Liberty Matters

What Makes an Exchange Voluntary?

My good friend H.D.P. Kliemt has provided some very useful arguments for discussion.  He offered distinctions that are sharp and important, highlighted some areas of agreement, and identified some contradictions.
The difficult thing for those of us who have long studied Jasay is that he uses language in a way that is both very precise (and consistent, for he is careful with words), yet idiosyncratic (for he is an independent scholar, in every sense).
I want to consider one concept that is central to Jasay’s thought:  property.  The problem is that what Jasay means by “property,” when he uses the word, is both precise and idiosyncratic.
The best illustration of this is Jasay’s objection to the use of the phrase “property right.”  Either property is a right, in which case that phrase is redundant, or the “bundle of sticks” view of rights is correct, in which case there is really no such thing as “property” in the first place.
Jasay would base this argument on Hume—Jasay is no Lockean!—in particular the logic of this passage:
[After property is understood as stability in] possessions, there immediately arise the ideas of justice and injustice; as also those of property, right, and obligation. The latter are altogether unintelligible without first understanding the former. Our property is nothing but those goods, whose constant possession is established by the laws of society; that is, by the laws of justice. Those, therefore, who make use of the words property, or right, or obligation, before they have explained the origin of justice, or even make use of them in that explication, are guilty of a very gross fallacy, and can never reason upon any solid foundation. A man’s property is some object related to him. This relation is not natural, but moral, and founded on justice. It is very preposterous, therefore, to imagine, that we can have any idea of property, without fully comprehending the nature of justice, and shewing its origin in the artifice and contrivance of man. The origin of justice explains that of property. The same artifice gives rise to both.[30] 
Importantly, then, it is by no means inevitable that human society must rely on property; property is a social convention, and there are myriad other possible conventions on which to found a social order.  Jasay happens to believe, as Hume did, that a conception of justice based on the recognition and protection of property is a superior society, but it is not based on any “natural law” that can be divined through either reason or revelation. 
Accepting that notion of convention, in which property is not just consistent with justice, but in fact justice requires, by definition, that property be respected as the core human right, has implications.  For Jasay, in a society with property, any additional concerns about “social justice” are lexically inferior to respect for and preservation of property.  Property is the core human right, so a society based on property justice requires that property be honored.  To try to overlay other conceptions of justice on top of this “justice as recognition of property” convention is to fall into incoherence: A “social justice” that requires violations of property rights as a precondition for forced redistribution is profoundly unjust.
The reason to spend so much space on this consideration is that one must understand Jasay’s notion of the centrality of property before beginning to consider the rest of his thought.  And it connects to the core of my own concern, which is voluntary consent.  The argument for truly voluntary (in my terms, “euvoluntary”) exchange is that both (all) parties are better off.
Given an initial or status quo distribution of rights, it would be a violation of those rights to modify any of them without the consent of the owner of each particular right.  “We” can’t decide anything; each owner would have to consent.  The justification for this claim is that this is the only way to ensure that the exchange, transfer, or modification of rights is a Pareto improvement.  This may be more complicated than it seems, as an example (suggested by Kliemt) reveals.
Imagine that Stringham has a gun -- okay, no, that’s too scary.  Never mind.
Imagine that Coyne has a gun, and Munger has a wallet.  Then Coyne has a gun, and a wallet.  What happened?  Coyne offered Munger a deal:  If Munger gives the wallet to Coyne, Coyne will refrain from using the gun to shoot Munger.
Munger thinks over this “offer.”  When Coyne demands a decision, perhaps Munger offers the old Jack Benny answer.  When told by a gunman, “Your money or your life!” the miserly Benny agonized, “I’m thinking, okay?  I’m THINKING!”
But then Munger decides that he would be better off handing over the wallet than he would be getting shot, perhaps fatally, and losing the wallet to Coyne anyway.  Munger hands over the wallet. 
Was this “exchange” voluntary?  I think most people would say “no.”  If asked for an explanation, the objection might be that this was theft, and therefore the violation of a property right.
But wait!  I never said that “Munger owns the wallet.”  I said that Munger had a wallet; the assumption that this is property is just question-begging.  We might as well posit that Coyne is a law-enforcement officer, whose gun is being used in service of the law, and that Munger is a thief who stole the wallet and has no property claim to it.
In that case, the exchange had a “voluntary,” or at least “justified by justice” aspect.  If Munger accepts the convention of property, his theft of the wallet is a crime, which everyone (including Munger) who accepts the convention thinks should be punished, by coercive force if necessary.  But then Munger consented (by acceptance of the convention of property) to be forced to respect the property of others.  Giving up the stolen wallet under threat of force is consistent with the convention of property, not a violation of it.
That’s why the understanding, and acceptance, of the deep nature of the convention of property is the key to understanding the rest of Jasay.  When Kliemt says—rightly—that what is voluntary depends on the preexisting distribution of property, including rights of autonomy and self-determination, he is right.  But it is useful to explain the rather deep reasons why that is right.  And that is what I have tried to do here.
[30.] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume, reprinted from the Original Edition in three volumes and edited, with an analytical index, by L.A. Selby-Bigge, M.A. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896). Book III: Of Morals, PART II.: of justice and injustice, SECTION II.: Of the origin of justice and property. </titles/342#Hume_0213_1048>.