Rebirth of Reason


The Anatomy of Coercion
by William Scott Dwyer

No one has the right to initiate force against others, although retaliatory force is justified as a means of self-defense. Such is the basic principle of libertarianism. Force, as used here, is contact with someone else’s person or property against his or her will. Thus, the initiation of force violates the right to voluntary action (whereas retaliatory force defends that right). However, according to philosopher John Hospers, the nature of voluntary action is not as clear as it may seem, and he argues that wherever we turn, we find problems of interpretation. For what is the definition of a voluntary act? He answers:

“Some say that a voluntary act is one of which one can say that just before it one could have done otherwise. Thus the patellar reflex and other reflex actions are not voluntary; you can’t prevent the response. But all of our everyday actions are by that definition voluntary, including our response to the gunman; we could have, just before surrendering the wallet, decided not to surrender it. That was within our power. (Indeed, some would say, “Under the circumstances, you voluntarily chose to give up your money.”) The result of using this definition is that practically all our acts are voluntary, even the robber example used as a paradigm case of not being voluntary.” (“Conversations with Ayn Rand,” Liberty, July 1990, p. 36.)

But if we look more closely at the robber example, I think we’ll find that it is indeed “a paradigm case of not being voluntary.” For how can it be true to say, as Hospers does, that “we could have, just before surrendering the wallet, decided not to surrender it”? How can it make sense to say, “Under the circumstances, you voluntarily chose to give up your money?” when, in fact, there is no way that you could have avoided giving it up. If you refused to hand it over, the gunman would have taken your life and your money too. You were forced to give up your money, one way or the other.

Hospers writes, “An act is voluntary if it’s not forced. But now what exactly is the import of the verb ‘force’? Did [the gunman] force you to give up your wallet, since you could have said no? Is the child whose parents say to him ‘Kill your pet dog or we’ll never feed you again’ forced to kill his dog? Are you ever 100 percent forced, except when you are physically overpowered and literally can’t do anything else?” (Ibid.)

As we have seen, the gunman did indeed force you to give up your wallet, since there is no way that “you could have said no,” no way that you could have prevented its loss. The case of the child is somewhat different. The child is not forced to kill his dog in quite the same way as the robbery victim is forced to surrender his money) since the child does have a choice, although not a very palatable one. Nevertheless, if the child is young enough to be dependent on parental support, then he is forced to make the choice -- “forced” to make it, because he has a right to both his dog and his parents’ support (both of which he has chosen to keep) and should not be required to choose between them.

One needn’t be physically overpowered and literally [unable to] do anything else” in order to be 100% forced. One need only be required to take an action that is different from the action one has chosen. As we have seen, this can be done by requiring one to choose either of two alternatives both of which one has voluntarily rejected.

According to Hospers, however, involuntary action does not result solely from physical interference:

“When we say “’He forced [her] to go with him,’ we [can simply mean] that he ‘knew what buttons to push’ to get her to do what he wanted. Shall we say in that case that she did his bidding voluntarily?” (Ibid.)

Yes, because to say that he “forced” her to go with him by knowing “what buttons to push” simply means that he knew what to say in order to convince her to do what he wanted; it simply means that he persuaded her to do it. Persuasion is not force.

Just as Hospers regards persuasion as involuntary, so he regards an employee’s dismissal as involuntary:

“A threat of a loss of a job may not be much of a threat if you can easily obtain another; but if no others are obtainable within a hundred miles . . . the threat of a loss of a job could be very serious. In any case, it’s not a job you would voluntarily have left – you would not have quite it but for the coercion (and it is coercion, threatening the means by which you live, differing only in degree from threat to life or limb). (“Libertarianism and Legal Paternalism,” The Libertarian Reader (Ed. Tibor Machan), Rowman & Allenheld, Totowa, 1982, p. 140)

To say that the job from which you are fired is “not a job you would ‘voluntarily’ have left” is simply to say that it is not a job you would have chosen to leave if your employer had continued employing you. It is not to say that he “forced” you to leave by interfering with your choice to work for him, because your choice to work for him is simply to accept his offer of employment. Once he withdraws that offer, there is nothing left for you to choose. It’s not that you choose to accept his offer of employment, but that he interferes with that choice; it’s that he no longer makes you an offer of employment you can choose to accept.

Nor by withdrawing his offer is he “threatening the means by which you live.” The “means by which you live” is not simply performing certain tasks in exchange for money, but performing them as needed by your employer. If your employer no longer needs you to perform them (or you are no longer performing them as needed), then the “means by which you live” is threatened not by him but by the nature of his business needs, which he has no control over and which you are no longer capable of satisfying. Your employer fires you because he no longer has a job for you; it is not that he no longer has a job for you because he fires you.

Withdrawing an offer that the recipient finds invaluable is no more coercive than making one that he or she finds irresistible – a point that is relevant to the following analogy in which Hospers equates two incommensurable examples. One example is of our old friend, the robbery victim, who is asked to surrender his money in exchange for his life. The other, which Hospers sees as analogous, is of a man drowning in quicksand who is asked to surrender his property in exchange for being rescued. According to Hospers, the quicksand victim is coerced by the rescuer just as surely as the robbery victim is by the gunman – for if the quicksand victim does not agree to surrender his property, then he will perish. (“Open versus Closed Libertarianism,” Liberty, July 1989, p. 31)

But again, Hospers overlooks a crucial distinction. Offering to save a quicksand victim in exchange for his property is not coercive, because it does not interfere with any action that the victim takes, or is capable of taking, in the absence of the offer. Without the rescuer, the victim has no choice to keep his life or property. Conversely, threatening to murder someone unless he gives you his money is coercive, because in that case, the threat does interfere with the action that the victim takes, namely, the act of keeping his money. (“Action” is being used here in the generic sense. A person “acts” to keep his money just as he “acts” to give it away. But, in the absence of the rescuer, the quicksand victim cannot act to keep his money, since he cannot act to save his life.)

Furthermore, whereas the robbery victim owns his life and the fruits of his labor, the quicksand victim does not own the rescuer’s life or labor. The needs of some are not a claim on the lives of others. If they were, then slavery would be the proper social system. The distressed would own the rescuers; the dying, the doctors; the starving, the farmers. In short, the non-producers would own the producers – with very little being produced. Production is the key to survival, but the key to production is freedom of action – which means the right to voluntary action free from interference by others.

Hospers states that no matter what sense of “voluntary” we employ, “there are cases that seem to slip through the cracks.” (Liberty, July 1990, p. 36) But he fails to acknowledge that there is a sense of “voluntary” that refers to self-directed action, a sense in which one is “coerced” if and only if one’s action is interfered with. It is this sense of “voluntary” that defines a person’s freedom of action and ultimately his or her political freedom. Such a concept is not insignificant, because without a clear idea of what freedom is, one has no basis on which to distinguish freedom from slavery.
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