“free market” follies

A cross-post from the discussion group:

Anarcho-capitalists are often caught in a contradiction – in one breath, they define “capitalism” as an unhampered free market, arguing that the economic system we have isn’t capitalism.

..but in the next breath, they’ll engage in apologetics for features of our current economic system as though they’re defending transactions that take place in a free market – “But the tenant signed a contract!”, “But the disabled single mom voluntarily chooses to work at Wal-Mart!”, and so on.

Put simply, if our current economic system truly ISN’T a free market, the anarcho-capitalist shouldn’t behave as though it is by defending institutions that either spring from or are strongly influenced by state intervention (e.g. wage labor, landlordism, vast wealth disparities, etc.). Even if the anarcho-capitalist is unwilling to concede that these institutions depend on state intervention, to defend them in their current form is still a contradiction, as it requires treating these institutions as though they take place in a mysterious vacuum, apparently untouched by state power.

The force compelling a homeowner to pay property taxes is no more coercive than that which compels the renter to pay the landlord – the homeowner doesn’t have the option of homesteading unused land & setting up there to be left alone. If he does, he will be violently removed. So, to call his decision to pay up every April a ‘voluntary choice’ would be a sick joke.

Similarly, the renter doesn’t have the option of homesteading, nor is he able to purchase a home, as the cost of doing so has been made artificially high by even more state intervention. So, to call his decision to sign a contract requiring him to pay up before the 1st of every month a ‘voluntary choice’ would be equally absurd – even leaving aside oft-mentioned issues like the legitimacy of the landlord’s property claims & the ‘quality’ of the tenant, it is still absurd.

The anarcho-capitalist might protest further here, arguing that ‘the social contract’ is forced upon all at birth, whereas an agreement with a boss or landlord must be sought by the worker or tenant; and that -unlike the state- the landlord isn’t “holding a gun”. This argument is faulty for a couple of reasons.

1. Direct aggression from the other party isn’t all that determines whether an arrangement is consensual. If Mr. Smith contaminates all of the (unoccupied) viable land & water in a region while his pal Mr. Jones builds a house on what’s left & charges you rent for occupying it, no single individual is directly aggressing against you in any way. However, calling your decision to rent from Jones a ‘voluntary choice’ would be inaccurate.

2. There are different degrees of coercion, relative to each person’s position in the social hierarchy – the contract between a landlord & a poor family who can only afford a cramped apartment in a dangerous part of town isn’t as consensual as, say, that between a landlord & a wealthy investment banker looking for a swank Manhattan loft. To throw up your hands and say, “Something is either voluntary or it’s not!” with no further analysis is just plain intellectually lazy.


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