Monday, May 07, 2007

Property and Coercion

Over at Cato Unbound, Daniel Klein draws on the traditional conception of coercion as "the initiation of physical aggression" to argue that minimum wage laws (and the like) are coercive:
It threatens physical aggression against people for engaging in certain kinds of voluntary exchange. To me, that is coercion. Just imagine if your neighbor decided that he would impose a minimum wage law on us. Wouldn’t we all agree that he was coercing us? If it is coercion when he does it, why isn’t it coercion when the government does it?

While I have some sympathy for his general project, Klein's essay risks reinforcing three conceptual errors of libertarian ideology:

(1) It neglects the coercion inherent in the very institution of property. To claim ownership of a resource is to prevent others from making free use of it. If another attempts to use the resource in the same way as you do, you can call it "theft" and initiate force against them (or have the police do so on your behalf).

That's not to say that property ownership is necessarily wrong, of course. But you can't pretend that laissez faire provides any sort of neutral starting point. It involves coercion, just like every other system. The real question, then, is how significant are the impediments created by each institutional framework, and whether the opportunities they open up are worth it.

(2) It neglects other kinds of constraints that can impede us, leading to an impoverished conception of "freedom" that fails to track what really matters to us (namely, capability). Negative liberty is fine as far as it goes, but it makes for a rather one-eyed approach to evaluating policy. A better maxim would be to seek to enable people to achieve their goals. Economists (like everyone else) should be concerned with opportunities, not merely interference.

(3) It conflates personal and institutional action. This is the difference between vigilantes and magistrates. Just because it would be illegitimate for your neighbour to do something in their role as an ordinary citizen, doesn't necessarily mean there's no legitimate way it could be done.

A well-ordered society is governed by the rule of law. This means that there are institutional processes to govern certain classes of action. The outcome of a just institutional process -- whether it be a guilty verdict, or minimum wage legislation -- has a different normative status than the corresponding action of a neighbour who takes it upon himself to unilaterally impose his will on others.

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The upshot: yes, instituting a minimum wage involves an element of coercion. But not in the same way as if your neighbour did it. More in the way that instituting property itself involves an element of coercion. Whether either set of laws counts as "coercive in any significant sense" will depend on context. It's not as cut-and-dried as someone who makes the above three errors might assume.

Finally, I should emphasize that the alternative to ideological libertarianism is not a blank cheque for statism. I wouldn't claim that "whatever stuff you have really belongs to the government", or anything like that. It's possible to set up an unjust institutional order, and even within a largely just order it's possible for government agents to violate their (e.g. constitutional) obligations. So there's plenty of room for political criticism. The point is simply to warn against the complacent assumption of laissez-faire as the "natural" or default system, to be contrasted with all the "coercive" alternatives. In principle, it ain't so different. As with every other system, it must be assessed on its practical merits.


  1. Richard,

    I find this thought super-intriguing. I am going to run it by my dad, a libertarian, the next time we meet for beers with hopes of shaking his often too-confident ways in these matters. I have a question though.

    Many people, including myself, find the notion of property independent of any institution very plausible, even rather natural. If, in a state of nature for instance, I find some twigs scattered about and weave them into a basket, then that basket is mine, it seems to me. (We could tell a Lockean story here, if need be.)

    So I am interested in what you think property is. Do you think it is a 2-ary relation? a 3-ary relation? not a relation at all, rather something like a convention? Pray tell.

  2. Hi Jack, I think property is conventional in the sense that ownership (like, say, marriage) is a kind of relation only found within a social/institutional context. (Some might call it "socially constructed", but the term is easily misunderstood.)

    Granted, in the state of nature you can still have a claim of sorts over your holdings. And you can still pair-bond with another individual. But the latter isn't really "marriage", in the full sense, and the former isn't really "property". They're missing the full social context, and the peculiar normative status that derives from beneficial institutions and the rule of law. (I discuss this more in comments here.)

  3. Thanks, that's really helpful.

    That helps me understand why you think that property is inherently coercive.

    Would you then be willing to say that "a claim of sorts over your holdings", independent of any institutions, is not inherently coercive? Perhaps claims on holding become coercive as they become institutionalized?

  4. Well, I'm trying to understand "coercion" in a value-neutral sense. So even if you have a moral claim on some resource, it's still literally (physically) coercive to bar others from using it. It may be justified coercion, is all.

  5. Re: [1], take a closer look at Klein's definition of "coercion". You're conflating "coercion" with "use of force".

    Klein objects to the threat of force or expropriation against innocents (voluntary traders). He, and libertarians, doesn't object to uses of force in defensive situations, for example. (I.e. protecting your property).

    Re: [2]... If we can agree that "what really matters" is a subjective issue then this is a moot point. Hardly an "error".

    In a libertarian/axiomatic framework, there's little meaning in phrases such as "a better maxim".

    Re: [3], one might or might not be a methodological individualist.

    For a libertarian, there's no such thing as "institutional action" in a morally-relevant sense.

    Should I infer that putting on his bureaucrat's hat makes it OK for my neighbor to rape me?

    In moral matters we're all "ordinary citizens", ordinary moral agents. The author talks of "institutions" and "processes" as if he were talking about ghosts.

    Few commentators have managed to engage Klein in a productive matter, and I'm sad to conclude that the author isn't one of them.

    Labeling competing moral principles and outlooks as "errors", in a bid to monopolize moral thought, is a rather jejune approach to the debate of moral issues.

    The author seems to be under the mistaken impression that anything which doesn't agree to utilitarian expediency must be an "error". Hardly.

    Klein wants to discuss the point that it's wrong to threaten innocents with violence or expropriation.

    Unfortunately, those who choose to engage him also choose to evade dealing with this simple point.

  6. Hi Gabriel,

    (1) My point is precisely that property-claims initiate force against others. The original privatization unilaterally removes others' access to what would otherwise be a common resource. That's an aggressive imposition of harm on innocent people, without their consent. We then threaten aggression against them, merely for wanting to use the resource in the same (peaceful) way as we do.

    Of course, a libertarian will want to say that the attempted use would aggress against our exclusive property rights. But others may reasonably doubt whether we really have any such natural right, and thus our "defence" of these illegitimate holdings will seem like any other act of aggression.

    This line of argument might be difficult to make sense of from within a libertarian worldview, since it questions some of their most basic assumptions. So do follow some of the provided links, if you want to get a better idea of where I'm coming from here.

    (2) I don't think it's a subjective issue in the sense you imply. I think individual welfare is subjective, in the sense of being determined by the individual themselves. But I'm a moral objectivist. I think it's a perfectly objective fact that our political institutions ought to promote the wellbeing of all. That is, we have objective reason to promote capability (which each individual can these use to pursue their own subjective goods).

    In short: a society where people have lots of realistic options is better than one where they don't. This is hardly a "moot point".

    (3) I'm aware that libertarians don't acknowledge such a difference. Such failure of discrimination is precisely what I was criticizing. There is a very important moral difference between magistrates and vigilantes. Any adequate moral theory must account for such procedural values. Libertarianism, as you say, doesn't.

    "Should I infer that putting on his bureaucrat's hat makes it OK for my neighbor to rape me?"

    No. Did you even read my post's concluding paragraph?

  7. So let me get this straight.

    Let's say Jack finds some "twigs scattered about" and, after a few hours of work, makes them into a basket.

    For the sake of argument let's say there are plenty of twigs just lying around for anyone to use.

    Enter Bruno, who is bigger and stronger than Jack. Bruno knows it's easier to punch Jack in the face and take his basket than make one himself. He proceeds to punch Jack and take his basket.

    New basket for Bruno, bloody nose for Jack.

    So how is Jack the one "initiating" the coercion? It seems as if you are removing all meaning from the concept.

  8. Well, you're stacking the deck by adding gratuitous physical violence and slovenly character into the story. No doubt Bruno is the "bad guy" in this scenario. Still, abstracting away from the moral question of who has a right to the basket, it remains a plain fact (we may presume) that Jack was obstructing others from using those particular twigs he had unilaterally claimed as his "own".

    It may be that he was morally right to do so, in which case Bruno was first to engage in wrongful or unjustified coercion. But there's no question that in purely neutral, physical terms, Jack tried to limit Bruno's options before Bruno limited Jack's.

  9. Hi Richard,

    Let's remove the physical violence and say that Bruno simply walks up and takes Jack's basket. This, despite Jack's pleas to be left alone.

    Jack, being smaller knows he can't take it back so he comes to terms with the fact that he'll have to make another. (We can also dress Bruno is a suit and tie if you would like to further de-stack the deck).

    Is Jack tying to limit Bruno's options before Bruno limited Jack's? I think that’s a tough sell.

    First, as I mentioned in the original example, what if there are ample "twigs" lying around for anyone to use? Bruno takes the basket not because there is a lack of materials to build a basket, he takes it because it is easier than making his own.

  10. When you speak of "Jack's pleas to be left alone", I assume (since there is no longer any threat of physical violence) you instead mean that Jack was trying to insist that Bruno keep away from the basket-shaped twigs. That is, he was trying to limit Bruno's options. Simple.

    Again, one's attempts to claim exclusive use ("ownership") of a resource may well be a reasonable limitation to (attempt to) impose on others. But that doesn't change the plain fact that the former's claim to property is an (attempted) imposition. And of course it's logically necessary that their initial claim to ownership occurs prior to anyone else's interfering with their property -- otherwise it wouldn't be "their property" yet!

    So there's really no possible way to deny this. It's a plain statement of fact: to claim a right of exclusive use (i.e. a "property right") over a resource, is to limit the options available to other people -- including people who have not yet done anything to you. This is a form of "coercion", in the value-neutral sense of the term.

    You simply cannot take it as a neutral premise that redistribution is coercive whereas laissez faire arrangements are not. The claim will only be true according to a moralized conception of freedom (/coercion), in which you've already presupposed a libertarian conception of property rights. So it would be hopelessly circular to ever use this as an argument for libertarianism! That's really all I was saying in part (1) of my post. It shouldn't be at all controversial.

    (Again, we can still agree that Bruno is lazy, unreasonable, and even flat-out wrong. But it simply isn't true that he initiated coercion, in the sense of "attempting to limit another's options".)

  11. The point is simply to warn against the complacent assumption of laissez-faire as the "natural" or default system, to be contrasted with all the "coercive" alternatives.

    If we universally acknowledge that coercion ought to be avoided, then this claim requires you to quantify the amount of coercion generated by institutionalizing property rights as compared to its alternatives. This sort of analysis is difficult, possibly even intractable in general. Property rights are a general divide and conquer strategy used to tackle such insanely difficult problems. In fact it does seem to be the default, with exceptions made for when it's insufficient.

    Property rights only cause problems when property can't be properly acquired and thus excluded, like air. In these cases only do we need institutions to govern the use of such goods to avoid negative externalities (which is indirect coercion).


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