See also Part I of this two-part review of Serena Olsaretti, Liberty, Desert and the Market, (Cambridge University Press, 2004).
When they defend the free market that is presumed to bring about unjust outcomes, libertarians contend that transfers of rightfully acquired “holdings” preserve rights provided they are not coercive. In seeking to refute this defence, Serena Olsaretti is largely unconcerned with the justice of first acquisitions (often taken to be the more controversial half of the defence) and constructs a case for the prosecution in which the trickle of coercion as the sole source of rights-violation is swallowed up by the broad river of “forcings”. Voluntariness, rather than freedom, is the criterion of legitimate transactions, and forcings exclude voluntariness. Voluntariness presupposes the acceptability of option(s), though the author’s exact position on this is so involved as to defy a simple summary (including her own that she provides in her Conclusions). We shall look at it presently.

In dealing with coercion and forcing, she is not interested in the different nature of these acts. (In fact, forcing in her scheme takes place without anyone having to do any forcing, while for coercion someone must coerce). What matters is the effect on the victim: “What makes choices carried out under coercion non-voluntary is exactly what also makes other types of limited choices non-voluntary. The alternative faced by the man who hands over the money when threatened with a gun is to be killed; the alternative of a worker who sells his labour power at whatever price is to remain unemployed and suffer severe hardship. The relevant condition (in both cases is) the absence of an acceptable alternative” (p.151, my italics). Note that the choice is “limited” not only in these types of cases, but in literally every choice, but let that pass.

At this stage the argument runs into a conundrum. “Unacceptable” defines an option that cannot be accepted. A person in any given position has accepted the option of taking that position. It was an acceptable option. It appears that it could have been taken voluntarily, even though there were no acceptable alternative to it.

The author explicitly states that “although no choice among several alternatives is involved, the individual nonetheless does the thing he does voluntarily” (p.140). If the option actually taken was indeed the sole one on offer, all other acceptable options must have been accepted by the other participants in the market, and none is left. Supply equals demand and the market is cleared. It has stood its moral trial if all these acceptable options, despite each being de facto the only one available to the person who took it, were taken voluntarily. Where everyone finds his own position at least acceptable and where there are no available options left is a situation where there are no unacceptable ones either, i.e. where the free market is just in the way the author conceives justice.

She very decidedly contradicts her own idea of voluntariness without alternatives, however, by laying down in several places that voluntariness hinges on the availability of acceptable alternatives; in her Conclusion she goes a little further and stipulates that everyone must “face a sufficient range of options” (p.164, my italics) for their choices to be voluntary. This seems to be her last word.

Can one infer anything further about the “sufficient range”? It turns out that an offer may be too good to refuse and thus is tantamount to “forcing” (p.147); it does not fit into the range that guarantees voluntariness of choice. Offers that are not good enough may pass for unacceptable. What can one say, though, about options that are all acceptable but not equally good? It could reasonably be argued that choosing any but the best is counter-preferential and could only be motivated by a fit of mental disorder. The best must be chosen despite the availability of acceptable but inferior others. Is the best then chosen really voluntarily? The case differs only in degree from the offer that one cannot refuse

If a given gap between the best option and the next-worse one is too large for the choice of the best to qualify as voluntary rather than a “forcing”, should one try little by little to narrow the gap – and if so, how narrow must it get for truly voluntary choice between the topmost pair of options? Rigorous reasoning would seem to allow only one conclusion: the gap must be infinitesimal, with preference being replaced by indifference. The free market would satisfy the requirements of justice if everyone faced at least a pair of equally good options and there was not a better one topping them. It would take only a couple of further refinements for the free and just market to resemble an egalitarian Nirvana.

This, to be fair, is not what Miss Olsaretti is driving at and she would hardly concede that this is the way her own argument is drifting. She is, however, content to stop at the condition where acceptable options for everybody are guaranteed by some non-market redistributive mechanism. She is well aware of the twistability of the word “acceptable.” Average opinion may consider a certain minimum income just acceptable in a rich Western country and a tiny fraction of it acceptable in a poor sub-Saharan one. A person may honestly judge an option open to him as unacceptable because he did not like it or found it too steep a step down from his actual position. Fear, pride and mistaken expectations of the future might weigh as much in judgments of acceptability as material welfare. Above all, acceptability, like such other sensations as liking, satisfaction or deprivation, cannot properly be represented in absolute, yes-or-no terms, but only in relative, ones. Acceptability is, for all we know, a continuous variable. Graphically, it is a scale along which options are ranged between the very sweet ones at the top and the very bitter ones at the bottom. Beneath the bottom, there is nothing but unfeasibility that is simply outside the choice set. Nothing is really unacceptable; if it can be chosen.

Perhaps made uncomfortable by some subconscious awareness of this logic, the author can do little more than protest her good intention to steer clear of the more obvious of the threats that using this concept poses to her thesis. She wants to “avoid complete subjectivity” (p.153, my italics) and believes that she attains objectivity by declaring an option acceptable if it suffices to satisfy “basic” human needs.

However, we are no nearer to objectivity if we qualify the quintessentially subjective term “need” by adding that it must be “basic”. She seems a little uncertain herself about the adequacy of the idea of basic needs, and with a curtsey to A.K. Sen, tentatively attaches to it the designer labels of “functioning” and “capability”, making her groping for an objective threshold of acceptability a good deal more uncertain and her predicament a good deal worse.

She would be better off by postulating an arbitrarily fixed minimum income for all and a corresponding “bridling” of market outcomes on the well-trodden and equally arbitrary ground that things would be more equal and therefore nicer that way. Such a less ambitious project would have spared her a number of difficulties. One she grapples with is the distinction between freedom and voluntariness and whether the first is a necessary condition of the second. Another has to do with the responsibility for “forcings” where nobody is doing any forcing. We must, it seems, accept that injustice can arise spontaneously (but there is no hint whether justice, too, can do so). There is a lack of awareness that in looking for justice, we want the facts of the case to be ascertainable. Miss Olsaretti, one is forced reluctantly to find, seems to feel that where the facts are not really ascertainable, judgments will do as well.

Her honest and conscientious try at finding an original reason for morally condemning the free market, developed from a critique of its libertarian defence, was, it seems to me, self-defeating. She sought to derive a criterion for the market’s justice from voluntariness, and for voluntariness from acceptability. But she had to fit the continuum “acceptable” to the binary “just-unjust” and that was bound to upset her design. She needed the binary pair “acceptable-unacceptable” to get a proper fit with “just-unjust”, but that pair was just not there.


*Anthony de Jasay is an Anglo-Hungarian economist living in France. He is the author, a.o., of The State (Oxford, 1985), Social Contract, Free Ride (Oxford 1989) and Against Politics (London,1997). His latest book, Justice and Its Surroundings, was published by Liberty Fund in the summer of 2002.

The State is also available online on this website.

For more articles by Anthony de Jasay, see the Archive.