Voluntary Governance

I’m not quite so self-absorbed as to imagine that offering these thoughts will magically inspire all libertarians and anarchists everywhere to simultaneously toss off the now recognizably self-defeating old labels and rise in unison under the banner of the new and improved rallying cry. Still, self mockery aside, such changes are slow, long journeys and all journeys of any speed or length have to start somewhere. So, here, I start. Perhaps, with time, fruits unimaginable today may yet come to ripen.

I want to propose that libertarians and anarchists adopt a new rallying cry, not for aesthetic or moral reasons, but for strategic and principled ones. I know that some puritans think being strategic and principled is oxymoronic. I certainly do not. What I’m proposing both makes more sense as strategy and is actually a more accurate representation of our ideals than those to which so many of us have become married.

If I were looking for an ideal label and rallying cry, I would want it to serve three purposes: first, it must be something that wouldn’t offend or scare the very people I hope to persuade. If we are serious about changing the world, we should be serious about talking to people in a language that isn’t going to alienate or scare them. This to me is not dishonest or manipulative, as some suggest. Choosing your words wisely is simply a matter of taking responsibility for what comes out of your mouth. Refusing to do so is just mental sloth. Second, I would want it to be an accurate description of my desired objective. Using inaccurate or irrelevant descriptors contributes nothing of value, while leaving our intentions wide open to misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Third, most tricky of all, I would want it to embody a prefigurative praxis. By this I mean, it would not only suggest the ends, but also the means for getting to the desired outcome. That is to say, it is not only rhetorically convivial and substantively accurate, but also transitionally facilitating. All three of these virtues, in practice, are bound up with each other. In the brief remarks that follow I aspire to flesh out these virtues, separate and interconnected.

My argument is that far better than the terms ‘libertarian’ or ‘anarchy’ the term “voluntary governance” serves these three criteria. I’ll grant off the top that this phrase lacks a catchy associated common noun. A voluntary governanarian, or whatever it might be, isn’t particularly inspiring. Let’s agree for the moment, though, to leave that matter for later. My central aim is at the use of those terms as adjective descriptors of a social ideal. First of all, what does it mean to most people to speak of a libertarian society? And as for an anarchist society – surely that’s just factually inaccurate.

Libertarian society, as a normative ideal, means nothing to most people. It seems to suggest something to do with liberty, but not much else, and the uninitiated wouldn’t even necessarily get that out of it. And of course there’s a vast range of ideas about the role of government and social organization included under that rubric even for the better informed. Telling me you’re a libertarian doesn’t tell me if you believe in the abolition of the state, a night watchman state, an armed for common defence state. The self-identified libertarian Cato Institute names its auditorium after a theorist who advocates a welfare and regulatory state. Using the term libertarian suggests a firm position, while not expressing what that position is. And all that just to hold onto a term that for far too many people carries connotations of monetary cranks and anti-government conspiracy theorists? Whether that’s justified or not, they are widely held views.

And, as I said, ‘anarchy’ is simply wrong. Though some anarchists like to give the word all kinds of nuanced spin, the fact of the matter is that the etymology of the word anarchy, from the ancient Greek, means: without a leader. So anarchists want to impose on everybody else a society without any leaders? Need I remind us that it was none other than Murray Rothbard who was frequently prone to observe that the difference between libertarians and socialists is that libertarians would allow socialists to live as socialists if that’s what they wanted? It was the socialists who wouldn’t allow libertarians the same courtesy. Is that not true of anarchists, too? In the anarchist society, if some people want to set up their own socialist or authoritarian regime, as long as it had voluntary membership with freedom to exit, what business would it be of anarchists? Or am I mistaken? Is anarchy actually a form of universal totalitarianism –- reminiscent of Rousseau’s declaration that people must be forced to be free? Put that way, anarchy sounds like the epitome of totalitarian social engineering. Hardly a surprise that people wouldn’t be flocking to that banner! But, if I’m correct and Rothbard’s observation would hold for anarchists, then why insist upon a term that is just factually wrong and misses the point?

In the following remarks, I will define my proposed replacement ideal, voluntary governance, and in the process explain why it meets the three criteria for a preferred rallying slogan mentioned above. To begin with, then, let’s look at the implications of each of the composing words.


I’m assuming that ‘voluntary’ is going to be a pretty easy sell. One of the common principles cited on behalf of both libertarians and anarchists is the idea of voluntary association. I also take it that that other widely cited principle –- non-aggression against non-aggressors –- is also implied in the voluntary association principle.1 After all, aggression, by definition is not voluntarily received. This central, core idea that people are to be free to do what they want, with whom they want, without interference from anyone else (providing the usual proviso of not interfering with anyone else’s like privilege) is the very essence of our common visions, I am assuming. However, my point above, made in invoking Rothbard, certainly applies in this context. Assuming a society of voluntary actors means that all must be accepting of any kind of mutually agreed form of organization or practice provided it does not violate the usual proviso.

I have no delusion that this is a straight forward matter, in practice. The reality is that it will require considerably greater levels of tolerance than is currently demanded by the existing world. Race, culture, sexuality, religion and all the standard sources of discomfort and unease are going to be exacerbated if people start choosing to organize their cooperative activities around those very qualities. Additionally, all the forms of organization that we cannot even imagine today, which will distress and even offend others –- including libertarians and anarchists –- will need to be confronted. Accepting voluntary association will not be easy, but it is essential. Integral to that acceptance is looking forward to, and facilitating, the overlapping and interwoven personal and cooperative forms of lived experiments in which people will engage under liberty. Any such experiments between people will need the rules and sanctions to which those people voluntarily agree. The operation of such rules and sanctions, and how they will be enforced, if any, or at all, are the fundamental questions of shared governance. And it begins to sound like governance under conditions of voluntary association is going to be a complex affair.


I understand that this term is going to be the harder sell for libertarians and anarchists, but hear me out with an open mind. Obviously the resemblance of the word to ‘government’ will get some people’s back up. Additionally, the two words’ common etymology in governing-as-steering will put off some who see the heteronomy of this concern as inconsistent with their values. These objections, though, are misguided.

Right off the top, no one who is conversant with these issues considers governance and government as synonyms. The closest you’d likely come to that is those who would say that governance is what governments do. However, quite clearly, in light of the conventional sense of government, as used by most libertarians and anarchists, the term and concept of governance is applied in plenty of situations where no kind of government is in sight. The term is widely used in what may well even be its most recognizable use among the general public, the phrase corporate governance, which involves no government: no governance structure in a corporation enjoys a use of constitutionally legitimated violence, and membership in such organizations is voluntary and subject to free exit. Again, this obviously isn’t government in the sense in which we use that term. And yet, just as the term governance in no way attaches us to conventional ideas of government, the etymological (even phonetic?) similarity of the two words –- in light of the conceptual distinctiveness –- provides a powerful association that might allow people to slowly grasp a world without government in the conventional sense of the word.

The great attraction of ‘governance’ is the conceptual fluidity deeply imbedded in its practical application. Even in the hard-nosed world of business, a striking fertility persists in the styles of governance that are attempted. The old Coaseian choice between spot market and hierarchical firm, with its black and white governance options, has long since been transcended by a vast range of structural and contractual options for moulding corporate and firm governance. In addition to the standard menu of hierarchy/market, centralized/decentralized, vertical/horizontal, a whole host of other options have been explored involving diverse kinds of membership and partnership, more fluid and experimental processes. The marriage of benchmarking, simultaneous design, continuous improvement techniques, 360 degree accountability, pooled knowledge and constant learning through mutual education and interrogation, have created previously unprecedented opportunities for collaboration within fluid, adaptive and experimental production governance processes. This is not just a question of management, which is more specific in orientation; governance operates at a higher level of process direction. In such dynamic production processes, though, this “higher” does not signify location on an organizational hierarchy, rather a level of abstraction which only functions through the input of all those who possess the necessary diverse knowledge and skills. For general discussions of these processes, see the articles by Sabel (2004) and Joskow (2005). For closer examination of specific cases, see the articles by Helper et. al. (2000), Gibson et. al. (2009) and Nishiguchi et. al. (1998).

Those who recognize that market competitive business must be flexible and adaptive will not be surprised by this kind of a response to an increasingly complex world. What might be more surprising is the degree to which these lessons have been applied in the so-called public sector. Indeed, speaking as one who spent three years as the staff researcher at a think tank dedicated to the study of public governance, I can assure the reader that the standard use of the phrase ‘governance’ pretty much across the board in political science and public administration scholarship is used to distinguish just these kinds of processes from traditional silo-based, command and control, government. Indeed, among the most common manifestations of such governance processes -– outsourcing, special operating agencies, public-private partnerships and intergovernmental cooperation –- the first three are widely decried by the defenders of traditional government for allowing far too great an influence of market imperatives into the operation of the sacrosanct public sector. Whereas previously all governance decisions were the prerogative of noble public administrators watching over the public good, now such protectors of the public are forced to engage in negotiation -– on an equal footing no-less –- with profit-motivated business people who smuggle their corrupting market values into the this sacrosanct public space.

I’m sure that there’s no need for this audience to rehearse public choice arguments debunking such a romanticizing of the public sector. But, I would emphasize the accuracy of one part of the criticism. While the usual kinds of fear and caution that characterize public service bureaucrats, to say nothing of the self-interest of public sector unions, often hobbles the optimum benefits of such governance processes, there is no doubt that these processes serve to introduce market discipline into what has been standard government bureaucratic operations. Indeed, some of the manifestations of these governance processes have resulted in institutional arrangements that are not so entirely dissimilar to what Murray Rothbard or Hans Hoppe might find appropriate to a post-state world. Service delivery and regulation, including matters directly consequential to public safety, are contracted out to private organizations. Sometimes they are commercial, in others they are non-profit. Even the non-profit ones though operate under conditions of market discipline utterly alien to government line departments. Obviously, the fact that these businesses are empowered by and accountable to government-proper wouldn’t be consistent with voluntary governance. The point is that these processes embody ways in which traditional ideas of the monolithic, all knowing, all powerful, state has been eroding from within –- in some instances gradually, in others with surprising rapidity. For some further insight into some of these processes see Sabel (2001), Scott (2002) and (2006), Fyfe et. al. (2004), Dutil and McConkey (2005), and McConkey and Dutil (2004).

Under a host of names, including horizontal management and alternative service delivery, sounding as though coined precisely to maintain a bureaucratic facade of business as usual, the very core assumptions about traditional government are, nonetheless, put in play by these developments. Even a mainstream scholar of public administration, with no libertarian or anarchist tendencies of which I’m aware, puts his finger on the transformative potential embodied in these dynamics: “Herding alternative service delivery mechanisms into a limited number of corrals and branding them as members of a certain ‘type’ is traditionally a prefatory step towards establishing boilerplate regimes of governance rules for each type. In the eyes of some, it is an attempt to bureaucratize a process that, allowed to develop more freely, would contribute substantially to the transformation of the modern state” (Langford, 1997).

In a very tangible sense, then, the term ‘governance’ captures a dual process by which market-based firms and traditional government operations have been merging. Increasingly, market-based firms do the job of traditional government, as the operations of traditional government increasingly come under the auspices of market discipline. These are processes that have been driven by the failures –- fiscal and legitimation –- which plagued government through the latter decades of the 20th century. These processes have not been driven by libertarians or anarchists and, if left strictly in the control of politicians and bureaucrats, optimal outcomes cannot be expected. However, very real shifts in expectations and perceptions have been the result of these processes. In the context of government, to talk about governance is to talk about a set of decentralizing, federalizing and marketizing pressures. To start talking about the voluntary ideal of governance is to enter one new element into an already thriving discussion, leading to outcomes which are headed very much in the right direction from our perspective, and speaking in a language that is neither alien nor scary to any of the parties to the discussion.

The Voluntary Governance Society

As illegitimate as the involuntary nature of the state is, many people consider a wide range of what the state does to be thoroughly necessary. Some people value Pareto optimal outcomes, some don’t; some are willing to absorb more transaction costs than others; some worry about free riding and social dilemmas and some don’t. Surely the variety of resulting preference-based choices will be part of the diversity that must be tolerated in a genuinely voluntary society. Some will want to be involved in groups that hire enforcement agencies in the free market to prevent free riding; some will rely upon fluid tit-for-tat equilibrium strategies; some will want a government with a geo-monopoly on the use of force to protect their interests. These are all equally legitimate choices in the genuinely voluntary society. There is no escaping governance, and in the voluntary society its manifestation will be multiple and many.

This patchwork of experiments in living is both destined to replicate the shifting dynamics of contemporary governance, public and private, and is most easily and smoothly achieved through a strategy that allows an easy flow from the contemporary diverse and complex mix of governance practices into the even more convivial, adaptive and malleable governance forms appropriate to a voluntary society. To recall my fifty buck phrase from above, this has the makings of a prefigurative praxis. Forms of action that are already lending themselves to the kinds of organization that will have to be created for a voluntary society are already being undertaken, not as acts of radicalism, but out of fiscal and legitimation necessity. Today’s libertarians and anarchists have here an open invitation to enter the mainstream of political life and discourse without in the least compromising their ideals or values. All they need add to the mix is their principles. The marriage of voluntary principles of association to the dynamics and trajectory of contemporary governance opens up an exceptional opportunity to expedite the eclipse of the state’s involuntary practices of governance.

However, there’s not much point in entering the mainstream, however fertile it has become for advancing the cause of voluntary governance, if we’re going to insist, out of a childish narcissism on an uncompromising right to employ our bugaboo terms like anarchy or revolution. And the fact that such terms are actually wrong only makes such self-indulgence an even more reprehensible abdication of personal and political responsibility.

Wrapping Up

I trust I’ve kept my word to demonstrate the superiority of the phrase ‘voluntary governance’ on the three grounds spelled out in the introduction to this modest argument. This does describe the world we want to live in. First, governance is not only inevitable, but essential for people to have some systems or institutions to work out the means of living together and solving differences peacefully and fairly. There are many ways to do this, but to the degree they are self-consciously decided and executed, they all constitute some kind of governance. The key, of course, is that no one can be subjected to any force of governance against their will. Groups of people will choose their own types and styles of governance and any member must always have the opportunity to participate or secede.

Second, not only is voluntary governance the actual world we want to live in, but it is the term that best describes and identifies that world and those aspirations. For all their history and legacy, the language of libertarianism and anarchy are as imprecise as they are self-marginalizing. If the real goal is some kind of adolescent rebellion against the father, well, sure, stick with the language that keeps others determined to ward you off with crucifixes and holy water. If the goal though is to actually contribute to creating a world of voluntary governance, then why don’t we use language that actually describes our ideals?

Finally, third, taking on this language of voluntary governance is not only more rhetorically convivial and substantively accurate, but is also transitionally facilitating. It offers us the site of a prefigurative praxis. Under the name of governance, in both the public and private sector, changes are taking place that already prefigure the world of voluntary governance to which we aspire. If we do not let delusions of purity either cloud our judgment or enable self-defeating political piety, embracing the discourse and vision of voluntary governance lands us squarely in the stream of history -– a stream that needs our voluntary principles to fulfil its latent promise of, in Langford’s words, contributing to the transformation of the modern state.

That, however, is a role and an opportunity that is only truly available to us if we are willing to embrace the prior two considerations: i.e., take on the more accurate and valid goal of voluntary governance and adopt the language of that goal. Once we’ve agreed on all that, then we can figure out what the hell to call ourselves.


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Michael McConkey lives in the socialist hotbed of Vancouver, Canada, where the mountains continually remind him of how puny are the grand designs of the state’s social engineers. He has a Ph.D. in communication from McGill University in Montreal and free lances in teaching organizational theory. He’s just finishing a book that aspires to reinvent communications theory through the application of Austrian and libertarian ideas to a discipline that has been painfully positivist and anti-market.

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  1. Of course, as Frank Van Dun has intriguingly argued, accepting the non-aggression principle as essential is not to say that it is thereby sufficient: see Van Dun, Against Libertarian Legalism (2003) and Van Dun (2004).