Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Delegating Coercion

A friend gave me trouble about my definition of libertarianism: "But just about your only definition of libertarians is that they prefer voluntary cooperation over coercion, and that, I think, brings just about the whole world under the tent, save for a few demagogues and the badly deranged."

To which I replied, channeling Larkin Rose: Pardon my cynicism. Most people choose cooperation over coercion when dealing with others face-to-face. The story changes when they can delegate the coercion through the mechanisms of voting, legislation, the military, and law enforcement. Then they enthusiastically support the coercion of those with different opinions or circumstances, forcing these others into their favourite one-size-fits-all scheme. It helps if they can tell themselves a story about it all being for the common good, though that is not strictly required. In the end, they probably do not even realize any coercion has happened. They  compartmentalize their link to injustice and place it carefully out of sight. 

Progressives coerce in the name of equality, the environment, and helping the poor. Conservatives coerce in the name of family values, property values, and patriotism. In both cases, they categorize the victims of their coercion as the "other," as "deserving" what they get. I can earn moral blame or virtue only when I choose without coercion. My good deeds earn me no merit if I do them only to escape punishment or seeking a reward.

Where are the boundaries of cooperation, coercion, extrinsic motivation, intrinsic motivation, rewards, and punishments? Nature will punish us if we do unwise things, and reward us for other things we do. Is nature coercing us? Can we cooperate with nature without personifying it? If a slave loves his slavery, would that mean that his master's threats and abuse do not qualify as coercion?

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