This paper began as a series of conversations between myself and Dr. Shawn Ritenour of the Department of Economics at Grove City College. On the broadest level, Dr. Ritenour and I are both interested in the relationship between social conditions and human action. We are both advocates of free markets, believing that they contribute more to human thriving than other arrangements. We also agree that there is a moral dimension to human action, and that the system of exchange established in any society is, thus, a moral issue as well as a pragmatic one. Within that common ground, however, there is still much to discuss. In particular, this essay examines what it means for an exchange to be voluntary.
The paper begins with a section by me analyzing the nature of voluntary exchange followed by a section in which Dr. Jones argues that, due to extenuating circumstances some exchanges could be less than fully voluntary even in the absence of physical coercion. We both then offer brief responses to one another. In my response to Jones I conclude by saying
[T]he key to getting at the nature of voluntary exchange is to recognize that a person’s preferences are not a cosmic wish list, but a subjective ranking based on everything he thinks relevant to his choice at the time. Instead of concluding that this existential fact implies that exchange is less than voluntary, I suggest we better view free exchange as constrained, yet voluntary.