Arnold Kling  

Coercion

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Daniel Klein writes,


In my view, economic understanding, by experts and the general public alike, would gain by economists doing more of the following: (1) using the voluntary/coercive distinction in their formulations, analysis, and discourse; (2) making that utilization explicit and unabashed; (3) thinking hard about the content of that distinction, particularly by clarifying the holes and gray areas; (4) making it clear that, while they may promote a presumption of liberty, they do not mean to suggest that the distinction carries a necessary condemnation of coercion.

In a survey, Klein found that a number of economists who support the minimum wage do not think of the minimum wage as coercion. To Klein, it is self-evident that market transactions are not coercive and government policies are coercive.

To play devil's advocate, I would note that many people would disagree.

Doug Rushkoff's Coercion lists many ways in which people are manipulated by firms into making their consumption choices. On the other hand, I think a lot of people believe intuitively that government laws on issues like smoking or the minimum wage are not instruments of tyranny but attempts to overcome difficulties in co-ordinating to obtain conformity to widespread social norms.

Thus, the effectiveness of a law against smoking in restaurants is not that the state threatens bodily harm against smokers. The effectiveness comes from drawing a clear red line, making it easy for restaurants to enforce rules against smoking.

For example, suppose that I go to a no-smoking restaurant, and, to my annoyance, another diner lights up. I will feel more comfortable raising objections if there is a law against smoking in restaurants than if there is no such law. I can appeal to the smoker's desire to be perceived as a law-respecting citizen.

In this example, the social norm exists and is supported by the relevant parties (the restaurant owner and non-smoking customers). However, having a formal law makes it easier for the relevant parties to act on their own to enforce the norm.

Another point here is that the smoker would prefer to smoke, and he has to be coerced into not smoking. Whether he is coerced by private individuals on the basis of the restaurant's no-smoking policy or by the state law seems to be of secondary importance.

Perhaps the distinction between governments and markets is not that the former uses more force or that people follow laws reluctantly and undertake market transactions willingly. It may be that the distinction is that people can more easily switch jurisdictions in market situations than in government situations. Customers can choose whether or not to patronize restaurants with no-smoking policies. But once I choose to live in my county, I necessarily become enmeshed in its public school system.


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The author at De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum in a related article titled O ensino da economia writes:
    Dan Klein, comentado por Arnold Kling. Trechos: Daniel Klein writes, In my view, economic understanding, by experts and the general public alike, would gain by economists doing more of the following: (1) using the voluntary/coercive distinction in thei... [Tracked on May 8, 2007 4:57 AM]
COMMENTS (15 to date)
Matt writes:

Some things the federal government does are in reaction to other cohercive actions of the federal government.

Example. By law, the federal bank should give each of us our exact share of inflation cash, this is in the constitution under coinage power.
We never see it. That is cohersion, a theft of rights.

But the federal legislature claims that the federal reserve must act as a semi-monopoly bank with sole access to the printing press. Why? Why is it that any bank account that meets banking requirements cannot connect directly to the discount window?

Why cannot we have an open software bank with which each of us can get an account and this software automatically trades at the discount window making sure that its customers get the same access to the printing press that federal reserve memebers get?

Right now, the fed assumes that there is a two year lag between the time it prints money and the time that people on the bottom demand their share. That is a two year lead in which the fed is free to subsidize interest rates for the top of the economy.

So, we have the minimum wage law. It is there because the fed steals money from the printing press and favors its top clients or members.

Christina writes:

I don't think that smoking laws are as analogous to minimum wage laws as you think. Smoking has a pretty obvious externality associated with it. Wages, unless I'm missing something, do not. No one at my office is affected by the (secret) wage agreement I made with my boss. There is no call for citizen enforcement as with smoking restrictions.

Chuck writes:

The employer is not coerced to hire someone at minimum wage, he is simply not allowed to pay someone that he chooses to hire less than minimum wage.

Is this different than, the supermarket does not coerce me to eat food, but if I ever choose to eat, I have to pay for it?

In the case of minimum wage, I'm not forcing the employer to do anything, and I am not taking anything away from him, unless he *chooses* to hire someone.

The supermarket is not forcing me to spend money or do anything, and not taking anything away from me, unless I *choose* to eat.

My point is that we have biological imperatives, and if you respect human life as having value beyond it's capacity to create wealth, then there are boundaries that you set on market forces.

One way to do that is minimum wage and a thousand other overlapping government and private programs.

paul writes:

you're kidding, right?

"On the other hand, I think a lot of people believe intuitively that government laws on issues like [insert historically infamous injustices here] are not instruments of tyranny but attempts to overcome difficulties in co-ordinating to obtain conformity to widespread social norms."

I'm sorry, I guess I miss the point.

jp writes:

My guess is that the economists who answered that the min wage is not coercive reasoned something like this:

"If the min wage is coercive, then all law is coercive. But that would make the concept of coercion so broad as to be meaningless. Coercion must mean some threat or command more direct than the min wage. Hence, I can't agree that the min wage is coercive."

This is not my way of thinking, mind you, but it seems like a way that some economists might have reasoned themselves into disagreeing with the proposition that the min wage is coercive.

Dr. T writes:

Even economists wear blinders.

If I hire someone and we agree that he will be paid less than minimum wage, I can be jailed and fined by the government. How is that not coercion?

If I want to open a "smoking-allowed" nightclub in a city that bans smoking in public buildings, I can be jailed and fined by the city. How is that not coercion?

The answer is that those are not examples of coercion only if I am a person wearing pro-nanny state blinders.

SheetWise writes:

(L)aws on issues like smoking or the minimum wage are not instruments of tyranny but attempts to overcome difficulties in co-ordinating to obtain conformity to widespread social norms.

That's one of the scariest mindsets mankind has ever had to deal with. I doubt you believe it.

However, having a formal law makes it easier for the relevant parties to act on their own to enforce the norm.

Apparently people who chose to voluntarily contract are not the "relevant parties".

Perhaps the distinction between governments and markets is not that the former uses more force or that people follow laws reluctantly and undertake market transactions willingly. It may be that the distinction is that people can more easily switch jurisdictions in market situations than in government situations.

Perhaps force and coercion aren't necessary when people voluntarily choose to associate and contract.

There's a story about a smoker who was wooing a pretty girl -- but she rebuffed him stating that kissing a smoker was like licking an ashtray. His reply was, that he understood -- since he found kissing intolerant people a lot like licking an aardvarks ass.

I think it was Tom Robbins. About sums it up.

Bill writes:

Methinks many economists failed their vocabulary lesson when the got to the word coercion.

co·er·cion
–noun
1. the act of coercing; use of force or intimidation to obtain compliance.
2. force or the power to use force in gaining compliance, as by a government or police force.

TGGP writes:

Although Max Stirner did not believe in property rights and did not limit his antipathy to just the government, the following passage is a good example of the difference between coercion and social censure.

"The State cannot give up the claim that its laws and ordinances are sacred. At this the individual ranks as the unholy (barbarian, natural man, "egoist") over against the State, exactly as he was once regarded by the Church; before the individual the State takes on the nimbus of a saint. Thus it issues a law against dueling. Two men who are both at one in this, that they are willing to stake their life for a cause (no matter what), are not to be allowed this, because the State will not have it: it imposes a penalty on it. Where is the liberty of self-determination then? It is at once quite another situation if, as e. g. in North America, society determines to let the duelists bear certain evil consequences of their act, e. g. withdrawal of the credit hitherto enjoyed. To refuse credit is everybody's affair, and, if a society wants to withdraw it for this or that reason, the man who is hit cannot therefore complain of encroachment on his liberty: the society is simply availing itself of its own liberty. That is no penalty for sin, no penalty for a crime. The duel is no crime there, but only an act against which the society adopts counter-measures, resolves on a defense. The State, on the contrary, stamps the duel as a crime, i.e. as an injury to its sacred law: it makes it a criminal case. The society leaves it to the individual's decision whether he will draw upon himself evil consequences and inconveniences by his mode of action, and hereby recognizes his free decision; the State behaves in exactly the reverse way, denying all right to the individual's decision and, instead, ascribing the sole right to its own decision, the law of the State, so that he who transgresses the State's commandment is looked upon as if he were acting against God's commandment -- a view which likewise was once maintained by the Church."

It seems to me that Arnold Kling has completely missed what Daniel Klein means by "voluntary/coercive distinction", probably because Arnold uses a different meaning for "coercion" than Daniel uses for that word.

Daniel (if I as a libertarian may speak for another libertarian) means physical force or the threat of physical force. This is a key concept in libertarianism because with this concept one can see the extent of the influence of the state, and the state is a categorically different kind of organization than a voluntary organization.

Arnold on the other hand shows that he is willing to extend Daniel's meaning of coercion to also include unpleasant influence or persuasion. This muddying of the concept of coercion is necessary for anyone who holds a statist view, I believe, because it seems that statists need to find evils in voluntary arrangements which may be balanced by their friend, the state.

Lord writes:

Freedom requires coercion and more freedom requires more coercion. Put another way, this is not about coercion at all but about the choice of freedoms. The freedom to live in squalor or the freedom to be free of epidemics. The freedom to smoke or the freedom to be free of it. The freedom to pay poorly or the freedom to be free of low productivity jobs. That is what democracy is, the choice of freedoms, some of which are individual and some communal.

When the government makes a law against smoking in restraunts it is threatening, essentially, bodily harm.

If I am in a place where such a law exists and I choose not to obey it, the course of events may go something like this:

A customer tells me that I am breaking the law and asks me to stop

I tell the customer that I am hurting nobody (I am sitting by the window, all the smoke is going outside let us suppose) and decline to stop smoking

The customer calls the police, who arrive and ask me to stop smoking - I refuse to do so

The police tell me they must arrest me - I do not cooperate

The police must now use force in order to arrest i.e. kidnap me - at this point I am being faced with bodily harm (painful restraining locks, hands being laid upon me etc) and would be justified in defending myself (I have hurt no one, they are about to hurt me)

Let us suppose that I put up a good fight (unlikely, but let us suppose I have worked out a lot) and the officers now produce batons to beat me into submission

Fearing for life ad limb (if a gang of men attacked you with baseball bats, wouldn't you?) I produce a pistol and threaten to fire if they do not cease their attack

The police stop, retreat and call for armed police

The armed police arrive - and shoot me dead

At no point during the above events did I initiate force against anyone (before or after the police arrived). At all times I was merely defending myself from attacks, yet the result was me being killed. Even trivial laws, if fully enforced, can result in the death of the individual breaking them. Waco? Ruby Ridge?

Arnold Kling writes:

Dear Cynical Libertarian,
I think I could show just as well that private behavior could lead to bodily harm.

For example, suppose that I am a restaurant owner, and my policy is "no smoking." An obstinate customer insists on smoking. I ask him to leave. He refuses. I bring my bouncer over. He brings his bodyguards over. I call the police. etc.

Ultimately, private contracts are backed by the rule of law. That means that they are backed by coercion.

Floccian writes:

I think that what Daniel Klein means is that if you let the other side select tertiary and vague terms that loose meaning over time they will win the arguments that would not otherwise win.

Rather than saying do you support minimum wage why not ask do think that the state should no longer allow you or anyone else to hire people for less than x dollars per hour, even if it is the only work that the would be worker can find.

I notice lately that many people are attacking the word market. Rather than speak of markets and capitalism why not speak of allowing or disallowing certain activities. People have been saying markets are not good because of this and that reason to which I ask for clarification. I ask, are you proposing that people should not be allowed to buy and sell things as they please.
(usually in the context is something like petroleum, one can ask if you bought petroleum futures...).

Arnold Kling,

I totally agree. The difference is that your bar is your property. By walking into it I agree to abide by your rules and if I break them, it's a fair cop when you throw me out (or call the police because I'm tresspassing by not following your rule). But what if you own a bar and do not mind if I smoke, or even want me to smoke and the police come to enforce an anti-smoking law? I want to smoke in the bar, you want to let me smoke there, but the police will put a stop to it all through force anyway.

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