Coercion

Tom M. has a thoughtful post at Defective Equilibrium on coercion (a rejoinder to Paul Walker’s response to Tom’s post on private property and liberty). He provides a descriptive definition of coercion which stipulates that the action the coercer intends to bring about must make the coerced worse off and the coercer better off, suggesting that a normative definition of coercion would require a specification of the rights people have and thus a normative baseline. His descriptive definition:

A is coerced to Q iff:
1) B threatens A to perform Q, perhaps by imposing negative consequences for A if he/she performs R
2) In light of 1), A strictly loses when performing either Q or R
3) B gains from A performing Q.

An upshot of this definition is that taxation is not necessarily coercive in the descriptive sense:

Is taxation coercive? Under a descriptive framework it seems only coercive if the taxpayer loses from paying tax. If you are better off after paying your tax (and receiving the benefits of Government services, if any) you wouldn’t need to be coerced into paying your tax – the fact that you are threatened seems irrelevant. In a descriptive sense it seems then that the only people who are coerced into taxation are those people (if any) who lose out from the Government taxation.

I don’t like arguing over the definition of words, since every word is ambiguous to some extent and none has any True Meaning, but this just isn’t what most people seem to be talking about when they use the word ‘coercion’. I don’t see conditions 2 or 3 in Tom’s formulation as being implied in most political discourse, and it’s certainly not what I (and, I suspect, most libertarians) mean when talking about coercion. I can’t think of a single philosopher who takes Tom’s view (that is not to say that there are none, but that they are probably few).

Conditions 2 and 3 are, of course, likely to be empirically related to coercion: If A wanted to perform Q anyway, B wouldn’t normally need to bother coercing him, and if B didn’t gain from A performing Q, it’s unclear why he would want him to. It’s easy, though, to construct examples in which force is used even where conditions 2 and 3 aren’t met, especially once we introduce uncertainty and asymmetrical information.

A moral baseline is relevant, however, in specifying exactly what is to count as a threat. I largely agree with Nozick when he says that coercion requires a threat would need to shift A’s preference away from Q towards R, and that A would rather not receive the offer at all. Nozick, however, ignores actual force. I would say you’re coerced if you’re tied up in order to prevent you from performing an action.

My definition of coercion would be more like:

B coerces A iff:

1) B uses force to prevent A from performing Q, or threatens perform action S if A performs Q

2) A is harmed by S

Things are complicated slightly by the possibility of B withholding benefits rather than imposing costs. Suppose B is the major customer of A’s business, and wants A to marry B’s daughter. He threatens to withdraw his custom if A refuses. We might find this despicable, but those committed to property rights would say that B has every right to take his money elsewhere. This does, however, shift A’s preference towards marrying B’s daughter, and is an offer he would rather not receive. We could amend the definition of coercion to remove such instances, specifically excluding the removal of benefits as a form of threat. I’m inclined to bite the bullet and call this coercion, but insist that it’s not a rights violation.

This definition seems much more in line with our intuitive understanding of what coercion is, and surely proves more useful in political debate. On Tom’s definition we couldn’t talk about paternalism, if it really makes the individual in question better off, being coercive. The distinction between coercive and noncoercive paternalism is surely a useful one. If you’re a utilitarian who thinks that people often act against their best interests, you may want to say that coercion is often justified, but to deny that it is coercion seems a touch Orwellian.

I don’t see coercion as necessarily wrong. I agree with Tom that private property is a coercive institution, but justified on (broadly speaking) utilitarian grounds, and I think some level of taxation is justified, but maintain that taxation is inherently coercive. Coercion is, however, a prima facie wrong, and requires justification in each case, with the burden of proof lying with the coercer.

Advertisements

4 Responses

  1. Thanks for the interesting response. Here are my thoughts:

    “I can’t think of a single philosopher who takes Tom’s view (that is not to say that there are none, but that they are probably few).”

    I actually paraphrased the description from Timo Airaksinen’s paper on coercion (that’s a gated version, but I got the full version via JSTOR).

    I agree that the second two conditions don’t seem intuitive – but my impression is that they are fairly ubiquitous in the literature. But the more I think about it, I think at least 2) in some form is important to the definition, even if you have to fudge the meaning of ‘strictly loses’ somewhat to refer to a utility baseline. Presuming people are rational, if its better for you, you will do it it. It’s hard to imagine how you could coerce someone into doing something they would already do.
    Paternalism raises a different issue – the one of expectations, which I hinted at towards the end of my post. Perhaps if we rephrase 2) to say “in light of 1) A expects to strictly lose when performing Q or R. So someone who is told to stop smoking by the state thinks that in a CBA smoking comes out ok, and the state is making things worse for them. Thus they are (descriptively) coerced, even if they end up with more disposable income and healthier lungs. Would that satisfy your fears of Orwellianism?

    As for 3), I agree that it doesn’t seem like the dominant agent has to be better off for it to be coercion. I could quite easily coerce you to shoot me, to burn down my house, etc.

    I’m not sure how you reconcile your [definition] with your counter-example, it seems a little ad hoc. Your definition seems to state that only active threats constitute coercion, but then you say that removal of benefits can also constitute (justified) coercion. How would you amend your definition to include this, without including, say, rewards for good behaviour?

    • “I actually paraphrased the description from Timo Airaksinen’s paper on coercion (that’s a gated version, but I got the full version via JSTOR).
      I agree that the second two conditions don’t seem intuitive – but my impression is that they are fairly ubiquitous in the literature.”

      I haven’t read Airaksinen, but my impression remains that condition 2 isn’t treated as standard. I don’t think any of the classic thinkers in politcal philosophy like Hobbes, Locke, Mill saw condition 2 as necessary. Neither did Nozick, and he’s surely the most influential modern philosopher of coercion.

      “Presuming people are rational, if its better for you, you will do it it. It’s hard to imagine how you could coerce someone into doing something they would already do.”

      Non-binding coercion is slightly problematic, yes. First, I don’t think people are perfectly rational so I think it’s possible to have coercion in the sense of making someone take a course of action they would not otherwise take which makes them better off. There is a strong empirical relationship between action and interests, but it’s not perfect. Also, I’m a value subjectivist and pluralist. If I value pure hedonic utility and you value something else like courage, I can meaningfully be said to force you into living a better life by my standards, while a worse life by your own. There is no objective basis for trading off one value against another. Talking about being better or worse off rather than simple preferences complicates things a fuckload.

      “I’m not sure how you reconcile your decision with your counter-example, it seems a little ad hoc. Your definition seems to state that only active threats constitute coercion, but then you say that removal of benefits can also constitute (justified) coercion. How would you amend your definition to include this, without including, say, rewards for good behaviour?”

      If we want to say that withholding benefits as a threat is coercion, I’d think the best way is to use as the relevant baseline the situation in which B has no interest in whether A performs Q. In the example I give above, if B doesn’t care whether A marries B’s daughter, B will continue to buy goods from A. B’s threat puts A in a worse position than in the B-doesn’t-care counterfactual: it’s an offer he would rather not receive, compared to this baseline.

      If we want to say it’s not coercion, we’d want to use as the baseline the situation in which B’s actions don’t have any effect on A for the time period in question. The counterfactual baseline is then the situation in which B doesn’t exist from the time he makes the threat until it ceases to be relevant, so A doesn’t benefit from his custom. The B-doesn’t-exist counterfactual is a bit wackier than the B-doesn’t-care baseline, which is why I opted for the former. Neither would count as coercion rewards for good behavior (e.g. “I’ll give you some candy if you tidy your room, but I wouldn’t have given it to you if I had no interest in the tidiness of your room”).

    • Also:
      “Thus they are (descriptively) coerced, even if they end up with more disposable income and healthier lungs. Would that satisfy your fears of Orwellianism?”

      Yes, and I would say the same thing of taxes. Even if the reluctance to pay tax is purely a free-riding problem (i.e. people would pay for the services were it not for collective action problems), I still think it has to be descriptively coercive. I’m not saying it’s not justified, I’m only quibbling over definitions.

  2. ‘decision’ in the first line of the last paragraph should say ‘definition’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: