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Is Capitalism Voluntary?

Depending on your views, capitalism is one of the most hated or loved economic systems in the world. When you ask “is capitalism voluntary?” the answer depends on what the person thinks “capitalism” means. The primary factor to consider is the level of state intervention—or force—that is being considered.

What most detractors of capitalism are typically against is the union of big business with the government. That union is actually better defined as state capitalism or corporatism—a form of syndicalism that was the basis for the economic policies of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. This brand of “capitalism” is a system where the government grants special privileges to certain corporations, unions or other groups.

These privileges could be anything from outright monopoly, to tariffs and subsidies, to burdensome policies and regulations that drive small businesses out. But all these tactics have one thing in common: through the force of the government, people are being prevented from voluntarily choosing their economic actions. Essentially, the government picks which companies are winners and losers—and the citizens are stuck with what the government decides.

In free-market capitalism, it is customers, rather than the government, who picks winners and losers—and the winners are the ones who provide people the product or service they want.

I’ve found that most people who support capitalism are typically thinking about free-market capitalism, also called “laissez-faire” economics. Championed by classical liberal economists like Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, and Milton Friedman, this emphasizes the right of people to freely and voluntarily exchange goods and services. Under this free-market capitalism, the government is not involved in the economy at all, except to protect private property.


In free-market capitalism, it is customers, rather than the government, who picks winners and losers—and the winners are the ones who provide people the product or service they want. Often what people want is the product that’s the best quality for the lowest price, but not always. People who want to protect the environment can buy environmentally-friendly products. People who care most about supporting small and local businesses can do so. People who only want to buy “Made in America” products are as free as people who only want foreign goods.

What most detractors of capitalism are typically against is the union of big business with the government.

Most importantly from the producer’s viewpoint, people who can find a better way to produce a product or provide a service are free to try, without the weight of government regulations throttling them down. Most importantly from the consumer’s viewpoint, producers must compete for their purchases, resulting in higher quality and lower price.

It’s clear that state capitalism (fascistic corporatism) is not voluntary, since government intervention in the economy is involved by definition. But some people (particularly communists and socialists) declare that even free-market capitalism isn’t truly free or voluntary. They say it involves coercion, because if a person doesn’t work they starve—therefore people only consent to employment under the implicit threat of starvation.

To the extent that this has any merit, the criticism is actually still of state intervention into the market, for without regulations barring their way a dissatisfied employee could start their own business, or at the extreme even homestead a piece of property and start a farm—or choose a subsistence lifestyle.

You can imagine how long a modern communist would last on a deserted island, wailing that he's oppressed because he has to find food to stay alive.

However, I strongly suspect that what is being objected to by the communists and socialists is the plain fact that people must work (in a general sense) to live. They view this as oppression and ascribe it to capitalism, but it’s a fact of reality that the stuff to sustain life does not come automatically—this is not a unique trial of humanity. You can imagine how long a modern communist would last on a deserted island, wailing that he’s oppressed because he has to find food to stay alive. At the same time, the communists and socialists are ignorant that the bounty around them in developed countries is largely the result of human freedom—and therefore, they have a profound ingratitude for both the bounty and its source.


So, the answer to the question “is capitalism voluntary?” largely depends on what you’re talking about when you say “capitalism.” If you mean the fascistic corporatism of most modern states, then the answer is no—and giving more power to the state will only make it worse. But if you’re referring to the ideal of a free-market capitalism, then the answer is yes—and giving more freedom to individuals to make voluntary economic actions will only make it better.

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Why is Housing So Expensive?

Something that VIA frequently gets requests for is help with rent payments. Why is it difficult for so many people to afford housing? Why is housing so expensive? The standard answer is that it’s those lazy landlords, sitting on piles of money and smoking cigars, who are to blame. This seems to make sense at first glance—after all, aren’t the landlords the ones who are charging the rent? But lets take a closer look by examining a case from a simpler time: that of Pa Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie.

Pa Ingalls, though frequently short on luck, was an entrepreneur at heart. Anticipating that a thriving town would one day stand on the rolling grasslands, he picked a deserted spot nearby and started building a farm. This is called homesteading—in the words of John Locke, Pa Ingalls had “mixed his labor” with the land, and in doing so made it his property. He had built a nice little farm when disaster struck—worse than a prairie fire or drought. The United States government decided that it owned the land that Pa Ingalls had built on, and he had to leave to make room for indigenous Americans (who were, incidentally, forced to moved from other land that the government had also decided it owned—but that’s another story).

Fast forward a hundred and fifty years, and we see that the cause of the Ingall’s housing crisis is the same as our own: the government. At the simplest level, a person who needed a house could simply go to an unowned spot of land and build a shelter—not an ideal long-term solution, but everyone has to start somewhere. This simple expedient is forbidden, however, because the government has decreed that it owns all the land in America. Why, when it has not done anything at all to the land to make it the property of the government? Because, that’s why—and if you build a house on it, you’ll only be kicked off and have your house stolen—if you’re lucky.

In a free market, the high price of housing would cause people to want to build more housing—because they want the profits.

Fortunately, in a complex economy, there are people who are much better at building a house or apartment than the average person. In a free market, the high price of housing would cause people to want to build more housing—because they want the profits. But with more housing available, the price would decrease, since renters would have more options. So what stops that from happening? Again, the government. In addition to directly increasing the cost of housing—such as through property tax—the government indirectly increases the cost. Zoning laws, building codes, and other rules and regulations prevent new housing from being created when it is needed. Not coincidentally, this makes some people demand that the government Do Something, which usually leads to more government control over people’s lives.

That’s where voluntaryism comes in. Right now, all we who are more fortunate can do is help people pay the high costs that government has imposed on everyone. But in a truly free society—one without Big Brother telling everyone what to do—how would housing be provided for the less fortunate? The possibilities are nearly endless. Simple charities—to build new housing or pay bills—would be one way. Subsidized or even no-cost housing could be made available by businesses—people are much more likely to shop at a store they live right next to than one across town. Microliving in low-cost rental living pods, house-sharing agreements, and other creative voluntary arrangements would flourish. The answer to “why is housing so expensive?” can be summed up in one word: government. But in a voluntaryist society, the solutions to the housing problem are limited only by human imagination and initiative.

This article was originally published by Being Libertarian.

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