[Editor's Note: The following is a guest contribution from Scott Anderson, professor of  philosophy at the University of British Columbia. Scott's not a libertarian, but he'a friend and a good philosopher who specializes in coercion. He offered to share his reflections on the subject in light of the recent BHL-Crooked Timber Debate.]

Do employers in a capitalist economy like that of the U.S. coerce employees?  In particular, do employers who deny their employees the ability to take bathroom breaks when needed coerce them, or coerce them objectionably?  These questions appear as part of a recent discussion of whether capitalism conduces to the freedom of those who have no good alternative but to labor for capitalists.

There are disputes of several sorts in play here:  empirical, theoretical, and conceptual.  The third category seems to me most amenable to philosophical intervention, and includes disputes about how to understand freedom and (my specialty) coercion.  Given the difficulties involved in thinking clearly about freedom, I have devoted much of my philosophical efforts to clarifying our understanding of coercion, which I believe is more tractable.  Coercion is not, of course, the only hindrance to freedom, but it seems to me an apt concept for getting a grip on one of the central issues in thinking about freedom.

When Matt Zwolinski recently broached this topic, however, he suggested that “it is probably a mistake to put too much weight on the concept of coercion” in tackling this question or more generally in applied political philosophy:  workplaces are “rife with coercion,” and the distinction between that which is permissible and that which is not can’t be made out by using the concept of coercion itself:  “we will have to look beyond the concept of coercion itself to settle the matter.”  He goes on to suggest that,

More refined philosophical conceptions of coercion don’t help either. On moralized conceptions of coercion, an act only counts as coercive if it is morally wrong in some way. So in order to decide whether an action is coercive, we already have to settle its moral status. On non-moralized accounts of coercion, whether an act is coercive or not doesn’t tell you anything about its moral status. On the first approach, to infer that some activity is wrong because coercive will beg the question; on the second, no such inference is possible:  coercion is a descriptive concept that applies equally to an employer’s insisting that employees show up on time and insisting that they have sex with their boss.

I think that a fair amount of trouble in this discussion (both the larger discussion about employment initiated by the BRG essay and Zwolinski’s own contribution) is due to difficulties in framing a clear, weight-bearing concept of coercion.Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Coercion”).  And I think Zwolinski is right that, despite broad agreement that this is what “coercion” means, this understanding falls quite short of being useful for thinking about something so serious, whether dressed up or dressed down.

I’ve written a fair amount about this (those interested can find a bibliography below).  Here I will simply sketch a way I think we might more usefully understand coercion, descriptively, and then show that an adequate description of it can help think about the situation of labor in capitalist employment situations—as well as why the use of coercion bears a special burden.  I’ll warn in advance that the answers to questions of whether capitalists coerce workers are not uniform across all situations, or even all parts of one and the same job for one and the same employee/employer.  But understood properly, the concept of coercion can help gauge how much a particular employer imposes constraints on a particular employee’s freedom, given appropriate attention to the background conditions in which these agents operate.

I will omit critiquing directly the view of coercion Zwolinski moots, and instead sketch my alternative to it first, which I’ll then defend in part by comparison to the standard view.  The principal factors involved in coercion are, first, that the coercer creates or draws upon a broad advantage in power over the coercee.  (I’ll offer a metric for this shortly.)  Secondly, the coercer uses that power advantage to constrain (what the coercee understands are) the coercee’s prospects for action, (third) either by means of a credible threat (explicit or tacit), imposed conditions, or through directly inhibiting the coercee’s ability to act (say, through locking her up or destroying her crops, tools, etc.).  Fourthly, the coercer chooses to do this intentionally, at-will, for purposes that he determines.

The problem with most ordinary accounts of coercion (including the prominent philosophical ones today) is that they take for granted, without explanation, the ability of some parties to make credible threats against others, neither explaining why certain threats are likely to be credible (or incredible), nor thinking through the significance of the background conditions that make credible threats possible.  Here’s an illustration of this point in the present context:  If there is a shortage of workers possessing a particular skill (say, computer programmers) such that a laborer with that skill has any number of attractive job offers ready to hand, in her neighborhood, a computer programmer’s current employer might nonetheless threaten to, e.g., dock her pay or even to fire her if she takes unscheduled bathroom breaks.  However, her employer lacks a kind of power over her that makes such a threat a credible threat.  Even if the employer were to carry out the threat (which it seems would be counterproductive to the employer, and hence unlikely to be executed), the employer is in no position to hinder the employee’s ability to obtain other good employment with little or no disruption of her life.  Thus, the employer’s threat does not threaten the employee’s ability to fulfill her significant needs in life:  e.g., food, shelter, health-care, recreation, etc., as well as those of their dependants.

Of course, most laborers in the current world are not in this favorable position vis-à-vis their current and/or potential employers.  At this point it is useful to distinguish between employers in general (i.e., the capitalist class), and some particular employer who may employ or fire a particular worker at will; I’ll concentrate first on what to say about particular employers, and later take up the issue of coercion by capitalists as a class.  Most individuals do not have access to a stock of capital (nor the expertise to make profitable use of it if they could gain access to it) that would allow them to labor for themselves in a way that would meet their various human needs.  Hence, in order for most individual workers in the U.S. to get what they need in life, they need to find some owner of capital to employ them.  It also appears that capital is relatively scarce compared to the supply of willing laborers; hence, there are generally fewer employment opportunities than there are laborers willing to take them (though as the above example indicates, this differs across different places, times, and job categories).  In particular, in places with a high unemployment rate, and/or for individuals whose skills do not generate more than one or a very few good employment offers, they may see themselves as having few if any alternatives to any particular job on offer.  Even if there are other jobs they can obtain eventually, there are often high transaction costs that go with losing one’s job on short notice, and then needing to find another when there is a strong likelihood of prolonged unemployment.  It is also worth noting that job seekers often depend on the positive assessments of past employers to be able to find future employment of a comparable kind, which adds to their current employers’ power over their future job prospects.  Thus, by being able to terminate their employment (and possibly frustrate their search for future employment), many employers hold considerable power over many workers, since they can prevent those employees from obtaining access to the ordinary goods of life.  By contrast, employees in general have no countervailing ability to affect that employer in any similar fashion.  (I’ll return to say more about this fact later as well.)  Thus for many (though not all) employees, here, today, the first condition is met relative to a particular employer who hires or might hire them.

One important point to grasp in conceiving of the power at issue here is that even if a coercer aims to have the coercee do something in particular, the coercer achieves this effect by being in a position to prevent the coercee broadly from doing other things.  The employer does not literally force his employees to do things like show up on time or have sex with him; but by showing an ability and willingness to prevent an employee from achieving any number of crucial ends, he can make doing something like showing up on time or having sex with him into a necessary means to achieve those other ends.  What I’m suggesting then is that we should regard the power to coerce as principally a demonstrated willingness and ability to prevent another agent from doing a broad range of important, crucial things—which I gesture at above by speaking of the ability to fulfill one’s needs.  When one agent has this sort of constraining power over another, then it is open to them to use such power to direct the actions of the coercee in any number of directions.

The second and third conditions specify that, in coercing, such powerful agents utilize their advantage in power over others to constrain their ability to act, either by threats or by other sorts of conditions or impediments to action.  In this, I accept per the common wisdom that threats can be used to coerce, but hold that the range of techniques of coercion is broader than is commonly understood.  (A) Not just threats can be used to coerce:  sometimes coercion works via more direct means, such as locking people up or (more a propos here) locking workers in, physically barring or removing them from a site, or disabling them from performing certain activities that they would otherwise be able to do (e.g., use a restroom, use their tools).  (B) Some threats are tacit:  once employees know that dismissal for displeasing the boss is a common occurrence, then bosses don’t need to put their threats into so many words; they merely need to make demands, and the employees can fill in the “or else” part themselves.  Moreover, (C) it is of little importance whether the employer issues a demand, or whether, say, employees take it upon themselves to figure out ways to please their bosses, knowing (perhaps implicitly) that failure to do so will lead to their dismissal.  Once the power dynamic is established, the matter of whether the threat is tacit or explicit, or even whether it emanates from the coercer, is all of rather secondary importance.

All that I’ve said so far, however, would seem to support Zwolinski’s contention that all demands by employers coerce virtually all workers, since employers by and large demand that workers do their jobs and threaten (overtly or implicitly) to fire them if they refuse.  If this were so, then “coercion” would cut no ice here.  (This then presses theorists towards moralized accounts.)  Employers, however, are not typically wholly unconstrained with respect to the demands they may or may not place on their employees.  Leaving aside the state’s mandates regarding pay, working conditions, etc., employers who compete to provide a service to customers (and thereby profit or even just maintain their capital) need to utilize their resources, including their workforce, in a reasonably efficient manner.  This includes at a minimum getting their workers to perform the productive aspects of their jobs.  Hence, my approach declines to treat all demands employers make of their employees as coercive, since employers are constrained and necessitated to make at least some such demands of their employees by virtue of the necessity that they employ their resources efficiently.  An employer who pays employees but does not get them to work effectively will fail to satisfy its customers, and go out of business.  Hence, we may regard employers as constrained to demand that employees do certain things such as show up, do their jobs, etc. – i.e., these demands do not emanate from the will of the employer, but rather under from the necessity of a market economy.  A slightly different way to describe this situation is to note that there is an internal relationship between an employee doing her job and the employer being in a position to pay her.  We need not see this as a kind of moral imperative on employees (or employers), but rather as rough way of distinguishing demands on employees that are part of the existence of their job (which depends on producing something of value to customers) from those that arise from the arbitrary will of the employer.

This distinction can be challenged, and there are no doubt large grey areas that will resist categorization.  But if we take the exemplary case of an employer demanding that an employee have sex with him as a condition of holding some other sort of employment, it is highly likely that we have a case in which the employer is making use of his significant power advantage over the employee for purposes that don’t further the productive activity of the firm, and so are arbitrarily determined by the employer.  Unless this is really a necessity (and it is highly doubtful that it would be), then the employer and its managers are choosing to use their power over some to extract benefits from them and transfer them to others at their discretion.  This would suffice to fulfill the fourth condition.

It may be tougher to decide the case of an employer who refuses its employees the right to take bathroom breaks except upon the company’s say-so.  It may be undecidable in some particular cases whether such a rule is necessitated by the need for hyper-efficiency in a particular industry, or whether such a rule reflects nothing more than the employer’s disdain for its employees, or an attempt to squeeze every last cent of profit from their activity.  A comparison among similar employers in similar industries/markets might help determine this, but not always.  Perhaps from the employees’ perspective, it may make little difference whether their choices are constrained due to their employers’ decision, or the cutthroat market, though this approach would still help locate the responsibility, at least in theory.  And in general, at least in firms that are robustly profitable, it appears that there are good grounds to regard the impositions of such indignities as chosen by the employers, and hence as acts of coercion by the employers.

I think this account of coercion both fits with many of our ordinary views about coercion, as well as offers a useful tool for categorizing and explaining why some ways that employers treat employees are rightly regarded as making them less free—and unnecessarily so—than they would be otherwise.  It will now be useful to step back from the picture of the individual employee and her employer, and consider how it is that in capitalism, certain agents (in particular, certain employers, as owners and managers of capital) become positioned to wield such power over others.  I said above that employees are generally unable to make credible countervailing threats against employers, but this deserves further explanation.  If coercion is simply threatening to do something bad to someone else, then it’s unclear why employees can’t, individually or in various collectives, simply threaten to take away the control of capital from employers, or threaten to murder them, etc.  And of course, sometimes they do threaten such, and even bring this about.  But in general they don’t, and such threats as they make are often quashed by police or other state agents, or dismissed as non-credible.  In particular, individuals are unable to wrest or credibly threaten to wrest control of capital from the capitalists because capital is organized along lines of property ownership, which is itself defended by the state’s use of coercion.  In a place like the U.S., the state is largely effective in protecting the lives and property rights of its inhabitants, and thus is largely effective in securing the control of capital (and the profits that flow from it) to those who hold legal title to it.  That is to say, the power of capitalist employers to deny individual workers access to significant, necessary goods for living derives from the state’s manifest use of coercion to protect their property rights, in which their control of capital resides. 2

We can argue over whether and to what extent the holders of those titles earned them and deserve them, or whether it is merely a matter of efficiency that we preserve those titles against instability.  We can also argue over whether some other system might be better all things considered.  But whether or not capitalist relations of ownership are justifiable, it is clear that in current circumstances those who hold title to large amounts of capital wield considerably more power vis-à-vis most employees than most employees have relative to them.  After all, the rich who own capital do not risk the loss of basic goods of life if they lose any particular employee—or even lose a lot of them—so long as they can convert their capital into the means of meeting their economic needs by selling it, renting it, etc.  (They also frequently have large reserves of fungible investments to fall back on in tough times.)  So even if employees can make any particular business unprofitable by quitting, striking, boycotting, etc., wealthy capitalists will not be similarly disabled by such actions the way many workers are disabled by losing a scarce employment opportunity.

If we recognize that the capitalist class is supported by coercively enforced property institutions, which in turn give them power over the ability of others to fulfill their needs, this also helps undermine a certain sort of appeal to “baselines” to dismiss the coerciveness employment relations.  The suggestion involving baselines is this:  employers don’t coerce employees because they merely make “offers” that leave workers no worse off than the baseline condition of having no offer.  But my approach to coercion makes it possible to recognize that the power to make such offers, and the (would-be) employees’ lack of alternatives to them, are a direct result of the state’s use of coercion to protect property.  Certain moralized theories of coercion can obscure this, but on my account of coercion, the coerciveness of the state’s institution of property rights is unmistakable.  Again, the institution of property may itself be justified, in part or on the whole, but even if it is, it requires a whole other argument to show that individual capitalist employers could be justified to leverage the power conferred by title to capital to impose, at will, arbitrary conditions on their employees.

On the view sketched here, it is theoretically possible that employers in a capitalist economy could uniformly avoid coercing their workers by limiting their demands to those that are necessary in order to meet the needs of their customers, however unlikely this scenario might be.  Is this a problem for the account?  I don’t see why it should be.  If such a situation were achieved, I think it would mark a considerable improvement over current employer practices, for the reasons that BRG elaborate.  But even if no individual employer engages in what I’ve defined as coercion, several concerns remain.  First, so long as capital is deployed in a way that leaves many potential workers without good jobs, there will remain a great power disparity between capital and labor, facilitating the exploitation of labor.  (We might in fact see this as coercion by some employers, in that they demand that employees work harder for lower wages than is needed to make an adequate return on the capitalists’ investments, but I don’t expect this view to secure broad agreement.)  Second, it remains the case that the institutions of property underlying capitalism are coercively enforced, and so they bear a justificatory burden, or so I would urge.  Like Zwolinski and the libertarians he describes, I think that coercion is often justifiable.  But the account offered here helps us to understand why a justification is required by restricting the scope of the concept to cases where a significant use of power is involved.  So coercion turns out to be less ubiquitous than Zwolinski suggests, and should rarely if ever be counted as a trivial matter.  Whether or not this coercive aspect of capitalism is ultimately justifiable is best left for another discussion.

Lastly, this picture of coercion can also be used to help justify putting in place a substantial social minimum benefit, universal health care, guaranteed rights to a job (via government-sponsored work programs, etc.), and other ways of protecting the possibility for workers to lead decent lives after losing a job.  These are important antidotes to the coercive power currently residing in the ownership and control of capital.  Philip Pettit used the term “antipower” to describe the function of such mechanisms in constraining the ability of some to coerce and reduce the freedom of others (“Freedom as Antipower,” Ethics, 1996).  This seems roughly apt to me, and fits well with the account here.

The concept of coercion is too important and useful, I think, to toss it aside as of little interest in debates over the freedom of workers, but only if we understand it in a way different from those recently in vogue.  While the picture of coercion I’ve painted here uses rather broad strokes, and needs considerable nuance to deal with some of the complexities and fine points of more intricate examples, I hope it shows that those concerned with freedom can indeed draw some useful distinctions with this view of coercion, and that it does not require much in way of contentious moralizing to make at least some helpful use of it.

 

Addendum regarding Julian Sanchez on coercion.

Sanchez writes a fairly thorough analysis of these issues here.  While there is much that is helpful about his piece, and with which I agree, I’ll point briefly to some ways in which what I say above diverges from his analysis of the field.  First, I would deny (as I do above) that the approach favored here is “baseline” approach, so stand apart from most of those his analysis intends to encompass.  Secondly, I don’t put much or any emphasis on what the worker “agrees to” in taking a job.  For any agreement or token of consent, there is a prior question of whether that agreement or token was coerced, so the question of coercion is always prior.  I also don’t think that “the voluntary” is the right contrast class for understanding coercion, since focusing on the (in)voluntariness of any action turns us towards focusing on facts about the coecee, rather than about the coercer:  it’s what the coercer (and those relevantly similar to the coercer—here, the capitalist class) does to marshal and employ power over others that determines whether coercion is in play or not.

 

If you are interested in reading more of my views on coercion, please see (in rough order of usefulness):

  • Scott A. Anderson, “The Enforcement Approach to Coercion,” Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, October, 2010
  • Scott A. Anderson, “On Theories of Coercion, Two Axes, and the Importance of the Coercer,” Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) (accessible only via proprietary databases or institutional libraries).
  • Scott A. Anderson, “Coercion,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 
  1. A similar view can be attributed to Julian Sanchez, whose essay Matt pointed me to after largely finishing this response.  I say a bit more about it at the very end.
  2. The way that both individual capitalists and the capitalist class in general come to hold power over individual workers also helps distinguish the coercion in many employment relations from the kind of power differential that arises in most “rescue” cases, where one part is at the mercy of another due to the rescuee’s own misfortune or ill-considered action.
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  • TracyW

    That is to say, the power of capitalist employers to deny individual workers access to significant, necessary goods for living derives from the state’s manifest use of coercion to protect their property rights, in which their control of capital resides.

    Hold on, this implies that in a state of nature, without the state or other means of protecting property rights, individual workers (and our families) would have access to significant, necessary goods for living.
    Given modern population figures, this seems unlikely. Hunter-gatherers require large land areas to support themselves. The reason that millions of us are alive today is because of modern, capital-intensive farming. To farm successively, however, requires control over land, otherwise prisoners’ dilemmas/tragedy of the commons mean that the gains from farming will be grabbed by someone else. Even Communist countries had to protect farms from people just grabbing whatever they wanted, in order for everyone to have access to significant, necessary goods for living. And there’s a fair bit of evidence that private property is far more effective at creating access to those significant, necessary goods than Communism or government regulation is – consider the extinction risks for open-sea fisheries versus sheep and cattle.

    So you’ve got things the wrong way around. Individual workers (and capitalists) have access to significant, necessary goods, because of the state’s manifest use of coercion to protect the property rights of capitalists. The power of capitalists, and other workers, to give individual workers access to significant, necessary goods for living, derives from the state’s manifest use of coercion to protect their property rights.

    Basically, property rights are good. Assuming you like eating and drinking clean water and other such goods.

    • http://voodothosting.com/23/ Lorraine Lee

      It’s a good thing to have. I’ll say that much.

    • Sean II

      TracyW,

      I would add, since no one seems to have challenged this yet…

      If we call it coercion when I take some piece of capital from you on threat of death, AND we also call it coercion when someone stops me from coercing you to take that piece of capital on pain of death, we’ve got a problem with the concept – a problem that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with morality.

      Coercion used solely to prevent coercion has to be considered different from coercion used to pursue other ends. That’s true even for a person who doesn’t believe in property rights.

  • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

    Hi Scott,

    One of the most interesting claims you make, I thought, is this:

    “my approach declines to treat all demands employers make of their employees as coercive, since employers are constrained and necessitated to make at least some such demands of their employees by virtue of the necessity that they employ their resources efficiently.”

    I wonder if you might be able to say a bit more about the “necessitated” bit. I would think that if we interpret that term literally, very few actions of employers are necessitated. That is, it is almost always physically possible for an employer to have acted otherwise than she did. Catch an employee stealing? You don’t *have* to fire her. But she’s costing the firm money? Probably not enough to drive you out of business. And what’s stopping you from making it up out of your own personal savings?

    Of course, asking an employer to do this might be *unreasonable*. But there’s a large gap between what it’s reasonable to expect an employer to do and what it’s physically possible to do. Is your account of coercion really wedded to the latter?

    • Scott Anderson

      That’s a good question, and something I’m happy to try to elaborate a bit.

      My use of the term “necessity” here is not the sort that we imagine goes with determinism, or anything quite so reductive as “physical necessity”, but comes out of the general idea that some things depend for their existence on other things, without which not. The relata here, in my discussion, are kinds of actions and events (often, though not always, in an intentionally created framework). So, for instance, if people are to eat, it is necessary that people labor (a claim Sanchez makes IIRC that I endorse). That necessity does not apply directly to any particular person needing to work (or so it seems), but to the class of people in general. Of course, if we had lots of really good robots, the claim that people must labor for people to eat might turn out to be false. Or if there were only a few people, and they lived where food was plentiful and easily available. But under the currently constructed circumstances, human labor is necessary for human food production. I think a similar form of claim invoking necessity can be upheld then regarding the actions of a particular employer in a competitive economy and the existence of wage-paying jobs for its employees. Sure some employers can sometimes let one or several employees slack off. But the existence of the employment (again, in general) depends on the fact that the laborers produce what the company sells. If this were not the case, then it would indeed be odious for an employer to insist that her employees continue to labor merely for her own amusement. But exactly what an employer is necessitated to do or demand of her employees is certainly hard to determine.

      (I would call the kind of necessity I’m talking about here “practical necessity” and give a nod to G.E.M. Anscombe for her discussion of it, though I think there’s some further work to be done to show how this sort of case fits her discussion of it.)

      • Dan

        When you say “on my account of coercion, the coerciveness of the state’s institution of property rights is unmistakable”, how would you counter the following argument from practical necessity (which, apparently, you take to undermine the coerciveness of otherwise coercive behaviour):

        1) every successful modern economy has implemented property rights in one form or another (this is not supposed to be especially controversial, in particular it says nothing about the range of other government intervention; it is intended to rule out the Soviet Union but not Sweden)

        therefore (it seems to me this is a reasonable ampliative inference)

        2) in order for a modern economy to be successful, property rights must be enforced

        so

        3) as a matter of practical necessity, in modern economies, property rights must be implemented in one form or another

        and so

        4) the enforcement of property rights is not in itself coercive.

        I wonder which transition you’d dispute: I’m guessing 2 to 3, but I’d like to hear why.

        • Scott Anderson

          This seems a good point, and I hadn’t thought of applying the analysis above to this case. I see the analogy here, but am still inclined to resist it. I’ll see about trying to develop a more thorough, adequate answer, and post it as a stand-alone comment below. Probably this evening, though.

        • Marja Erwin

          If we accept Anderson’s definition of coercion, and if we accept that some form of property is necessary, it does not follow that enforcing the presently-existing forms of property is necessary.

          Some forms of property – slavery, feudalism, intellectual robbery – are nothing but unnecessary coercion and, in the first two, murder. Other forms may be something else.

          P.S. Disqus is not working.

      • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

        And what about the mafiosi? His demand for money with menaces may be practically necessary if he is to maintain the efficiency of his operation. Is he not then coercive?

  • TracyW

    Another point, your argument here is only about the rich, who own capital. But many people who aren’t rich are employers, for example many firms are financed by debt (eg a mortgage against the founder’s house), people who employ nannies are often workers themselves. And on the other side, many people who own capital aren’t that rich, eg retirees with pension funds, or workers trying to build up pension funds in the first place. A person who has funded their business by a mortgage against their house does risk the loss of basic goods of life if they go bust. Many retirees are living off the income from their capital, if they do as you say and sell it then they run a higher risk of running out before they die.

    it requires a whole other argument to show that individual capitalist employers could be justified to leverage the power conferred by title to capital to impose, at will, arbitrary conditions on their employees

    Yes, that it makes employees and employers better off. If we start with the point that private property creates the good things for life, then we have the question of why private property? Why can’t state property do as well? Hayek’s answer is that the state doesn’t have knowledge of all the fine, local knowledge that a market can take place. What looks arbitrary to an outside viewer may very well be deeply important to the people concerned. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily so, people can make mistakes, I know because I regularly do so. The question is whether outsiders can make better decisions for them overall, which you haven’t shown.

    It’s also rather odd that at the end you talk about how your picture of coercion can be used to help justify possiblities for workers to lead decent lives after losing a job, but don’t mention justifying possibilities of making it easier for workers to get new jobs once they’ve lost the first one. That has the nice feature of also lightening the burden on those funding all your schemes, and making life better for people who want a job but don’t currently have one, and for employers who’ve gone bust.

  • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

    It seems to me that the term ‘coercion,’ as it is ordinarily used, is pejorative and that any proposed purely descriptive definition of the term will not be able to free itself of the term’s current negative evaluative associations. In consequence, any such definition of the term will be a ‘persuasive definition.’ It will be touted as descriptive but, in practice, applying the term to any activity will be an underhand way of slagging off that activity. In short, a purely descriptive definition of ‘coercion’ is not intellectually respectable (or ought not to be). I think that coercion should be applied only to actions which violate, or threaten to violate, the rights of others.

    The topic of your discussion is coercion by employers, but you mystify the discussion by referring repeatedly to ‘capitalists’ and, worse, ‘the capitalist class.’ For instance, you talk of ‘employers in general (i.e., the capitalist class).’ First, a large segment of employees are employed either by national or local government, or by quangos, or by charitable bodies. The sorts of issues you raise arise in these places of employment as well as in business organisations. Second, even in business organisations it is not the case that there is a clear distinction between ‘capitalists’ and workers. Many workers own shares in companies, mostly through their pension funds. And the managers of large companies, some of whom might coerce their subordinates, are usually employees. Third, and in consequence, the idea that ‘capitalists’ form a distinct social class is plain nonsense.

    Your definition of coercion, slightly abbreviated, is: the coercer has power over the coercee which he uses intentionally to constrain the coercee’s prospects for action, either by means of a credible threat (explicit or tacit), imposed
    conditions, or through directly inhibiting the coercee’s ability to act. Many activities satisfy this definition without there being anything wrong with them. For example, the woman who says to her fiance, ‘if you sleep with that girl, I won’t marry you.’ What is the point of having a term for something so broad that it includes such innocent activities along with the extortionate demands of a mafiosi?

    The ‘intentionally’ bit of your definition is, it seems, meant to exclude threats which the employer makes in order to fulfil the demands of efficient operation. Thus, you say, getting the workers to do their job is not normally coercive, but demanding sex from an employee is. But this assumes that efficiency can be defined apart from the employer’s aims. What if the employer is a small businessman whose project is to run a business which, apart from supplying people with valued goods or services, also fulfils him in a variety of ways, one of which includes having sex with attractive female employees. In that case efficiency demands that some of the female employees be willing to have sex with him. You might say that having sex with employees cannot be part of the legitimate aims of a business. But who is to say what can count as legitimate business aims? Some set of commissars? That’s the road to hell. Innovation comes in part from entrepreneurs defining new aims for businesses and seeking to carry them out. Compare a different case: the family-run small business. Many of the decisions of a business of this kind will be taken on grounds of family ‘politics’ rather than on grounds that we might recognise as regarding business efficiency. But family ‘politics’ are important considerations for the efficient operation of a business one aim of which is that it be family-run.

    There is much more in your post with which I would like to take issue. I will try to find time later to come back to it.

  • brandonberg

    This seems to me to miss the point entirely. Coercion, like fraud, is bad because it enables negative-sum transactions, whereas voluntary, informed transactions are good because they’re mutually beneficial and thus positive-sum.

    Typical employment relationships are voluntary and more-or-less informed. They’re pretty clearly mutually beneficial; if employees genuinely believed they were being ill-used on net, they would quit. Not just quit when they found better jobs, but quit simply because they found their current jobs to be worse than unemployment.

    The employer does not literally force his employees to do things like show up on time or have sex with him; but by showing an ability and willingness to prevent an employee from achieving any number of crucial ends, he can make doing something like showing up on time or having sex with him into a necessary means to achieve those other ends.

    No, this is isn’t correct. An employer doesn’t prevent an employee from achieving certain ends by firing him. Rather, the employer merely ceases to assist the employee in achieving those ends. The employee is still free to seek out other means of achieving those ends. This is an important distinction—if the employer could actually stop the employee from achieving those ends through other means, it would open the door to negative-sum transactions.

    It may be undecidable in some particular cases whether such a rule is necessitated by the need for hyper-efficiency in a particular industry, or whether such a rule reflects nothing more than the employer’s disdain for its employees, or an attempt to squeeze every last cent of profit from their activity.

    I suspect that in most cases the reason is that the employer has had prior experience with employees using ostensible bathroom breaks as cover for malingering.

  • Sean II

    This idea of coercion seems vulnerable to the following reduction:

    Say I find myself stranded on a island with the world’s most beautiful woman and a Robo-Cop whose only programmed purpose is to prevent physical violence between humans. The Robo-Cop never sleeps nor leaves us alone, but he does no work. So the woman and I spend most of our time gathering food and firewood.

    Before long, I fall in love with the woman. Around the same time, she falls in love with not gathering food or firewood. That’s no problem for her, because she discovers that the sexual appetite of a male my age rivals any addiction known to science. So she offers me regular access to her body if – and only if – I promise to do all the work, and leave her to a life of island leisure.

    After a bout of pathetic and conflicted resistance, I agree. Now I am released from the tortures of sexual deprivation, and she is released from the burdens of work.

    Under Anderson’s definition, I’ve been coerced by someone with a broad advantage in power (his words, not my pun), who uses that power to constrain me…by imposed conditions…intentionally, etc. And according to him, the condition that makes such coercion possible is ultimately the presence of the Robo-Cop, because that is who prevents me from ravishing the woman and seizing the means of the production of sexual pleasure.

    Now, does anyone really want to claim that this woman is “coercing” me because I have to trade for her favors instead of assaulting her? I hope not, and I’m pretty sure she does too.

    • Scott Anderson

      Thanks for the comment, but here I disagree that the woman in your example has “power” over you in the relevant sense. She is not able to prevent you from obtaining a wide variety of the goods you seek; she can prevent you (if I understand the example correctly) from obtaining one particular good, which is not one that you have to have. Hence there is no reason to associate this kind of “power” with that which I’m interested in.

      • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

        If I may but in on this exchange:

        She can prevent him from obtaining a wide variety of the goods he seeks: he might want to have sex with her in a wide variety of ways. In any case, quality or intensity of good should count as well as quantity.

        Further, he has fallen in love with her, so it may well seem to him that sex with
        her is indeed something that he has to have. He might want sex with her so badly that he would be happy to give up everything else for it, and even be determined to take his own life if he cannot have it (he thinks his life is not worthwhile without it). Who are you to tell him
        otherwise?

        • Sean II

          Danny,

          Thanks…I should have read your reply before posting mine.

          I should add that the concept “wide variety of goods” seems suspect in other ways. We all know that money is THE thing that trades for a wide variety of goods, so his definition seems tailored to produce a special standard of coercion that applies mostly to the hiring of labor for money.

          And to hit it from the other side: what if the boss chose to pay his workers exclusively in corn meal porridge, and then deny them bathroom breaks? Would that mean the relationship was no longer coercive? Corn meal porridge is most decidedly not a wide variety of goods and the boss’ power over it would be narrow, not broad.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            I think we were writing at the same time, but my message was shorter so I got finished quicker. This is not the first time I have noticed that we often think the same things.

      • Sean II

        I thought you might say that. The idea that sexual gratification is not something a person “has to have” would come as a great surprise to hundreds of millions of people who’ve made themselves fools or slaves chasing it, who’ve died or killed to get it, who’ve gone mad from being deprived of it, etc.

        Why do YOU get to decide what things people “have to have” and what things they merely want? If large numbers of people are willing to pay huge prices for something, isn’t that their way of telling us what they “have to have”? (Also…what if I care about that one thing a whole lot more than I care about a “wide variety of goods”?)
        True, I will not die directly as a result of being refused sexual favors on that island, but neither will a man in Cleveland starve after being fired from McDonald’s for taking too many bathroom breaks. Indeed, he may become homeless and find himself gathering food all day and trying to keep warm at night, which puts him in roughly the same position as I am in on that hypothetical island. We’re both in miserable shape, but death is the least of our problems.
        So…how do your propose to draw a stable line between what people “have to have” and what they merely want? Because it seems that is now key to your definition of power.

  • http://voodothosting.com/23/ Lorraine Lee

    I too think that “the voluntary” is not the right contrast class for understanding coercion

  • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

    Prof. Anderson,

    Thanks for the interesting and thoughtful perspective. I have an objection, however.

    You say: “The suggestion involving baselines is this: employers don’t coerce employees because they merely make “offers” that leave workers no worse off than the
    baseline condition of having no offer. But my approach to coercion makes it
    possible to recognize that the power to make such offers, and the (would-be)
    employees’ lack of alternatives to them, are a direct result of the state’s use
    of coercion to protect property. Certain moralized theories of coercion can
    obscure this, but on my account of coercion, the coerciveness of the state’s
    institution of property rights is unmistakable. Again, the institution of
    property may itself be justified, in part or on the whole, but even if it is,
    it requires a whole other argument to show that individual capitalist employers
    could be justified to leverage the power conferred by title to capital to
    impose, at will, arbitrary conditions on their employees.”

    Because I believe that the “power to make such offers…” is NOT (as you say) “the
    direct result of the state’s use of coercion to protect property,” I think
    that the burden of proof does not lie where you seek to place it. To see this,
    imagine there is no state, but that people usually act morally, i.e. they do
    not as a general rule assault or steal from each other. When they do, there are
    purely private remedies in place. In such a world there would still be exactly
    the sort of offers you describe.

    The brain surgeon
    whose services are in great demand would make this sort of offer to the poorly
    paid manual laborer: “pay me for my services with the equivalent of five
    years of your labor or do without them.” The surgeon gets very rich, i.e.
    becomes an evil capitalist and forms a company to make medical devices. Because
    his employment offers are the best alternative available to workers, they put
    up with the “arbitrary conditions” he imposes. This all seems quite
    benign to me, and has nothing to do with the existence of a state. So, it seems
    to me that you owe us an argument to the contrary, i.e. that the surgeon is
    acting wrongly, or you must accept that coercion is primarily the product of
    the inherent inequality in natural endowments, luck, and the willingness to
    work hard to develop one’s talents. Of course, the state’s actions may make this
    natural inequality worse, but this is an argument for eliminating the state
    rather than protecting property rights.

    • Scott Anderson

      I think the set-up to your example is fine, and I agree that a surgeon could charge someone for her services without coercing him, just as I suggest employers can require their workers to labor without coercing them. (One side point: note that surgeons and professionals in general are in possession of a great deal of intellectual capital that was first produced by someone else. It is possible that those who produced and shared that knowledge might be entitled to place conditions on those who acquire and use it.) I also don’t think that a sick patient’s need for the doctor’s services is the same power dynamic that I am worried about with capitalists controlling private property to the exclusion of those lacking capital. If I fall in a deep hole, I will need the help of someone else with a ladder to get out; in some sense they have a great deal of power over me. But assuming they did not create my misfortune, they are not the cause of the power differential between us, nor are they using some sort of acquired power to keep me stuck. (Unless they owe me their labor, their refusal to labor for my sake, if they so refuse, is not a constraint on me. If, however, they monopolize the only means by which I might be rescued, that seems a different story.)

      I also think that talent, effort, etc., play some role in determining success in acquiring capital (though luck seems to have a much larger role to play than is usually acknowledged). But I argue that the capitalist class controls the land, natural resources, and the capital developed historically by humanity through property rights backed by coercion, and that this set of arrangements is at least as important as talent and effort in determining who has power over others under capitalism.

      • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

        I deny that there is anything like a “capitalist class,” or that this concept adds anything useful to the analysis of coercion and property rights. There are just individual persons who have accumulated capital by various means. If some of these means have violated the rights of others, than this should (if practical) be rectified, but past injustices do not cast the morality of strong property rights in doubt generally. With respect to the rest of your comment, I think you need a good argument for the claim that since (i) factors other than persons’ talent and effort, etc, have shaped current holdings, (ii) the state is warranted in reallocating them. I think that as Nozick demonstrated, (ii) simply does not follow from (i).

        • Scott Anderson

          I suggest at the end of my main post the need to provide “antipower” to those lacking the power inherent in capital ownership. (I don’t discuss more thoroughgoing redistribution efforts, though I am not necessarily opposed to them.) The argument for providing antipower, in brief, is that that people in the capitalist class (despite your rejection of that ontology) use the power inherent in the restricted ownership of capital to coerce those lacking such power. Such coercion constitutes a serious abridgement of the actual freedom of those in the non-capitalist class. Hence those concerned with freedom should use some means to prevent such coercion. The state, as ultimate regulator of coercion, seems to me an appropriate means to do this, though perhaps it is not the only or best one.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I’ll restrict myself to a single point. I deny that there exists any “restricted ownership of capital.” Capital is just another name for wealth, which is created everyday by entrepreneurs and by anyone who develops their own human capital (another form of wealth). Thus, while at any moment there is a finite amount of capital, there is an infinite supply of capital waiting to be created, and provided that everyone has an equal opportunity to create/acquire it, I see no justification for “antipower,” which as far as I can tell involves what libertarians regard as the morally impermissible coercion of autonomous agents (and we do have arguments for this).

          • TracyW

            But hold on, once we start talking about “actual freedom”, the reason that good stuff exists, like sufficient food to feed millions, is because of the power inherent in restricted ownership.

            Restricted ownership increases actual freedom. I’d far rather live in a world where I have to sell my labour to get food than in a world where I can’t get food because no one grows it in the first place. Positive freedoms are higher because of property rights.

            Your argument is only applicable to a hunter-gatherer society, or some imaginary world where goods are available through some magic process, not the world we live in today.

      • TracyW

        But I argue that the capitalist class controls the land, natural resources, and the capital developed historically by humanity through property rights backed by coercion,

        Interesting, how are you defining “capitalist class”? Bill Gates’ wealth doesn’t come from the control of land or natural resources, is he a capitalist? Was my grandfather farming his own land, with a big mortage, a capitalist? How about a Wall St financer whose money comes from currency trading?

        And how about human capital? Is someone with a PhD a member of the capitalist class? Someone who can read?

        And what bearing does it have on your argument the fact that property rights, backed by coercion, are essential for the development of capital and other goods in the first place?

      • TracyW

        One side point: note that surgeons and professionals in general are in possession of a great deal of intellectual capital that was first produced by someone else. It is possible that those who produced and shared that knowledge might be entitled to place conditions on those who acquire and use it.

        It is possible, but it sounds like a bloody stupid idea. Such a right would sharply limit the process of free speech, criticism and development of knowledge. Note the habit of Scientology of suing those who criticise it, claiming copyright in the materials they produced.

        Nor is there any reason to think that just because someone produced and shared knowledge means that they’re well-placed to control its use, after all they don’t know the local situations which all the people who learnt it will find themselves in.

        (Note, patent protection is a trade by which people are induced to share information in return for a limited period in which to profit from it, not some open-ended right to place conditions on others. And I am pretty convinced by the arguments I’ve read that current copyright law goes way too far).

        I know it’s a side note, but why mention such an idea at all?

        • Scott Anderson

          I am not saying that it is a good idea to create assignable property rights in all intellectual production. (I think we probably agree about the problems with IP law, actually.) I am saying that it is consistent with the principles of libertarianism that we do so. I am also saying that if we refuse to do so, it makes something of a mockery of the idea that surgeons make a good living only by their own talent, industry, and the goods that they have acquired through voluntary transactions with others. Surgeons like many others actually make use of a commons of intellectual property that rightfully belongs to humanity (I’d say), and we are all richer for it (I’d say, and it seems you would say). So I point this out to show that the “self-made and/or fully-paid” capitalist, even what seems like its purest case, is a myth. So that’s why I thought it might be helpful to point out this apparent blind spot.

          Consider one further point: those libertarians who are desperate to protect an individual’s right to property will treat the rights of heirs to large tracts of land, titles to ownership over industries, etc., as worth protecting, though such heirs arguably did nothing to deserve their inheritances. A person born owning nothing but their bodies and their minds may nonetheless create really useful ideas. Why is it that these person’s rights to their labor depend on the social utility calculus, whereas rights to things like land (which no individual created) get treated as sacrosanct, even when possessed by individuals who have contributed nothing?

          • TracyW

            The difference between physical property and intellectual property is that ideas are non-rivalrous. If I grow grain on an acre of land, that land can’t simultaneously be used to grow apples. If you harvest the grain, I can’t harvest the same grain. If you eat the grain, I can’t then eat the same grain. If you use a factory to make cars, I can’t simultaneously use that same factory to smelt iron ore. Bearing this in mind, someone or a group of someones needs to be making decisions about how to use each part of land, natural resource, or capital. And these decisions need to be enforceable, eg if it’s deciding to use land for planting grain, other individuals need to be stopped from tearing up the oats just because they’d prefer to use the land to grow apples (there may be allowances for necessity, eg preventing fires from spreading).

            There are different ways that people can be assigned to make these decisions – we can have private ownership, we could have a single dictator or a committe of dictators, we could have democratic decision-making, we could have deleged decision-making by a democracy to an individual, we can combine methods (eg voting by shareholders), etc. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. Even democratically, something has to be done about individuals who decide to ignore the democratic process.

            And, given the habit of people of dying, we need rules for replacing the decision-makers. And when it comes to those rules, certainty can be more important than picking the best person to make those decisions. Eg returning to democracy, the decisions about precisely how many years elections should happen, whether there should be term limits and if so at what length, etc, are less important than having that the whole process gives a person, or group of persons, the right to make certain decisions. There is a lot of value in abiding by the results of an election, even when I think that the wrong party won. Under private property, certainty about who inherits the right to make decisions is very valuable even if a particular heir isn’t that good at making decisions about the allocation of property. Court cases over unclear property rights have a tendency to run for years and chew through masses of money, rebellions against governments often turn violent and wind up killing thousands and destroying masses of property. The extreme high costs of disputing decision-making processes is why they tend to be treated as sacrosant.

            This is why I’ve kept saying to you that you’ve got your analysis round the wrong way – the good things of life (eg food, clean drinking water) come from property rights. Where everyone can just grab resources, with no limits, then people are worse off, see Elinor Ostrom’s work (or the state of fisheries with common access) for a better description of this. Property rights support positive liberties and increase the actual freedom of workers and other humans. If it weren’t for them, capitalists and other workers would be unable to give access to the significant goods of life.

            Ideas are not rivalrous in the same way. If I learn a Shakespearan sonnet by heart, that doesn’t stop you from learning a Shakespearean sonnet by heart. If I learn how to conduct open heart surgery sucessfully, that doesn’t stop you from learning the same thing.

            I hope this explains to you why rights to things like land (which no individual created) get treated as sacrosanct, even when possessed by individuals who have contributed nothing, while intellectual property is treated differently.

            There is of course a whole separate argument over the advantages of private ownership versus other systems of property rights. But I already am writing an awfully long comment.

          • TracyW

            I’ll add that though I’ve been using Anderson’s word “sacrosanct”, I do think that there are times and situations where it’s justified to ignore property rights and other decision-making processes, eg Frederick Douglas was definitely in the right to escape slavery, I approve of the spread of democracy in the Arab spring.

            I think though that such rebellions should be confined to times and places where one disapproves of the system as a whole rather than just because of an individual that the system gives power to. Slavery is wrong in general regardless of the merits of individual slaveowners, Frederick Douglas would have been justified in running away from the kindest slaveowner imaginable, rebelling to install democracy is probably better than rebelling to just change dictators. (I’m not sure about this so I’m interested in arguments to the contrary.)

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            You say: “Surgeons like many others actually make use of a commons of intellectual property that rightfully belongs to humanity (I’d say), and we are all richer for it (I’d say, and it seems you would say). So I point this out to show that the “self-made and/or fully-paid” capitalist, even what seems like its purest case, is a myth. So that’s why I thought it might be helpful to point out this apparent blind spot.”

            I’m not sure what you believe follows from this fact about the use of historical IP. I don’t think it is true that by virtue of a person receiving an unrequested benefit, that an obligation is created in favor of the person bestowing the benefit, or indeed society at large. Example: while I am away on a month-long European vacation, a handyman comes by my house and quite on his own decides to repaint it, to repair my fence, landscape my lawn, etc. When I get home, he presents me with a $10,000 bill, representing the fair market value of his work. Am I obligated to pay him?

            I don’t think so. Perhaps out of the goodness of my heart I should pay him something, but I deny that I am morally obligated to pay him anything. I think this verdict is fully supported by our commonsense morality. I did not request this work, and therefore am not obligated to pay for it.

            Also, as a natural rights libertarian, my support for the institution of inheritance has nothing to do with the right of heirs to receive, and everything to do with the rights of property owners to bequeath, a right I claim that is morally indistinguishable from the right to gift, and the right to spend in ways that other people regard as wasteful or foolish.

          • Scott Anderson

            My suggestion here (which I make clearer in my response to TracyW) is that you are able to treat the stock of historical IP as an “unrequested benefit” only because of the way we have set up property rights regarding IP (i.e., here, that they lapse after a certain amount of time). If I create an invention, it is not my will that the patent turns it over to you after 7 or 14 years, or whatever; it is simply the established rules that dictate that. And if I publish a philosophy paper, I can retain control of the “copyright” for a long time, but can’t retain control of the ideas in it at all. I could keep them to myself, I suppose, but I have no “right” to own them after sharing them with anyone else. So why should anyone assume that I choose to give them away when I would be happier to sell them if only we treated them like other products of labor.

            Now this is admittedly an arch proposal. But the point is that you are wiling to treat ideas as “unrequested benefits” though creating ideas is one of the few things a person can do without having title to physical land, inherited capital, etc. I understand utilitarian arguments for leaving historical IP as a kind of commons. But suppose those that created and disseminated their ideas would have liked to make the use of those ideas conditional on the users’ willingness to share them with others and charge only for the value of their labor, not their use of the ideas (or some such condition). Of course this can’t be done, but it’s a matter of social choice that it can’t be done, rather than a fact about what those idea creators “chose” to give away.

            (At the very least, we might imagine that the idea creators might want and deserve to require those who use and profit from their ideas to have a bit of humility about how totally it is their own talent and effort that contributes to their wonderful abilities and success.)

            Lastly, if you want to defend the right of some to give however they choose, need you also defend the right of those who receive bequests to keep them unmolested, and then (say) give them to a third party, etc.? The fact that X is fully entitled to command over the goods she produces through her efforts does not seem to me to justify allowing X to exercise that control in perpetuity, well past her death, by (say) defending her heirs (and their heirs, and their heirs) from taxation on unearned wealth. (I’m sure you know the arguments that arise around restrictive covenants, which apply here.) At any rate, even if there should be an unfettered right to give, I don’t see that this need imply an equally strong right to receive, or that the giver is wronged if the receiver’s interest in the gift is taxed, even at a very high rate.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Thanks for the reply. I don’t disagree with the general observation you make about IP, but I think it only cuts against my argument about “unrequested benefits” if the rules are in some way unjust to IP creators, so that today’s surgeons (and others) have received some undeserved enrichment. I don’t see this, as the rules enable inventors and writers to get quite wealthy from their IP. As Nozick points out with respect to patents, the monopoly granted must be limited in time because other people would eventually have made the same discovery. Thus, inventors do not have the right to direct that their inventions be used in perpetuity for purposes of “social justice.” Of course, they can use the proceeds from the exploitation of their IP in whatever way they like, including gifts to the poor. Why isn’t this opportunity enough? So I still don’t see any debt owed to society by today’s surgeons.

            BTW, there is a very good reason that “ideas” do not qualify for IP status or legal protection. As in, “I have an idea for a car that runs on water” or “Hey, I have an idea for limitless, cheap electric power through “cold fusion.” Ideas are a dime a dozen, but inventions are hard.

            On inheritance, the key point is whether you can morally distinguish the act of bequeathing from any other use of the owner’s property. If on my deathbed I give my children my fortune, should this trigger some special tax on them? Why? If I decide to spend my (after tax) millions on fast women, fast cars, and booze, should this trigger some additional special tax on the women, car dealerships, etc? What is it about the decision to give at the moment of death that justifies different rules?

          • Scott Anderson

            Your argument dismissing the problem with honoring the desires of property owners in perpetuity strangely fails to consider any problem cases. TracyW above offers a utilitarian justification for it (which seems to me based on spurious ideas about people’s incentives), and you seem to echo it. But I can’t see any “in principle” reason why the deceased should have iron-clad say over what happens to the property they left behind in perpetuity (“in perpetuity” is a really long time), and both many utilitarian and in-principle arguments against it.

          • TracyW

            Why do you think my ideas about people’s incentives are spurious? Do you think that I am wrong as a matter of fact to say that people often care about the well-being of others even after their own deaths?

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I am definitely not giving you a consequentialist justification for inheritance. Rather, I have challeneged you to distinguish in a morally relevant way inheritance from gifting or any other use of property. You offered the idea that inheritance permits “control in perpetuity.” My response was that so do charitable foundations and environmental land trusts, which seem completely benign. Do you disagree? Therefore, you have not shown that there is anything inherently suspect about this feature of inheritance, and have thus failed to distinguish it from gifting, etc. I will be happy to discuss “problem cases” when you have identified them and shown their relevance to this issue.

            In any case, you are (also) operating from a flawed premise. Inheritance does not establish control in perpetuity, but just for a single generation, i.e. it allows property to go from the testator to the heir(s), and no more. The heir(s) can either spend it, gift it, or (if there is anything left), pass it on to their heirs. But this is a seperate decision, not controlled by the testator.

            It is no different than this: I pay the owner of a barber shop for my haircut with a $20 bill. He turns to his son, a co-owner, a hands him the $20 to cover his share of the costs of the lunch they had together. The son then gives the $20 to his son, as a birthday present. By giving the $20 to the barber, did I enable him to control this money in perpetuity?

          • TracyW

            Okay, inheritance of property. Many forms of physical property, including land, require continued investment to maintain their quality. This is much more likely to happen if the person responsible for the asset has a continued interest in its future value (this is the argument for private property versus other forms of property I alluded to earlier, please let me know if you want me to spell this out).

            However, humans have a tendency to die, and sometimes we get impeding notice of death. So, how can we increase the odds of a person continuing to pay attention to the future value of their land as they get old? Well, one way is that most people can expect to leave behind people they care about deeply, most obviously children or spouses, other cases being other relatives, charitable causes, etc. The right to pass on their property gives people an interest in the future value of their property. Note that even if the person knows that their heirs intend to sell the property in question, they still have an incentive to invest in order to keep up the eventual sale price.

            If the benefactor has good reason to believe that the asset will be taxed away, this incentive reduces (and people spend a lot of time and money getting around the inheritance taxes, making us all poorer).

            Note, this system is not perfect, sometimes there are people who don’t care about anyone in a future generation. But then what system is perfect? And it also doesn’t apply to IP so much.

  • Scott Anderson

    This is a further reply to Dan’s comment, following up on my response to Matt. (The order in which comments appear here seems to me rather random. But in any case, if you want to see what prompts these thoughts, find the comment above or below from Matt, with replies by myself and Dan.)

    I claim that employers don’t in general coerce workers into
    doing something productive by threatening to refuse to pay them (i.e., to fire
    them) unless they do their jobs. I claim
    that states do coerce individuals when they threaten them with fines, jail,
    etc., when individuals violate the property rights of others. Is that an unprincipled distinction? If not, how can I cut each pie so as to keep
    both claims without undercutting the other?

    Let’s simplify the employment case to a two party universe, with
    two essential kinds of labor that must be performed if each of the parties is
    to survive. Let us further stipulate
    that the only way for both parties to survive is if each specializes in just
    one of the kinds of labor, covering both kinds between them, and then trades
    with the other party in order to acquire goods of the second sort. Here in essence, each party employs the other
    for the good that he does not produce.
    Each can insist that the other do his part to produce and tender an
    adequate share of his own produce to his partner by refusing to hand over what
    the other one needs until he does so.
    But here there is really not much choice being exercised by either party: if either fails to hold up his end of the
    production and trading scheme, his partner perishes, and in turn he
    perishes. So while there are constraints
    on what each party may do, these aren’t due to the wills of the parties
    involved, but rather due to the way labor and scarcity interact here to make a
    certain arrangement necessary. Of
    course, both parties can know this, and communicate to the other the necessity
    of doing his part, and the consequences of failing to do one’s part. But insofar as each demands no more than that
    the other provide him with the goods necessary for survival, this is not done
    at the will of either party.

    (I’ll leave the matter of whether and how this schematic
    case can be generalized to a full-blown market economy as a matter we can argue
    about next, if that seems worthwhile.)

    Since I have generally taken the state’s use of commands
    backed by force to be paradigmatic of coercion, and since I have been very wary
    of moving towards a moralized account of coercion, I’ve not given as much
    attention to the question of whether the state acts of necessity in using its
    police powers to back its property regime.
    Even if we assume, as I will for the sake of argument, that some system
    of property rights is required in order to avoid chaos, I don’t agree that any
    particular state is obligated to enforce the particular system associated with
    capitalism. So one sort of discretion is
    exercised in choosing the system we have here.
    States also act with discretion in the way they fill out their property
    rights: say, how they treat rights to
    intellectual property, to make gifts, to build various sorts of structures,
    etc., as well as how they decide to take property from or give property to
    various entities.

    Yet it seems like this may all be akin to an employer
    deciding what exactly productive work is, and requiring employees to do that,
    rather than unproductive work, which I’m willing to hold is all just a
    specification of something that is necessary – that employees perform
    productive labor for their wages.

    I think it could be argued that even if a system of property
    rights is required, and thus that some specification of that system is
    necessitated, the state need not use its police powers to enforce it. If I held that view, then the state’s act of
    choice here would be to use coercive power to enforce the property rights
    regime. This position would have some
    drawbacks for my larger view: it would,
    I think, undercut my claim that capitalists possess their capital due to the
    coercive backing of the state. But in
    fact I think that at least some systems of property rights do depend on their
    backing by institutional enforcement (e.g., those of capitalism), and so there
    would be no effective property rights in this system without coercive
    enforcement.

    But I don’t think that implies that every system of property
    rights would have to depend on coercion, or at least not as much coercion as
    the system we have now. If there is a
    system of property rights that would fulfill the needs of society which either
    can function with no use of state coercion, or else with much less than we are
    used to here, then there is something optional about the choice to create a
    system that works only because coercion is there to support it.

    I don’t have to hand a convincing case of a society that has property rights with much less coercion propping up that system of rights than we are used to here, but I don’t really think it is hard to imagine.

    • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

      You say: “Let’s simplify the employment case to a two party universe, with two essential kinds of labor that must be performed if each of the parties is to survive. Let us further stipulate that the only way for both parties to survive is if each specializes in just one of the kinds of labor, covering both kinds between them, and then trades with the other party in order to acquire goods of the second sort. Here in essence, each party employs the other for the good that he does not produce”

      What you have described is two people who work independently and then make a trade. That is not employment: neither employs the other. Employment is what the lawyers call a ‘master-servant’ contract: it involves one person directing the work of another; the former a boss, the latter an underling. In your example, the two people are equals, neither orders the other about; they are what is known as ‘independent contractors.’. In consequence, your example does not illustrate how employment can be non-coercive (because it is not a case of employment).

      This seems to be symptomatic of a general confusion in your thought. You seem to equate employment with ‘capitalist’ organisations, and to equate the existence of such organisations with a market economy. But organisations (of any kind) are the opposite of markets: the existence of organisations is a kind of market failure; or, better, a market solution to a problem that cannot be solved in a pure market (see R H Coase, ‘The Nature of the Firm’). In a pure market, there are no organisations, there are no employers, there are only independent contractors.

      About your example you say: “while there are constraints on what each party may do, these aren’t due to the wills of the parties involved.” That also seems false. What each party can do depends upon how much of his own good he has to give up to the other party to get as much as he wants of the other party’s good. The terms of trade depend upon the wills (and negotiating skills) of the two parties.

  • JFA

    This conception of coercion seems oddly similar to Hayek’s in The Constitution of Liberty, which has a problem with determining when the certain conditions apply to specific situations and ends up not being practically relevant since most actions can be defined to be coercive.

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