What Flavor of Coercion Do You Prefer?   2 comments

I live in a state of extremes … and I am not referring to the weather. Alaska was founded by people who embodied a pioneer spirit. Yeah, so was Oregon, but while Oregon was founded by those pioneers 140 years ago, Alaska was founded by those pioneers within my life time. In many ways, it is still being founded, mostly by people who left the Lower 48 to … get away from the Lower 48. You know, cities, nanny states, nosey neighbors. They came here to be free to pursue their own interests. As my husband says “To be somewhere where trees stretched to the horizon and the only person there was me.”

So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many Alaskans are anarchists of one variety or another. Most of us fled the Lower 48 “sustainable development” policies requiring unlimited government intervention and have embraced anarcho capitalism. I like parts of it, but I see the flaws in it as well. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” James Madison wrote. “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

It’s pretty obvious that political-economic theory in America is going off the rails. Although I find resonance with conservative political and economy theories, I also like the idea of being left alone to do as I like. Which way to go?

First, anarchism is a political philosophy that speaks to the proper relationship between the individual and government. Well, actually it says there is no proper relationship between the individual and government because there should be no government. Forget the administrative state; anarchists believe there should be no state. To those of us who do not have an automatic knee-jerk reaction against that idea, it appears to be a simplification of libertarian philosophy. It is the principle of liberty taken to a logical and ill-advised extreme.

Anarchists speak a lot about force and how force by government is evil, and yet this is why people form governments in the first place – to use collective force to prevent the initiation of force against individuals by other individuals or groups of individuals. For a free market to work, the actions of one person do not restrict the proper liberty of another, including his liberty to act morally. The production of economic goods may not violate anyone’s rightful freedom. Your enjoyment of your rights may not be endangered by my misuse of mine. If that standard fails, then the market must be regulated by some institution outside of the market, for the market is unjustifiable if it allows the violation of individual rights. For most of American history, our market required no outside regulation beyond the exception of coercion.

Coercion is the action of government against criminals and foreign aggressors for the protection of the market and society. It’s the “If men were angels” argument. Clearly, not all men are angels (indeed, most fall far short of that mark), therefore, group coercion must sometimes be exercised to protect individual liberty.  Criminals prefer dishonest ways over honest, so the existence of a power to prevent and punish this by force has value, provided it is restricted by moral principle that forbids its use against people who have not themselves used force against others. Exercised improperly, then coercion violates rights of innocent people (or the right of the guilty to have their guilt objectively demonstrated before suffering punishment).

Coercion is necessary, but it must be kept in its place in social discourse. The market, because it operates to benefit individuals or groups of individuals, is not best suited for this. For coercion to be both effective and controlled, it must exist outside of the market and the sway of subjective values. It must operate solely from appropriate predetermined moral principles and without taking into consideration any individual or group desires.  Universally, this institution is called government.

The market is not best suited for all of the services offered by government because the market is both inhabited by men (who are not angels) and free. All exchanges are meant to be voluntary. A person trades his time, effort, money or goods for those of another only if the other is willing. The market doesn’t work under other conditions. Consider, for example, the law of supply and demand. What would happen to prices if one did not have to pay for a good at a price acceptable to the seller, but could take the good by force, giving nothing in exchange? The law of supply and demand does not apply to thieves. The economic analysis of the market assumes that the use of force does not occur, that all exchanges are mutually acceptable to the parties involved.

The assumption is legitimate, for in free market theory there exists an institution outside the market which protects the rights of individuals, and therefore ensures that the principle of voluntary exchange will be observed. This institution may work well or badly, but its functions are not a subject of economic law; it is the concern, rather, of political and legal theory. The government codifies and enforces the rules of the market; it protects the existing framework of rights and liberties that men must respect in action. Economic theory then tells us what happens as individuals act within that framework to acquire the things that they value. Economic laws are to political laws as principles of strategy are to the rules of the game.

Anarchists hold that force would not be used and coercion would not be a feasible alternative to voluntary exchanges. But they cannot assume this in describing the market as they would have it. The anarchists would place governmental services in the market, to be offered by entrepreneurs on the basis of their expectations about the preferences of others. At best, they can attempt to predict what is likely to come about from the interplay of human interests. If we ask how our rights are to be secured to us in the anarchist system, the anarchist can only answer “it’ll work out.”

The anarchists, then, have their work cut out for them. They must show how, by the mechanism of the market, things work out in such a way that force is not used and all will proceed on the basis of economic laws; but economic laws are true only when all exchange is voluntary and the cost of using force is prohibitive. That’s circular reasoning because there is no reason why anyone should follow the rules in the first place.

Anarchists insist that if we needed protection from criminals, we could form protection agencies from the free market. What is to prevent protection agencies from banding together to destroy the competition and form a monopoly over protective services? Oh, but monopolies don’t form in a free society!. That’s only because anyone is free to compete with large firms and, by underselling them, cut into their market share and persuade consumers of the value of his goods. Why would the large protection agencies restrain themselves from driving out the competition by force? Look at the criminal underworld of the United States as an example of how that might happen, and has already happened. The assumption that competition would necessarily exist is not looking so good, is it?

Coercion is not, of course, the only means by which men deal with each other. Wherever men find themselves without government, so as to prevent a slide into chaos or to recover from that slide, they have formed new governments. Or, in the anarchist terminology, they have formed monopolistic “protection agencies.” Anarchism lives on its opposition to government, but every government that exists is a refutation of anarchism; for it belies the anarchists’ prediction that if only we can send government away it will not come back.

Again, anarchists complain that governments are immoral because they initiate, or would initiate, the use of force against anyone forming a rival “protection agency.” Yes, they would. And how is this any more immoral than two “private” protection agencies duking it out for supremacy? The anarchist provides no means for how society or the market place would prevent this. By rejecting the social institution through which men attempt, by positive action, to insure themselves of certain conditions necessary for social existence, he can only argue that these conditions will come about by natural law, so that we need do nothing ourselves. This argument ignores the difference between coercion and economic goods on the market. It relies on circular reasoning, that coercion would not occur because free people would not seek to coerce others, which is historical unsupportable. The anarchist advocates for a society free of violence among men, while rejecting the only means of achieving that end.

Posted October 7, 2013 by aurorawatcherak in Political Philosophy

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2 responses to “What Flavor of Coercion Do You Prefer?

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  1. Good dissertation.


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