Arnold Kling  

Questioning Libertarian Coercion Arguments

Levitt Libertarians?... Defending Libertarian Coercion...

From my latest essay.

Suppose that in community Libertopia, in response to customer preferences, all of the better restaurants ban smoking. In nearby community Paternafascista, there is a law that bans smoking in restaurants.

...In both Libertopia and Paterfascista, smokers are not able to smoke in the better restaurants. If someone insists on trying to smoke, he may end up forcibly removed by the police.

...Government policies take away more liberty than equivalent private policies. The reason is not that government policies are backed by physical force. The reason is that government has broader jurisdiction. With private policies, when I am adversely affected by a policy, I can choose an alternative service provider at relatively low cost. With government, because its jurisdiction is so extensive, the cost to me of escaping adverse policies is much higher. It is not the armed force that makes government feel more like tyranny. It is the absence of competition.

Thus, I jump into the debate underway at Cato Unbound.

TCS called this essay "The Coercion Herring." My original title, "One Dogma of Libertarianism," is an obscure philosophical reference.

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (5 to date)


Libertarians are not pacifists. Libertarians generally believe it is okay to use force (coercion) in defense of self or property.

So the libertarian complaint about coercion needs to be understood as a complaint against one who initiates coercion. If someone initiates coercion against my self or my property then I have a right to use some measure of coercion in self defense. But as a libertarian I believe I never have a right to initiate coercion.

In your smoking-in-restaurants example, this standard libertarian view which I am articulating would say that the smoker in the restaurant in Libertopia initiated coercion, initiated a violation of the property rights of the restaurant owner, and thereby justified the restaurant owner's use of some coercion to protect his property rights. Whereas the state in Paterfascista initiated coercion by threatening to use force on any smokers or restaurant owners who did not comply.

The national Libertarian Party long had a pledge which they required all new members to sign, a pledge which expresses this view on coercion. I'm not sure of the exact wording, but it was like this (which I found here):
"I hereby pledge that I do not believe in nor advocate the initiation of force or fraud as a means of achieving political or social goals."

jsalvati writes:

Hear hear! Good essay, but I don't think all libertarians feel that way; at least I don't.

Also, Hammer, some people would probably consider the establishment and enforcement of private property rights to be a political or social goal.

Arnold Kling writes:


I think you are simply restating the dogma. The rude smoker in Libertopia did not initiate coercion. He broke an agreement, and the restaurant owner engaged in (justifiable) coercion to enforce the agreement.

Paternafascista's city council did not initiate coercion. They passed a law that went beyond their rightful jurisdiction.

Our challenge is to convince people that government should not assert broad jurisdiction. Calling inappropriate laws "coercion" is neither necessary nor sufficient to make that case.

Cyrus writes:

Without a social agreement as to what activities are unacceptable, the definition of what constitues coercion is very narrow indeed (perhaps only assault and the threat thereof), and the property right extends no further than what one can carry on one's person, and in some cases, maybe not even that far.

While robbery is coercive, burglary is not: a layer of social agreement to regard an article as owned if it is inside a dwelling place, even if it would be free for the taking if lying by the side of the road, in short to regard the dwelling as an extension of the person, is necessary to make burglary a crime.

The libertarian ethos does define arbitrary (even if entirely reasonable) crimes that are justifiably responded to with force. It is marked by having a smaller set of them than many other political philosophies, but the line drawn is still arbitrary. Property, aside from what one can carry on one's person, can only exist in the framework of a social agreement. It should come as no surprise, and no moral failure, that what can be property, how property is to be marked, and the responsibilities of property ownership should vary from one social context to another.


Yes, I am simply restating libertarian dogma, because your writing leads me to suspect that you have never understood some aspects of that dogma. The libertarian view is like a Kuhnian paradigm (Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) in that it has its own language; to work within the paradigm one has to learn the definitions and the ways of seeing things.

Yes, the rude smoker in Libertopia broke an agreement. In doing so he took something akin to property (the benefits expected to flow from the agreement) from the restaurant owner. That becomes theft or fraud in libertarian interpretation.

Continuing our opposite interpretations, I perceive that Paternafascista's city council did initiate coercion. Their statute implies enforcement by police, a threat to use physical force. That is coercion just as much as, "Give me your wallet or I will shoot you."

I agree with your logic about the difference between government policies and private contracts, in your TCS essay under the heading "The Real Case for Limited Government".

When you write, "Our challenge is to convince people that government should not assert broad jurisdiction," I agree that challenge may be a good for you. But there are so many good people working already on that challenge, and with such dubious prospects, that I favor a different challenge, for me.


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