Coercion

Bryan Caplan’s summary of Chapter 2 of Murray Rothbard’s classic For a New Liberty reminded me of one of the reasons I’m not that kind of libertarian. It starts with the fact that I can’t grasp how fraud counts as a violation of the “non-agression principle” while other ways of manipulation of another’s will don’t. I can’t grok the conception of coercion that includes lying to someone in order to get something but leaves out, say, the threat to withdraw intensely valued affection in order to get something. A credible threat of emotional distress seems a lot closer to a paradigm case of coercion (a threat of physical harm, e.g.) than does a misrepresentation of facts.

Even when I was a believer in Rand/Rothbard-style libertarianism, I found the ‘or’ in the “no force or fraud” formulation of the non-coercion principle a bit vexing and suspect. It seems too frank an admission that fraud isn’t force or agression at all. It’s another morally questionable way to get someone to do something they might not otherwise choose to do. But there are yet still other morally questionable ways to get people to do things. Why not add more ‘or’s?

Now it seems to me that non-coercion libertarians tend to reason backwards. You start with a list of kinds of action considered impermissible, struggle to classify them all instances of coercion, and then say that your philosophy is based on non-coercion and not on whatever principle (if there was one) that led you to try to include some classes of actions (that are not intuitively coercive) but not others (that seem pretty coercive) under the coercion rubric.

I guess this is just another way to make my complaint about fake libertarian clarity. Let me just say that because I think emotional coercion is coercion doesn’t mean I think the state should try to stop it. And just because I think fraud isn’t coercion doesn’t mean I think the state shouldn’t try to stop it. What I think is that some coercive actions (emotional blackmail, e.g.) should be legal and some non-coervice actions (fraud, e.g.) should be illegal. Which is to say, I don’t think the notion of coercion can be made to do the work many libertarians want it to do.

28 Replies to “Coercion”

  1. “You start with a list of kinds of action considered impermissible, struggle to classify them all instances of coercion, and then say that your philosophy is based on non-coercion and not on whatever principle”More generally, I'd think that pretty much all deontologists play some variation of that game, with varying degrees of success.By the way, I'm curious: How would Will Wilkinson classify his position on moral philosophy? Or do you deliberately avoid taking up any banner?

  2. Fraud is an objective concept; emotional blackmail is subjective. I can defraud (or reasonably try to defraud) anyone, and anyone can be a reasonable judge (well, juror) of whether fraud occurred. None of that can be said about emotional blackmail.Your complaint is akin to suggesting that because the law does not accommodate awarding “sentimental value” to tortiously damaged property, but only fair market value, then one may permissibly dismiss tort law as somehow “false” or “illegitimate.”I think not.

  3. Will, this is off topic since you haven't made a post about the latest FreeWill (but it has a Caplan connection). At one point you said that it was great that Obama seems to be reducing executive power. But wouldn't that just transfer more power to the Congress? And if Caplan's model is correct, wouldn't that give even more power to the median voter? After all Obama is now everybody's president, while congresspeople are opinion-poll addicts constantly campaigning.

    1. I think checks and balances are a good idea. Anyway, many powers that Bush asserted aren’t powers that Congress would have if he didn’t. They are powers no one would have if he didn’t.

  4. Theft may be thought of as theft or breach of contract which may not fall under coercion at all. I think the “emotional blackmail” bit is stupid, but like Walter Block I don't see the problem with actual blackmail. We can pay people to abide by a non-disclosure agreement, we can pay for people to be nice to us (most service employees that don't work at Ed Debevick's are supposed to) just like we can pay for a product. If the Saudis threaten to stop selling us oil that isn't blackmail.I second Kip Esquire on subjectivity and the law. I'd also like to ask him why I was banned and if I can recover my comments.

  5. Bryan Caplan’s summary of Chapter 2 of Murray Rothbard’s classic For a New Liberty reminded me of one of the reasons I’m not that kind of libertarian.Will, whenever you refer to yourself as any kind of libertarian, I feel as if a clerk has just handed me back a three dollar bill with my change…

  6. Bryan Caplan’s summary of Chapter 2 of Murray Rothbard’s classic For a New Liberty reminded me of one of the reasons I’m not that kind of libertarian.Will, whenever you refer to yourself as any kind of libertarian, I feel as if a clerk has just handed me back a three dollar bill with my change…

  7. The biggest danger for libertarians come from people who try to pass themselves off as libertarians but are nothing of the kind. From what I see, there is nothing that can be disputed about Rothbard's differentiation between force and fraud. The threat of revealing information about a person that s/he would prefer to stay a secret is clearly not the use of force in the way that the word is used by Rothbard and non-statists.

  8. Agreeing with Kip: I think fraud is just easier to measure than emotional blackmail. But ultimately, we all know how harmful– truly harmful — emotional pain can be. That is why ultimately, assuming it becomes easier to scientifically measure degree of emotional pain, it may become worthwhile to outlaw things like emotional blackmail. Similarly with violence. If I cut your leg off, you can go to court and say “look — I have no leg. It's his fault!” But if I emotionally blackmail, you can't easily marshall the same sorts of evidence which would be suitable for a court of law. I think this is just a historical accident of where we are technologically, but it does take a bit of imagination to envision how we get from here to there.

  9. I think that is mostly correct (and arguably the same area) because fraud is viewed as a violation of property rights.As you allude, the definitions of various property rights is potentially quite malleable and therefore indeterminate. I do think that current definitions of property rights are probably pretty good, but that doesn't mean help when trying to argue for or against marginal changes to property rights.Ultimately competing systems of property rights have to be judged in the context of some other values, e.g. encouraging human flourishing, individual autonomy etc. (That's how you evaluate my assertion that the current system of property rights is pretty good BTW.)

  10. Good post. Except that I didn't read Bryan's summary before because the book doesn't sound interesting but now I have to. (Personally, whenever someone mentions “axiom” in a political context, I figure they're barking up the wrong tree.)Having skimmed the summary, it doesn't seem right to me but I suppose it deserves a sympathetic reading, which I don't feel like giving it right now. The main problems, I would say, are that (a) I don't think I'm willing to categorically accept the axiom of non-aggression even applied to individuals, (b) the chapter lacks a critique of social contract theory, the usual justification of the reservation of violence (mostly) to the state, and (c) it relies apparently on the rather questionable notion of natural rights. I like the idea of natural rights, but I don't think everyone thinks they are the same, which is a serious problem.

  11. Will,If you accept that you have legitimate dominion over your person and property, then it should be clear why somone who violates your voluntary control over your property is coercing you in a way that someone who threatens to withhold their affection isn't.It's not about making you feel bad. It's about damaging you by violating your voluntary control over what is legitimately yours. Someone else's affection doesn't qualify. Your person and property do.I think I agree that any kind of blackmail (where the threatened action would be moral to do absent demands) is not coercion and shouldn't be illegal.

  12. “The threat of revealing information about a person that s/he would prefer to stay a secret is clearly not the use of force in the way that the word is used by Rothbard and non-statists.”It may not be threat of force by some Rothbardian definition, but there are very definitely cases where it effectively is a threat of force. If what's being threatened to be revealed is something that is a violation of societal norms likely to be punished by angry mob, then it really is the threat of force. But that's a problem for women in Iran, not well-off straight white men in America.

  13. Christopher,I don't think this is an adequate explanation. You have to explain why the person trying to get his property back isn't the one who's starting the fight. Why is a transfer enabled by deception invalid, while one enabled by good luck in a card game not?

  14. Fraud is objective? It is quite easy to build in someone's mind a set of false expectations through by subtly implying that certain things are going to happen while also explicitly but also subtly denying that you are making any assurances. The difference between being illegally defrauded and legally fucked over can be the difference between a less and more resourceful con man. There are surely many cases of emotional blackmail that are much more clearly verifiable as such than many cases of fraud. Would you be in favor of compensating for sentimental value if it could be proven through, say, brain scans or something? Anyway, I didn't take the classical libertarian line about what does and does not count as a violation of the nonagression principle to be so deeply based in contingent facts about verifiability.

  15. Will,The 'fraud as aggression' aways puzzled me too. I already used this argument against other libertarians, none of them was convinced.I would even say that not all forms of theft are agression. I also have a problem with confusing agression against someone with 'agression' against someone's property. If I stole or damage your car when you are outside, am I using force against you? It's very strange to use these words on this way.

  16. Thought I already posted this, but maybe there was an error.I think emotional blackmail is a lot harder to reliably identify than other crimes. In some sense that's an accident of our current technological situation. Clearly emotional blackmail can be very harmful, sometimes more debilitating than cutting off someone's finger.Philosophically there's little basis for distinction between physical and emotional harm, in part because the brain is a physical object. I think as we start to understand the human machine better, so that we can reliably identify emotional harm, we will make more instances of emotional harm illegal, and that sounds right to me.

  17. The property we rightfully own comes from time we (or those who gave it to us) spend acquiring it.

    When you steal or damage that property you are taking that part of a persons life.

  18. GilM,My goals are to persuade that the principle “don't start fights” is one that keeps you from getting into fewer fights on an individual level, is one that human beings do in fact apply intuitively rather than deductively, is one that can be understood to include both “force and fraud” and is one that makes it possible to distinguish “aggression” from mere “coercion”.Thought experiment:1. Gil has possession of some stuff, and the facts are such that if Chris were to try to take it by force then we would agree Chris would be the one starting a fight. 2A. Gil tells Chris, “you can have the stuff–I don't need it anymore”.2B. Gil tells Chris, “you can have this stuff if you win the game of cards”. Gil loses an honest game of cards.2C. Gil tells Chris, “you can have this stuff if you win the game of cards”. Gil loses a game of cards where Chris secretly cheated to win2D. Gil tells Chris “you can't have this stuff.In each case… 3. Gil puts the stuff on the table and leaves the room.4. Chris takes the stuff from the table. (He neither threatens nor uses force as he takes possession of the stuff–remember that Gil isn't even in the room at the moment.)5. At some time later, Gil and Chris have fight about possession of the stuff.6. A jury is asked to answer the question of, “Who in fact do you honestly believe started the fight?” The answer to this question then determines whether the transfer of possession should be treated as “valid” or “invalid”. —And this is indeed where we disagree. You indicate that questions of ownership and property, i.e. whether a transfer is valid or not, should be answered first, before the answer to the question of who started a fight can be deductively answered. You believe that people cannot make judgments about aggression without answers to these other property/ownership questions to explain their judgments. “You have to explain why the person trying to get his property back isn't the one who's starting the fight.” I feel free to disagree with you because I don't actually claim that there is an objective answer to the question of who started a fight. I merely observe that people have shown that they in fact can and will make these judgments in a more intuitive manner than you claim they must. We both know what the juries would answer universally in the cases above–and we both know that that, again almost universally, they would disregard any philosophical arguments against their intuitive answers.Think about how many theories of “property” really get tied up in knots even defining what property is and how stuff even is transformed into property? Think about how many people use “property” and “ownership” as words that has nearly magical powers to compel human behavior. I believe that complicated social conventions and theories using concepts like “ownership”, “property” and the “validity of transfers” are just complex mechanisms that depend more on hypothetical “who would have started the fight” types analysis to prevent fights from starting in the first place. It makes sense that these concepts start to become incoherent when they are forced into the role of first principles themselves.My semantic claim that follows all this is that the “force and fraud” is a necessary word pairing because many people don't understand how fraud does involve force–just after the fact rather than before the fact. And notice how the alliteration makes it easy to remember.By the way, how would you distinguish the sneaky theft from the deceptive fraud where no force is actually used in the transfer of possession? In neither case is more force used than the other in the transfer of possession.

  19. Well, it still looks like an evasion of the issue to me. You're hiding the interesting issues in the implicit theories of prospective jurors. Those theories may be bad (e.g., “fighting words”).I'm not sure I understand the final question. Both sneaky theft, and deceptive fraud coerce the victim because they deny him voluntary control of his property. That, and not physical force, determines relevant coercion (IMHO).I think the confusion comes from the fact that we're trying to justify the legitimate use of “force” and it's tempting to say it should only be in response to the initiation of physical force. But, I think coercion as I've described it (denying voluntary control of property) is a better description of an act that justifies retaliatory force.

  20. I don't really get what work the “fight” here does. If Chris steals Gil's property, Gil can take it back. Gil can't punch Chris, and Gil can't seize some comparable piece of Chris's property.

  21. 1) I don't believe that these “who started the fight” judgments for most people are based on theories. I believe these judgments were being made purely intuitively throughout the history of our species, even before anyone had any theories to base them on. Even today, the majority of theories which do exist to rationalize these judgments either boil down to “because God said so” or involve jumping to a conclusion about property and then rationalizing back about aggression.2) The less consensus there is about a law then the more likely you will find that it cannot be understood within the “who started the fight” model. Think about how controversial discrimination laws are. “Fighting words” are often excused as the reason for fighting when people believe that the emotions are so strong as to cause physical reactions (e.g. adrenaline rushes) outside the fighter's control–but even then we still teach children “sticks and stones…” By the way, I would agree that application of these intuitive judgments to complex hypothetical situations becomes is very challenging–for an example, think about how in politics (which is an early phase of the lawmaking process) it is better to have simple answers for “issues” rather than consistent principles that get negatively tagged as “ideology”.3) Gil and Ben, you both seem to fall back on the assumption of the independent existence of “property”–your conclusions about coercion or aggression appear to depend on who you feel is the rightful owner of the property. But do you actually have answers to the questions of what characteristics property has that other stuff does not, how things becomes property, how people become owners, how ownership rights can be transferred and how to analyze these rights when looking at coercion or aggression? I sincerely do not expect you to do this since it's a problem that's long vexed libertarian philosophers–in fact, my long search for theses answers to questions about property is what led me to finally conclude that property can only be explained as a result of the application of the non-aggression principle rather something that can really be understood independently of it.

  22. Libertarian theory is simple.People come to the table with property, which is just another name for bundles of rights. Rights may be transferred from one to another through a consensual exchange. To exercise the rights of another without their consent is a violation of their rightswhether through force (not even seeking consent for an exchange) or fraud (not fulfilling the agreed upon terms of the exchange). It is ok to retaliate with force against those who have deprived you of some of your rights without your consent. Aggression or Coercion are mainly just mean sounding evocative terms and not primary to the theory. The key terms are rights and consent. Caplan objects to Rothbard's attempt to justify rights based on “naturalness”, (an objection I share), and instead substitutes an intuitionist justification (which I do not share).Do you have another category of violating someone's rights that libertarians would not be able to stuff into either force or fraud? I doubt it. I think the theory is fairly tidy on this score. The problems for the theory lie in mainly in the initial distribution of rights and the allowed means of defending your rights.The lover withholding affection is not considered coercive (i.e., violating your rights) because his affection is presumed to be his property to to give or withhold at this discretion. This is not to say that you wouldn't prefer to have his love, or wouldn't feel worse off without it, or wouldn't knuckle under to all sorts of things you otherwise would not when under threat of having that love withheld. But it is to say that he does not violate your rights by withholding his affection. You are offered an exchange – his love in exchange for the concessions he is asking for. Take it or leave it, but don't whine about being coerced.For the grownups in the crowd, we find such “exchanges” distasteful because they are usually a category of “consensual frauds” – the “lover” manifestly doesn't have any love to offer (fraud), but the person desperate to hold on to him prefers the lie rather than facing the truth. “Lie to me, I'll believe.” Neither party to the “exchange” seems particularly admirable.

  23. Libertarian theory is simple.People come to the table with property, which is just another name for bundles of rights. Rights may be transferred from one to another through a consensual exchange. To exercise the rights of another without their consent is a violation of their rightswhether through force (not even seeking consent for an exchange) or fraud (not fulfilling the agreed upon terms of the exchange). It is ok to retaliate with force against those who have deprived you of some of your rights without your consent. Aggression or Coercion are mainly just mean sounding evocative terms and not primary to the theory. The key terms are rights and consent. Caplan objects to Rothbard's attempt to justify rights based on “naturalness”, (an objection I share), and instead substitutes an intuitionist justification (which I do not share).Do you have another category of violating someone's rights that libertarians would not be able to stuff into either force or fraud? I doubt it. I think the theory is fairly tidy on this score. The problems for the theory lie in mainly in the initial distribution of rights and the allowed means of defending your rights.The lover withholding affection is not considered coercive (i.e., violating your rights) because his affection is presumed to be his property to to give or withhold at this discretion. This is not to say that you wouldn't prefer to have his love, or wouldn't feel worse off without it, or wouldn't knuckle under to all sorts of things you otherwise would not when under threat of having that love withheld. But it is to say that he does not violate your rights by withholding his affection. You are offered an exchange – his love in exchange for the concessions he is asking for. Take it or leave it, but don't whine about being coerced.For the grownups in the crowd, we find such “exchanges” distasteful because they are usually a category of “consensual frauds” – the “lover” manifestly doesn't have any love to offer (fraud), but the person desperate to hold on to him prefers the lie rather than facing the truth. “Lie to me, I'll believe.” Neither party to the “exchange” seems particularly admirable.

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