It’s a Voluntary Life

This essay by Sean Gale is the winner of VIA's 2020 Higher Education Grant essay contest.

The state has consistently used force to monopolize every aspect of human life, including the purge of voluntary association and transaction. This single statement is an immutable fact, as the list of laws, regulations, permit requirements, licensing, trade inhibitions, and wars against personal vices is nauseatingly long and wrought with violence. Conversely, there is a philosophy that resists tyrannous intervention, and seeks to bring about change in a free and nonexploitative manner. Voluntaryism, or the belief that the world should and would function without coercive and vile intercession, is one such belief.

The general populace appears unable to fathom that good can be done in the world without the hand of godlike men redirecting stolen funds to fuel an ever-hungry vacuous machine. If that mentality were to be lessened or dispersed, then the question remains: What would a world of voluntary transactions look like, and how would said world function? To answer in the simplest terms possible, this hypothetical place would not be absolved from the evils that plague the mortal plane, but would have strategies based on free will and choice that aid in the handling of complex and moral issues. A voluntary world is no utopia; however, the wickedness of man and the violence of the earth can be better handled through individualistic means. Choice would reign supreme in this scenario, and as Murray Rothbard once said, “There can be no truly moral choice unless that choice is made in freedom” (, 2018).

Social welfare programs have neither ended poverty, nor done anything but create a cycle of dependence that drains money from the productive to give to their antithesis.

Firstly, social welfare is a system that statists consistently point to as if it is the only means by which those who have fallen on hard times can be lifted from poverty. In fact, many people use this one clause as a reason to submit to the state and resist voluntaryism entirely. Social welfare programs have neither ended poverty, nor done anything but create a cycle of dependence that drains money from the productive to give to their antithesis (Baetjer, 1984). In a world of voluntary association, economic strife would be lessened or managed via charity organizations, mutual aid societies, activist groups, food banks, friendly societies, educational and student led organizations, entrepreneurial endeavors unhindered by the state, religious groups, fraternal orders, and trade unions.

These organized groups already exist and have worked throughout history to support the wellbeing of their members and the general public. Examples include Odd Fellows, Free African Society of Philadelphia, Sanctuary Homeless Refuge, National FFA Organization, Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, Key Club, Shriners, Habitat for Humanity, Kiwanis, American Red Cross, 4-H, Boys and Girls Club of America, and Voluntaryism In Action to name just a few.

These entities can support members, perform community outreach, aid the impoverished, feed and care for the homeless, provide healthcare, educate youth, and assist the unemployed in finding jobs. In fact these organizations are so powerful at providing goods and services to those in need that “with the exception of churches, mutual aid networks constituted the most popular form of voluntary association in the US throughout the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A 1933 report by the President’s research committee estimates that one in three adult men were members of a fraternal society by 1920” (Adereth, 2020). Their effectiveness, and low cost of enrollment, made many organizations perfect for low income people to get aid.

The connective facet of each aid society or volunteer group is that the public good is being achieved via voluntary means. No one is being extorted through taxes, those getting help are being helped by real people void of state bureaucracy, and dependence on benefits is limited. Government welfare does not influence work or help to those who most need it and is vastly detached from the needs of the individual. Volunteer groups usually benefit their direct community, or one in dire need, through the work of average people. This directs the help from a complex, top down system to a one-way pipeline of goods and services to those who need them most. In a world of voluntaryism, these brotherhoods and organizations would be paramount to the benefit of all people in place of the current model.

The connective facet of each aid society or volunteer group is that the public good is being achieved via voluntary means.

Tangent to charity and volunteer work is the realm of business and the adjustment of price that would benefit lower income communities. Without state interference, people could use their resources and property to generate revenue that would potentially lift them from poverty. If someone did not have the means to do such, then they could sell their labor for a consented upon amount. These voluntary transactions would help provide for those that are suffering. Additionally, businesses would compete for labor and profit, meaning higher wages and cheaper goods for the general populace. The limited supply of money and goods would drive costs down due to price being reflective of consumer demand, leading to an overall benefit to all parties involved. Businesses would have no state enforced monopoly that allows them to be detached from the purchaser, meaning they would have to appease patrons in order to make money. Voluntaryism would promote free markets that better suit the needs of the consumer and do not leave them falling for enforced prices and involuntary transactions.

An example of the previous paragraph’s content would come in the form of the pharmaceutical industry. Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Merck, Gilead, Amgen and AbbVie are all companies that reside in the United States and are given monopolies over their market through the FDA and intellectual property laws (Compton, 2020). People could receive cheaper drugs if the market were not dominated by the same six companies, and if other innovators had the opportunity to benefit the healthcare industry. Instead, the state currently allows these companies to monopolize medicine and line their pockets with taxpayer and private dollars. Without these special protections they would have to modulate production for end users thus benefitting those with limited funds for treatment.

Another important facet of voluntary lifestyles is the internal locus of control that it propagates. People will have less ability to blame parties beyond their power for the circumstances of their lives, and the state would no longer be able to arbitrarily create criminals. Instead of leveraging power and violence, people will be forced to make good arguments for their causes and will no longer have the authority to condemn others for life choices that do not involve the former party. This will be especially important regarding victimless crimes, with an extreme focus on drugs and possession. What substances one seeks to put in their body is between them solely, however, the state does not see it that way. In fact, inmates with drug charges constitute 46.1% of the total prison population according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Poverty can tend to influence choosing alternative ways of making money, criminality, and substance abuse, and criminalizing that merely enslaves the poor to the prison-industrial complex. It is a vicious cycle, but not one that a voluntary world could not solve. The lack of arbitrary imprisonment would allow people to make money through unconventional means and use what substances they see fit. Aid for addicts would be given on a voluntary basis, as it vastly is through the innumerable private halfway houses and narcotics programs, though would perhaps lack the forced nature that the state uses to enroll people in such. A voluntary society would remove the life-ruining effects that the state imposes for victimless offenses, leading to a far more productive and happy society.

On another note, society’s problems can never be truly eradicated due to the nature of this broken world; however, through voluntary means, the blunt of disease, injury, death, famine, natural disaster, poverty, and loss can be better aided as each instance occurs. These unfortunate yet immutable facets of human existence can be better addressed when the person is the highest level of authority, and needs are handled on a purely individual level. It should also be noted that many problems in society would cease to exist due to the absence of an abusive and coercive state.

Money that is taxed from the poor can instead be used to care for their needs, an incentive to work and self-reliance would be bolstered, those experiencing financial woes could create new businesses which would flourish without state associated fines and permits, and intellectual property would not stop innovation from reaching areas that many monopolies feel are not worth the investment. The state creates innumerable societal issues that negatively impact everyone, especially those susceptible to welfare dependence. Adopting the voluntary lifestyle would combat regime dominance and put power in the hands of everyone instead of those who believe it is their right to dictate how everyone should live their life.

A voluntary life has choice as its cornerstone and freedom as its pinnacle.

Additionally, to think the state has aided in the end of societal issues, or has impaired such, is fundamentally flawed. Poverty is as rampant as ever, especially considering government intervention during Covid-19. Voluntaryism provides numerous ways to treat human problems and leaves the solutions to be as creative and individual choice-based as possible. The said philosophy does not provide a clear-cut, one size fits all solution to complex and nuanced issues, which appears to model the complexity and nuance of the individual. Government does the exact opposite by creating problems and enforcing poor, broad fixes that almost never truly address what they were intended to. The solutions to life’s multitude of calamities should be derived from free will and be given directly from the grace of those who seek to do good. An action cannot be good when the means to achieve it were wrought in theft and violence, as the perpetrator merely committed evil to benefit who they saw fit.

A voluntary life has choice as its cornerstone and freedom as its pinnacle. The world would function based on consent and aiding those who need it from a place of goodness rather than immorality. The ills of this mortal coil would not simply dissipate because the system has changed—however, the escapes from said ills would be numerous and not monopolized by a force driven entity. All solutions listed are but a drop in an endless ocean of creative, complex, and personalized possibilities for a voluntary society. This “perfect” world would never be truly utopic, however, the means to solve world problems would be morally justified. Voluntaryism is thusly the supreme societal format as it relies on the individual needs and wants of people rather than the needs of the elite beings elevated above all others.


Works Cited

Adereth, Maya, et al. “The United States Has a Long History of Mutual Aid Organizing.” Jacobin,

Baetjer, Howard. “Does Welfare Diminish Poverty?: Howard Baetjer, Jr.” FEE Freeman Article, Foundation for Economic Education, 1 Apr. 1984,

Compton, Michelle. “Big Pharma – Drug & Device Companies, Lawsuits & Facts.”, 20 Apr. 2020,

“Federal Bureau of Prisons.” BOP Statistics: Inmate Offenses,

Galles, Gary M. “33 Choice Quotes from the Great Murray Rothbard: Gary M. Galles.” FEE Freeman Article, Foundation for Economic Education, 2 Mar. 2018,

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Voluntaryism Means More Cajun Navies

This piece by Dan Johnson was the winner of VIA’s inaugural essay contest.

The 5-year-old Rescue

“He’s hanging on to the tree branch,” a voice crackled across the line. “A kid…he looks 5 years old…is hanging on to a tree branch.”

“What street?” another voice responded. “X and X.” “Okay, we need our closest boat to respond.”

The line went silent. Too long. Then a third voice cracked over the radio “We got him! He’s in the boat.”

Everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief. A few claps and cheers from listeners. Then, it was back to work. The rescue was impressive, but there were thousands more that needed help, and many more weeks of work ahead.

Broader Disaster Picture

It was August of 2017 and Hurricane Harvey had blasted the coasts of Texas and Louisiana, dumping 33 trillion gallons of water on the southeast United States. Houston was at the epicenter of Harvey’s fury with most areas receiving over 30 inches of rain, leaving hundreds of thousands without power and bursting lakes, streams, and levees designed to protect residents from lesser storms.

While federal and state agencies—including the U.S. Coast Guard—mobilized quickly and were on the ground within hours of landfall, there was one group that received more praise for being at the heart of the disaster (and rescued more people) than anyone else: the Cajun Navy.

On that day in August, I was listening in to the “Navy” Houston relief channel. A friend had noticed my interest in how the Cajun Navy had rescued Louisiana residents during the 2014 floods, and had offered to let me listen in as they worked their operations during Harvey.

The Cajun Navy had begun as a rag tag group of citizens with shallow water boats who, after the miserable federal response to Hurricane Katrina, decided to work together to protect their neighbors from any future Louisiana flooding. On the day after Harvey struck, they felt a strong urge to help their more southern neighbors, and posted a video of a convoy of boats and trucks headed to perform water rescues in Houston.

"These were hundreds of volunteers, doing what needed to be done for humans they’d never met, simply because it was the right thing to do."

The rescue of the 5-year-old—and the realization of how much impact this cooperation between citizens could have—was too much for me to take sitting on the sidelines. I asked a coordinator to put me to work, and that they did. I spent every free hour calling people who would post their location on social media asking for help. I would ask about their emergency situation, how many needed help, and how high the water was. Point, click, call. Receiving twitter confirmation that someone you alerted rescuers to was rescued is a high I don’t know that I’ll ever get over.

There were hundreds of people involved in the operation. From rescuers, to social media, to logistics and dispatch, people across the entire country were powering the Navy’s operations. These were hundreds of volunteers, doing what needed to be done for humans they’d never met, simply because it was the right thing to do.

Numbers in any disaster are sticky and hard to exactly pin down. Rescuers have better things to be doing than paperwork. However, it is estimated that the hundreds of volunteers of the Cajun Navy, just Americans doing what we do best, rescued over 6,000 Houstonians from catastrophic flooding. The United States Coast Guard, with a $4.6 billion budget by comparison, rescued about 4,500.

More than Disaster Relief

Disaster relief is often where it’s most easy to see, as the reporters are on the ground and the news cameras are rolling, but this type of voluntary cooperation happens all the time. It is in everything from the classic example of helping an old lady cross the street or helping a single mother through tough times to the thousands of Americans who pitch in to help veterans recover from the horrors of war.

In 2018, American voluntaryism smashed records with 30% of Americans volunteering a total of 6.9 billion hours in a single year for their communities, churches, and vulnerable populations. There are over 314,000 public charities in the U.S. today, and that number is growing every year.

Hundreds of millions of us donate to crowdfunding sites to help people pay for unexpected expenses, get new ventures off the ground, and help others in need. To some this seems like a tragedy, but over 120 million donations worth over $9 billion later, we can see how generous Americans are to their fellow Americans in time of need.

Charities and purpose-driven for-profits are outperforming government agencies at nearly every turn, and we are gradually losing faith in government to solve complicated social problems. Even though these voluntary actions may not get the media coverage and press conferences of suit-wearing politicians, this robust social safety net is upheld by millions of Americans working to lift up Americans in need.

A Solution to our Toxic Political Climate

And yet, according to Gallup polling, 77% of Americans believe we are more divided than ever before. This has manifested itself on both sides of the political spectrum in such ugly ways as public shaming, cancel culture, and even violence. Many of us can recall a time in recent years where a friend or family member was “unfriended” on social media or was cut out of someone’s life purely due to their political views. Blame has been laid at the feet of many things for this: social media, angry words from politicians, rampant sexism and racism—even Russian propaganda.

"We line up to the ballot boxes like lining up for war—to the victors go the spoils, and to the losers, they shall pay."

The answer is far more simple. Instead of relying on the very cooperation we so enjoy and participate in in our daily lives, we have turned to forcing our neighbors to adopt the solutions we think are best for them. We line up to the ballot boxes like lining up for war—to the victors go the spoils, and to the losers, they shall pay. We fear the American who dresses different, holds different personal views, and votes for people we disagree with. We are players in a winner-take-all game, and we’ll be damned if we’re going to lose.

That’s not how the men and women of the Cajun Navy viewed it. There was no regard or consideration for color, sex, or political affiliation. When certain reporters, for ratings, tried to sow such division, it was resoundingly rejected by both volunteers and those they were trying to help. What if we instead adopted their attitude—not just in disaster relief, but for each of the problems we are trying to solve?

What About Voluntaryism?

There’s actually a name for this philosophy: it’s called voluntaryism.

Like all ideologies, voluntaryism is the pursuit of an idea. Also, like all ideologies, the idea is the ideal, unlikely to be fully realized at any point, but still the north star that guides us towards a better future.

Voluntaryism simply states that the ideal is that all human interaction should be voluntary—that we build better communities, better societies, and a better world when we use cooperative means to solve problems rather than those where we take from our neighbor to benefit ourselves.

Voluntaryism means more Cajun navies everywhere. It is Cajun food banks. It is Cajun health clinics. It is Cajun shelters. It is Americans doing what we do best: it is helping one another.

"I choose to believe in my fellow Americans. That’s why I’m a voluntaryist."

Voluntaryism is also bigger than that. Voluntaryism is every win-win transaction in business, in charity, and in society. If the hammer and sickle represents communism and the raised fist represents socialism, it is the handshake that represents voluntaryism. Not me, not us versus them, but you and me together.

Perhaps that is too radical a proposition for America today. Perhaps we are too angry at each other to cooperate. But it is in the rough times that our values truly matter, and I choose to believe in us. I choose to believe for the 5-year-old who will live because of the kindness of strangers, for the dialysis patient who was airlifted by private helicopter, and for the family on the 3rd floor rescued by a fisherman from Louisiana.

I choose to believe in my fellow Americans. That’s why I’m a voluntaryist.

Dan Johnson

Dan Johnson

This guest post is by Dan Johnson. Dan is the founder of We Do Better, an organization concerned with the best outcomes for Americans in need.

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