Friday, April 13, 2012

Does Pure Subjectivism Require That All Transactions Be Euvoluntary?

An interesting, though overwrought and overwritten, article from the UMass Daily Collegian.

Treating the argument as generously as possible, the author raises the following question: If one accepts subjectivism completely as the basis for judging exchanges, does that mean that ALL exchanges are assumed by the subjectivist to be voluntary, regardless of how much one party is actually harmed? An excerpt:

Here are some examples of free market transactions: selling hard drugs; prostitution; selling guns to warlords; selling human organs; buying forests for the purpose of clear-cutting them; selling food that may cause cancer; paying for advertisements that contain outrageous lies; paying for entire news stations to broadcast lies; selling your goods to white people only; buying up public schools to turn them into for-profit ventures; selling health care only to those who can afford it; selling insurance with the intent to deny claims; engaging in any kind of banking or financial transaction on Wall Street, including insider trading. The list goes on. If one agrees with the Austrian School that all voluntary exchange is good, then one agrees that all of the above are good. In the world of libertarian economics there is only one rule: As long as both the buyer and the seller agree to the exchange, then it improves happiness.

Well, no. As long as the buyer and seller agree EUVOLUNTARILY to the exchange, then it improves happiness.

Still, ignoring the cant (The only time we clear cut forests is when we sell sweetheart below cost leases, not purchases, on FEDERAL land, pumpkin. The problem is that those lands are NOT private property, and private property would fix the problem. But I digress...) the author raises a question that has vexed me. To wit: If you genuinely accept subjectivism, and personal autonomy, then aren't any exchanges that don't involve actual coercion "voluntary"?


  1. Did you mean voluntary, or euvoluntary? It'd be quite interesting to take BATNA to task on a subjectivist basis; indeed I think that's what rubs me wrong with BATNAs, the idea that there's some objective threshold below which we find a transaction objectionable.

    Of course, BATNAs *are* subjective. But my brain won't stop trying to contort it into some truthy thing, since that's how I'm programmed. It's all relative; it's all ad hoc moralizing. And that's the way it should be.

    See what i did there? :P

  2. Don't cross the streams, Ray. The answer to your last sentence up there depends heavily on what constitutes coercion. In an alternate world with legitimate blackmail contracts, would blackmail be "voluntary"? According to Posner, we'd look for wealth maximization as our criteria for legitimacy. Is he right? What's the appropriate metric here?

    And what role externalities? If Jeff and I collude to fix prices against you to our mutual benefit and your detriment, this is a rent contest, not wealth creation, not Max U. as Deirdre likes to put it. It's a voluntary transaction, but a voluntary transaction to expropriate rents.

    Likewise with my Armin Meiwes example a few posts down. Sure, that was voluntary, perhaps even euvoluntary, but it would be a stretch to pick out an Austrian economist who thinks that sort of contract should be valid before the law (I managed to squeeze some thoughts on the subject from Don Boudreaux on this in class... ask me about it the next time we have lunch). I don't think it's especially reasonable that the rule-consequentialist or Kantian deontological underpinnings to the meta-rules of EE are especially fixed. Hayek and the vagaries of location and time and all that.

    You're right though, it's a good topic for discussion.


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?