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The Problem with “Coercion”

“Coercion” is annoying, but coercion is neutral

Posted by Stephan Kinsella on July 6, 2006 02:43 PM

I must confess that one of my nits is the use by libertarians of the word “coercion” to mean “aggression.” I suspect this is a habit inherited from Ayn Rand’s repeated misuse of the term. Let’s get it straight: we libertarians oppose aggression, i.e. the so-called “initiation of force”, not force itself. To coerce is just to use force to make someone do something, to compel them. Coercion is just a type of use of force. Libertarianism is no more against coercion or force than it is against guns, which may be used for good, or evil.

Against “Coercion”

Posted by Daniel McCarthy at July 7, 2006 12:17 AM
For once I have to disagree with Stephan Kinsella, who is right to point out that there can be legitimate, non-aggressive forms of coercion but who is wrong, I think, to suggest that the word is neutral. For the most part, it does (and has since long before Ayn Rand) imply something more than force applied in self-defense. The first definition given by Merriam-Webster’s on-line (for “coercing”) is “to restrain or dominate by force.” There are many times when libertarians would agree that restraint by force is necessary, but “dominate” is probably not a concept we would want connoted in the process.

The idea that coercion has something to do with state power goes back as far as the Latin forebear of the word — “coercitio” is the Roman term of art for “the infliction of summary punishment by a magistrate or other person in order to secure obedience to his will; also the right of doing so” (as per the Oxford Latin Dictionary). The fasces carried by the magistrates known as lictors were the symbol of the the state’s coercitio, which is more than just police power — it means the fundamental power of the state to enforce its will upon its citizens. The English word doesn’t have quite that meaning, of course, but does still bear the marks of its ancestry. I think we’re right to oppose it.

More on “Coercion”

Posted by Stephan Kinsella on July 7, 2006 12:07 PM

Dan, fair points. I can see the argument that the term coercion is not completely neutral and has largely negative connotations; and that maybe we generally should “oppose” it since it is generally unjust.

But my point is mainly that I think it is misused as a synonym for aggression. Coercion, as I see it, is a set that intersects with aggression. That is, while some coercion is aggression, not all coercive acts are aggressive (e.g., threatening to harm an aggressor unless he returns to his jail cell); and not all acts of aggression employ coercion (if you simply murder someone, you have not used the threat of force to get them to do anything–it’s not coercion, it’s just aggression).

Therefore, I think the use of coercion is yet another in a long string of libertarian imprecision and lack of rigor in defining terms. It’s symptomatic of the tendency to over-rely on the use of metaphors and liberal-arts type language.

Update: Roderick Long also distinguishes between legitimate and aggressive coercion in his article Punishment vs. Restitution: A Formulation.

Update: Another thing that irks me is when people initial-cap the word Libertarian, when referring to the political philosophy. I capitalize it only when referring to a member of the Libertarian Party (which I am not). But for my political philosophy, I call it small-l libertarian; I don’t capitalize it just as people don’t capitalist anarchist.

{ 12 comments… add one }
  • Bob Roddis August 7, 2009, 2:43 pm

    Libertarian imprecision and lack of rigor in defining terms is also one of my pet peeves. Imagine a private Rothbardian neighborhood where all inhabitants have agreed to a specific set of restrictions so that the neighborhood would operate pursuant to conservative Christian standards. It would be against the rules for any inhabitant to visit the private X-zone which contains strip clubs or for any minor to be allowed to view anything but pre-screened G-rated entertainment. Violations of these rules may result in fines and/or expulsion.

    What would be the best word to describe the process of expulsion from the private community for violation of this type of rule? I’m not sure I like “coercion” although when each person moved in, they were “forced” to agree to the rules as a condition of entry and they are now certainly being “forced” out.

    As a sub-category of my pet peeves, I’m not really a fan of the word “anarchy” to describe such private neighborhoods especially for the purposes of selling the idea to others. There would certainly be rules of conduct in effect and a “governing” body to enforce them. Of course, those rules would all have been established “voluntarily”.

    My last pet peeve is libertarians who insist that everyone must become “socially liberal” to advance libertarian ideals. In a Rothbardian anarcho-capitalist world, the socially conservative types could just move to a socially conservative neighborhood with socially conservative schools etc. which might quickly expel those who don’t follow the rules. Private streets would also solve the problem of dopers run wild.

    If you don’t like it, move to where you would like it.

  • bob December 16, 2009, 11:28 am

    “Aggression” is equally vague. Are you referring to aggressive gift-giving, or aggressive language…or aggressive coercion?

    To maintain consistency, I always use “aggressive coercion”.

  • Daniel Robertson July 28, 2012, 7:17 pm

    Thank you for the articles on “harm” and “coercion”, Stephan.

  • Daniel Robertson July 28, 2012, 7:31 pm

    My question is how to handle your typical “intentional infliction of emotional distress”case. Is that “aggression” to intentionally harass someone so much (without touching them) through verbal abuse, exclusion from a social group, telling other people lies about them, etc., that they develop physical symptoms of emotional distress including sleeplessness, stress rashes, nausea, anxiety attacks, etc.? I can give you more concrete examples, but i think you can handle it in the abstract. Thanks.

  • Paul September 14, 2021, 11:55 am

    When I look at it, this seems more categorical than definitional.

    We do not use the word “murder” to mean anything other than to communicate a specific act of aggression. But the word “kill” is neutral as to whether it is aggressive, defensive, accidental, etc.

    Coercion is the act of applying forceful pressure to get someone to do something they do not otherwise consent to. This is categorically an act of aggression.

    The claim that the word can have other meanings implies it is being employed on people for whom consent is required. But when acting defensively, consent from the aggressor cannot be required, thus coercion cannot be applied.

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