What does it mean to be a Voluntaryist?

My blog is called Voluntaryist Living because I’m writing about living my life as a voluntaryist, but what exactly is a voluntaryist? The Merriam-Webster dictionary, which bills itself as “America’s most trusted online dictionary for English word definitions, meanings, and pronunciation,” doesn’t even have a definition for “voluntaryist.”

I don’t know how many people identify themselves as voluntaryists, but I see the number has been growing for the last few years. You usually have to go to Wikipedia to get a decent definition of words like “voluntaryist” that haven’t made it into the dictionaries yet.

When people ask me whether I’m a liberal or a conservative, or more often assume that I am one or the other, I say that I am neither. Then they might say “Ah, a libertarian.” No, not that either, although they are getting closer. Most of them look confused when I say voluntaryist, so I follow up with “I’m a person who believes that all interactions between human beings should be voluntary.” Many still look confused because they think that is too obvious to be a separate political philosophy. If it sounds obviously right to them, <!–more–>it is because they have never considered which of their daily interactions aren’t voluntary.

It is a rare person who might say “Oh, you’re an anarcho-capitalist who doesn’t vote.” Closer still, but not quite right. I did identify as an anarcho-capitalist before I heard about voluntaryism, but I have come to think that voluntaryism describes my philosophy better than anarcho-capitalism, especially since the meanings of both anarchism and capitalism are so widely disputed.

If a voluntaryist is someone with a unique philosophy, what are the characteristics of that belief system? How is it similar to and different from other philosophies, especially political philosophies? Voluntaryists agree with liberals in their concerns about human rights and human well-being but disagree about the best means to achieve those desired ends. We agree with conservatives about the benefits of free markets but disagree about the use of force to achieve social goals.

We are close enough to libertarians that, in many circumstances, we would not reject the label as misleading, the way we would reject other labels like liberal and conservative, socialist and nationalist, communist and fascist. Many libertarians might be called voluntaryists, based on their specific beliefs, although they haven’t considered identifying as such.

Both liberals and conservatives talk a lot about freedom, but neither believe in the foundational idea of self-ownership which lies at the heart of liberty. Wikipedia defines it best. “Self-ownership is the concept of property in one’s own person, expressed as the moral or natural right of a person to have bodily integrity, and be the exclusive controller of one’s own body and life.” Most libertarians believe in self-ownership in theory, but are willing to condone some restrictions in practice. Voluntaryists believe in self-ownership and the responsibility that goes with it as a moral absolute.

Many libertarians consider the non-aggression principle the primary requisite for libertarianism. According to Wikipedia, “the non-aggression principle (or NAP; also called the non-aggression axiom, the anti-coercion, zero aggression principle or non-initiation of force) is an ethical stance that asserts that aggression is inherently wrong.” Although voluntaryists believe in the NAP as an essential principle, it is not sufficient as a foundational belief for several reasons. Aggression and non-aggression are too complicated to define absolutely.

Merriam-Webster defines aggression in three ways: “a forceful action or procedure (such as an unprovoked attack) especially when intended to dominate or master; the practice of making attacks or encroachments (especially unprovoked violation by one country of the territorial integrity of another); and hostile, injurious, or destructive behavior or outlook especially when caused by frustration.”

Because aggression can be defined as an attitude as well as specific behavior, it is too open to differences in perception to be truly useful as a moral guide. Also, there is the element of “provoked,” which can also be perceived differently by different people. While it is easy enough to say that the aggressor is the one who stuck first physically, there is plenty of disagreement about what constitutes provocation.

Can words ever justify a physical attack? Perhaps they can if they are perceived as threatening. But that is a slippery slope. There have been some recent news articles about police officers being absolved of blame in the deaths of unarmed civilians because they believed their lives to be threatened, in spite of the fact that most reasonable people would find that belief ludicrous under the circumstances shown in videos of the confrontation.

For voluntaryists, it is more useful to speak of violence and the threat of violence rather than aggression. The NAP is most useful as a guideline for behavior in understanding that the person who initiates force or the threat of force is in violation of the principle and therefore is under a moral obligation to make whole the person he or she harmed by the violence or threat of violence.

Perhaps the essential difference between voluntaryists and libertarians (as well as all other political philosophies) is the rejection of political means. All voluntary organizations are governed by rules, but those rules only apply to people who have voluntarily joined the organization and can freely leave. Any group that can be entered voluntarily and left voluntarily could be said to be governed voluntarily because whatever rules are in effect are explicitly consented to by the members of the organization.

In contrast, all political governments enforce their rules through violence or threats of violence against people who happen to reside in the territory over which they claim jurisdiction, regardless of consent. Every government is ruled by mandatory laws that nobody consents to either explicitly or implicitly. Remaining in the land where one was born is NOT an implicit consent to obey whatever edicts have been imposed by some “authority.”

All governments acquire all their resources through some form of taxation, which is either theft or extortion because all taxes are enforced through violence or threat of violence. Likewise, all government edicts are enforced through violence or threat of violence. Because all governments claim a monopoly on the use of legalized violence within their claimed territories, all political governments are inherently illegitimate and immoral.

For a voluntaryist, any attempt to use the force of government is a form of violence. Participation in the political process, whether through voting or running for office, is always an attempt to use the violence of government to enforce your preferences.

Even if you are voting for someone who, for example, promises to lower tax rates, you are trying to force your preference for lower taxes on some people who may believe that higher taxes are necessary for some “noble” reason. You are also stating with your vote that you want those lower tax rates rather than the “no taxes” which you may believe is the moral stance. Worse than that, you have no control over what “your” candidate will do once in office. Even if he keeps his promise on taxes, he may do other things that you find more immoral.

Many libertarians consider voting a form of self-defense rather than aggression because they see it as the only way to prevent others from forcing THEIR preferences on them. This view of self-defense is one of the things that we voluntaryists see as a weakness of the NAP. It is too easy to define self-defense so broadly that it becomes a justification for aggression and the use of force.

However, aside from the question of whether it is possible to vote in “self-defense,” we see more subtle problems with participation in the political process. Even if you realize that your vote has no chance of affecting the outcome of an election, your participation is evidence of consent to the result. Psychologically, it gives you a vested interest in the issue, which can compromise your sense of your own morality.

Besides, any time or effort spent in deciding who or what to vote for, or trying to convince others how to vote, is time and effort that you could better spend living your life as a sovereign individual. As social beings who naturally desire peace and prosperity, our time is best spent creating value for others who will freely trade with us.

The dominant attitude of a voluntaryist is “live and let live.” We control our own goals and purposes but we cannot and should not seek to control the goals and purposes of others. We can find great joy in pursuing our own interests, creating goods and services that others value, and building relationships with people who are willing to deal with us voluntarily. Trying to control other people against their will is usually an exercise in frustration. Succeeding in gaining the power to control others is the path toward corruption.

As human beings, we are by nature capable of both great good and great evil. Minding our own business and looking for voluntary ways to interact with others tends to bring out the best in our natures. Trying to force others to do what we want rather than what they want brings out the worst.
While it is true that we need to protect ourselves from those who wish us harm, there are both healthy and unhealthy ways to accomplish that objective. Feeding our anger and insisting on “justice” in an unjust world is not a healthy way. We can find freedom in an unfree world by accepting the reality of the evil and mitigating it the best we can without putting our energy into fighting it with violence.

For example, taxation is theft, but getting angry about it and risking your life and freedom by refusing to pay is not the way to live and let live. It is much less stressful to look for ways to minimize the taxes you have to pay and just pay the ones you can’t avoid. As an individual, you have a lot of options in how you live your life and the trade-offs you choose in making money and keeping your money. That includes how much risk you are ready to face and even how much discomfort you are willing to endure to avoid various taxes. No-one can make those decisions for you.

One of the most misunderstood aspects of freedom and voluntaryism is responsibility. Voluntaryists, like libertarians, are sometimes accused of being libertines, apparently in the sense of being unrestrained by morality and seeking freedom without responsibility. The opposite is the case. Voluntaryists have to take the responsibility of developing their own moral code rather than mindlessly accepting the rules of “morality” set down by some “authority.”

Voluntaryists understand that freedom without responsibility is, in fact, impossible. Unlike slaves, free people cannot try to escape the responsibility for their actions by claiming that they were forced to take those steps. Even those people who attempt to abdicate their responsibility for their actions, cannot truly escape answerability because they are the ones who suffer the consequences of their actions.

To live life as a voluntaryist does require different characteristics from those customarily inculcated by our society from childhood. We learn patriotism, belief in democracy, obedience to authority, conformity, and that right ends justify any means. Some of the ideas that are drilled into the impressionable minds of little children are ridiculous when stated honestly, but they are still hard to overcome. For example, ordinary people cannot be trusted to run their own lives, but they are fully capable of electing rulers who will not be corrupted by the power of having a monopoly on legalized violence. And those rulers are more capable of running everyone’s lives than even the smartest rational human being who has no desire to run anyone else’s life.

The first step in freeing one’s mind from the irrational beliefs that have been drilled into it is to recognize that the authorities we have been trained to trust are the ones who have done us the most harm. Libertarian and former history professor Tom Woods calls it “educational malpractice” and provides a great deal of historical information that refutes what mandatory government indoctrination camps taught us for so many of our formative years.

The first skill that we need to develop is critical thinking. According to the Foundation for Critical Thinking, “critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” Another definition is “the awakening of the intellect to the study of itself.” We can develop our critical thinking skills by self-directed, self-disciplined examination of our own thought processes.

We must re-examine every basic assumption about life that we received from parents, teachers, and other authority figures. There is no need to blame the parents and teachers who damaged our ability to think critically. Even the best of parents with the best of intentions can’t pass on the knowledge they never acquired themselves.

We can open our minds to new information and to new ways of examining information. If we honestly question everything we have been taught, we can learn to tell the difference between facts that match our experience of life and the propaganda that motivated us to act in ways contrary to our own best interests.

To exercise our self-ownership and live a life of freedom, we must consciously choose our purpose and our goals. To write down our goals on paper where we can read and reread them is the best way to assure that we are making our own decisions rather than allowing others to make the most critical decisions for us. It isn’t easy to examine one’s life in the depth necessary to do this written exercise, but it is the surest way to claim control over one’s life.

By consciously choosing to live independently and fulfill our own deepest desires, we can indeed take control of our lives. Instead of reacting to others and just accepting whatever shows up in our experiences, we can find proactive ways to create the life we want. This strategy applies to all aspects of life: health, relationships, financial, spiritual, emotional. We can exercise more control than we ever believed once we take responsibility for choosing the things we want in life. The more independence we can imagine, the more independent we can be.

Live and let live is an attitude, but it is also a habit, or more accurately a whole group of habits. Even if you have had bad practices in the past like resentment, anger, jealousy, or gossip, you can change those patterns once you become aware of them and consciously set goals to practice better habits in the future. If you fill your life with goals based on creativity, production, learning, and understanding, there won’t be room for the old harmful habits. But you have to make commitments to yourself, and you have to hold yourself accountable for keeping those obligations on a daily basis. Nobody is flawless in starting new habits, but anyone can change their habits if they have a big enough reason and keep that reason always in sight.


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