Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Because You're Mine

Ambiguity is uncomfortable. Clear labels help folks understand and react appropriately without having to resort to expensive, thought-consuming analysis. For clear cases, shortcuts are very valuable indeed.

JR: You got anything to eat in here?

Sam: I think there's some ham in the chilly bin.

JR: "Chilly bin?"

Sam: It's Kiwi talk for "refrigerator."

JR: *rummages* You mean this? *holds up plastic bag* It has green fur.

Sam: Hm. It must have gone off.

The shortcut of "this slab of animal flesh has gone rotten" saves my houseguest from a trip to the ER. Valuable. Not all cases are quite so clear, however. Hands up if your nose has ever lingered over a milk carton whose "sell by" date is twerkin' all up on today's date. It's probably safe to drink, but you just want to make absolutely sure. Honey, can you come take a whiff of this? Does it smell okay to you?

There's a line where the milk goes sour. You're just not precisely sure where it is. You need to sniff and sniff and sniff some more. Maybe you need some help sniffing.

The same goes for all manner of stuff. Gary Ridgway is clearly, incontrovertibly, a premeditated murderer. He killed without cause or remorse and he deserves more punishment than any human is capable of granting. Similarly, there are clear-cut cases of self-defense we never hear about because killing an armed assailant is unlikely to make headlines. But contentious cases? George Zimmerman isn't infamous because of the extreme cruelty of his actions, but because he claimed (and was acquitted by) a self-defense defense, despite his victim being a) a teenage kid and b) unarmed.

Where do we draw the line?

Where do we draw the line on what counts as coercive activity? For some folks, "if it ain't euvoluntary, it ain't voluntary" and any instance of asymmetry in BATNA is evidence of coercion.

BATNA Disparity
High Low
Force High A B
Low C D

In other words, for some folks, call them Type 1, (A) and (C) violate Rawlsian justice and ought to be verboten. For natural-rights libertarians, call them Type 2, the initiation of force is the ultimate public offense, so (A) and (B) are the equally odious combinations.

One way to think about the word "coercion" is that it describes different phenomena to different people. Saying that someone is being "coerced" by unpleasant circumstances strikes the ear of a Type 2 person as ludicrous, since no one is initiating force. And saying that large-cap firms (or wealthy private individuals) with strong property rights over natural resources is not coercive sounds awful to the Type 1 person, since ownership definitionally includes rights of exclusion; excluding non-owners from the use of vital goods and services is de facto coercive.

So when discussing where to draw the line between euvoluntary and non-euvoluntary exchanges, it's worth remembering that not everyone will want to scribble the chalk along the same axis.

tl;dr: Phronesis


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