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.

Wise Words

From Bryan Caplan:

Weird hypotheticals are philosophers’ equivalent of controlled experiments.  When a scientist wants to test a physical theory, he sets up weird laboratory conditions that make it easy to find an exception to the theory.  Similarly, when a philosopher wants to test a moral theiry, he sets up weird examples that make it easy to find an exception to the theory.

Counterfactual resistance is the bane of my existence.

Quote of the Day: Pluralist Liberalism Edition

Liberals do not ask that all forms of life be justifiable to all persons, only that they be justifiable to the persons that live in them. Cultural options, practices, and traditions [that] only social groups can provide are important for individuals and may be inegalitarian…. Pluralists are wrong to suppose that … [liberal] political norms exclude the expression of inegalitarian and communitarian practices in society. What they do is prevent such practices from being imposed upon people without their proper endorsement.

Albert Dzur, quoted in Galston (1999), fn 6.

The Morality of Drunk and Drowsy Driving

Driving while sleep deprived can be as dangerous as driving while drunk. Why are drunk drivers treated like the devil incarnate while drowsy drivers barely raise an eyebrow?

There is a reasonable case for having drunk driving illegal and ignoring drowsy driving: since the former is much easier to objectively measure, the cost of enforcement is lower. Legality is not what I’m talking about, though. If I’m at the pub, have had a few and declare that I’m going to drive home, there’s going to be an uproar. How could I do such an irresponsible thing?

If I’m at the office, admit to not having slept in 30 hours, and make the same declaration (perhaps half-joking that I hope to make it home without falling asleep), people might tell me to be careful, but will not attempt to stop me or even question the morality of my decision.

I can think of five possible explanations for this:

1.      People don’t know that drowsy driving is as dangerous as drunk driving.

2.      Drinking is a demerit good, and people are thereby more willing to criticize its negative externalities.

3.      People think drink driving is immoral because it is illegal.

4.      People have been inundated with anti-drunk driving propaganda* and have internalized it.

5.      People really feel the same way about drunk and drowsy driving, but criticism of the former is socially sanctioned while that of the latter is not.

I don’t think 1 works, since when I’ve made this argument to people, they’re still inclined to see drunk and drowsy driving as morally asymmetric. They get that look of cognitive dissonance as they realise their moral judgements aren’t entirely consistent. As for 2, I’ve seen the anti-drunk driving reaction among twenty-something New Zealanders many times. This is not a demographic which sees drinking as a demerit good.  

I’m going for some combination of 3, 4 and 5. As a libertarian, this displeases me greatly.

*I wish there were a less morally-charged word for what I mean, but there isn’t. 

How Sincere are Anti-abortionists?

I find this video [hat tip: Francois Tremblay] confusing. Anti-abortion protestors are asked whether abortion should be illegal, and answer in the affirmative. When asked what the punishment should be, however, most say they haven’t thought about it and will not endorse time in prison, or any punishment at all. 

In addition to having a strange conception of what “illegal” means, these people  have something morally very strange going on. At one level they think abortion is murder, yet at another level they clearly see that it’s not. It’s as if they happily see abortion as murder at an abstract level when there is little at stake, but back off once they start to think about the practical consequences of what they propose. They are only being asked about punishment, however, and so there is still nothing at stake. Seems plausible to me that the punishment question puts them in a consequentialist state of mind. 

In one sense, this is heartening for those with liberal values: people aren’t really that willing to impose penalties on women who have abortions. In another sense it’s very worrying: with an appropriately framed policy platform, a political candidate could gain popular support for banning abortion, punishment and all, even if few people actually support punishment. 

The degree to which I favour anarchism just increased by at least .1, though it’s still slightly below .5. A couple more videos like this could well push me over the edge.