The great libertarian scholar Ronald Hamowy died yesterday. I only met him once, but I read most of his work while I was an undergrad. Though he had a long and productive career, I'm fondest of his early writings for the New Individualist Review. Econlib puts the full run of the journal online.
My favorite Hamowy piece probably remains his critique of Hayek's Constitution of Liberty. Though Hamowy was a Hayek student, he runs circles around his mentor's concept of coercion in the first issue of NIR. Hamowy begins with Hayek's microethics:
Professor Hayek states: "Coercion occurs when one man's actions are made
to serve another man's will, not for his own but for the other's
purpose." (p. 133.) But he goes on to make explicit that such coercion
can occur only when the possibility of alternate actions is open to the
coerced. "Coercion implies . . . that I still choose but that my mind is
made someone else's tool, because the alternatives before me have been
so manipulated that the conduct that the coercer wants me to choose
becomes for me the least painful one." (p. 133.)
Now, the first difficulty arising out of such a definition is that of determining just what particular actions are
coercive. Professor Hayek attempts to distinguish coercive acts from
"the conditions or terms on which our fellow men are willing to render
us specific services or benefits," in the following way: "So long as the
services of a particular person are not crucial to my existence or the
preservation of what I most value, the conditions he exacts for
rendering these services cannot properly be called 'coercion'." But it
would seem that this lends little if any clarity to the distinction
between coercive and non-coercive acts, since we are still left to
define and make precise Hayek's qualifications for characterizing an
action as a coercive one; namely, being "crucial to . . . existence" and
"preserving what one most values."
Let us take an example which Hayek himself
uses. Suppose that the condition for my being invited to a certain
party, which I had previously indicated I wanted very much to attend,
were my wearing formal attire. Could it be said that my host, by
demanding such an action on my part, was acting coercively towards me?
It would appear, and so Hayek concludes, that the answer is clearly
"no." ... Yet, perhaps we are
drawing our drawing our conclusion too hastily. It might be that I am a
very social-conscious person, and not being invited to this party would
greatly endanger my social standing. Further, my tuxedo is at the
cleaners and will not be ready for several days. I do not have time to
order a new one, and I am assured by my tailors that the fitting and
altering involved will take at least a week and the party is this
Saturday. Under these conditions, could it be said that my host's action
in demanding my wearing formal attire as the price of access to his
home is, in fact, a coercive one, since it clearly threatens the preservation of one of the things I most value, my social prestige?
On p. 136, he presents a case of "true
coercion" of this same type. "A monopolist could exercise true coercion .
. . if he were . . . the owner of a spring in an oasis. Let us say that
other persons settled there on the presumption that water would always
be available at a reasonable price and then found . . . that they had no
choice but to do whatever the owner of the spring demanded of them if
they were to survive: here would be a clear case of coercion." We assume
that Hayek means that a contract entered into by the owner of the
spring and the purchaser of water which allowed for renumeration to the
spring-owner of any but a "reasonable price" would be of a coercive
nature. But here we are faced with a difficult problem; namely, what
constitutes "a reasonable price." By "reasonable," Professor Hayek might
mean "competitive." But how is it possible to determine what the
competitive price is in the absence of competition? ...
But we must face yet a further difficulty. Is the owner acting coercively if he refuses to sell his water at any price?
Let us suppose that he looks upon his spring as sacred to his gods and
to offer up its holy water a gross sacrilege. Here is a situation which
would not fall under Hayek's definition of coercion, since the owner of
the spring forces no action on the settlers. Yet, it would appear
that, within Hayek's own framework, this is a far worse situation,
since the only "choice" left open to the settlers now is dying of
These microethical issues may seem unimportant. But Hayek's position has big, statist implications. Hamowy:
Let us now turn to Professor Hayek's use of
the term "coercion" within the context of state activity. Here, just as
many difficulties seem to arise. On p. 153, he states that "the
conception of freedom under the law that is the chief concern of this
book rests on the contention that when we obey laws, in the sense of
general abstract rules laid down irrespective of their application to
us, we are not subject to another man's will and are therefore free."
The inference is, of course, that these abstract rules, when applied
impartially without regard to person are non-coercive, despite any
qualification as to their content. And Hayek himself says this: though
"taxation and the various compulsory services, especially conscription .
. . are not supposed to be avoidable, they are at least predictable and
are enforced irrespective of how the individual would otherwise employ
his energies: this deprives them largely of the evil nature of coercion." (Italics Hamowy's).
Now, in a book dedicated to an investigation
of the theoretical and historical groundwork of freedom, particularly
within the context of a state structure, it is of the utmost importance
that the boundary between coercion and non-coercion, as applied to the
actions of the state, be clearly drawn. For how else are we to know when
the state is exercising its legitimate functions or coercing its
citizens? Hayek differentiates these two categories of actions by
applying the concept of the Rule of Law. "Law," Professor Hayek asserts
on p. 149, "in its ideal form might be described as a 'once-and-for-all'
command that is directed to unknown people and that is abstracted from
all particular circumstances of time and place and refers only to such
conditions as may occur anywhere and at any time." We see, then, that
the Rule of Law is the governance of society under a set of abstract
rules which in no way discriminate among the citizenry and, hence, are
equally applicable to all. An instance of such a law would be taxation
(although not progressive taxation*
) which applies equally to all those falling under the jurisdiction of
the state. Having thus been robbed of either privilege or discrimination
as regards "the classification of persons which the law must employ,"
such state action does not fall under the scope of coercion.
But we are forced to question the validity of
this conclusion which rests on what is, in fact, a mistaken distinction
between legitimate and illegitimate state actions. It would, for
example, be perfectly consistent with the Rule of Law, as Professor
Hayek presents it, to allow for the passage of legislation prescribing
the enslavement of each male citizen for a period of two years, such
enslavement to fall during the period of his prime (say, between the
ages of 18 and 36). This is, in fact, the case with conscription, which
Hayek explicitly states is consonant with a free society...
Hayek graciously responds in the next issue, seemingly oblivious to Hamowy's Rothbardian subtext.