The Party of Coercion Doesn’t Understand It
Robert Tracinski
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The left is the side of the political debate that wants more government: more taxes, more spending, more regulations, more laws. So you would think they would have highly developed thoughts about what a law is and how laws are actually enforced. This is, after all, the stuff they want more of.

You would be wrong.

Sally Kohn recently argued, bizarrely, that law as such is not coercive.

This issue of government force is a funny one. You could also argue that the government is forcing you to drive below the speed limit or wear a seatbelt in your car. But it’s not. There isn’t a police officer holding a gun to your head literally forcing you to buckle up. In fact, you are 100 percent free to speed and not wear your seatbelt—and simply deal with the consequences if you’re pulled over. Is the threat of the fine for breaking the law amount to “forcing” you to follow the law? No.

Get that? Unless someone is literally holding a gun to your head at this very moment, you’re not being coerced. Don Corleone would be glad to hear it. After all, he didn’t coerce anyone. He just made a suggestion that you’ve got a nice place here, and it would be a shame if something were to happen to it.

I forgot to pay a speeding ticket once. I’m pretty sure if I had persisted, the “consequences” would have involved handcuffs and the inside of a jail cell. And the guys who put me there would have been armed with guns. So I paid it.

Seriously, how can you make this argument in a world where getting pulled over for a busted tail light can so quickly escalate, under the wrong circumstances, to this?

The Federalist‘s Sean Davis rightly and roundly mocked Kohn’s novel theory about the law. So today, in The Week, Ryan Cooper sails to her rescue—with an argument that is even more clueless about the nature of coercion. He starts by seemingly conceding the point that laws are coercive.

[I]f all laws without exception are coercive, and they most surely are, then the government is unavoidably involved in either preventing or propagating discrimination. The idea that government coercion in itself is bad is blown out of the water—as is half of conservative political argumentation….

If you interfere with someone’s property right, by entering his house without his consent, for example, then under the law he can call on public authorities to, at the very least, violently compel you into leaving. He can probably call on them to stuff you into a jail cell and, in some cases, kill you outright. Property, wealth, and corporate structures rest on a premise of violent state coercion—that is to say, law, per Davis.

Coercion is a background condition of all economic activity.

So let’s take this oddly antiseptic example of someone entering your house without your consent, otherwise known as “home invasion,” and put some concrete details on it. A 250-pound guy with a shaved head and tattoos breaks down your front door and announces that he lives here now, too—and he’ll be taking the bedroom right next to your daughter’s. If you’re lucky, you manage to call the cops, and they take him down and haul him off to jail. Clearly, this is government coercion. Just as clearly, it is coercion used to retaliate against the tattooed brute’s coercion of you, and to protect you and your family against further coercion.

Ah, but it’s only coercion because you think you “own” your house. And Cooper is of the sadly resurrected “property is theft” school of the thought. If you wonder how such a hoary old theory could possibly be relevant to today, bear with me a moment.

Cooper refers us to the arguments of early 20th-century “Progressive” economist Robert Hale, who claims that “the systems advocated by professed upholders of laissez-faire are in reality permeated with coercive restrictions of individual freedom.” Say what? Through a logic that is as twisted and brain-busting as his grammar, Hale declares that using someone else’s property without his permission involves “no violence or force whatever.” Whereas being asked to “pay five cents for legal permission to eat a particular bag of peanuts” is coercion, and likewise the “coercion [used by] the employer” is the “threat of at least one owner of money to withhold that money from [the worker].”

So to seize food produced by someone else is not coercion. But to ask other people not to seize the food you produced—that is coercion.

This is obviously a rubber definition of “force” or “coercion”—and it’s the exact kind of definition we see acted out all over again by Kohn and Cooper. When it comes to somebody else taking what you produced, only the most comically restrictive definition of “force” applies: he must actually hit you or (in Kohn’s terms) put a gun to your head. But when it comes to the shiftless fellow who doesn’t want to work, only the most comically inflated definition of “force” applies: he is “coerced” into anything he does out of “a desire to escape a more disagreeable alternative,” in other words, by anything that inconveniences him.

All of this is an absurdity. But as Ayn Rand’s villain Ellsworth Toohey admonished us, “Don’t bother to examine a folly, ask only what it accomplishes.” If someone concocts a theory of coercion in which it is impossible to tell the difference between the aggressor and the victim, I can tell you exactly which of the two he intends to be.

If your goal is to hopelessly confuse the question of when government coercion is justified and when it isn’t, then you need coercion to be either everywhere or nowhere as it suits your needs. Hence the rubber definitions. On any issue at all, you can claim that your coercion isn’t really coercion—and anyway, the other guy was coercing you first.

Which is how we see Kohn and Cooper starting in seemingly opposite directions and ending up at the same place. If everything is coercion, nothing is.

This is precisely why we need a principle that helps us figure out what really is coercion, who is the aggressor and who isn’t, and when force is permitted to protect us against an aggressor. If only there were some principle to determine when government force is legitimate and when it is not, a principle long recognized in common law and extensively examined by political philosophers. If only someone were to write this down in a document. Something like, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”

Oh, yeah.

Obviously, the Founding Fathers pretty much had this covered. So what purpose is served by someone like Cooper pretending that none of these ideas exist and do not have to be addressed? What is the point of writing articles in which they twist themselves into knots trying to redefine and de-define coercion to mean everything and nothing, as if this were a mysterious subject of great confusion that no one had ever figured out before?

This is a pattern I’ve seen over and over again, everywhere, for as long as I can remember: the party of coercion hasn’t thought much about coercion.

Government force is the left’s entire agenda. They want to expand Social Security, seize more wealth from taxpayers, force traditional Christians to cooperate with gay weddings, license beauticians, and impose vast regulations on every aspect of the economy with the goal of controlling the weather 100 years from now.

It is a program of coercion on a vast scale, encompassing matters great and trivial. Yet if you quiz them about the nature and justification of government force, they profess confusion: “The issue of government force is a funny one.”

Many year ago, I was helping to run a college club for Objectivists—fans of the arch-capitalist author Ayn Rand—and we had the idea of co-sponsoring a capitalism-versus-socialism debate with the Democratic Socialists. In the middle of the event, one of the debaters we brought in on our side made a direct challenge to the socialists: aren’t you in favor of force? The socialist debaters just skittered away and evaded it, finally mumbling something about how, when a policy is decided democratically, it doesn’t really matter how it is implemented. And these weren’t just cranks brought in off the street. They were professors at well-regarded universities, and one of them has gone on to some prominence.

This is how it always seems to work. When pressed, they don’t know what coercion is, how to define it clearly, how to figure out competing claims, or what the historic arguments are in each direction. When they’re not trying to avoid the issue, they always seem to be working it out on the fly like 18-year-olds in a dorm room bull session.

Why are these advocates of force and coercion so curiously reluctant to own up to their own agenda?

Well, the question kind of answers itself, doesn’t it? If you still want to think of yourself as “liberal” and tolerant, while bashing people who disagree with you over the head, would you want to make the issues fully clear and explicit? Would you want to come out and tell people you’re trying to expunge this country’s founding ideals? Who wants to own up to being the party of the mailed fist?

The advocates of government coercion have to evade the central issues, because they don’t want to admit where they really stand—not even to themselves.

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Photo By: Ivan Bandura

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