04 April 2006

Aristotle Against the Libertarians

Serena Olsaretti's critique of libertarianism, at least as reported in Iwao Hirose's review, seems to be the result of two applications of Aristotelian ideas.

The first Aristotelian idea is that our conferring or accepting something voluntarily cannot constitute an injustice against us (see Nic. Eth. 5.9, 11). The second is that a sort of action that we do only as the lesser of two evils (a 'mixed action', Nic. Eth. 3.1) is not voluntary--or, at least, it is not a standard case of a voluntary action.

Olsaretti apparently uses the first idea in a reconstruction of Nozick's famous argument, that states of affairs that are the consequence of free market choices are just. Olsaretti argues, in effect, that the appropriate standard is not that such actions are free, but rather that they are voluntary--relying, apparently, on the intuition that one cannot voluntarily be treated unjustly.

She then points out that many market transactions that might be considered 'free', in Nozick's sense (that is, not violating any right), are nonetheless not voluntary, because they are done only because there is no 'acceptable' alternative. Here is Hirose's account of the crucial argument:

According to libertarians such as Robert Nozick, a distributional inequality is just when and because it has been brought about as a result of the voluntary and free exchange of legitimately acquired resources between self-owning persons. Individuals have full ownership rights in themselves and external resources, and what justice requires is the voluntary and free consent of these individuals. Libertarians claim that a free market society is a society where nearly all interferences with people are voluntarily consented to, so there is nearly no limitation of people's freedom. Individuals have certain rights, and voluntariness is a necessary and sufficient condition for the legitimacy of nearly all interferences with people. Market is said to satisfy this voluntariness requirement. It appears clear that freedom and voluntariness play crucial role in the libertarian defence of the free market.

Then, Olsaretti reconstructs the libertarian argument using two important notions: the rights-defined freedom and the rights-defined voluntariness. According to the rights-defined freedom, an individual's freedom is curtailed only when he is prevented from doing what he has a right to do. This characterization of freedom is quite familiar from the work of Nozick and the recent literature on the individual rights and freedom in social choice theory. Olsaretti offers her own characterization of voluntariness, which is less familiar to us. "An action or a choice is non-voluntary, or forced, I suggest, if and only if it is done because there is no acceptable alternative to it, where the standard of acceptability is an objective one" (p. 119). Nozick seems to derive his right-definition of voluntariness from his rights-definition of freedom, and does not distinguish voluntariness and freedom in the way Olsaretti suggests. But, given the proper distinction between these two notions, she argues, Nozick's notion of voluntariness rests on a mistake. For example, consider the case of worker W and employer E, where W offers a poorly paid hazardous job to E who would be unemployed and eventually starve if he does not work for E. If we assume that the right-defined voluntariness presupposes the rights-definition of freedom (i.e. voluntariness is derived from freedom), then we must agree with the following step of reasoning.

  1. If E acts within his rights, he does not infringe W's rights;
  2. If W's rights are not infringed by E's actions, then E's affecting of W does not render unfree;
  3. If W is not rendered unfree, then W acts voluntarily; therefore,
  4. W does not act non-voluntarily if E, by limiting W's choice, has acted within his rights.

Olsaretti claims that (3) is false. This is because W has no alternative other than working for E! W does not voluntarily choose to work for E, even though he is not rendered unfree. The decision to take part of market transactions hardly counts as a voluntary choice. The upshot is that morally defined freedom does not guarantee voluntariness, and hence that freedom and voluntariness are quite distinct notions. Olsaretti's proposed notion of voluntariness now appears to be more plausible than Nozick's. She further contends that even if a rights-respecting free market were a realm in which people's freedom is not curtailed and transactions are not coercive, it does not follow that it would host only voluntary transactions. As the libertarian defense of the free market relies on an incorrect understanding of the relationship between freedom and voluntariness, it does not establish the claim that market-created inequality is just. It should be noted that Olsaretti picks out the internal incoherence in the libertarian defence of the free market by appealing to the notions of freedom and voluntariness, which libertarians heavily rely on but fail to distinguish properly. She does not appeal to any consideration external to libertarianism. This makes Olsaretti's criticism powerful and distinctive.

This raises interesting questions from an Aristotelian point of view. For instance, can we make a distinction, as Aristotle does as regards 'mixed actions', and say that, although W's working for E is not something that W would choose considered on its own, still, in the circumstances, it is something that W does voluntarily (just as the captain of the ship voluntarily jettisons the cargo in a storm)? But, if so, should we say that the arrangement is an injustice only 'in the abstract' yet just in these particular circumstances? Or should we simply say that the arrangement is not wrong because it is unjust, but wrong because contrary to some other virtue?