Coerced vs voluntary behavior

Markets: voluntary?

I was talking with my favorite libertarian interlocutor. I mentioned that I thought markets were coercive, he replied that markets are defined as voluntary. I was taken aback by this remark. It seems wrong, but I couldn't put my finger on it why. Now I can. Two points:

First, yes of course markets are voluntary internally. But so what? Consider the case of Annina, a newlywed. She and her husband are trapped in Casablanca. They desperately need to escape, before they're arrested by the Nazis. The only person who can provide them with the necessary paperwork is a crooked cop. Now the cop can be bought. His price is that he wants to sleep with Annina. Now one could argue that Annina is free to take the cop's offer, or not. She is free to choose. She has something he wants, and vice versa. If they agree to trade, and if neither one cheats, they're both better off than if they had traded. But somehow this is an unsatisfying answer. Within the circumstances, Annina certainly has choices. On the other hand, the circumstances themselves are not just. So her action is both voluntary and coerced.

Just so with markets. Within the market system, I'm free to trade whatever I happen to possess, including my labor power, items I was given by my relatives, and anything I've managed to acquire, and everybody else has those same rights. But this ignores the fact that my talents and the wealth of my parents (or the lack of either) were not earned by me. They were not constructed in such a way as to be just. So any market transaction I may make, while being somewhat voluntary, is based on circumstances that were not of my doing, and thus can't be considered voluntary.

Second, the question of whether markets are voluntary is an empirical question. It can't be "defined away." If I can control how a subject is defined, I can prove anything about it. Imagine that Alice asserts that penguins are flightless birds. Can I argue that she's wrong because birds are defined as flying animals? Clearly not, and for the same reason I can't argue that markets are voluntary by definition.

A definition is merely a description that is broad enough to capture the essential features of something, but narrow enough to exclude everything else. When inquiring about the nature of something in the real world, definitions are only useful to the extent they accurately describe the thing they mean to describe. That should be determined empirically. It doesn't work the other way around, we can't let ourselves be blinded to facts about a thing by clinging to our favored definition of that thing.

The idea that we’re all going around making free choices all the time in an abundant market where everyone’s needs get met is patently belied by the lived experience of hundreds of millions of people. Most find ourselves constantly stuck between competing pressures and therefore stressed out, exhausted, lonely, and in search of meaning. — as though we’re not in control of our lives.

We aren’t; the market is. If you don’t think so, try and exit “the market.” The origin of capitalism was depriving British peasants of their access to land (seizure of property, you might call it), and therefore their means of subsistence, making them dependent on the market for their survival. Once propertyless, they were forced to flock to the dreck, drink and disease of slum-ridden cities to sell the only thing they had – their capacity to use their brains and muscles to work – or die. Just like them, the vast majority of people today are deprived of access to the resources we need to flourish, though they exist in abundant quantities, so as to force us to work for a boss who is trying to get rich by paying us less and working us harder.

- Jesse Myerson, Why you’re wrong about communism: 7 huge misconceptions about it (and capitalism) -

Coercion can sometimes be justified

It is really quite rare to find a buyer’s market for rented accommodation. Even if there is a slight oversupply of rental units for sale, time is almost always on the landlord’s side, because waiting is typically much more inconvenient for the party that has to wait without a house to do wait in. In general, when tenants and landlords are negotiating over the potential Pareto gain that could be made from renting the house, the landlord ends up capturing most or all of the surplus. The hot water and habitability laws are simply aimed at skewing things a bit in favour of the tenant and putting a floor on how bad a deal the tenant can end up accepting. It’s a standard game theory result that something which reduces your options can benefit you by reducing the number of bad options that you can end up agreeing to (most famously, the secret ballot has to be compulsory, because if you had the option to reveal your vote, you could be intimidated), and habitability laws are there for exactly this purpose.
- Daniel Davies, The correct way to argue with Milton Friedman — Crooked Timber

Coercion is unavoidable

If I object to some usage of resources in the world, one of two things will happen. Either I will be able to stop that use from happening, thereby applying coercion to those who want it to happen. Or coercion will be applied to me, and I will be unable to stop it from happening. There is no non-liberty-infringing way forward. Any disagreement about resource use necessarily results in coercion of somebody.

- Matt Bruenig, On libertarianism, workplace coercion, and scarcity | MattBruenig | Politics

In capitalism, competing ownership claims are settled by the state’s willingness to use violence to exclude all but one claimant. If I lay claim to one of David Koch’s mansions, libertarian that he is, he’s going to rely on big government and its guns to set me right. He owns that mansion because the state says he does and threatens to imprison anyone who disagrees. Where there isn’t a state, whoever has the most violent power determines who gets the stuff, be that a warlord, a knight, the mafia or a gang of cowboys in the Wild West. Either by vigilantes or the state, property rights rely on violence.

- Jesse Myerson, Why you’re wrong about communism: 7 huge misconceptions about it (and capitalism) -

[A]fter years of effort trying to work on theories of process, it became clear that process was a dead end, especially (right and left) libertarian process. By dead end, I mean that you can’t actually generate a procedural system that doesn’t involve forcing other people to do things they don’t want to do, absent global unanimous consent.

Where the procedural libertarians (both right and left) go wrong is that they never fully appreciate the constraints imposed upon us by scarcity. When I say scarcity, I don’t mean not having enough total resources to go around; rather, I mean more narrowly the fact that a given resource cannot be used or occupied by more than one person at the same time. To put it more simply: two people cannot consume the same exact beer.

That the universe is bounded by that kind of scarcity has profound consequences for process. What if I want to drink the same beer you want to? How do we deal with that? We can certainly think of a process for dealing with that conflict that seems fair, reasonable, just, and so on. But will that process actually be non-coercive? Will it ever not force someone to do something they don’t want to do? No. If we both insist upon drinking that same beer, the resolution of the dispute will be forceful.

Now you can theorize around this force by saying that there is implied consent or that both consented at some prior point to some system for resolving beer conflicts. But that doesn’t really get you out of it. It merely explains why the imposition of the force against the immediate wishes of one or both of the parties is fair, reasonable, just, and so on.

It’s not just beer disputes that this applies to. It applies to every dispute centered upon the use of physical matter.

- Matt Bruenig, On process and scarcity


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