Capitalism as a form of voluntarism

Interesting discussion by Alex Tabarrok (following up on an article by Rebecca Solnit) on the continuum between voluntarism (or, more generally, non-cash transactions) and markets with monetary exchange. I just have a few comments of my own:

1. Solnit writes of “the iceberg economy,” which she characterizes as “based on gift economies, barter, mutual aid, and giving without hope of return . . . the relations between friends, between family members, the activities of volunteers or those who have chosen their vocation on principle rather than for profit.” I just wonder whether “barter” completely fits in here. Maybe it depends on context. Sometimes barter is an informal way of keeping track (you help me and I help you), but in settings of low liquidity I could imagine barter being simply an inefficient way of performing an economic transaction.

2. I am no expert on capitalism but my impression is that it’s not just about “competition and selfishness” but also is related to the ability of firms to build up and use capital. In that sense, I can see how it could be qualitatively different from barter. But I wonder whether Solnit is causing more confusion than clarity by lumping competition, selfishness, and capitalism into a single category. I’m reminded of my article with Edlin and Kaplan where we emphasize that “rational” != “selfish.”

3. Tabarrok identifies capitalism with “markets,” which again seems like only part of the picture. Sure, you can thing of Ebay, for example, as a more efficient version of neighbors sharing their unwanted objects, with all the advantages and all the disadvantages of “efficiency” (on one hand, you’re more likely to get what you want and you can avoid interacting with annoying people; on the other hand, instead of interacting with people you’re sitting at a computer–just as I am right now!). But there are a lot of other aspects of capitalism (from BP oil spills to plain old backstabbing corporate politics) that don’t quite fit the “market” or “voluntary exchange” story. I’m not saying that capitalism is bad (or good), just that he seems to be talking more about trade than about capitalism in general.

1 thought on “Capitalism as a form of voluntarism

  1. Kevin Carson and likeminded folks call themselves "free-market anti-capitalists". But he also calls himself a "mutualist" in the tradition of Proudhon.

    Arnold Kling has been boosting "civil societarianism" recently, which (like some of his other viewpoints) has me reacting against it. I am sympathetic to it as often more "near" (in Hansonian terms), but I've also heard a lot about how inefficient a lot of charitable giving is (perhaps not the same thing as civil society). Economists have theories about the operation of profitable firms that makes us expect certain desirable (or not so desirable, in other cases) results, but I'm not aware of similar theoretical frameworks for non-profits. I'm also reminded of the assumption of rationality in economics, it is hard to make predictions without it.

Comments are closed.