Friday, January 11, 2013

Meta-Euvoluntary: A Metaphor

Friend of EE and my personal pal Zac Gochenour adroitly points out that I haven't adequately defined what I mean by "meta-euvoluntary". Please let me try to remedy that.

Imagine that the galaxy of laws, rules, regulations and norms that characterize the landscape of trade works much the same way as a factory. Instead of producing rubber baby buggy bumpers, these institutions generate exchanges that fall somewhere on the euvoluntary spectrum, which runs from pure-as-the-driven-snow euvoluntary all the way to nakedly coercive.

Think of this factory as featuring a number of assembly lines. One line (a) produces nothing but sparkling, crystalline euvoluntary exchanges. Here we find spot transactions between peers, where Art and Betty can buy and sell chips far from the delicate ear of Carl, where Jorge can hardly dance the Merengue without bumping into rival taco trucks all vying for his business, where regret is a four letter word. Another line (b) produces merely voluntary trades, where foundering ships at sea can buy spare anchors from fellow captains in transit, where a knot of yahoos can hawk bagged ice in downtown Raleigh after a nasty hurricane, where I can get myself a payday loan to cover short-term expenses till the end of the month. The last line (c) produces coercion; it peddles in forced prostitution, extortion, graft, racketeering, fraud, theft, slavery. The production lines are poorly labeled though and distant observers can and often do mistake the output of lines (b) and (c) with each other.

An institution is meta-euvoluntary when it does one or more of the following:

a) speeds up production of trades, both euvoluntary (a) and voluntary (b). Trade generates wealth, and there are reasonable moral principles to support this on both consequential and deontological grounds.

b) shifts production one-for-one from relatively bad lines to relatively better lines. Home Depot trucking in ice after a hurricane and selling it at cost is directionally euvoluntary compared to the yahoos; binding FEMA's predilection for blockading roads and bridges would be meta-euvoluntary.

c) throttling production on line (c) for real, not for bluster, bravado or a bit of derring-do. This is a tricky bit, since it's particularly easy to run afoul of the trap of the Doctrine of Unintended Consequences (or if you're as crabby as me, you'll distinguish between unforeseen consequences and unintended consequences). There's a lot to discuss on this, and we've touched on very little of it here at EE. There's a burgeoning literature on economics and culture and some nascent work tying economics to some branches of anthropology that might end up bearing fruit. There's a famous question posed by Gordon Tullock that goads you into wondering just why we see so much stability. Many of the predictions implied by public choice theorists don't hold empirical water. Democracy could be a whole lot worse than it is in practice. Why isn't it? Part of the series of posts I have planned on the Constitution may help address some of this. Stay tuned.

The fine grain matters here, obviously. Each of these little points deserves elaboration and it might be worth it to expand on these ideas in future posts, but for a rough snapshot of what I have in mind by "meta-euvoluntary", I think this is an acceptable overview.


  1. Since voluntary exchange increases wealth, and next best alternatives are functions of wealth, it seems the institutions that increase euvoluntary exchanges will be those that simply focus on the voluntary ones. How would an institution increase euvoluntary exchange while not increasing voluntary exchange?

    I ask because it strikes me that an increase in EEs will only ever be a result of the wealth gains from VEs over time. EE isn't something that can be directly increased, but rather it is a second order effect of wealth gains from VE. This makes EE something of a goal to be reached, rather than a path to take.

    Is something that's meta-voluntary necessarily meta-euvoluntary? Vice-versa? How is "meta-euvoluntary" a value-adding term?

    1. Good question, Austin. I draw the meta-VE/meta-EE distinction in that the former could be something like sweatshop boycotts: people misinterpreting light manufacturing as coercive believe stopping this sort of oppression is liberating.

      But that might not be what you're asking. Euvoluntarists like me believe that both streams (a) and (b) are useful. Many people, often including the median voter tend to think only (a) is worthy. Perhaps meta-VE (which, since I coined the term meta-EE, I feel some [perhaps unwaranted] liberty in defining) could be attempts to increase only (a). The contested assembly line is (b), which is roughly consistent with the whole theme of what Munger's written on the subject.

      I hope this answers your question. Feel free to grill me on it the next time you run into me though.


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