I have written a number of articles on the Carsonian concept of vulgar libertarianism, libertarians who mistakenly identify the current state regulated market as a “free market” and that therefore apply free market logic in defending e.g. sweatshops in Southeast Asia. The problem with this view is of course that there is no such thing as a free market – and therefore free market logic cannot necessarily be applied to defend what exists in this unfree market.
The free market logic is usually based on the concept of voluntarism, in essence it is argued that whatever is voluntary goes. In a free market, i.e. a market without a huge regulatory state, without taxation, without corporatist and political powers, and without privileges for any class, whatever is voluntary is right. The reason for this is that in a free market each and every individual, individually or collectively, has the right to make all decisions of how, when, and where to act. If this is the case, one can truly and legitimately claim the individual is indeed responsible for his or her choices.
In such a case, if someone would choose to work for someone else at a very bad pay it is a choice. The freed market does not provide barriers of entry or require registration of business entities, and it also may not allow for vast properties in land without its use (depending on who you ask), which means that the individual would always have alternatives. In the freed market, therefore, whatever is the outcome of one’s actions is an effect of choice.
How can one truthfully say that anything is a matter of choice? The reason for this is not that risk and uncertainty do not exist in a free market – they do. All choices are subject to risk and (presumably) uncertainty, but that is the nature of life. Some things don’t turn out exactly as we thought/hoped, but they also might not turn out as bad as we would expect. The action itself is however still the full responsibility of the individual, since it is the effect of a conscious choice.
In the freed market one could easily argue that there would be no desperation or limitations of choices. This There is plentiful of desperation and limitations of choices in contemporary society, which is almost always a result of the state regulating, stealing, and assaulting people. The reason this statement can be made is not that the freed market is necessarily a Garden of Eden where everything is always available at arm length (even though some people seem to think everything would be free), but because the individual’s now is in every sense a result of his past choices just like his future will be a product of his choices now.
This is not the case in the world today, even though some people are desperate to argue this is the case. The reason for this is that most alternatives are forcefully restricted and therefore made not available for the individual. The choices made are made out of a monstrously restricted set of alternatives, where the restriction consists of state regulation, force, and privilege rather than possibly causing other people harm.
In a freed market your choices will be evaluated by what they effectuate: if you choose to act in a certain way to achieve an aim but something goes wrong and you end up hurting someone (or, a hundred times worse, if you aim to hurt someone) you will have to take the consequences. No one will be there to pick up your bill unless you have a special friend that is your personal angel (and people don’t usually have such). So if you cause harm you will have to pay for it in whatever way undoes the harm you caused.
This is to some extent true today too, since it is incorporated in [some] state laws; states usually outlaw murder and theft, at least if done by common people. As Voltaire wrote, “[i]t is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” This is as true today as it was a couple of hundred years ago.
But most of the harm caused to other people are the effect of the state’s actions or choices made by individuals sanctioned by the state. War and taxation are the obvious examples of the state’s terrible impact on people’s lives. If there were no wars (and wars are only fought by or on states) and no taxation, the possible alternatives for people would be much more numerous.
Choices are however also limited in other ways: certain thoughts are not allowed to be uttered, certain ideas cannot be made into goods and services, certain beneficial relationships are prohibited. Freedom of speech is limited, which means there is a constant constraint put on individuals in their actions and discussions, which in turn leaves a lot of great ideas unthought; a great many fantastic goods and services are never thought of or tested “thanks” to intellectual property privileges, “health” restrictions, and the prohibition of certain substances no matter how they are used or what they might entail; people may not sell or rent their bodies or futures, they may not marry unless granted by the state, they may not write contracts unless the contents thereof are explicitly allowed by government.
Add to this the fact that there is a ruling class of people – politicians – who do not produce anything at all of value, while they use the powers they have taken to restrict people’s lives and consume the values created by others. Politicians are no doubt the scum of the earth, not only because they are usually the dumbest people of society – but because they add absolutely nothing to the wealth of the people. They are parasites and the effect of having them around is the effect of any parasite: they restrict your actions and feed off of your health and wealth.
There is also a class of people who benefit greatly from the political class and its infringements on people’s lives and liberties. This class works very closely to politicians and they support each other in a system often referred to as corporatism (sometimes capitalism, not however the free market kind). While politicians are generally stupid, they do realize that they gain from cooperating with the wealthy – the wealthy, who have almost without exception gained their wealth through the exploitation of market opportunities created by government-granted privileges (read: patents, barriers to entry, etc), support politicians and the political system and get privileges in return; politicians enrich themselves through the help of the wealthy, and make sure their powers are kept intact and increased through the horse-trading with the privileged class.
Whatever is left untouched when these two classes have taken what they desire is what constitutes other people’s possible choices. Individuals cannot find opportunity to accumulate wealth simply because wage laws and regulations make sure that establishing a business entity is difficult and costly, while wages when working for others are kept at a low level. What this means is that people suffer while some get rich because they can yield the power of the state.
In such a setting it is not possible to claim that a decision to go for one of the few existing alternatives is necessarily the individual’s choice. It might very well be the case that there are tens, hundreds, or even thousands of preferred choices that are prohibited or otherwise made unattainable by government and its partners in crime. Working for a sweat shop is undoubtedly much better than the available alternatives for a lot of poor people in Southeast Asia (the alternatives could be starvation or prostitution), but it may not be better than (or even as good as) the choices these people would be able to make without the state strangle holding the market.
Could you then say that these people made a voluntary choice and that they are, as is the free market logic, in the best situation they could be? No, because there is nothing voluntary about it. Just like someone in chains may be offered a choice of execution method, people acting in the regulated market today are on a daily basis choosing but the lesser of evils after political and privileged classes have forcefully taken “their” share. We would not say the person held in chains against his will chose to be killed (e.g., by hanging) if he were offered two alternatives and was forced to choose one of them. It seems much more likely that the person in this example would choose to be freed from the chains rather than killed.
In the same way, a lot of the choices made today are forced: literally millions of people are forced to work for wages they would not except otherwise simply because state society requires that they have a monetary income – to pay taxes. In most of the western world it isn’t possible to have a piece of land and live only off what it produces – one has to sell parts of the produce in order to pay property and other taxes as well as a number of licenses and other controls by government. The alternative is confiscation of one’s property and imprisonment.
Is it then a choice for the small-scale farming family to work hard in order to produce goods that can be sold so that the profits thereof can be used to pay dues to government? Or would the choice rather be to work less, spend more time caring for family and animals, and perhaps reading and writing?
Even though most people refuse to think about it this way, the fact that there is a state means a lot of our choices are already made for us. We do not have the freedom to lead our own lives, we have but the freedom to pick one of the few alternatives made available to us – so that we can serve the privileged classes. We are in this sense nothing less than slaves, even though we are indeed granted some freedoms and a life that is not directly and in detail (but indirectly) ruled by others.
The greatest achievement of a slave owner is not that the slaves work, but that the slaves work and believe that they are doing it for themselves. Because if they do, they will work harder, better, and be more efficient. They will indeed make choices – and often the “right” choices – but only in the controlled setting, within the boundaries of what liberty they have been granted by their master.
So if people had to choose from all the possible alternatives that would be available to them, would they then be where they now are? If the answer is no, then free market logic is not applicable. If the answer is yes, then you are obviously missing something.
Hat tip to Jeremy at the Social Memory Complex for this excellent introduction to vulgar libertarianism: