Monday, July 15, 2013

On Coercion

Violence is part of the social order. Both the Rousseauvian and the Lockean traditions of political economy recognize that the legitimate use of force in impersonal matters lies exclusively in the hands of the sovereign. You might even say that this is the chief purpose of the state: to excise violence from private individuals that they might pursue careers that benefit others and place it in the hands of a select few that they might enforce the public peace.

You might question the efficacy of this project or its philosophical underpinnings, but it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that from stem to stern, the state is an organization whose bread and butter is coercion.

Now, at the risk of eliding mountains of scholarship on this point, I'll ask you to accept the positive point I just made and consider a normative claim on coercion that I think I've mostly assumed since the GTM so graciously invited me to share my thoughts here at EE. Namely, that the proper role of coercion in civilized society is best kept sharply constrained.

Skipping airy justifications, the bedrock of my aversion to frivolous coercion is that I have a sense that coercion dilutes virtue. And it does so no less for the coercer as for the coerced. Since I see the pursuit of a virtuous life as a small-n puzzle, one approached by individuals in their monkeyspheres, I am naturally skeptical about the ability of distant elites to improve on the difficult task of discovering and enacting the recipe of a virtuous life. Worse yet, misapplied coercion may actively hamper or pervert this most human of all pursuits. The tragically-named "War on Drugs" (War on most any domestic issue, really) is a fine example, where families are rent asunder and men turned to lives of ignominy to what end I cannot fathom. Yes, there are considerations more important than a virtuous life well-lived, but I worry that the decision to employ force all too easily ignores many of the hidden, third-party costs that lurk in the crevices. A cost-benefit analysis that disregards lurking costs is (again, normatively) unacceptably shoddy.

It's plainly obvious that there's a lot of transactions that fall short of the euvoluntary ideal. It's not as obvious that the remedy of direct coercion is the best way to correct these shortcomings. Not only does coercion incur direct hidden costs, it robs people the ability and the incentives to strive for a more virtuous existence. And to me, that's a cruel injustice in a world where human lives are constrained by mortality and scarce attention.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?