Coercion: A few preliminary definitions

By Sam Wells
web posted November 1998

Such terms as "coercion," "violence," "voluntary relationship," and "freedom" are crucial to an understanding of the libertarian position and it is not inaccurate to say that one of the main characteristics that sets libertarians apart from the vast majority of non-libertarians is that libertarians in general hold a very clear distinction in their minds between those human activities which they claim should be permissible and those which should be banned by law. Unlike the vast majority of the non-libertarian population, libertarians generally know the difference between a voluntary relationship and a coercive or violent one, and they know the difference in fairly clear terms. It is with these terms that I hope to deal in the following paragraphs. Although I have used these formulations, particularly the definition of "coercion" or violence, since 1972 as a means of achieving more clarity in political discourse, other libertarians have expressed these same concepts in different ways and terminology.

"Coercion" (or "violent force") is an act by a human or humans against the will or without the permission of another human being with respect to that which is his own (his own person or property). It means for someone to take, use, meddle with or otherwise do something to the body or property of another human being without the permission or against the will of that other human being. This includes fraud and embezzlement and other indirect uses of force as well as direct physical violence.

If someone does something to the body or property of someone else without their permission or against their will, that is what we mean by coercion, coercive force, or violence in this context. There are two kinds of coercion: initiatory coercion (the use of coercive force against someone who has not committed a coercive act against anyone) and retaliatory coercion (the use of coercive force in retaliation against someone who has initiated the use of coercion against someone). It is the initiation of the use of coercion that all libertarians oppose on principle since it is the violation of the self-ownership or property rights of innocent human beings (those who have not initiated the use of violence against anyone). Most libertarians favor the proper and righteous use of coercive force, according to rules of due process, against criminals, those who have been convicted of violating the rights of someone by initiatory coercion.

A voluntary relationship is a human relationship in which the wills of all the participants coincide (agree) with respect to the terms of the relationship.

These definitions imply 1) a social context, 2) a volitional context, and an 3) ownership context. The definitions assume that human beings have wills (desires, says-sos, wishes) over which they have at least some control and that there is more than one human living in the same area. (An individual human being living on an otherwise deserted island would be outside our context since he would not be able to coerce anyone or be coerced by anyone; nor would he be able to engage in any voluntary relationship since that would require at least one other person with whom to interact.)

We say someone is (or theoretically would be) "free" or enjoys "civil liberty" if there is an absence of coercion in his life while living in a social context. In other words, a man is free or "has freedom" to the extent that, in a social context, he retains exclusive right of control over that which belongs to him (his person and his legitimately acquired property).

If I tie my shoes in a way that you do not like, I am meeting only the first two of the three criteria – that is, I am a human being and I am doing something against someone else's will; however, I am not doing anything against someone else's will with respect to that which is their own (their person or property). Notice that I am performing the action on my own shoes, not someone else's. If, however, I were to go over and tie your shoes against your will or without your permission, that would be an act of coercion. This is a simple, and somewhat silly, hypothetical example to illustrate the point of distinction.

Let us apply the three requirements to real-world examples to prove the practicality of this approach:

Is advertising coercive of human rights? Do TV commercials impose violence on viewers? Or do they merely seek to change your mind through persuasion? If a software manufacturer offers his product at a lower price, does this constitute violence against the rights of his competitors or anyone else? If a man looks at a woman with lust in his heart, whether it be good or bad manners, is this an act of violent coercion which violates her rights? With clear definitions to make the proper distinctions between what is "coercive violence" and what is not, these questions can be answered without ambiguity.

If an organized group of people called the government confiscate a man's bank account because, they say, he "owes" back taxes, is this coercion? If agents of the government take or use a man's land for "public use" or regulate him concerning how he may utilize his own land, does this constitute violence? How does one know when his or her rights have been violated?

In the ideological war being waged today, it is in the interests of those who oppose liberty and human rights to obfuscate and blur as much as they can the distinction between coercive and non-coercive activities. It is in the interests of such statists to confuse the definition of individual rights and erect false notions of "rights" which conflict with true human rights. Conversely, it is in the interests of libertarians to clarify these issues and to make clear distinctions between what is truly coercive of human rights and what is not. Ayn Rand summed up one of the three basic principles of ideological warfare in this way: "When opposite basic principles are clearly and openly defined, it works to the advantage of the rational side; when they are not clearly defined, but are hidden or evaded, it works to the advantage of the irrational side."

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