Sunday, October 10, 2004

Coercion, a bad thing all around?

By Tibor R. Machan

A dispute among those who favor the free society concerns whether the merits of that society need to be demonstrated over and over again, in each instance of proposed coercion. I believe this is the main thrust of an essay by Jeffrey Friedman, editor of Critical Review, published in that same journal back in 1997, titled, "What's Wrong with Libertarianism," Critical Review 11, no. 3 (1997). (See, for a recent discussion of Friedman's challenge, by Bruce Ramsay’s essay at
In my view this requirement is akin to having to demonstrate on each occasion of assault or rape that it is wrong and shouldn’t have occurred, rather than taking it as a general truth that such conduct should not occur. Something comparable happens when people want it shown, over and over again, that clairvoyance or alchemy do not work, instead of recognizing that these are generally futile endeavors. Or, when people report ghost sightings, do we need, on each occasion need, to check to make sure that these are mistaken?
But, of course, hope springs eternal in the human heart, so perhaps it is no wonder that each time it is demonstrated that coercive public policies are wrong — that they lead to misery — there will be many who will insist that they be tried again, and only once another fails again will they agree to its inadvisability — but only for that instance. So then they will urge it on us again.
The dispute is really about whether certain general principles of human social organization can be known to be true or must their inadvisability be reestablished each time they are proposed. Those who argue for the latter, for repeated demonstrations, are skeptics about general truths.
Actually they aren’t usually consistent because they will accept general truths in physics, chemistry, mechanical and other fields of engineering, as well as in medicine, botany and biology. It is only when it comes to political economy that they insist that whether coercion works for us must be tested endlessly.
Why is this such a persistent attitude when it comes to public policy? What could motivate this stubbornness about the feasibility of coercion toward others when other principles, in other areas of concern to us, are widely accepted?
One reason is that many who discuss public policies do not really believe in the possibility of truth in the spheres of morality and politics. These are areas of value and values are, for many people, not subject to demonstration. So, each time a public policy involving coercion is proposed, they aren’t convinced that it is wrong, only that it may not work out.
Of course, what counts as working out is itself a problem. If I rob you of your money in a back alley, did this work? I suppose if I get away with it — no one catches and punishes me for the deed — it worked well enough for me. But what about you? Well, it may actually turn out to have worked for you if, say, you write a short story about the robbery and get it published and henceforth get to be a famous writer. It might turn out this way. Do we now conclude that robbery works? Or do we conclude that this was an exceptional, extraordinary case?
Trouble is those who propose coercive public policies do not claim that their proposal applies only to exceptional cases — for example, natural disasters or the like. They favor coercive policies as a rule, routinely. And they use the rare instances when coercion can have oddly worthwhile results to justify making coercion a general policy (which is a reason to oppose coercion even in those).
In reply to those who champion coercion, then, it simply will not do to show that on this or that occasion the policy does not work. That cuts no ice for the champions of coercion — it might work the next time, you see. Only if it is shown that coercion is generally wrong, that it is a futile practice as a rule, routinely, will there be some hope that it may be excluded as a way to handle social problems.

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