Coercion: WTF?

— Here’s a challenge for libertarians. What exactly is wrong with initiatory coercion, other than the fact that it strikes us as intuitively repugnant? For my part, I cannot find a satisfying answer. Other kinds of non-coercive psychological manipulation, such as those that occur in relationships gone sour, strike me as just as odious as bona fide coercion. Indeed, I’d rather do something under the threat of being puched in the nuts (or just punched in the nuts straightaway) than to be emotionally blackmailed by someone I love. So why is preventing and punishing the one considered the proper province of the state, while the other is considered a paradigm case of a purely private affair?

Furthermore, I’m not sure I even know what coercion IS anymore? An extremely diffuse structure of government threats is considered coercive (almost none of us are ever directly threatened by someone with the power to harm us). Yet a religious ideology, induced by childhood brainwashing and promising eternal pain in the case of rule-breaking, is NOT considered coercive. Why not? And what’s so special about physical violation? Since I genuinely prefer to be kicked in the nuts over having my heart shattered by psychological manipulation, what’s so special about nuts-kicking? If I kidnap your kid and threaten to break her kneecaps unless you give me a Toyota, then that’s considered coercion. But if I date your daughter, and she falls so desperately in love with me that she will attempt suicide should I leave her, and then I tell you I will dump her unless you give me a Toyota, then that’s not coercion. What gives?

I think I know what you’ll say, but let’s see if you suprise me.

And this brings us to positive vs. negative freedom. I’m no longer seeing the importance of the distinction. It seems to me the freedom worth caring about is positive. What we want is a bigger opportunity set–the ability to choose among more alternatives. If, in order to get a huge increase in abilities and possibilities for my future, I had to accept some small amount of structural coercion that would block off a much smaller set of abilities and possibilities, then I’d be quite glad for the coercion. In fact, the thing that seems wrong to me about coercion is just that it closes off a possible course of action that I should be free to choose. This is more salient than having courses of action closed off by, say, a set of tarrifs, but the result is the same. There’s something I should have been able to choose to do, but, in some sense, can’t. The negative/positive distinction strikes me as analogous to the killing and letting die distinction. Whether I kill someone, or let them die when I could have prevented it, someone ends up dead. Whether you forbid me under threat of prison from taking a drug, or regulate the pharmaceutical industry in such a way that they never produce it, then I end up without the drug. I don’t really care WHY I can’t have it. I just care that I can’t. Just as Bob doesn’t really care if you shot him in the head or starved him to death with your disastrous economic policies. Coercion, whatever it means, seems like just one way to prune that loveliest of abstract objects, the Tree of Future Timelines, and not obviously the most diagreeable way.

Now, I’m certain that one of the best ways to make our future as bushy as possible is to restrict coercion. And that’s why I think restricting coercion, insofar as I’ve got a grip on what it IS, is a nice idea. But it’s not obvious that the bushiest future emerges from the branch with the least coercion.