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27


THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 27, May 1, 1997

Random and Speculative Thoughts Department:
Force versus Coercion

By Wendy McElroy
mac@headwaters.com

Exclusive to The Libertarian Enterprise

[Permission to reproduce and circulate is hereby granted as long as it is not for commercial purposes and the full citation is provided.]

         The non-initiation of force is the foundation of libertarianism, but an interesting question adheres to this principle. From a purely descriptive stance, initial force -- or, coercion -- may look absolutely identical to reactionary force -- or, self defense. For example, while walking down an alley, you might encounter a woman being pinned against a brick wall by a burly man. She cries out to you, "help me!" You do so, and she flees the scene. Only then do you discover from the outraged man that the woman was a pickpocket and he was retrieving his stolen property, using a minimum of force to do so.
         The brute appearance or physical description of the incident tells you nothing about whether the man's use of force was defensive or coercive. In other words, from a descriptive point of view, the use of force was value free, and you imposed a mistaken assessment upon it. Subjectively, of course, force is never value free because it is always personally experienced as a disvalue by the recipient who is made to act against his or her will -- otherwise it is not an act of force. Likewise, force is personally experienced as a value to the acting agent whose very pursuit of force indicates that he or she desires/values it. And, then, there are murky encounters in which no one is a clear victor and both parties view the struggle either as a disvalue or value.
         Thus, force -- even the initiation of force -- cannot be subjectively valued as either good or bad, but rather as both good and bad. Nor can any act be objectively valued by a third party without some form of information over and above a mere physical description. In other words, a third party cannot make the leap from subjective evaluations to the objective conclusion that any act of force is right or wrong. [Hereafter, I will refer to "wrong force" as coercion.]
         It is only through what Ayn Rand might call an intervening value judgment that proper force can be distinguished from coercion. This intermediate step allows the observer to move from the realm of personal evaluation into that of principles by which to judge the propriety of force.
         Libertarianism has offered at least three standards by which to make such a intervening value judgment.
         The first is an argument from morality. In quasi-Randian form, this argument runs: if life is of value and it is right for a human beings to sustain their lives, then it is wrong for others to interfere with that process by force. Since moral principles based on human nature must be universalizable, this means that -- if you wish to claim the protection of such a principle -- you must apply it to others and desist from initiating force. Thus there is a moral preference for proper or defensive force rather than for coercion.
         The second is an argument from human happiness. This, again, is a quasi-Randian approach: namely, there is a necessary and logical hook-up between human beings acting on their own judgments and those human beings having a chance to achieve happiness, which is defined as a sense of emotional satisfaction. The hook-up is *not* that all volitional acts will lead to a maximum of happiness. Any particular act may be self-destructive or mistaken. You cannot move from X being a voluntary act to it being a good act without an intervening value judgment. And the best available value judgment is that of the acting person, who knows their own goals, desires, and context. Even then, X may not achieve happiness, but refusing to allow the person to use their own judgment will definitely not achieve that goal.
         "Life-boat" scenarios, such as pulling a suicide-minded person off a high ledge, would seem to contradict this principle, but two points can be made. The afore-argued is a general principle, which should not be dismissed because it has "grey" areas, as all principles do. Moreover, even such grey areas provide support in the case, e.g., of a human being who *repeatedly* attempts suicide. To such a person, life has become a disvalue and the happiest state he or she might be capable of is oblivion. Remember, Rand's argument for the value of life begins, "IF life is of value, then..." Her argument is contextual. To one who no longer values life, happiness may lie in ending it.
         The third argument, which is the most specific to libertarianism, is one from social order. Return to the situation of two people battling, and an observer wondering who is using proper force and who is exercising coercive. Again, an intervening value judgment is required. For libertarians, the touchstone for that judgment is property titles.
         If the 19th century individualist-anarchist Benjamin Tucker was correct, and property titles are the most principle by which to resolve the dilemma of who can properly claim the use of goods in a world of scarcity, then ascertaining where the property title is vested tells you who is using defensive force and who is being coercive. And, since the most fundamental form of property title is self-ownership, no one can property initiate force against your person. This claim to your body overrides a similar claim by any other human being, if only because you are the only one who can exercise the defining aspect of your "humanness" -- your rationality and will. Your humanness is a machine that only you can operate.
         The additional information about property titles introduces a standard by which to transcend the subjective judgments that revolve around an act of force. The observer can note the appearance of force, and join it to a common sense principle of resolution that furthers a social order. In short, he evolves a concept of force that is socially wrong: namely, coercion. And the distinction between proper force and coercion becomes: force is used in defense of property titles, and coercion is used to assault them.
         The above is not meant to be the definitive word on force and coercion, but a springboard for discussion.


A contributing editor to Liberty magazine, Wendy McElroy has published widely in feminism beginning in 1983 with Freedom, Feminism and the State (CATO) and most recently in 1995 with XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography (St. Martin's Press). Her articles have appeared in such diverse publications as National Review and Penthouse. Her 'day' job is writing and editing documentaries, some of which have been recorded by Walter Cronkite, George C. Scott and Harry Reasoner.


A Juror's Creed: As an American juror, I will exercise my 1000 year old duty to arrive at a verdict, not just on the basis of the facts of a particular case or instructions I am given, but through my ability to reason, my knowledge of the Bill of Rights, and my individual conscience.
-- L. Neil Smith


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