Voluntaryism and The Art of Being Free

By Carl Watner

Before beginning this book review, I must reveal my own bias. My personal friendship and intellectual acquaintance with Wendy McElroy goes back three decades, and was rooted in the creation of The Voluntaryist, whose first issue was published in October 1982. George Smith, Wendy McElroy, and I were co-founders of the newsletter, and it is the guise under which nearly all of my own writing and advocacy have appeared for the last thirty years.

What should one expect from a book of essays written by Wendy McElroy? Although she only uses the word ‘voluntaryism’ once in the entire book (p. 221 as I recall), the chapters in this book revolve around her “deep conviction that there is something sacrosanct about the individual.” (vii) The idea that everyone must “live with self-respect according to [his or] her own values” (ix) forms the underlying theme for all its contents. That, in fact, is what voluntaryism is all about: respecting the self-ownership that each person brings into the world with his or her birth.

In Section I, “The Theoretical Footing of Freedom,” Wendy offers four essays dealing with natural law, natural rights, the differences between state and society, and an explanation of why social engineering is inherently coercive and ultimately unable to plan for all the vicissitudes of life. A legislative or bureaucratic plan either has a reasonable and persuasive basis, or it does not. The fact that at least some people have to be coerced into following the government plan is proof enough to show that government arguments are not sufficiently reasonable to convince them. True, such recalcitrant people, may themselves be ignorant, greedy, or simply stubborn, but is that any reason to “force” them to obey the law, so long as they themselves are not coercing others? Paraphrasing Wendy (35), the main practical benefit of a decision-making system based on individual choice, as opposed to one based on central government dictates, is that individuals may quickly adjust to localized, changing circumstances. Government bureaucrats, far from the field of action, not only do not know what is going on, but when they find out, the chain of command is unable to change course very quickly. Neither individual owners nor government personnel know the future, and for that very reason it is far safer to let individual owners fend for themselves rather than to be directed by a central planning bureau. If the government plan goes wrong, the whole country suffers. Under individual planning, it is unlikely that all owners will all make the same unwise decision(s) at the same time. Disasters are far less tumultuous when planning is not centralized and monopolized by the government.

Section II of The Art of Being is a group of chapters on “the issues,” and includes discussions of the Industrial Revolution, unions, public education, the drug war, passports, the constitutionality of the federal post office, contempt of court, and war. As you may imagine she conveys her individualist outlook on all these subjects and shows why voluntary interaction always trumps forced behavior. Many of these topics have been discussed in the pages of The Voluntaryist, but one of the most interesting has not. What should be the responsibility of parents to support their under-age children? In “The Return of Debtors’ Prison” Wendy discusses what the American legal system has settled on: “civil imprisonment for nonpayment of child support.” Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of deadbeat parents are incarcerated each year on charges of civil contempt because they have not made court-ordered payments. The fact that they do not have income or assets to make these payments is often irrelevant.

Section III is titled “Principles Work Through People,” in which she introduces “some of the historical friends from whom [she has] drawn insight” and inspiration. (129) Her first subject, Etienne de La Boetie (1530-1563) was often mentioned in the early days of The Voluntaryist. It was he who first identified the voluntaryist insight: that every tyranny is grounded upon general popular acceptance. In short, the bulk of the people themselves, for whatever reason, must acquiesce in their own subjection. All oppression demands the cooperation and compliance of its victims. Oppression cannot operate without the sanction of its victims, and if their consent is withdrawn, State power must disintegrate. As Wendy concludes her essay, she points out that La Boetie in effect told people “Refuse both violence [trying to fight the tyrant militarily and] submission. Simply say ‘No’.”

Other essays in this section deal with the French enlightenment thinker, Voltaire (1694-1778), the transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), the abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), and Raymond Cyrus Hoiles (1878-1970) founder of Freedom Newspapers chain and defender of the Japanese-Americans during their internment in World War II. Here one finds the never-before-told story of how Hoiles stood up for the constitutional rights of the Japanese living in Orange County, California. It is in these three later articles, that we begin to find the thread that helps bind this book together. Many know the story of Thoreau’s one night stay in Concord jail. Wendy labels Thoreau’s protest as “an act of conscience.” (155) “The individual and his conscience is the final judge of right and wrong.” (157) Although Wendy mentions Thoreau’s opposition to slavery, she does not mention his friendship with Charles Lane and Bronson Alcott, both of whom set a precedent for Thoreau and who were arrested for non-payment of their poll taxes in 1843. All three were abolitionists and undoubtedly would have agreed with the sentiments of William Lloyd Garrison which Wendy quotes:

I believe in the spirit of peace, and in sole and absolute reliance on truth and the application of it to the hearts and consciences of the people. I do not believe that the weapons of liberty ever have been, or ever can be, the weapons of despotism. I know that those of despotism are the sword, the revolver, the cannon, the bomb-shell; and, therefore, the weapons to which tyrants cling, and upon which they depend, are not the weapons for me, as a friend of liberty. (177)

The final section of The Art of Being Free ties the book together by showing how to “get from there to here.” Wendy suggests that we focus upon things in our own backyard: “concentrate on grassroots movements in which … individuals make an incredible difference.” (200) This can be in such areas as homeschooling, the father’s rights movement, protecting one’s privacy through encryption, barter groups, and the use of alternative currencies. In discussing Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, Wendy points out that for many Germans under the Nazi regime, “the law assumed the role that conscience plays in other people. It told them what is right or wrong, and they obeyed,” not realizing that in in reality they were causing harm and death to innocent people (211). The American military police and soldiers who rounded up the peaceful Japanese in America during World War II were doing the same thing: accepting what the government told them to; not questioning what was right or wrong – in other words, just following orders. As she points out, in contrast, a century earlier, Thoreau held that “every human being has a fundamental obligation to discover for himself what is just and then to act according to his conscience, even if it contradicts the majority or the law. It is precisely his moral conscience that makes a man fully human … .” (212) Reminiscent of La Boetie, Wendy writes: “The words most feared by those in authority are ‘I won’t‘,” and “No.” (218) Suppose those Germans and Americans had simply refused to do what they were ordered to do. They probably would have been jailed, but then suppose those who were told to jail them said, “No,” too. What a chain of consequences that would entail!

Perhaps Wendy planned it this way, but the two best chapters of her book are those at the end. The next to last chapter is the very intriguing story of “Boycott: A Nonviolent Revolt.” In a chapter that should be reprinted in The Voluntaryist, Wendy lays out the history of the boycott, from its initial attempt to ostracize Captain Boycott, overseer for an absentee landlord in Ireland in 1880, to its expansion via secondary boycotts, blacklists, peer pressure groups, and in a wide variety of economic boycotts ranging from withdrawal of bank deposits to non-consumption and/or non-importation of certain products. In short, Wendy concludes that the boycott is a “nonviolent, non-political” strategy with the potential for bringing about true social change without involving the government.

In her “Conclusion,” Wendy sums up The Art of Being Free by focusing again on the important message that Henry David Thoreau sends us in his essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau asked himself a question that has appeared in The Voluntaryist numerous times: where do you draw the line and refuse to cooperate with the State? Here is how Wendy answers that question:

There is no duty to confront the state except when it seeks to make you an active accomplice in the oppression of others. Those who stand up against the injustice of others are to be applauded. But they should not do so at the expense of their primary duty: to live deeply and honestly. This duty involves pushing back or walking away (when possible) from the areas of life in which the state commands jurisdiction. (245-246)

Some may disagree with Wendy and say this is impossible, and in some cases, it may be because State agents refuse to leave you alone. Bob LeFevre was fond of saying, “the free man will find a way to be free.” Implicit in Bob’s observation was the fact that there is a difference between physical liberty and spiritual freedom. Even a person whom the State has imprisoned may remain free in spirit if he or she refuses to submit. The difference between a prisoner and a slave is this: the former refuses to submit and is placed in an iron cage; the slave is allowed his liberty because his or her spirit is in illusory chains of his or her own making. This difference is exemplified in the story of the Stoic who was captured and tortured in order to make him renounce his beliefs. He told his captors that they could do whatever they wished with his body, but that they could not injure his philosophy. “That was in his mind and their authority, in its physical … aspect, did not extend to that.” (see Issue 17 of The Voluntaryist, page 4) “Know the truth and the truth shall make you free,” or as The People’s New Testament puts it, “The way to know the truth is to obey the truth.” (John 8:32) Live life in accordance with your conscience, and the world is bound to be a better place. That’s the message of The Art of Being Free.

[The Art of Being Free was published 2012 by Laissez Faire Books, 800 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD. See www.LaissezFaireBooks.com. All numbers in parentheses within this review refer to page numbers in the paperback edition.]