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Cato on Coercion

May 11th, 2007

I have the RSS feed for Cato-Unbound on my homepage, and I occasionally read it, but the authors are often too long-winded for me to bear singularly – putting 3 or 4 reaction essays together makes it a chore. That said, there’s been a discussion there this week about the concept of coercion, as introduced by Daniel Klein. I’m reading Ed Glaeser’s response, Coercive Regulation and the Balance of Freedom. At first glance, it didn’t seem all that bad, just a little unsettling. Then I read it again. There are several instances in the first two or three paragraphs where he demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept, which I think Klein introduced well-enough.

Take the following examples, three:

I am also in favor of limits on contracts that encourage highly anti-social activities, like murder. Support for the freedom to contract is a good maxim, but it cannot be an axiom.

The “contract” to murder someone is an equivocation – it simply is not a contract. For starters, a hit always involves an unknowing third party, which cannot be bound by law or reason to adhere to the terms of said contract. Furthermore, the reason the State doesn’t enforce this sort of “contract” is not because it’s anti-social, but because such a contract necessarily requires an initiation of force and the violation of another’s rights. It is not a contract, because it does not have a legal objective, and as such it is prima facie void.

Stating that all coercion isn’t necessarily bad, Glaeser maintains that “The ability of creditors to collect depends on the power of the state to coerce borrowers.” But here again he is mistaken.  All this argument says is that you want the State to help you enforce contracts when you’re not physically capable of doing so on your own.  Anyone who has defaulted on credit (i.e., theft) or otherwise failed to perform an obligation (i.e., fraud, &c)  has initiated force by violating his contract – anything which the contract empowers the creditor to do in this event is a reaction.  It is emphatically not coercive to resist coercion.

Last, but not unimportantly: “If we think that state-sponsored redistribution is desirable, then we are willing to accept more coercion to help the less fortunate.” This “we” is rubbish; there is no collective, unanimous “we” – and it’s the plight of the naysayers that concerns me. All that can be shown by “acceptance” is that some people are willing to use the state to take things they didn’t earn. Other people may or may not be OK with that. If you don’t have a choice, then it clearly is coercion because it doesn’t matter whether you accept it or not. Such is all state-sponsored redistribution.

I see no point in continuing to re-read this essay – Glaeser is clearly out of his element.

Comments

9 Comments

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  • Mookie says on: May 12, 2007 at 11:28 am

     

    “is that some people are willing to use the state to take things they didn’t earn”

    Yes, I have come here to bother you now. TLG’s unwavering support of military spending puts him at odds with what you (and he) claim to believe. The US gummint takes tax money from taxpayers and gives it to military companies. I gave you that link to show you just how much (nearly half).

    TLG’s response was retarded, but I want to isolate you and ask you about this, because your responses to me, although based on this “yer a statist” mentality, were still lucid.

    How does military spending square with your anti-state views? I found it most ironic that TLG supports the military, the one COERCIVE power the gummint has to impose its will, while at the same time railing against the state. Which shows me he’s more about being a greedy, apathetic libertarian (no taxes, fuck the poor) than about liberty (pro oppressive and inefficient MIC). I’m an anarcho-socialist, so don’t give me this “statist” label. Remember, to lefties like me, capitalism helped to create the state, and vice versa.

    If you don’t like the state, shouldn’t you disapprove of military spending, especially when, as Seymour Melman showed in his marvelous book _After Capitalism_, the money goes to inefficient and bureaucratic companies that are essentially kept afloat by robbing US citizens?

    Be careful how you answer this. TLG’s response labeled him the oxymoron that many “libertarians” can be. And while I have not read all the books you listed in your about page, I am not a total moron. I have read Wealth of Nations, some Marxist books by Mandel and that previously mentioned book by Melman. (I know you don’t care about these because you probably think the ideas are bunk, but it does show that I’m not just talking out my ass). My focus is a bit more on the biology/neurology and anthropological/ psychological/sociological approach, so don’t be surprised if I start flinging such articles your way.

    On TLG’s site, I had some links to show that there are alternatives to his evil-libertarian strain. I think he took them down. If you have the time and the inclination, perhaps you would like to check them out.

    One blog in particular I have found to be very interesting. Talk of a “free” market makes me scoff, because I see the COERCIVE power of money and can’t help but think that its a load of bull. But to play it fair, I tried to suppose that it was possible, and that it was a desirable outcome. The only way it would ever work, be able to maintain itself, and retain that “free” label, is if socialism were in place. And no, I don’t mean state socialism, I mean the workers owning and operating the means of production. Why is this a necessary condition for the free market?

    http://mutualist.blogspot.com/

    I like your mandelbrot set. Do you use fractals in economics? If so, what kind and what can you tell/predict from them?

    (I apologize for hijacking the thread somewhat.)

    David Z responds: As you note, the latent hypocrisy of most libertarian positions is revealed by TLG’s position – that we, well, “need” the state, that we “need” this stationary bandit that controls everything and robs everyone; that in order to be safe from theft; we need to submit to theft and we need to arm the state so that it’s capable of taking more from us in the future. I wholeheartedly disapprove of military spending – and I believe you’ll find my opinions are internally consistent. I think you are equivocating when you refer to the “coercive” power of money – although money has also largely been co-opted by the State, and so in that regard they are certainly able to manipulate it to their liking.

    I’m not aware of any economic uses of fractals, but then again, I’m not really an economist. I use the mandelbrot set primarily because I think it looks cool, but also because fractals have a loose affiliation with anarchism.

  • Mookie says on: May 13, 2007 at 11:34 am

     

    Thanks for your answer.

    At the very least, I can claim that you don’t mind the hypocritical support of the MIC. What’s very likely is you just don’t care. So he is the greedy one, and you are the apathetic one.

    I would have hoped you would have defended your ideology a little better.

    One last thought: I want you to look at the link below and think long and hard how A) the “free” market caused this, and B) the “free” market can fix this.

    http://www.bestlifeonline.com/cms/publish/health-fitness/Our_oceans_are_turning_into_plastic_are_we_2.shtml

    David Z responds: I’m going to assume that you posted this because you thought I was ignoring your previous comment – I was not; just busy all weekend and have not logged in until just now (10pm, Sunday).

  • Francois Tremblay says on: May 14, 2007 at 5:38 pm

     

    What the hell is this commenter going about? We don’t mind the MIC?? What the hell?

  • David Z says on: May 14, 2007 at 7:17 pm

     

    Franc, I think he is referring to a lively discussion we had over at another blog. I made no such argument, and as far as I can tell, the other guy (TLG) didn’t explicitly make that argument, either. He did however, take the minarchist position w/r to the military – a part of the discussion to which I did not contribute.

  • Francois Tremblay says on: May 15, 2007 at 6:01 am

     

    So on the basis of someone else’s minarchist position on the military he is concluding that you don’t care about the military-industrial complex? That doesn’t make sense, even if he thought it was you.

  • David Z says on: May 15, 2007 at 7:25 am

     

    No, it doesn’t make very much sense at all. But then, neither does an anarcho-socialist who argues that the State needs to redistribute things. Oh well. I see someone who flipped out because it took me more than 24 hours to respond to his question – since I hadn’t yet approved his comment, or responded to it, he fired off the sarcastic “Thanks for your answer” comment.

  • Rami Eskola says on: November 14, 2007 at 5:47 am

     

    “”The “contract” to murder someone is an equivocation – it simply is not a contract. For starters, a hit always involves an unknowing third party,…”"

    The target of a hit is not a party of the contract but an object.

    “”It is not a contract, because it does not have a legal objective, …”"

    Of course It is a contract. It is a mutual agreement between two parties engaging in the contract.

    If some third party (i.e. the state) approves or disapproves the contract it might have some practical complications but is irrelevant to the existence of the contract.

  • David Z says on: November 14, 2007 at 10:16 am

     

    Rami – the current legal definition of a contract requires that the contract have a legal object (we’ll get to how this is determined later). Murder is not a legal object. Therefore, a “contract to murder” is not a contract. QED.

    In context of the post and assuming a final arbiter (i.e., State), let me restate: The reason the State doesn’t enforce this sort of “contract” is not because it’s anti-social (per Glaeser), but because such a contract necessarily requires an initiation of force and the violation of another’s rights. It is not a contract, because it does not have a legal objective, and as such it is prima facie void.

    Do I agree with you that in principle, such an arrangement really is a contract? Well, perhaps I’ll admit it’s a quasi-contract. But in the context of modern jurisprudence, it clearly is not a bonafide contract.

    The “object” of the contract is not in fact the mark (as I referred, “third party”). The “object” of the contract is the death of the third party. Assuming that the object of the contract cannot be fulfilled with the consent of the mark, the fulfillment of the contract necessarily involves the initiation of force. States and governments aside, this is a clear violation of a man’s right to life as understood by natural law. Back to Glaeser and the gobbledygook about the “right” to enter into hit-contracts: That the supposed “right” to make this sort of contract is internally inconsistent immediately comes to mind.

    It is a clear violation of the universality principle and/or it is an outright denial of man’s right to life, without which it is nonsensical to debate the existence of a “right” to enter into contracts.

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