L. Neil Smith's
Number 205, January 6, 2003


Persuasion and Coercion
by Gene Callahan

Special to TLE
Originally appeared at LewRockwell.com

Critics sometimes have attempted to discredit libertarianism by contending that, "Sure, we're all against someone initiating coercion against someone else, but coercion is a much fuzzier topic than libertarians are willing to admit."

To the extent that there are libertarians who believe that if we simply convince people that initiating coercion is wrong, then everyone will instantly line up behind their particular vision of the libertarian society, such critics have a point. However, I would contend, most libertarians recognize that even if we persuade every single human that initiating coercion is wrong, there is still much left to discuss. Is having an abortion a case of initiating coercion, or is a law preventing abortion coercive? Does the issuance of fractional reserve currency initiate coercion, or is it outlawing such issue that should be shunned? Do copyright laws violate libertarian principle, or is it ignoring copyright notices that is coercive? Is blackmail coercive, or is it just a voluntary trade of money for sealed lips?

My goal here is not to attempt to resolve such disputes. Instead, I merely wish to note that, even among people who reject coercion as a means of achieving their ends, there can be honest disputes over just what constitutes coercion. However, I believe that interactions between human beings nevertheless can be divided into two categories that are analytically quite distinct: persuasion and coercion. That there are gray areas where intelligent, sincere people can disagree as to which category a particular action belongs in does not eliminate the sharp difference between the two modes understood as ideal types. As Dan Klein wisely points out, "That there is twilight does not destroy the distinction between night and day. Conditions might be ambiguous at 6:30 in the evening, but at 12 noon it unambiguously is day and at 12 midnight unambiguously night."

Many distinctions could be and have been offered between persuasion and coercion. The one I wish to suggest here is as follows: In persuasive interaction, I attempt to convince you that your situation will be better, in your own eyes, if we interact than it will be if we simply ignore each other and make our own plans as if the other person does not exist. For example, suppose you and I each live on our own isolated island, with only the other person's island within sight. We will imagine that we cannot reach the other island due to the shark- infested waters in the area. We might each go about or business on our own island undisturbed by the existence of the other person. However, we happen to meet one day when we are each at the closest edge of our island to the other. I mention that there are coconut trees on my island, but that I'm getting sick of eating coconuts. You respond that on your island, there are mango trees, and you are rather tired of mangoes. After talking things over, we agree that every day, around the same time, we will meet at the same spot, me with a few coconuts and you with some mangoes, and trade by tossing them to each other. I am perfectly willing to leave you alone if you are uninterested in what I can offer you, and vice versa.

On the other hand, in coercive interaction, I attempt to convince you that I have the power and willingness to make your life worse if you refuse to interact with me on the terms I propose. Again, imagine you and I meeting at the edge of our islands. However, in this case, when I discover you have mangoes on your island, I demand that you throw me five per day. If you do not, I tell you, I will lay in wait and kill you the next time I can reach you with a spear throw. Certainly, there is an element of persuasion involved in my threat: I must attempt to convince you that I really mean it, and have the ability to act on my intention. Yet the difference in how we interact in our two examples is enormous: in the first case, I am quite willing to leave you alone to go about your business as if we had never met, should my argument for interaction fail to persuade you. In the second case, I am demanding that we interact, and if you will not do so on the terms I set, I intend to make your situation significantly worse than if you had never laid eyes on me.

More relevant to the world in which most of us actually live, where we are not isolated on our own island, consider two approaches I might take when meeting a woman whom I find extremely desirable and with whom I wish to have sex. On the one hand, I may attempt to persuade her that she would like to have sex with me. I can attempt to make her laugh, tell her that she has beautiful eyes, or announce that I would like her to be the mother of my children. As long as I am willing to leave her alone when she says, "buzz off, loser," I am engaged in persuasion. I do not intend to make her life worse if she ignores me, but to make it better if she goes along with my suggestion.

On the other hand, I could pull out a knife and tell her that she will suffer if she denies me. I am not suggesting to her that her life will be better if she has sex with me than if she does not interact with me; I am saying that she has no choice but to interact with me, and that sex will be the least unpleasant interaction she can pick. What could be clearer than the enormous difference between these two ways I might relate to this woman? Persuasion and coercion each adopt a fundamentally different conception of other people: Persuasion regards the other as a free, intelligent actor, much as I regard myself. Coercion regards the other as merely a means to my ends, much as I would regard a stream or a rock.

In the example of the attractive woman more ambiguous situations are possible. For example, I might be the boss of the woman in question, and suggest to her that her job is in jeopardy should she not acquiesce to my desires. This case is far more coercive than the one of pure persuasion described above, but far less coercive than the one in which I threaten violence. But such intermediate situations do nothing to blur the sharp difference between seduction and rape.

I believe that the view of persuasion and coercion adopted here can help clarify many disputes about just what actions are coercive. For instance, many socialist anarchists believe that they are firmly against all coercion. However, their analysis of just what human interactions are coercive differs sharply from that of libertarians. Socialist anarchists will often contend that ownership of capital goods and wage labor are inherently coercive institutions.

But let us consider that idea in the context of our previous island castaways. You and I have now built boats, and we meet in the sea between our two islands. I discover that during your time on your island, you have built a de-salinization system, so that instead of having to collect rainwater, then later drink it no matter how stale it had become, you are able to process seawater and have fresh water whenever you choose. Upon hearing this, I demand that you give me a gallon of fresh water per day. You refuse, instead suggesting that if I brought you a couple of coconuts each day, you would be happy to trade a gallon of fresh water for them.

In response, I claim that you are "coercing" me, using the "power" you have as an owner of capital to "exploit" the labor I expend in picking coconuts. If the view of persuasion and coercion outlined above is sensible, then such a claim is absurd. You are perfectly willing to leave me alone and allow me to continue my life as though we had never met. After all, had it not been for your actions, there would be no de-salinization system on your island. Your only demand on me is that, if we are to interact, it must be on terms to which we both agree. Although we might devise scenarios in which the ownership of capital goods or the employment of wage labor are crucial to some case of coercion, there is nothing inherently coercive about them.

Taxation, on the other hand, is inherently coercive. The fact that some people would pay requested taxes without the threat of violence behind the request does not make the threat non-existent. Nor does the fact that the level of taxes may have been arrived at "democratically" have any bearing on the question. Imagine that instead of just me, it is two of my friends and me who find some woman very attractive. Rather than persuade her to have sex with all of us, we inform her that we have outvoted her, and that it is the "will of the majority" that we have our way with her, or else. Would any person with a scrap of moral sense find that more acceptable than solo rape?

The means by which private corporations acquire revenue stands in sharp contrast to taxation. Even a corporation as powerful as Microsoft will simply leave me alone if I refuse to buy their software. Certainly they might make attempts to reach me with advertising (a form of persuasion), but they will not send armed men to abduct me and lock me away at Redmond headquarters if I pay them no mind.

A position of monopoly with regard to the provision of some service is not fundamental to our distinction. Even if Microsoft were the only supplier to ever have produced an operating system, as long as it was willing to leave me alone, if I chose not to buy Windows, Microsoft would still not be a coercive institution.

Nor does the existence of natural endowments make any basic difference. The fact that you are naturally tall does not make me shorter. If you can offer the use of your height to me as worth trading for something of mine, that does not leave me worse off than if I had never encountered you. It may not be to your credit that you are taller than me, but neither is it your fault. And it is no merit or claim on my part that I am shorter than you.

If we agree that initiating coercion is to be avoided, then what should we make of coercion as a response to previous coercion? A man who beats me up and steals my wallet while I am walking down the street certainly has initiated coercion. If afterwards, I showed up at his house with a few friends and demanded recompense unless he wishes to have the same and worse done to him, would I not be coercing him? I would be, but here I think that, among other possible approaches, Stephan Kinsella's estoppel theory provides sound justification for regarding the robber's coercion and mine as morally distinct. To the extent that the robber has refused to recognize me as a free individual with the right to be left alone if I wish, he has forfeited his own right to claim such treatment for himself.

Critics of libertarianism will often attempt to blur the difference between coercion and persuasion so that they appear useless as categories for judging human interaction. Then, something like "social justice" or "the greater good" can be introduced to replace these "artificial" distinctions. But there is no cause for confusion. The fact that twilight comes twice a day does not mean that there is no difference between day and night.

Gene Callahan, the author of Economics for Real People, is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and a contributing columnist to LewRockwell.com.


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