‘But Wage Labour Is Voluntary!’ – A Response
Anarcho-capitalists argue that wage labour does not limit freedom because it is voluntary. In this essay I shall examine a number of socialist responses to the anarcho-capitalst argument, and conclude that the anarcho-capitalist argument is not convincing.
The traditional socialist response to the capitalist is to deny that wage labour is voluntary and therefore that one is free under capitalism to sell one’s labour. Socialists instead insist that under capitalism workers are forced to sell their labour to capitalists. The argument is as follows. The reason why workers sell their labour to capitalists in the first place is that they have no other choice. In a capitalist society one needs money in order to purchase the essentials of life, such as food, shelter and clothing. Thus in order to avoid starvation or at best extreme poverty one must accumulate money. In order to accumulate money the vast majority of people in a capitalist society sell their labour to capitalists in exchange for a wage. This is because most people do not own capital or receive a large inheritance with which to start a business. It is true that some workers manage to create their own businesses but in order to do this they must accumulate the money required to buy the necessary capital and means of production for their business and thus at some point must partake in wage labour. Therefore the vast majority of individuals who engage in wage labour do so because if they do not they cannot purchase the goods and services required to survive.
The socialist argues that since workers engage in wage labour because they have no other choice it follows that wage labour is not voluntary. This is due to their belief that a choice lacking a meaningful alternative is no choice at all. If a person walked up to you and asked you for money, your choice to give them money would be voluntary since one can meaningfully choose between giving the person money or not giving the person money. In this example, you have realistic options to choose from. While if a robber walked up to you holding a gun and gave you the choice between giving them money or being shot to death then clearly one lacks a meaningful choice. The alternative to giving money is death and therefore when one chooses to perform the action of giving money to the robber one is not making this choice voluntarily. The victim in this instance is forced to hand over their money because they lack a realistic alternative to doing so. The socialist argues that workers are in the same position. Their choice is between working for a capitalist or extreme poverty and the possibility of death from starvation, illness etc. Workers thus lack a meaningful alternative to working for a capitalist and consequently are, under capitalism, forced to sell their labour just as the victim is forced to hand over their money to the robber. Therefore, wage labour is not voluntary and if wage labour is not voluntary it follows that it is not the case that wage labour does not limit freedom.
A few possible criticisms of the traditional socialist argument are as follows. The first argument is that the worker has the right to work for other capitalists than their current employer or to become self-employed. Since the worker has the right to leave their current employment as a wage labourer, but chooses not to leave, it follows that they voluntarily choose to work for their employer. Therefore, wage labour is voluntary. The problem with this argument is that it conflates rights with means. The socialist does not deny that wage labourers have the right to seek employment elsewhere, rather they deny that wage labourers have the means to be anything other than wage labourers. One would not argue that a homeless person’s freedom is not limited by their poverty because they have the right to buy a house or food or a car. Since while in poverty they lack the means to exercise their rights and their freedom to perform a wide variety of actions are consequently greatly limited. If one took the view that one is free on the condition that one has the right to freedom, irrespective of one’s own means to exercise said rights, then one would have to conclude that a homeless person and a billionaire are equally free, since the homeless person and the billionaire both have the right to be free. Yet clearly the billionaire is freer than the homeless person since the billionaire has far greater freedom to act as he or she wishes simple because they have the means to act. It is also therefore the case that a person who has meaningful alternatives to working as a wage labourer, but nonetheless chooses to work as a wage labourer, is freer than the person who has no choice but to be a wage labourer. Since the former meaningfully consents while the later does not.
The second argument is that every action a human performs is limited by the circumstances in which they make their choices, yet these choices do not limit our freedom and are not necessarily involuntary. For example, if a person only has £5 with which to buy a present for a friend, then their choice of present is restricted to those presents that are £5 or less. But it does not follow from the fact that their choice is restricted by their circumstances that they did not voluntarily purchase the present for their friend. The problem with this argument is that in the example of a person buying a present they have the realistic choice of whether to buy or not buy the present while a person entering into a wage contract is far more restricted in their choice. Thus while it is the case that a wage labourer is less restricted in their choices than the victim in the robbery, they are nonetheless more restricted then people engaging in the wide variety of choices that humans make on a daily basis, such as purchasing presents on a tight budget.
The third argument is that people engage in activities in order to survive, and as a result lack meaningful alternatives to engaging in these activities, since not performing these activities results in death. Yet these activities do not limit freedom despite their involuntary nature. People, for example, lack a meaningful alternative to eating, since if one does not eat one dies from starvation, and therefore eating is not voluntary. Since it is not voluntary, it follows that the socialist must conclude that eating limits freedom, which is an incredibly odd conclusion to make.
This, however, does not follow because the argument conflates political freedom with mere inability. To illustrate the difference between the two concepts, bad weather may be an obstacle to a person leaving their house, but it does not follow from the fact that bad weather makes people unable to leave their houses that bad weather makes people un-free. This is because it seems that freedom is an essentially social concept, which is only meaningful within the context of relations between individuals. Thus, a person is rendered un-free by their inability to leave their house if the reason for this is the actions of another person, such as someone blocking all exists from their house. Therefore, while it is true that people are unable to not eat and survive, this fact does not make people un-free because it is not caused by the actions of other individuals. Indeed, it is only because people work for a capitalist as a result of the arrangements of other human beings that socialists can claim that capitalism limits freedom.
The fourth argument is that there is a large difference, and therefore dis-analogy between, the robbery and entering into a wage contract. The first difference is that in the robbery the consequence of death is immediate and directly as a result of the robber’s actions. While in the case of wage labour, the consequence of death is distant and an in-direct result of the action of the capitalist, who did not purposely choose that the wage labourer dies but instead reproduced a social system whose consequences are workers dying from starvation or illness. This first difference is not particularly problematic since the socialist can argue that the threat of death in the robbery and the threat of death to the wage labourer are similar since in both examples the end result, death, is the same. Thus while they are different types of threats of death they are nonetheless both threats of death, and it is this shared feature that ensures that in both instances one lacks meaningful alternatives.
The second difference is related to the first difference but is not identical with it. It is that in the instance of the robbery one cannot simply walk away, since doing so will result in being killed immediately, while a worker can leave a particular workplace whenever they want and seek employment elsewhere. The robbery is an instance of immediate and almost certain death. While the worker who is unable to find employment, and so falls into extreme poverty, experiences the more distant and less likely possibility of death via starvation or illness, since they may survive off charity, the mutual aid of friends and family and in many modern capitalist nations, the welfare state. The point being that while the workers choices are limited by the possibility of poverty and starvation they are not as greatly limited as the victim in the robbery. Moreover, the victim in the robbery is more certain that if they do not make their un-meaningful choice they will die than the wage labourer is. It is more likely that the wage labourer will find another job, become self-employed or survive on the welfare of others or the state than it is that the victim in the robbery will escape. As a result, it is questionable whether or not workers experience the same lack of meaningful consent as the victim in the robbery. The argument is that while the constraints in the robbery are sufficient to negate the possibility of meaningful consent, since one is certain of the consequences of not complying with the robber, the constraints faced by wage labourers are not sufficient to negate the possibility of meaningful consent, since one is less certain of the consequences of not entering into a wage contract. The analogy is therefore not as conclusive as the socialist would hope.
The socialist can however respond to this argument. In the robbery example it is not entirely certain that one will be killed since the robber could be a bad shot, shoot to wound or one could be saved by modern medicine. What is certain though is that one will suffer if one does not comply with the demands of the robber. The same is true of the wage labourer. Even if the wage labourer cannot be certain that they will die or experience extreme poverty they will nonetheless significantly suffer if they do not enter into a wage contract. Therefore, their choice is between working for a capitalist or almost certainly suffering with the very strong possibility of experiencing poverty and the less strong possibility death via starvation or illness. Thus while their choice is not as absolute as ‘work for a boss or die’ it is nonetheless a decision in which one lacks meaningful options due to the high probability of poverty and therefore significant suffering.
The fifth argument is that if wage labour is not voluntary then socialism is not voluntary either. This is due to the belief that under socialism one’s choice is work for the collective, in order to receive the essentials of life, or experience poverty and die. Even if people under socialism receive considerable welfare, in order for society to function and provide said welfare some people are going to have to work. The problem with this argument is that socialists are not claiming that they are exempt from their criticism. It is the capitalist who claims exemption when they argue that workers voluntarily enter into wage labour and that an anarcho-capitalist society is an entirely voluntary one. It is these two claims that the socialist is responding to. To argue that the socialists’ argument applies to socialism does not refute the socialists argument and thus any capitalist who argues this must immediately cease to argue that wage labour is voluntary and therefore justified and that anarcho-capitalism is an entirely voluntary society.
Socialists in comparison to capitalists argue that socialism maximises autonomy more than capitalism not that socialism is a society in which individuals are completely autonomous. Or to put it differently, socialism is a society that is more voluntary than capitalism not a society that is completely voluntary. It is the capitalists who are the Utopians who believe their society would be entirely free and not the socialists who have the far more humble claim that their society is freer than a capitalist society.
Despite these arguments, a capitalist may not be convinced of the socialists conclusion that under capitalism workers are not free to sell their labour. Even if this is so, the socialist still has a strong case to make. This is because It is not necessary to deny the capitalist’s claim that under capitalism people are free to sell their labour. This is because the socialist’s claim, that one is forced to sell one’s labour, is entirely compatible with the capitalists’ claim. As G.A Cohen notes, workers are both free to sell their labour and are not free not to sell their labour. He writes that “before you are forced to do A, you are, except in unusual cases, free to do A and free not to do A. The force removes the second freedom, not the first. It puts no obstacle in the path of your doing A, so you are still free to.” Capitalism therefore promotes one freedom, the freedom to sell one’s labour, but also reproduces and rests on the material conditions which ensure that workers are not free not to sell their labour, since while they have the right not to sell their labour, they fundamentally lack the means to exercise this right.
Those who object that it cannot be the case that a person is both free and not free to do x at the same time confuse freedom to with doing an action freely. Cohen is not claiming that workers perform wage labour freely but rather that they are free to sell their labour. This is an incredible important point, since if workers were not free to sell their labour it would follow that modern workers are no different than chattel slaves who had no choice in who they worked for and lacked the right to leave their owner. Yet modern workers do have the right to choose among employers and the right to leave their workplace when they choose to do so. Admitting this truth does not mean that the socialist must concede that wage labour does not limit freedom. This is because liberty is not the capacity to choose between masters but is instead the absence of masters, it is autonomy over one’s self. The ability to choose a new master is not freedom but is instead a form of democratic tyranny as rather than being forced to accept the will of one ruler you are given the choice between several different rulers.
Furthermore, even if we ignore these arguments and concede that the capitalist is correct to insist that one is free to sell one’s labour and free not to sell one’s labour it still does not follow that wage labour does not limit freedom. My central point is that while it is the case that something being voluntary is a necessary condition for it being a domain of freedom, it is not a sufficient condition because something can be voluntary but nonetheless limit freedom. Or to put differently, a person may voluntarily enter an institution, group or organisation but it does not follow from this fact that while within it their freedom is not being limited. To support this argument let us imagine a woman who voluntarily enters into a marriage and proceeds to be verbally, but never physically, abused by her husband, have no say in household decisions and be ordered around by her husband. While it is true that she has the right to leave the marriage she lacks the means to do so. This is because she does not have good qualifications and previous work experience and so cannot gain access to a job with a large enough salary to support both her and her children. She therefore stays in the marriage for purely financial reasons relating to the economic safety of herself and her children. But it does not follow from the fact that she chooses to stay in the marriage because it is the best option available to her that her husband is a) treating here justly and b) that her husband is not limiting her freedom. All that follows is that the woman believes that staying with her husband is superior to the alternatives available to her.
The socialist argues that many workers are in a similar position. Workers have the right to leave their job but they lack the means due to the predictable result of them leaving their job being poverty and at worst death as a result of illness or starvation. But the fact that they choose to stay in their job, as it is the best option available to them, does not entail the conclusion that a) their company, boss, manager and co-workers treat them justly and b) that their company, boss, manager and co-workers are not limiting his or her freedom. Even if we alter the marriage scenario such that the woman has the means of leaving, it does not follow from this that her husband does not limit her freedom since it is still the case that she is verbally abused, has no say in decision making and is ordered about by her husband. The same is true of an employee who has the means to work for another firm, or perhaps even create their own firm, since they still have little to no say in decisions and simply take orders from above irrespective of their own thoughts on the matter. In short, the fact that a person has the right and at best the means to leave x does not entail the proposition that while within x their freedom is not being limited. Therefore, to justify something as a domain of freedom one must offer further reasons beyond ‘x is voluntary’.
To conclude, the anarcho-capitalist’s argument fails. If the traditional socialist argument is correct it follows that one is not free to sell one’s labour. If one accepts the premise that one Is free to sell one’s labour then if G.A Cohen is correct this freedom is compatible with not being free not to sell one’s labour. Even if one were to claim that one is entirely free to sell one’s labour it still would not follow that wage labour does not limit freedom since ‘x’ being voluntary is a necessary condition for it being a domain of freedom, not a sufficient condition. Thus the anarcho-capitalist argument does not manage to show that wage labour does not limit freedom.
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