Sunday, April 09, 2006


Why Is Coercion Bad?

It seems that a lot of arguments against taxation are based on the assumption that coercion is immoral. But why is coercion immoral? Or, more accuratley, why is coercion immoral in this context?

Even anarcho-capitalists like Murray Rothbard can see times when coercion could be justified. But Rothbard prefers to draw the line at the "initiation" of force. Apparently, coercion is only justified when it's in responce to another act of coercion. Why?

If anyone knows of a book/article/paper that explains the foundations of these arguments, please let me know.

I think the main problem is the concentration of coercive force and power of any individual over another.

If I use force against my neighbor, then my neighbor is justified in using force against me.

The concentrated coercive force of a government, policing unit, or local mob, is not justified to 'right a wrong' that it has no intention of making either party "whole" again.

Unless someone acts with force against a government (which is just a group of people), then government has little justification for initiating coercive force against others.

So when it initiates force upon others it is not justified, because it is not acting in response to any previous wrongs done against it, but simply for its own betterment.

Some thoughts...
But WHY is force only justified in responce to unjustified force? And why is force justified then? Why isn't ALL coercion bad, period?
I think we have a Gandhi on our hands.

I've long been amazed and disgusted by the implications of Gandhi's philosophy that violence is never justified (like when he told Britain to lay down their guns and let the Nazis take their property and lives).

But it is one of the most consistent philosophies I've come across and I think it's interesting as hell. On the other hand, there's just something so natural about retaliation.

I think a good response to Dallas will have something to do with the total amount and degree of coercion in the long run if none is ever checked.

Sure, in the immediate future the world would be less coercive if you didn't add any coercion (lay down your guns and don't engage in a war). But if you never retaliate, there is no reason to expect you can ever live in peace in the future (fight the Nazis for six years so Britain doesn't live under an oppressive dictator for centuries to come).
I think most people would agree that coercion is bad in anyone's hands. It is only justified as a response to make somone whole again.

Taking the "law" into someone's own hands does not necessarily make it right, only justifiable.

Maybe. But that would seem to be a very utilitarian/consequentialist approach to solving the problem. It could also be used to justify inital force (assinating Hitler in 1938 to prevent the force displayed in World War II).

Though I would have to agree with you, on an intuitive level there are times when force seems totally justified. Sometimes, It just feels like the right thing to do.

But is our intuition enough? And how do we deal with people (like Gandhi) that disagree with out intuitions?
Here's a nice article on coercion: jails
An interesting article, but I don't really buy Tucker's argument against State coersion.

Yes, Jail sucks. Yes, Only the state can put you there. But I don't see why this implies we should abolish the state.

If the only people the state wanted to jail was pot smokers and trafic violators I could see his point. But it isn't. Am I really better off, or a better person, because I let murder walk around freely because I don't want to dirty my hands with force???

I don't know. I'm still trying to balane my ideals with my intuitions. But I will close by quoting people who had some ideas on the subject...

"The magistrates are the ministers for the laws, the judges their interpreters, the rest of us are servants of the law, that we all may be free."

"If men were angels, no government would be necessary."

I think we have some intuitions in favor of an initial act of coercion. Suppose the only way to prevent the death by plague of a million people in a poor country is to commit armed robbery against a billionaire and deprive him of a thousandth of his wealth. Even if you don't have the intuition that you ought to rob the billionaire and redistribute the money (which I do) you'll probably have the intuition that it's better for the robbery and the redistribution to go on than for the million poor people to die gruesome deaths.
Two things:

How do we know this beforehand? Is the information ever that clear in reality?

And is it criminal before its a crime?

If one abolishes the state, there is no guarantee that coercion will be abolished as well. History makes me believe that we are forever moving towards statism, so maybe Marx was right. After we break free of capitalism, we can then come upon a Utopia of true communism.

Yeah, the Jail thing -- in the Anarcho-capitalist's approach there wouldn't be a need for jails. There are no crimes against society.

Are you familiar with Nozick's justice machine?

That argument seems a bit too utilitarian for my tastes. What makes the death of a million worse than the robbery of one? And what gives a third party (the government) the right to decide?

I suppose it's because the utility loss from the death of millions is greater than utility gained by the billionaire that gets to keep his money. And that the government is the best wait to maximize overall happiness.

Putting aside the fact that interpersonal utility comparisons are at best difficult and more likley impossible, this type of reasoning can get us in very bad positions.

The exact same reasoning would support the murder of the last jew in a world filled with Nazis. That doesn't just seem counter intuitive to me, but it seems to be just plain wrong.

Can't say I am. Nozick is someone I keep trying to get to, but can never find the time.
"But WHY is force only justified in responce to unjustified force? And why is force justified then? Why isn't ALL coercion bad, period?"

Let's get a little deeper here, shall we?
We dislike force because it is destructive. There is nothing creative about it. We all like the concept of creation of wealth - the gains from trade. Force is intrinsically destructive and NEVER results in gains from trade. There is always a deadweight loss somewhere where force has been utilized.

Now, we might say that creativity is intrisically moral, while destruction is intrinsically immoral. Equilibrium would perhaps be amoral. To which I would reply that the opportunity cost of static environments is the creativity that could have been there, and thus amorality is immorality.

Coming full circle: Force is justifiable in response to unjustified force because it causes the destruction to stop. Destruction of a destructive activity is good. It's not two wrongs make a right, though. The destructive must be destroyed by creativity. The victim may encroach upon the rights of a perpetrator only to the precise same level that he has been encroached upon, and that only until the perpetrator steps back, at which point the victim must step back also.

Let's try another tact: Encroachment is an unwritten contract giving both parties permission to encroach upon the other to an equal degree. If I step into your bubble one step, you may step into mine one step.
Why shouldn't we all be immediately upon one another then? Because the opportunity cost of being so close is too high. If I hit you and you hit me we have both suffered harm, and each of us hitting one another again has a diminishing marginal return, both in the satisfaction of hitting the other person, and in the wound suffered from the blow. The incentive to stop fighting quickly arises.
Chris, things aren't usually that obvious in our world. But setting up the example so that we can be absolutely certain makes the issues involved clearer. We can conceptually separate the empirical questions from the normative ones.

Student, understand that in my example the government plays no role. I just have old-fashioned robbery. If you have the (unusual) intuition that one robbery is no worse than a million deaths from plague, you are free to change the example so that the million dollars gained from robbery is used to buy a super-robot who prevents a million robberies in some country where law enforcement has broken down. Then we're dealing only with robbery, and the choice is clearer, if less stark.

The utilitarian principle wouldn't sanction the killing of the one Jew. It'd sanction letting him live happily. It maximizes utility to make him happy instead of unhappy, if all else can be kept equal.
I disagree.

Student points out that if you were to compare the utilities of the one individual against the whole of society, then the individual would lose.

Measuring "utils" from both groups, it would seem rather absurd to think that one individual's utility gained from continued life would outweight the whole of society's utility from wanting them dead. And if we take a utilitarian approach, then it justifies the death of an individual for the betterment of society.

That is the flaw of utilitarianism.
Agreed. Good responce.

Juris Naturalist
Thanks for posting. :)

But I disagree. I think your argument is slightly mistaken, utilitarian in nature, and only pushes the real problem back a step.

1) Force CAN result in wealth creation Your problem with force appears to be that it doesn't result in net welfare gains as trade does. So by “creation” you mean creation of “wealth” (value in the economic sense or welfare gains), and by “destruction” you mean the elimination or reduction of that wealth. However, if that is your argument, there is no reason to say that force never creates net welfare gains. Your car maybe worth more to me than it is to you. We could trade for it or I could just steal it (force). Since I value the car more than you there a net welfare gain from this one time “transaction”. Now we can argue about what this means for wealth creation in the future “if a precedent was set...” “if the victim or potential victims take protection measures…” etc. But the clear fact is that in this single transaction wealth was created and if certain conditions are met (one-time incident setting no precedent) wealth creation in the future won’t be affected.

2) Utilitarianism Wealth creation, gains from trade, net welfare gains are all synonymous with putting economic agents on a higher indifference curve on net. If that isn’t utilitarianism, then I don’t know what is. As such it falls victim to the same problem as Neil’s argument.

2) Pushing it back a step. Okay, great. Force is bad because it leads to destruction and destruction is bad. Why is destruction bad?
I;m taking three economics courses at once. If you're not a grad student, even if you are, don't do this it screws with your thinking.
Sans utilitarianism, and sans direct revelation, is there any scientific methodology for responding to normative questions? I don't know.
Your example of net gains from theft of my car assumes an objective standard of value, and neglects the opportunity cost of selling you my car for a portion of the gains you would have enjoyed alone had you stolen it. Value is not objective, it is subjective. Which is why some people are willing to pay for exfoliating creame while I am not. It is not a function of my budget constraint, I just don't want any! Leave my foliates alone!

Now, I try not to get too religious on these message boards, because when I do, everyone politely reads and no one responds, and what I value more than being right is a worthwhile exchange. It is the human contact, even if fricticious (or real -sic), that makes conversation interesting.
The utilitarianism does not seem to be a normative response, unless we allow for revelation, in which case, "Go out and take dominion of the earth," is a mandate to be adhered to as absolutely as possible, and conformation to that mandate can be measured, and the more dominion taken, the more moral you are, provided that dominion was taken by moral means.
The easiest way to create wealth is from the gains from trade. God wants us to create wealth. Doing what God wants is moral.

There are multiple holes in this arguement, several of which lie in the assumptions. Don't you dare be polite.
Juris Naturalist,

Well my example doesn't assume an objective standard at all. It only assumes that we know that the thief values the car more than the owner. Therefore, transfering the car from the owner to the theif results in net welfare gains.

The value of the car derives from the pereferences of the individuals, which are subjective. There is no labor theory of value here (a theory of "objective" value).


And your argument about following God's wishs as moral has a host of problems.

I suggest looking into the Euthyphro dilemma.
Thanky you for the good reference to the Euthyphro dilemma. I looked into it and agree that my arguement falls apart.

Going back to your first response, "Your car maybe worth more to me than it is to you." If it were than you would have bid more for it in the first place and you would be the owner of it. I still don't see how we can know what your value and my value of the car are. The only way we could know was if there were a voluntary exchange. The moment force enters the picture the information held in the price is lost. Perhaps this loss of information can be counted as net destruction. Also the destruction of precedent may be the most expensive loss of all, if we allow force to be a legitimate means of wealth transfer.
I'm spinning now...
I have to fall back to "creation is good, destruction is bad."

Well that's a bit of a different argument. In the real world, we CAN'T "know" the thief values the car more, since interpersonal utility comparisons are either very difficult or impossible (depending on who you ask). But be careful how far you take this type of black-box behaviorism.

I assume, for the purposes of illustration, that we do know who values the car more to illustrate a time when force can lead to the creation of value.

The fact that we can't compare utilities between individuals in the real world is beside the point.

Your argument is based on the assumption that force is bad because it NEVER leads to the creation of value. NOT the assumption that we can't "know" when force leads to value creation.

But as my example shows, it is certainly possible for force to lead to value creation. Therefore, the best claim you can hope for is that "force ussually doesn't lead to creation".

Not only is that a weaker statement, but it puts you in a worse position for explaining why force is bad to begin with. If force is only bad when it destroys value, then you should support force when it creates value (at least in principle). Either you're stuck supporting force (in principle) or you're going to have come up with a better explaination for why all force is bad.

And, just to remind you, you STILL have to explain why the creation of value is morally good, anyways.
I'll try again...

We'll stick with the car. You steal it because it has higher value to you than to me. We'll call it objective. Why not buy it from me?
Have we completely neglected the possibility that I might try to steal the car back?
So what?
Well, that would have to be factored in to the opportunity cost of stealing my car rather than buying it. Then there's also the cost of having your head blown off when I find you driving my car. That would be assuming 2nd amendment rights. But I think we both tend towards libertarianism, though I refuse to officially identify with that philosophy. Stepping away from violence, what's the opportunity cost of planning and executing the robbery?

But, there's still nothing moral to any of this.

Why is creation of wealth always moral? This one may be easier. Because creation of wealth always results in one less person starving to death, or having their car stolen, as the case may be. And we take life and property to be unalienable rights whether inherited or imbued by a Creator.
Why does life have value? Because the image of the Creator lies within it. Hence, my "just war" approach to interpersonal conflict, which I know a thing or two about, having lived in inner city Durham for eight years.
Why is property valueable? because it sustains life.

And here I will probably lose you. I wonder if my posting is an inferior good to Chris' blog judging by how many threads are concluded by a posting from me.

For some reason people find it hard to argue with libertarian-ish pacifists.

Why buy it from you when I can steal it? The choice will be based on the realtive costs and benefits.

And you are right there are a lot of things that "could" happen that might change the choice calculus (like you trying to steal the car back), but you are missing the point. The point is that surely we can both imagine coditions where stealing the car will maximize wealth. Pointing out that there are oher times when it will not is beside the point and already conceded.

If you want a more "complete" example, imagine Old McDonald has a car on the back of his farm where he never goes. It is in perfect condition, but he never uses it. Eventually he forgets it's there. The car isn't worth all that much to him. A thief comes along and sees the car. We know, because we are Gods, that the car is worth more to the theif than to the farmer. The thief, knowing that McDonald forgot about the car and knowing the chances of being caught by the local cops are slim, decides to steal the car. The car has now become more valuable by this "transaction". McDonald goes to his grave not knownin the car was stolen (or existed) and no precedent is set because of the extreme rarity of such a situation. Everyone lives happily ever after as a result of force.

I am almost positive there is an example of this in Posner's Economic Analysis of the Law if you go check it out.

As to your point about creation. Say what? First, in my example we can see where stealing can actually create "wealth" (in very very rare cicumstances). Second, what does wealth creation have to do with people starving to death?

I trade my comb for my sister's record. Wealth is created by a result of the transaction because both objects become "more valuable". Who is left with a fuller belly????

And I can't say I buy your explaination for why we should value life. You keep pushing the problem a step back.

If life is valuable because it has the image of the creator with in it(???), why should we value the image of th creator????

Some advice: Invoking a "creator" as a solution usually raises more problems than it solves.

What I mean by wealth creation is that every voluntary transaction results in net gains. These net gains are what have moved humanity from self-sufficient subsistence economies to dynamic economies where everyone operates according to their comparative advantage and productivity increases.
If I can find a way to increase my earnings by $10 a day, then I can afford to feed another kid, so I might adopt one, or send some portion of that to a mission that feeds kids.
I lose some people here who rarely give to charity, and do not consider it in their thoughts.
But even without it, specialization and trade allows more for everyone, and people no longer go hungry.
Henry Grady Weaver in The Mainspring of Human Progress asks (paraphrased) "How is it that for six thousand years the norm of humanity was to live a short brutish life filled with disease and hunger, but then in one place on earth people suddenly have enough to eat, keep clean and healthy?"

Why should we value the image of the creator? Mutual attraction is a powerful force. How often has a young man fallen in love after a young woman demonstrated her interest? What if she had not? He might not have noticed her. Part of the reason he falls in love with her, is because she showed interest in him.
Why do I value the image of the Creator? Because He saw it fit to show an interest in me, and created me in His image, and I know His love.
And in my example, those same net gains are acquired by force (theft).

As far as the creator goes, that may explain why some people have an emotional attachment to a "creator" (just as some people have emotional attachments to women that pay attn to them), but that doesn't explain why everyone should "love" him or why it is moral to do so.

Afterall, havn't many a young person NOT fallen in love after someone has shown interest in them?
I give, you can have my car. The hypothetical elements of the arguement create an irrelevant subset of cases unsuitable for setting precedent.

I agree about the "shoulds", too. By no means would I want to impose anyone else with my beliefs. But I enjoy talking about my beliefs, and especially appreciate having them challenged.

How would you define morality? Why? Would everyone agree to your definition?

I'm an evangelical, but not a fundamentalist, and not a conservative either.
I have appreciated this conversation as well. It's been fun. :)

I am still working out my own beliefs on morality. It is a most difficult subject.
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