The term “voluntaryism” has popped up a couple of times lately. This seems to be a new term for libertarianism, but perhaps lacks the leave-well-enough-alone facet of the libertarian ethic. If true, that makes it even worse.
Libertarians, for instance, tend to support decriminalizing the possession of drugs — and I applaud them for it. That’s a sensible position. A strict interpretation of libertarianism would also support the idea that a woman’s decision to have an abortion is between her and her doctor, and the government should butt out. I’m pretty sure a lot of libertarians have to grit their teeth while agreeing to that one, but it certainly falls under the umbrella of individual freedom, and libertarians vigorously support the idea of freedom.
In some other areas, libertarianism is blindingly stupid, but dogmatic adherence to the doctrine of personal freedom does have its sensible moments.
Voluntaryism may lack the sensible moments. We’re not sure yet. The ideas that I’ve heard from voluntaryists, to date, are: (a) No minimum wage should be set by law, because the negotiations between employer and employee are a private matter, and not one that the government has any legitimate interest in controlling. (b) Welfare payments should be abolished. All charitable giving should be voluntary. Government-administered welfare programs are charitable giving “at the point of a gun.” That is, if you decide you don’t want to give any money to poor people through paying taxes, the government will lock you up for refusing to pay your taxes. That’s the “point of a gun” part.
It’s not difficult to analyze and demolish these childish ideas.
Government-mandated and -administered charitable giving is a sensible procedure, because it’s the only way to assure that resources are allocated in a fair and equitable manner. If we imagine a society where all charitable giving is voluntary, we won’t have any trouble finding ways in which needless suffering is caused by inequitable distribution of resources.
First, some communities may not have enough wealthy or charitably-minded donors; other communities may have far more donors. Should the poor in the former communities be allowed to die of starvation or preventable disease? That’s what voluntaryism advocates, no question about it.
Second, some charitable organizations may deliberately apply bias in deciding who to help. They may choose to help, for example, only fellow Mormons, or only straight people and not gay people, or only people who can prove that they’re not drug addicts, or only citizens and not immigrants without papers. Again, the result will be that some of the people who are in need will suffer, while others will be provided for. That’s the result that voluntaryism advocates.
Conversely, a government-administered program, for all its imperfections, guarantees that everybody will get a little help.
The problem with getting rid of the minimum wage is different in nature, but just as vicious. This idea fails because of the power imbalance between the employer and the prospective employee. The employer is in possession of a scarce resource (a job). There will likely be a number of applicants for the job, precisely because jobs are scarce. The employer will thus be able to drop the offered wage to an arbitrarily low level — let’s say 50 cents an hour. The employer will probably be able to find an applicant (perhaps a homeless guy who is starving) who will accept this wage because it’s better than nothing. However, the father of a family with several children won’t be able to feed, clothe, or house his family for 50 cents an hour. So the practical result of abolishing the minimum wage would be to produce quite a lot more poverty.
In addition to preventing or ameliorating a certain amount of poverty, the minimum wage actually improves the economy for everybody, because people who are being paid a halfway decent salary go out and spend their hard-earned cash on goods and services within the community. At the end of the month, the grocery store and the shoe store show a greater profit. People who are sitting on the sidewalk with a tin cup tend not to spend as much as people who are being paid.
In a nutshell, voluntaryism is a formula for creating a lot more human suffering. It’s childish, it’s selfish, and anybody with the intelligence of a gerbil can see that it’s childish and selfish. The fact that so many of my fellow Americans evidently lack the intelligence of a gerbil — well, that’s a subject for another time.
The idea lurking in the background of voluntaryism would seem to be that government is somehow a Bad Thing, that government action is somehow deplorable in and of itself. I will cheerfully acknowledge that the government we actually have in the United States is a godawful mess — but that’s not a reason to get rid of government, it’s a reason to fix government so that government works the way we would like it to.
There are many, many desirable social conditions that can only be brought about through the actions of government. Privately owned and operated police forces — bad idea. Privately administered law courts — bad idea. Communities with no laws against driving cars down the sidewalk — bad idea. Letting your next-door neighbor operate a butcher shop or a cut-rate embalming business in his garage — bad idea. Letting a supermarket put any damn kind of white liquid on the shelf and call it “milk” so you’ll buy it and feed it to your baby? Oh, man, is that ever a bad idea. The reason the FDA (the Food and Drug Administration) was established was because babies were dying from being fed stuff that looked like milk, but had no nutritional value. The way we, as a society, solve vexing problems is not individually (perhaps by shooting the grocer) but collectively, through government action.
Can collectivism be abused? Sure. That’s why we have elections — so that we can toss out the abusers and replace them with responsible public servants. The electoral system we have sucks, but that doesn’t make collective action a bad idea. It just means we need to reform the government so it will produce the results that we, the people, collectively desire.
But again, that’s a topic for another time.