The Senselessness of ‘Voluntaryism’

by Terry Hulsey





Quite apart from the grating disconcinnity of the term “voluntaryism” a coinage that rivals “pragmaticism” in that respect a recent essay offers a good opportunity to distinguish the content of the term “voluntaryism.” The fourth paragraph of the article actually blurs the real point of distinction between it and anarcho-capitalism. The “abstention from electoral politics” is exactly the essence of “voluntaryism,” although the reader would not know this until he followed the link provided there.

But beyond the principle of non-voting, the author wants to expand the meaning of “voluntaryism” into “more of a whole life, whole family philosophy.” This is woolly although commenter Ethan Glover is very injudicious and intemperate in making a similar point. As for further pretentions of the term, no one can honestly say that the principle of non-aggression owes anything whatsoever, in its history, its development, or its logic, to “voluntaryism.”

There are two ways of getting a definition, it seems to me: To look at the history of its usage, and to ask simply “What do those who use it say it means?”

Conveniently, both avenues are provided in a prominent “voluntaryist’s” article here.

In that article, there is reference to the historical usage of “voluntary” in relation to the separation of church and state, and later, in the nineteenth century, to the separation of school and state. But these associations are rather spurious, since the current usage to explain the proper use of force in government actually derives from Auberon Herbert (1838-1906). And yet! And yet, under the rubric of “voluntaryism,” Herbert explicitly rejected anarchism and embraced government as a monopoly of the defensive use of force. This definition, as anyone can see, is totally muddled and useless: To the extent to which it is a monopoly, government can never be defensive.

Since we must logically exclude a meaningful sense of the word “voluntaryism” based in church history, in education history, and in Herbert himself, what significant meaning remains?

The advocate’s article provides that one meaning, when it says:

In NEITHER BULLETS NOR BALLOTS: Essays on Voluntaryism, Watner, Smith, and McElroy explained that voluntaryists were advocates of non-political strategies to achieve a free society.


Voluntaryists seek instead to delegitimize the State through education, and we advocate the withdrawal of the cooperation and tacit consent on which state power ultimately depends.

Now, we have gotten somewhere. But where? What is the significance of “voluntaryism” as a political instrument of “non-political strategies,” as a totally non-violent withdrawal of consent from the state? Can these locutions possibly have any meaning?

To know this, let us engage in a thought experiment.

Let’s suppose that the Total State has engaged us to create the perfect Total State Slave. (Calm down! This is only a Gedankenexperiment not even a test tube will be broken.)

We set to work and think: How much money shall our Slave be allowed to earn? Large earnings will create more wealth for the Total State to feed upon, yet will also leave a greater surplus by which he can protect himself against us (e.g., by buying a second passport, a bolt hole in Montana, etc.); on the other hand, small earnings will create a Slave always fearful that a mistake will crush him (e.g., we may threaten huge fines, we may confiscate all of his cash at a routine traffic stop, etc.). All in all, we probably want a fretful, trembling little pauper, huddling in rags with his miserable family and snotty kids.

But what we really want, you would agree, is an obedient little insect, yes? Whenever he associates with one of our agents, we want him to do so in a polite manner. If he has the nerve to come up with one of his asinine dissenting opinions, we want him to watch his mouth and not be ostentatious about it. We don’t want him to violate regulations, and needless to say, we don’t want him to organize with any of his whining fellow Slaves.

But let’s be creative in where we put the chains on our little beast. Rather than the ham-fisted methods of the past clubs, chains, waterboarding, ugh! nasty stuff! far better that we put the leash on his very consciousness. Let him enslave himself. Let him know the fear of ever evincing the ‘wrong’ attitude, of having a ‘bad’ attitude; let him guard his very smile for fear of telling the ‘wrong’ joke. Let him also teach these new virtues to his children, so that they never utter in school something so untoward as “my daddy owns guns.” Never mind about gun control once we have their minds, the actual confiscation of their little pea shooters will be a snap.

A final bit of polish on our Slave: Let him stay fit and healthy, and let him always chatter to himself that he doesn’t really fear the power of the state. Total self-delusion is the last click of our most subtle lock upon him.

Now, take all of the above and compare it to the perfect Voluntaryist, as detailed by Wendy McElroy in another article. You will find, if you are honest, not one iota of difference.

Your Voluntaryist is our perfect Slave of the Total State.

Anyone who would glibly suppose that the above illustration is a “straw man” is burdened with showing how this most practical illustration of what it means to be a “voluntaryist” not imagined, but cited directly from a prominent adherent of this view differs in the slightest from slavery to the Total State. This feat cannot be performed. We are compelled therefore to conclude that “voluntaryism” is not merely a useless tool for intellectual progress on the theme of the role of government, but that it is a positive hindrance to understanding, and that it realizes a state of affairs exactly opposite to what the “voluntaryist” intends.