Wednesday, November 21, 2012


 I argue with libertarians a lot, often in venues where the conversation isn't very productive. My greatest frustration is the selective definition of coercion and the refusal to grapple with what forces actually constrain liberty in the real world.

You've got to eat to live and got to work to eat. That's coercion. The fact that the coercion arises from a state of nature might mean that we can't blame anyone for the coercion itself, but it certainly doesn't prevent us from blaming those who exploit it. And capitalism doesn't just permit that coercion, it can't function without it. The distinction between someone who puts a gun to my head and says "you must work for me or die" (bad coercion, to libertarians) and someone who points to my certain starvation if I don't work and says "you must work for me or die" (good coercion, to libertarians) is almost entirely irrelevant to how I actually experience life and liberty. And the latter condition afflicts many millions of people. The reality of death due to starvation and exposure might be a state of nature but the exploitation of that state of nature to satisfy self-interest certainly is not. But this exploitation is at the very heart of the libertarian and capitalist project.

I can't be sure, but I believe that if you were to go around the world and ask all working people whether they would give up working if they could do so and still ensure the survival of their families, a huge number would stop working immediately. I doubt many people would disagree with me there. Textile workers in Indonesia and tungsten miners in Bolivia and part-time Walmart employees in the United States are likely not working because of love for the job. And if you define your politics as resistance to coercion, and you're willing to agree that millions of people would abandon their jobs if not for being coerced into them, well, that should be a huge, huge problem for you. Libertarians agree that the choice between "work for me or die" when physically threatened is not a real choice, but disagree that the choice between "work for me or die" when under the risk of physical death from circumstance is not a real choice. That does not seem remotely consistent or defensible to me. In order to defend it they build castles of theoretical and semantic differences that are not meaningful at all to the people making such choices in real life.

Libertarianism and capitalism seem like deeply incompatible systems to me. I don't expect libertarians to wholesale abandon either in response to this incompatibility. But you'd think that there would be a large, extended, and frequently unhappy conversation within libertarianism about the exploitation of coercion in the labor force, the way there is a large, extended, and frequently unhappy conversation within the left about markets and their use. From my outsider's perspective, any such conversation happens very rarely and in small forums that have little to do with libertarianism writ large.

My vantage is limited. But it seems to me that libertarian principles have huge consequences that are frequently in great tension with capitalism and totally antithetical to the desires of large corporations; libertarian discourse, in practice, is dominated by whining about tax rates on the wealthy and regulations that protect workers. I've read my Nozick and my Rand and my Hayek and yet find barely any consideration of the massive exploitation of the coercive state of nature in the libertarian media. When brought up, the topic is treated with the typical defensive snark. It's depressing, and given the tendency of libertarianism to devolve into a defense of the powerful at the expense of the powerless, it doesn't look good.


Christopher Johnston said...

You may already be aware of this recent debate among the "Bleeding Hearts" and some Crooked Timber people, but if not, you might find some of the posts interesting in the context of this issue.


Anonymous said...

Dude your second paragraph is fuckin sweet

Anonymous said...

Good post, but concern trolling libertarianism,LOL.

Freddie said...

I know, I know.

Johannes said...

love it. thanks Freddie

Anonymous said...

The definition for coercion is "using force or intimidation to obtain compliance." That is not a selective definition, it is pretty much the definition.  Certainly it is the definition used by libertarians.  

Perhaps the word you are looking for is "entropy." In brief, surviving and thriving in an entropic universe requires constant problem solving and work.  Otherwise we degrade into low grade chemical soup. 

So the question becomes how do we solve the problems necessary to thrive until such a time as entropy finally wins? One way is to solve problems by ourselves. We could wander through the woods and gather nuts and berries, or perhaps plant some seeds and hope for the best. Another way is to use coercion to compel others to solve problems for us.  We could steal from them, rape them, enslave them. In other words, exploit.  Another method is for us to agree to cooperate voluntarily to solve our problems.  We could specialize in problem solving and cooperate together to solve more problems together than alone and do so with creating more problems for each other via exploitation. 

The question is not work for me or die.  It is to work together or work apart.  There is nothing privileged about the role of employer.  If you like that role better, then specialize in it rather than as a worker. Open a lemonade stand. Make some profit.  Expand the business.  Hire someone who wants to specialize as a lemonade server. 

The choice in the end comes down to how we solve life's challenges.  We can do it cooperatively without coercion as actually defined in the dictionary, in a positive sum, voluntary win/win fashion, or we can do it in a destructive zero sum fashion.  Or we can do it alone.  

Let's choose wisely?


Freddie said...

I'm sorry, but no: if you take advantage of the fact that someone will die unless the work for you-- and that is what libertarians want, a society where there is no safety net and thus the choice is to work or die-- that is coercion. As I experience my life and my liberty, there is no difference between the man who puts a gun to my head and orders me to work for him and the man who points to my certain starvation and uses it to get me to work for him. For me, there is no difference.

It's all coercion. All human interaction. The joke of libertarianism is that it imagines itself to be non-coercive. No one who has ever been poor could mistake laissez faire capitalism for anything resembling coercive.

Also, LOL at libertarianism being a kind of cooperation.

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine why anyone would want to live without safety nets, either private, public or somewhere in between, so no argument from me there. Certainly the nets need to be well designed.

All human interaction is not coercive, unless you are using a very special and personal definition of the term. I interact constantly with fellow humans and rarely find them so.

Let me just add that you really are just choosing sides and deeming one side as privileged and the other as the victim. The employer is just as dependent upon getting an employee to work for them to avoid entropy as the employee is of the employer. That is the nature of cooperation in solving problems.


Freddie said...

Yeah sorry that wasn't intended just as a response to you.

ovaut said...

Read the incomparable Tom Murphy on the allure libertarianism has for cerebral people

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Hear, hear! One of the huge blind spots in libertarianism is the way it obsesses about coercion by government, but ignores coercion by private actors. One doesn't even need to go into wage slavery to see libertarians ignoring the coercive power of private companies---look to environmental regulations for a start on that!---but it's an excellent example of where even on matters of economics, they're ignoring impositions on human liberty because they aren't coming from the state.

Neil said...

I agree with Roger, generally, and am delighted that the only person you've got here defending libertarianism isn't insane. I am a skeptical libertarian, but I'd certainly say that your definition of coercion is far more expansive than theirs is "selective." I definitely agree with this:

"As I experience my life and my liberty, there is no difference between the man who puts a gun to my head and orders me to work for him and the man who points to my certain starvation and uses it to get me to work for him."

But no man from WalMart does either to their employees. I understand that there are various constraints to what a Walmart employee is capable of, but nonetheless, that statement's a bit bait-and-switchy. I'd imagine it'd be more accurate to say "There is no difference between a man pointing a gun to my head and making me work for him and society telling me I have to work to earn money," or something.

Brett said...

I'm not sure I buy that. What are we defining as the living standards for the people who no longer have to work?

If it's just "you now have a room, a set of clothes, and adequate food and water", then I don't think that would stop most people from working. Some would (and do, since there are people content to live off the piddling amounts of money given out through welfare here in the US), but most would want to get to a "socially acceptable" standard of living.

ryan said...

I see what you're doing here, but it's either equivocation of the worst sort of simply ignoring the "real life" that you say you're concerned about.

Specifically, your formulation of the second type of "coercion," i.e., coercion by nature, "someone who points to my certain starvation if I don't work and says 'you must work for me or die'" doesn't actually obtain absent coercion of the other sort, coercion by force.

Why? Because absent coercion by force, there's nothing preventing you from going out and working for yourself. Why should I work for you anyway? What have you got that I don't? A factory? Sure, but why should I want to work in a factory. Oh. It's because you've made it illegal for me to make what you're making outside of a factory.

Then I'll just drive a cab. There are tons of people who want rides in this town. Surely some of them are willing to pay for it. Oh, what's that? You've made it illegal to operate a cab without a permit, and you aren't giving out permits? Hmm.

Then I'll rent out part of my house to a small business. Oh, apparently that's a breach of the zoning ordinance.

Then I'll just set up a food cart... oh, I need a permit for that too, huh?

Then screw you, I'll grow vegetables in my back yard! Seriously? That's illegal too?


Any of these, absent the fact that they're now mostly illegal, could theoretically permit someone to support his family without working for The Man. They certainly have done in the past and still do elsewhere.

I suggest that the main reason coercion of the second type is a problem is because there's so much coercion of the first type. This is why the vast majority of Americans work for other people: the barriers to setting up a small business are absolutely immense, and the fixed operating costs of regulation and taxation are so high that a lot of marginal businesses which flourish elsewhere are impossible to run profitably here.

So really, coerction of nature is not "Work for me or die," as much as it is "Work or die." I'm not a libertarian--I'd actually be okay calling myself an authoritarian--but I've got no problems with that. You're basically objecting to scarcity. And, I mean, you want a pony with that? Because if you wish hard enough, it might even be a magic one.

That's why there isn't much discussion about these issues in libertarian circles, I'd wager. It's assumed that the fact that one needs to work to eat is simply How the World Works. Attention is focused on what to do about that, not how to change it.

Anonymous said...

Well, the argument that you can just go out and work for yourself falls down in real life because everything is already owned, in practice. It's not like you can just find some land and some tools and start farming.

Modernjan said...

The following shows the absurdity of the libertarian definition of coercion.

Suppose we have a starving female drug addict and a rich businessman. The businessman promises to give the drug addict food and shelter in his basement, she has to sign a contract that states she has to birth a child every year. The hall between the basement and the rest of the world is also owned by the businessman and he has decreed that a $1 billion toll is to be paid for crossing it. desperate as she is she agrees. Her children will be born in the basement that also includes a factory. The businessman will give the children the "choice" to work in the factory at subsistence level or pay the $1 billion toll fare required to exit the basement. Children who fail the businessman's production quotum in the factory will be fired and not receive any food, and they will still have to pay $1 billion to leave the basement.

According to libertarians the children are not enslaved and when fired children starve in the basement it is not murder. In fact all of this is acceptable behavior according to libertarians. The businessman has all the characteristics of a dictatorial government but he is not one technically so all is fine. In addition they believe the businessman has the right to hide his practices from the consumers who buy goods produced in the basement factory, he may even lie when people ask about it.

If libertarians truly cared about liberty and voluntary contracts then they would have a mechanism for ensuring even the poorest children to get on their feet and at the initial implementation of their system they would reset all existing ownership (because so much of it is based on historic coercion), giving everyone an equal share and let the market evolve freely from then on. But in all my years I have never met a libertarian willing to do that and that's when you know libertarians are either rouwdy college kids who maybe took one economics class combined with selfish people who want to keep what they obtained through coercion (all those libertarian programmers would never even have gone to college in a libertarian world because their parents weren't rich) and who unknowingly serve the interests of the plutocrats who need libertarian sheep as useful idiots.

Modernjan said...
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