.

Okay. Enough about voluntaryism. How do we treat choice?

I see a few options for where to go with the case of the spouses:

  • Due to the alleged impossibility of intersubjective utility comparison (the inability to measure utility between persons in commensurable units), it ultimately comes down to preference, as it is epistemically impossible to know what is best for someone else. I think this principle broadly has a lot working in its favor, but believe a weaker version of the statement more closely hews to our perceptions. For people choosing an outcome like the spouses, it would probably be best to dangle better options in front of them in a pluralistic society, than to just “liberate” the dominated spouse by force of arms. I think defaulting to the problematic nature of free choice is better than the alternatives because it avoids the bad incentives of centralization, paternalism, and being a busy body, but if we don’t have our limits, this approach just becomes a validation of the status quo.
  • We might say, like Sam Harris, that some forms of behavior generally provide for good results, such as basic norms of respect for different sexes, genders, races, etc., but I’m generally hesitant to endorse a one-size-fits-all cultural policy for the world, even though I seek that my cultural preferences be established as more desirable than the spouses, for example.
  • I’d certainly like to hear from the Proudhonian mutualists on this case. I’m not sure how the principle of reciprocity would play out in the case of the spouses, though I am wary of such a principle because both spouses could conceivably be willing to trade places with one another and thus fulfill the Golden Rule. In addition, if every act should be striving toward reciprocity, I tend to think that those whose needs were most hard to meet on the level of mass society (like agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder, etc.) almost must be overridden in a non-reciprocal manner if we are to have effective social cooperation at all. This might just be a part of the tragedy entailed in social cooperation, and I’m not entirely sure what to do about it.
  • I’m certain that other comments will come in not corresponding to one of these archetypes, and I would welcome those as well.

This problem has been a very difficult one for me to work my way through. If there are no objective criteria to judge what is an acceptable or “free” choice, and terms such as “freedom” and “coercion” are embedded in social contexts and are thus almost inevitably domains for discourses of power, then it seems that we ought to be very concerned with the empirical nature of social relations as they actually operate. As Elinor Ostrom has noted, no longer does it make sense to dichotomize and talk about “the state” and “the market” as monolithic trends, but far more important is it to discern the actual workings of social institutions which exist. I think this insight of new institutional economics should be applied to the concepts of “coercion” and “voluntary” before I perish from conceptangst and the loathing of language. Perhaps this regrounding of our floating concepts can lay the foundation for analysis more closely linked to the social worlds which we are continuously reproducing.

In any case, I’d love to hear responses regarding the choices of the spouses thought experiment relating how to evaluate similar cases, how/if we ought to do anything about them once evaluated, as well as anything else I’ve mentioned in this recent struggle to make sense of the world around me.

Vale. [3]


[1] F.A. Hayek was a sophisticated thinker, and hedged against this idea of pure spontaneous order through his conception of general rules, but I’m referring more to some of my contemporaries who are influenced by his work.

[2] For more on this idea, read the “The Thousand and One Goals” in Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche.

[3] Forgive my two Cervantine flourishes, wilt thou?

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