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Yes, Laws Are Coercive, Even When You Happen To Like Them

All laws are coercive, even if you happen to think those laws are a good idea. People who write about politics should understand that this isn’t a novel notion.


Earlier this week, I responded to a Sally Kohn article about religious freedom in which Kohn argued that government laws mandating participation in a gay wedding wouldn’t technically force Christians to do anything, because Christians could just object, at which point they’d be forced to “suffer the consequences.” According to Kohn, the option to abstain and suffer the consequences means the government can’t technically force you to do anything.

My response was pretty simple: government is force by definition, and laws are coercive by definition:

A law is nothing but a threat backed up by force. This principle is not “ideological,” as Kohn tried to suggest on Twitter. It is definitional. The threat of force is what converts a mere recommendation into an actual law.

Pretty clear, right? Not to Ryan Cooper of The Week. Cooper did not appreciate my article or its sole point at all. According to him, I’m a hypocrite who “forgot” that Republicans want to pass laws a.k.a. legal forms of coercion:

What Davis seems to forget is that laws like ObamaCare (which supposedly tramples individual liberty through coercion) or statutes against LGBT discrimination (which supposedly tramples religious freedom through coercion) aren’t the only ones on the books. There is also property law, corporate law, securities law, contract law, labor law — the very foundation stones of our economy.

Yes, I obviously “forgot” that laws are coercive by definition, which is why I wrote that all laws — regardless of whether I think a particular law is a good idea — are coercive. After I apparently annoyed Cooper on Twitter by telling him that I agreed with him that of course laws are coercive, he got a little snippy:

Um, how does Cooper think property rights are enforced? How does he think contract rights are enforced? Laws acknowledging property exist to protect one’s right to that property. There’s a reason the police will show up at your home with guns at the ready if you call to tell them somebody’s invaded your home. There’s a reason you will get hauled into court and potentially punished with government-sanctioned fines if you breach the terms of a contract you signed with another party. If Cooper thinks there’s a means by which we protect rights that don’t involve the use of coercion or force, I’d love to hear about it.

And if you think the tension between liberty and coercion is something that’s totally new and rarely discussed — Cooper apparently believes this — might I suggest that you refrain from writing about politics? Whether a law is a just or unjust application of government coercion is the foundation of pretty much every debate over proposed laws.

Rather than acknowledging this rather clear fact — that nearly all debates of law, including debates about religious freedom laws, are questions of propriety rather than of the ability of the government to coerce — Cooper declared that if all law is coercion, all coercion must therefore be appropriate. This declaration is as illogical as it is illiberal, although adherents to the ideology of Mao and Stalin may find it persuasive. Saying that because all laws are coercive, therefore all coercion must be legal makes about as much sense as saying that because all dogs are animals, all animals must therefore be dogs. It’s an obvious logical fallacy to anyone with even the slightest grasp of basic logic.

At their core, however, Kohn and Cooper appear to desperately want to avoid the real question at the heart of the religious freedom debate: should the government force individuals to participate in religious ceremonies against their will? Kohn tried to sidestep the issue by saying government can’t force anybody to do anything. Cooper took the opposite side of the same coin and argued that if all laws are force, then all force must by definition be wise and just.

Their tactics tell you everything you need to know about the religious freedom debate. They simply don’t want to debate whether it’s appropriate for the government to impede the free exercise of religion by forcing people to violate their consciences and participate in religious ceremonies against their will.