Coercion: WTF?

— Here's a challenge for libertarians. What exactly is wrong with initiatory coercion, other than the fact that it strikes us as intuitively repugnant? For my part, I cannot find a satisfying answer. Other kinds of non-coercive psychological manipulation, such as those that occur in relationships gone sour, strike me as just as odious as bona fide coercion. Indeed, I'd rather do something under the threat of being puched in the nuts (or just punched in the nuts straightaway) than to be emotionally blackmailed by someone I love. So why is preventing and punishing the one considered the proper province of the state, while the other is considered a paradigm case of a purely private affair?
Furthermore, I'm not sure I even know what coercion IS anymore? An extremely diffuse structure of government threats is considered coercive (almost none of us are ever directly threatened by someone with the power to harm us). Yet a religious ideology, induced by childhood brainwashing and promising eternal pain in the case of rule-breaking, is NOT considered coercive. Why not? And what's so special about physical violation? Since I genuinely prefer to be kicked in the nuts over having my heart shattered by psychological manipulation, what's so special about nuts-kicking? If I kidnap your kid and threaten to break her kneecaps unless you give me a Toyota, then that's considered coercion. But if I date your daughter, and she falls so desperately in love with me that she will attempt suicide should I leave her, and then I tell you I will dump her unless you give me a Toyota, then that's not coercion. What gives?
I think I know what you'll say, but let's see if you suprise me.
And this brings us to positive vs. negative freedom. I'm no longer seeing the importance of the distinction. It seems to me the freedom worth caring about is positive. What we want is a bigger opportunity set–the ability to choose among more alternatives. If, in order to get a huge increase in abilities and possibilities for my future, I had to accept some small amount of structural coercion that would block off a much smaller set of abilities and possibilities, then I'd be quite glad for the coercion. In fact, the thing that seems wrong to me about coercion is just that it closes off a possible course of action that I should be free to choose. This is more salient than having courses of action closed off by, say, a set of tarrifs, but the result is the same. There's something I should have been able to choose to do, but, in some sense, can't. The negative/positive distinction strikes me as analogous to the killing and letting die distinction. Whether I kill someone, or let them die when I could have prevented it, someone ends up dead. Whether you forbid me under threat of prison from taking a drug, or regulate the pharmaceutical industry in such a way that they never produce it, then I end up without the drug. I don't really care WHY I can't have it. I just care that I can't. Just as Bob doesn't really care if you shot him in the head or starved him to death with your disastrous economic policies. Coercion, whatever it means, seems like just one way to prune that loveliest of abstract objects, the Tree of Future Timelines, and not obviously the most diagreeable way.
Now, I'm certain that one of the best ways to make our future as bushy as possible is to restrict coercion. And that's why I think restricting coercion, insofar as I've got a grip on what it IS, is a nice idea. But it's not obvious that the bushiest future emerges from the branch with the least coercion.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

6 thoughts

  1. Great post, Will. I was about to shout, “Give it back to the girl who made it!!” when your own (superior) answer made me realize what I was leaving out. Nice.

  2. The really interesting question to me is how many people reading this thought experiment would even have the insight to ask how the decider came to hold the flute. I willing to write that the answer is “very few”.

    1. Great insight, Yancey. I’d like to add on that the two children that did not make the flute would not have been able to argue over the claim of the flute had it not been for the child that actually made it bringing it into existence. It is obvious that they should defer to the creator of the flute its ultimate fate, because without the creator, the flutist would not have an opportunity to play and the poor child the opportunity to have a toy.
      Furthermore, why would a flute maker who cannot play a flute (I assume this because the scenario is set up to make the first child the sole flutist in the group; if all the children could play the flute, the first child would have no special distinction in which to claim ownership over the other children) choose to keep the flute, let alone produce one, and have no plans to transfer it to someone who wants the flute? The child just puts in a lot of labor for the joy of being able to deny others the joy of playing with the flute? It’s kind of puzzling to me.

  3. The Coase Theorem tells us that it doesn’t matter which girl gets the flute, as long as one of them does (= has a clear property right) and she is allowed to sell it. Whichever one you give it to, the flute will wind up with the potential owner who values it most.
    I’d still try to choose fairly, which in my view means the girl who made it gets it. But per Coase, it’s more important to decide quickly (and finally) than fairly.

    1. The Coase theorem only tells us that it doesn’t matter how we assign initial property rights in a world without transaction costs. But we do not live in such a world. Coase’s point was precisely that we do not live in the world of perfect competition and zero transaction costs, and therefore, initial property rights allocation may matter a great deal in cases where transaction costs are prohibitively high enough to prevent efficient rearrangement through trade.
      Finality and speed of judicial decisions are important to Coase, no doubt, but I don’t think he would be willing to throw fairness out the window either. That way leads to madness (and ugly smears of Coase by people who do not understand what Coase intended by his theorem).

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