Political Philosophy

A Philosophical Dilemma For Libertarian Voluntarism

philosophical-problems-for-libertarian-voluntarismSome libertarians will argue that a society based on the principles of voluntarism is a more just and moral system than a society that is based on coercion. On the surface, this seems entirely true. However, if you dig a little deeper it turns out that it is an incorrect suggestion. Not because coercion is intrinsically superior to that of a voluntary transaction, but because the comparison often mischaracterizes the necessary conditions for a just use of coercion in order to maintain a morally upright civil order.

Voluntarism, or free actions taken by citizens within a given society, can only be voluntarily meaningful within a community when a codified and recognized rule of law secures the moral order of the culture. This means that voluntary actions require a rule of law that threatens the use of coercion when said moral order of a culture is going to be violated by a specific actor. These conditions are also required for the libertarian society no matter how forcefully they are denied by adherents of this political philosophy. At some point, lawful authorities will have to use coercive force to uphold the law. We can disagree on what ought to be coerced, but it is foolish to argue that coercion is not a necessary component of any civil society.

Let me try to clarify the argument by presenting a philosophical dilemma for the purely libertarian voluntary society:

The position of libertarian voluntarism would argue that no governing authority has the right to interfere with or block a contract agreed upon by consenting adults. This is argued to be an unassailable right. On this view, in principle, the government has no authority to say contract X is illegitimate if the two parties are adults and freely consent to the terms therein. This is not an historical argument or an argument about how things currently are. It is a philosophical suggestion of what a free and just society would look like according to the libertarian adhering to a purely voluntary understanding of contractual rights.

Although reasonable on the surface, this view of a free and just society is problematic.

If the government cannot, in principle, block or interfere with consenting adults entering into a contract, then in principle the government cannot block a person from freely entering into contractual terms whereby the terms are similar or identical to the conditions of slavery.

For example, the contract may say something like this,

Person X becomes the property of Person Y. Person X forfeits all rights of speech, assembly, petition, and legal representation. Additionally Person X forfeits any claims to a wage, vacation, health benefits, sick pay, and days off. Person X forfeits the right to travel or to move freely in order to seek employment elsewhere. Additionally, if Person X is ever found away from the property limits defined in the attached appendix, or without Person Y as an escort, the local authorities or citizens must return Person X to said property. These rights Person X has agreed to forfeit are not limited to those listed, but are subject to further arbitrary decisions of Person Y, Person X’s owner. This contract is bound until the death of Person X or upon Person Y’s decree to terminate the contract and grant Person X his freedom.

Now, if the governing authorities have no right to interfere with Person X’s signing this contract, then the libertarian must admit that something similar or identical to slavery must be allowed to exist in a free society because it was an agreement freely entered into by consenting adults.

If, however, this strikes you as entirely incorrect and immoral, then it stands to reason that the mere free consent of adults does not properly capture the necessary and sufficient conditions of a binding contract, and the governing authorities have a duty to prevent such a contract from being counted as legitimate according to moral precepts neither adult would apparently accept to be true. Indeed, the government would be “forcing” morality onto non-adherents.

If a libertarian is going to disagree with this argument, they must give a good reason for doing so. In my view, they would have to either accept the notion that slavery can exist in a free society, which reduces their position to absurdity; or they must begin to relinquish the notion that the “state” cannot interfere in “free exchanges” in order to enforce a moral order that some people may reject.

If a person were to argue that no one would sign such a contract the point of the argument is being entirely misunderstood. The argument is a critique of a principle embedded within the philosophy of libertarian voluntarism. Moreover, if a person were to offer a counter argument stating that this suggested contract is stupid and nobody would sign it, then this person is no longer doing philosophy. Instead, they would be standing on an incredulous soapbox.

The conservative position, the position that is morally sane, argues that yes, there are moral precepts the governing authorities must enforce, whether or not they are recognized by various peoples attempting to enter into a contract such as the one suggested above. In principle, slavery cannot exist in a society if such a society is going to claim that it is the champion of freedom. Mere consent does not capture the necessary and sufficient conditions of a just, free, and legitimate contractual right.

In my view, the reasonable conclusions that can be drawn from this analysis ultimately supports the argument I have been making for quite some time, that the question isn’t whether a moral order will be imposed upon non-adherents; the question is which moral order will be enforced and imposed. A further question is which moral order is most in line with a true understanding of the human person and enables the individual person to flourish in society. The purely voluntary society offered by some adherents to libertarian political philosophy, in my view, fails to properly identify the nature of the human person and therefore fails to recognize the rule of law necessary for a flourishing society.


– Lucas G. Westman


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