An action is voluntary to the extent that we can effectively choose to do it or not. In particular, being able to say no defines the scope of our personal autonomy, while being able to say yes allows us to creatively explore (or not) the freedom autonomy gives us. In this sense, our ability to say no expands the possibilities to which we might say yes.
Government is the apparatus of organized political means — that is, the initiation of physical violence against others. The greater the scope of government, then, the less an ordinary person is able effectively to say no and the less she is able meaningfully to say yes.
If someone asked you to invest half your savings in a venture, would you do it? You would probably weigh and consider many factors, including the opportunities you would have to forsake, how trustworthy the person making the request was, how risky and lucrative the investment was, and so on. In the end, you would make a decision, probably a very difficult one, yes or no.
But if someone aggressively demands that you sacrifice half your wealth and credibly threatens severe physical punishment if you don’t, if you’re like most people, such a demand will significantly narrow your range of meaningful choice and greatly diminish not only your wealth but also your liberty. (Here I disagree with some scholars who equate wealth with liberty.)
It makes a world of difference whether you give up your wealth voluntarily or under duress. Saying yes to a peaceful request potentially expands the possibilities in your life; saying no to a peaceful request tends simply to maintain your autonomy and the status quo, without loss of liberty. But being forced to sacrifice your property does shrink your liberty, even if you would have done so voluntarily for the particular cause, because you can’t really say no.
The right to say no
It’s in this sense that the right to say no is a condition for saying yes. That is, effectively being able to say no carves out a sphere of personal autonomy for you, a space that is yours and no one else’s unless you choose to share it. Things like privacy, as well as the ability to break relationships and exit from places, are all aspects of that autonomy, and they are conditions for being able to enter new places and new relationships.
Sometimes we face a choice between what is right and what is relatively easy, between principle and expediency. If the government taxes us to pay for a cause we believe is wrong, do we refuse to pay and risk imprisonment or death, or do we submit? Saying no in such a case may be the supreme expression of liberty, but it also starkly defines the limits of that liberty.
In general, the fewer things that we feel we need to say no to, the wider is the scope of our personal autonomy and the more possibilities there are of saying yes.
Expanding the potential to say yes
Libertarians are often accused of being too negative. Sometimes it’s justified. There are some who limit their sense of liberty to slogans such as “Don’t Tread on Me!” and whose idea of the free society is one in which everyone does her own thing without caring or having to care about anyone outside her close-knit network.
Fortunately, there are a lot of libertarians — people who hold personal autonomy and nonaggression as paramount values — whose understanding of liberty goes far beyond that. They appreciate that libertarianism is a political philosophy that permits more meaningful social interaction and diversity than any other political philosophy does.
That’s my point here. I, too, may be interpreted as emphasizing the negative since, well, I’m arguing the importance of being able to say no, which sounds rather negative, at least superficially. But the point is that being able to say no, by defining our own personal social space, is what enables us to say yes.
Government and the shrinking no
When a governing agency, whether one based on private agreement or conventional aggression, passes and enforces laws on which it is feasible to reach at least a workable majority, the occasions on which we can’t say no will tend to be relatively few. For example, it may be possible to reach something close to a majority in support of organized regional defense along with the levies needed to finance it. (Although even in such a case, some would still object.)
But as F.A. Hayek points out in The Road to Serfdom, the more the governing authorities intervene into our private lives, the greater the number of potential losers from it and so the greater the likelihood of political conflict. Achieving a majority in such cases becomes highly problematic. Best, then, to keep government small. (Whether the governing agency is voluntary or political, our liberty is protected to the extent that it’s feasible to leave or exit the agency’s jurisdiction. In this sense “exit” is tantamount to saying “no.”)
As the rules the governing agency enforces become more numerous and less general, universal, and stable, we have fewer occasions to say no to the important demands that are made on our person and property. (This is what I argued in my last column.) As government grows, therefore, both our opportunities effectively to say no and meaningfully to say yes will disappear.
Postscript: I was inspired to write this column in part by the philosopher James Otteson, who gave a talk at the last meeting of the Association of Private Enterprise Education on “Privacy and Moral Beauty.” You can get the gist of that message in this short video. The usual caveat applies.