Philosopher’s Corner: Voluntary Socialism

Last week, I introduced a new feature called the Philosopher’s Corner, where I will examine libertarian issues from the point of view of justice, rather than of consequences.

Today, I examine what I am calling “voluntary socialism” – a group of people getting together and agreeing to be bound by anti-capitalist principles, such as the old Marxist creed “from each according to his ability to each according to his need.” Can such an arrangement be called libertarian? Is it just?

First, we should look at an example of such voluntary socialism. At the end of Part II of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, the great libertarian political philosopher Robert Nozick described a group of workers getting together and forming their own worker-controlled business:

Persons may form their own democratically-run cooperative firms. It is open to any wealthy radical or group of workers to buy an existing factory or establish a new one, and to institute their favorite microindustrial scheme; for example, worker-controlled, democratically-run firms. The factory then could sell its products directly into the market. (p. 250)

If the firm is less efficient than capitalist ones, then it will charge higher prices and those who support the idea of workers’ control will pay more for the products. This example shows that “there is a means of realizing the worker-control scheme that can be brought about by the voluntary actions of people in a free society” (p. 252). Indeed, this example has parallels in modern life, including products that treat animals ethically, that refuse to use cheap labor, and (most notably), “fair trade.” These practices are analagous to many different ways of running one’s business; they just happen to be less efficient than others, but they fulfill a niche demand. in spite of the fact that libertarians would have good reason to reject the imposition of these business practices by force (just like we would have good reason to reject to imposition of efficient practices by force), we still have no reason to reject these practices in their voluntary form.

But “fair trade” and the like still operates within a market framework – goods are sold for money on an open market. More radical departures from capitalism are possible within a libertarian state. Communities can form around certain principles, including even communist ones. A Marxist community may be set up within a libertarian state, where all members agree to abide by certain principles and perhaps to take direction from some central authority. Religious, environmental, and cultural communities like this can form as well. Once again, there are parallels in modern life, such as the Hudderites.

These arrangements, once again, should be perfectly acceptable to libertarians. Though they are anti-capitalist, they are voluntary nonetheless and so are as “libertarian” as any other voluntary arrangement.

In my senior thesis, I contended that this principle of voluntarism can even be extended to states. Intrusive states are objectionable not because of the regulations they impose, but because they force such restrictions on those that do not choose to abide by them. The objection holds, too, for any minimal state that claims sovereignty over a particular geographical region and the people who exist within it – for there may be anarchists living within the borders and they will object to being taxed to provide protective services. If states were purely voluntary, they could take any form and regulate any subject, for the citizens would have consented to the regulations. (For more, contact me and I’ll send you my writings on the subject.)

What my analysis leaves incomplete are the procedures for exit. How do I determine what property I can take with me when I leave a workers’ collective? This is an issue for the principle of rectification (the principle that determines how to correct for violations of principles of justice, such as the breaking of contract)… but that’s for another day.