Liberty, Libertarianism

Libertarianism, Freedom, and Coercion

Bertram, Robin and Gourevitch (BRG) don’t think that libertarianism takes seriously enough the ways in which workers’ freedom is restricted in a capitalist economy. Jason Brennan thinks that BRG misunderstand the sort of libertarianism to which we Bleeding Heart Libertarians are attracted. I see a bit more merit in BRG’s argument than Jason does, but I share his concern. In fact, I think he understates it. BRG misunderstand not just Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, but libertarianism as such. And this misunderstanding infects both their analysis of what kinds of behaviors libertarians ought to regard as problematic, and their analysis of how our libertarianism (allegedly) renders us unable to respond appropriately to these problems.

Libertarianism and Freedom

According to BRG, “libertarianism is a philosophy of individual freedom.” Indeed, according to their interpretation, “Libertarians claim that freedom is their core value and that it’s maximized when the state refrains from interfering in the private choices of individuals” (emphasis added). This understanding of libertarianism plays a crucial role in their argument, the thesis of which is that in responding to the issue of workplace unfreedom, libertarians must either “give up their exclusive focus on the state and become something like garden-variety liberals or … reveal that they are not the defenders of freedom they claim to be.” If libertarianism is defined at its core by its commitment to maximizing individual freedom, than a failure to apply that standard in the workplace demonstrates that libertarianism fails to live up to its own moral standard.

I think the idea that libertarianism can be understood as fundamentally about freedom, simpliciter, is a mistake. It is an even graver mistake to suppose that libertarianism is committed to the maximization of freedom. But before I get into that, I want to pause briefly to dispense with the rather silly idea that libertarians are committed to an “exclusive focus on the state.” I take it that the point BRG wish to make is that libertarians only care about freedom when it is violated by the state; not when it is violated by businesses or private persons. But this is greatly overstated at best, and palpably false at worst. Even Murray Rothbard, who is usually my go-to guy when I want to find a quote from somebody endorsing the most extreme and caricatured form of libertarianism, doesn’t hold this view. In fact, he explicitly rejects it. See, for just the most explicit statement of a principle that runs throughout his writing, his essay on “Confiscation and the Homestead Principle,” where he writes that it is a mistake to suppose that libertarianism’s main dichotomy is

“government” vs. “private” with the former bad and the latter good. Government…is after all not a mystical entity but a group of individuals, “private” individuals if you will, acting in the manner of an organized criminal gang. But this means that there may also be “private” criminals as well as people directly affiliated with the government. What we libertarians object to, then, is not government per se but crime, what we object to is unjust or criminal property titles; what we are for is not “private” property per se but just, innocent, non-criminal private property. It is justice vs. injustice, innocence vs. criminality that must be our major libertarian focus.

Of course, libertarians believe that the most effective and destructive perpetrator of injustice has generally been the state, and so for this reason the state has occupied a correspondingly large role in libertarian social analysis.But this is an issue of the application of libertarian moral principles to empirical reality, not a matter of basic principle itself.  And while I’ve argued quite recently that libertarians could do a better job learning from the left about the ways in which non-state power can pose a threat to liberty, the idea that an exclusive focus on the state is essential to libertarianism, such that if we were to give it up we would become “garden-variety liberals,” is clearly false.

So, back to freedom. What are we to make of the claim that this is the “core value” of libertarianism? It certainly sounds plausible enough. Libertarians certainly talk a lot about freedom, and “liberty” is, after all, the root of the term “libertarian.” But it is not mere liberty as such that libertarians value – not “mere freedom.” Libertarians do not regard every exercise of freedom to be equally valuable, or equally worthy of political protection. The rapist’s freedom to rape, the mugger’s victim to steal, and the killer’s freedom to kill, all are curtailed to the fullest extent possible under a libertarian regime. Even the system of libertarian property rights itself, as most of us on this blog have explicitly acknowledged, entails significant restrictions on individual freedom – my right to this plot of land entails your unfreedom to use it without my permission. What makes these restrictions of freedom acceptable, and what differentiates the acceptable from the unacceptable infringements of freedom, is a matter of some dispute among libertarians themselves. For neo-Lockean libertarians like Robert Nozick, freedom as a moral category is strictly subordinate to a prior theory of rights – my freedom to sell my kidney is worthy of political protection because it is compatible with my right of self-ownership and violates no one else’s rights; my freedom to swing my fist at your face is not. For consequentialist libertarians, freedom will only be worthy of political protection to the extent that this is compatible with the underlying teleological theory. But no libertarian, as far as I am aware, holds that mere freedom as such is the core value.

They certainly do not claim that freedom ought to be “maximized.” Whether or not the idea of “maximizing” freedom is coherent, and it is far from clear that it is (are we supposed to count up the freedoms that various social systems allow and compare them? If so, how are freedoms to be individuated? By act-types? Tokens?), it is certainly not something that libertarians endorse. If liberty can only be maximized by sacrificing the rightful freedom of a few for the greater freedom of the many, libertarians will oppose it, just as they would oppose sacrificing the rightful utility of the few for the utility of the many. The closest you’re likely to find to a maximizing conception of liberty in the libertarian literature is someone like Herbert Spencer, whose Law of Equal Freedom states that “Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.” But even here, the idea that freedom is to be maximized is subordinate to the requirement that freedom be equal.



A similar and related confusion pervades BRG’s discussion of libertarians’ attitudes toward coercion. Just as libertarians are supposed by BRG to be unequivocally in favor of freedom, as such, so we are alleged to be unequivocally opposed to coercion, as such. The claim about coercion is wrong partly for the same reason that the claim about freedom is wrong. Just as libertarians recognize that a regime of property rights restricts liberty, so too do they recognize that it does so through the use of coercion. But they believe that this sort of coercion is morally permissible, even while other kinds of coercion are not.

Even more than in the case of freedom, though, it is probably a mistake to put too much weight on the concept of coercion, whether the subject is libertarianism or just applied political philosophy more generally. In its most natural, non-philosophical sense, coercion simply means threatening to do something bad to someone unless they do what you want. In this sense, of course libertarians recognize that the workplace is rife with coercion. BRG seem to think they’ve found some sort of “gotcha” when they quote the libertarian Robert Nozick as citing as an obvious example of coercion: “You threaten to get me fired from my job if I do A, and I refrain from doing A because of this threat….I was coerced into not doing A.” But there’s no gotcha here. Nozick is making a conceptual point, not a normative one. Yes, threatening to get someone fired unless they do what you want is coercive. Is it morally wrong? Well, that depends. Here are two different ways of filling in the variable in Nozick’s example:

Show Up: I threaten to get you fired from your job if you A, where A = “regularly sleep in past the time at which you are supposed to show up,” and you refrain from doing A because of that threat.

Put Out: I threaten to get you fired from your job if you A, where A = “refuse to sleep with me,” and you refrain from doing A because of that threat.

Both examples involve coercion. Show Up involves coercion that, in almost all circumstances, will be morally permissible. Put Out involves coercion that, in almost all circumstances, will be morally impermissible. What makes the difference is a matter of some dispute, but that’s where the philosophical action is, and obviously we will have to look beyond the concept of coercion itself to settle the matter.

Incidentally, most non-libertarians will think that Put Out involves activity that is both immoral and properly criminalized. But we can come up with other cases of coercion where these come apart. Consider:

Prove Your Love: I threaten to break up with you if you A, where A = “refuse to sleep with me,” and you refrain from doing A because of that threat.

Like the first two cases, Prove Your Love involves coercion. Like Put Out, the coercion is (arguably) immoral. (If you don’t think it’s immoral to pressure your romantic partner into having sex by threat of break-up, I’m sure you can come up with your own substitute example). Unlike Put Out, though, the coercion involved is of a sort that almost nobody believes should be criminalized.

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. In either case, then, the moral status of an action is an issue that can only be settled by analysis independent of the concept of coercion.



None of this settles the interesting substantive questions of whether limiting bathroom breaks for employees, or asking for their Facebook login information, or any of the other shocking activities that BRG catalog are in the final analysis morally wrong, or whether they ought to be legally prohibited. And that’s kind of the point. Settling those substantive issues, or understanding what the libertarian position(s) on them is, or whether libertarianism’s position(s) is defensible, requires more than looking at a few buzzwords like “coercion” or “freedom.” It requires looking at the substantive moral analysis that underlies those buzzwords, and gives them their force and meaning.

  • Aeon Skoble

    Excellent analysis; just want to add one thing.
    “Libertarians claim that freedom is their core value” Another sense in which this claim (BRG’s, not yours) is false is that it misses the point that freedom _isn’t_ the core value, it’s the core _political_ value; that is, when designing or evaluating _political institutions_, liberty is to receive paramount consideration, as opposed to other political values such as equality or paternalism or soul-saving or nationalism or (what they think of as) social justice. That’s why they seem to not get that a libertarian might disapprove of drug use while also opposing prohibition, why they seem not to get that a libertarian might want to help the poor yet eschew coerced transfer programs.

  • Vern Imrich

    I think it is the more modern Rand wing that uses the term “coercion” in the way that BRG imply. Rand went to great lengths to (re)define the term and also situations so that “coercion” was always immoral and the moral cases were always deemed “free choice” of some kind.

    I think your use of terms and resulting conclusion about analysis is more in line with how people actually think. However, I do think there is some value in separating out concepts like withholding benefits from say, threatening violence. Studies on lottery winners have shown how humans tend to adapt to a certain level of benefit, even if it was suddenly acquired, so that any withdrawal of the benefit is now seen almost the same way as a new threat, though it would never have been noticed by that person only a short time before they first acquired the benefit.

    Economists talk about how “employment is sticky” but it would seem our sense of being coerced is as well. Being fired is worse than not being hired in the first place. Even in your examples, consider the difference between total strangers vs. people who have been dating for a while.

    • Aeon Skoble

      You don’t have to be in the “modern Rand wing” to prefer a moralized sense of “coercion.” For some purposes it’s more convenient. As long as terms are defined beforehand, shouldn’t be a problem.

  • Do you imagine that “BRG” think the status of these limitations on freedom is settled by “a few buzzwords”?

    • No, but I think their understanding of the libertarian position on these issues is.

      • KnowPD

        A straw man? The ultimate challenge in the debate is that it’s far easier to attack the other side than to propose a complete / coherent thesis.

  • Cal

    A good post. Critics like BR&G often misconstrue libertarian ideas, or at least (understandably) attack easier targets rather than the strongest libertarian arguments, and this posts explains a number of ways Bertram et al do this. However I think Zwolinski may be somewhat incorrect on freedom here.

    Many libertarians certainly place freedom at the centre of their position and talk about such things as ‘maximising freedom’. However they are usually careful to point out that ‘freedom’ is not ‘license’ or ‘absence of interpersonal influence’ or ‘lack of all constraints on action’ or various other things–at least those are not the senses in which libertarians speak of freedom (and Hayek etc. argue that the ‘libertarian’ conception of freedom is dominant ordinary language sense of the word, at least in Anglic sociopolitical contexts)–rather as Hayek argued freedom is understood as the state not being a slave. As Isaiah Berlin famously put it: “The fundamental sense of freedom is freedom from chains, from imprisonment, from enslavement by others. The rest is extension of this sense, or else metaphor.”

    Now, this may turn out to not be the dominant ordinary language sense or freedom and a hollow conception of freedom and everything else. People obviously use ‘freedom’ to refer to a large diversity of concepts and are free to wholly reject labeling this concept ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’. However libertarians have arguments for using this referent, as I think Jan Lester explained quite well in the very much underappreciated Escape from Leviathan (2001) and simplified here in ‘Libertarianism: An Extremely Short Introduction‘:

    The word ‘liberty’

    The words ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ are not usually distinguished in any systematic or significant way. They simply have different roots in the English language. ‘Liberty’ has its origins in the Latin ‘libertas’. ‘Freedom’ comes from the Old English ‘freodom’.
    It is usually not necessary to discuss what we mean by a particular word. We can take it for granted that others mean the same thing as we do. But this is not always true with the fundamental words that arise in moral, social and political contexts. One such ambiguous and disputed word is ‘liberty’. So it is necessary to give some kind of definition or even theory of ‘liberty’ before we can say clearly why it is important.
    ‘Liberty’ in its most general sense refers to the absence of constraints on something. Here we are interested in the absence of constraints on people by other people. There are two main ways to interpret this, which we can call zero-sum liberty and non-invasive liberty.

    Zero-sum liberty

    With zero-sum liberty, one person’s loss of liberty is always another person’s gain in liberty. If someone takes my car without my permission, then I lose the liberty to use that car and the taker gains the liberty to use that car. This has implications that can be used as criticisms. 1) Such liberty cannot be maximised for all, it can only be competed over or shared in some way. 2) Competing over liberty does not sound desirable but is even equality of such liberty much better? What exactly does it mean? Why is it desirable? Does it require continual political intervention to enforce the equality? 3) In any case, it follows that the standard for what types of liberty matter (liberty to do this but not liberty to do that) must be something other than liberty. But many people think that a conception of liberty itself should be the standard of what is allowable. 4) This view means that we have to balance the ‘liberty’ of a thief, or other aggressor, against that of his victims. Do we really think that this is what we are, and ought to be, doing? The zero-sum conception of liberty gives us problems rather than solutions. Yet people do sometimes talk of liberty in this way.

    Non-Invasive Liberty

    Non-invasive liberty agrees with the popular view of liberty as not being interfered with, or not being proactively imposed on, by other people. Not being attacked or robbed is part of liberty; attacking or robbing people is not part of liberty. And this has implications that look more like solutions than problems. 1) In principle, anyone in a society can have complete liberty. 2) In principle, everyone in a society can have complete liberty at the same time. 3) A clear and crucial distinction is now possible between (non-invasive) liberty and (invasive) licence. We can say that a thief, or other aggressor, is exercising licence and not liberty. And those who resist an aggressor (or use coercion to recover restitution from an aggressor) are merely protecting their own liberty, not limiting the (non-invasive) liberty of the aggressor. 4) Such liberty is not only desired by everyone but is generally also thought desirable for everyone, at least to a large degree.
    External property ownership and even self-ownership itself are consequences of maximising non-invasive liberty. Therefore, expressed in more practical and plain terms, ‘liberty’ means being able to do what you like with your own body and your own property (as long as you are not thereby proactively imposing on the body or property of others). This sense of ‘liberty’ is what libertarians, or classical liberals, mean when they advocate liberty. This is also the dominant conception of liberty within Western history and it applies to any society that is described as generally ‘liberal’. It is the importance of this liberty that we are explaining.

    Apologies for the long quotation.

  • good_in_theory

    On Liberty:

    I also didn’t really quite follow what BRG (and later also H – Holbo) meant by ‘maximizing liberty.’

    (See Holbo: Perhaps this helps: libertarians often say they are maximizing liberty. Liberals often say they are optimizing the supply of liberty. They are trying to secure the greatest amount possible, consistent with everyone having at least the basics, and consistent with certain concerns about equality. Libertarians may suggest that they are most committed to liberty because they are maximizers not optimizers. But it is false that libertarians actually are maximizers. When we look at what they are securing, it may (I think will) turn out to be less than the liberal optimum.)

    The only coherent way I can think of libertarians as typically being about *maximizing* freedom is with the thought that libertarians try to maximize freedom ex ante – everyone starts with full formal freedom, limited only where an extension of their formal freedom would impinge the formal freedom of others. Then from there, whatever happens, happens – including, potentially, a radical drop in freedom ex post.

  • good_in_theory

    “Prove your love” could also be called, in certain circumstances, what domestic violence opponents have called coercive control, and should be, according to some of them, considered a violation of human rights.

    So it’s not true that “prove your love” is something that virtually no one things should be illegal. Placing someone in a situation of dependence and then making demands of them is ostensibly a form of domestic violence, even though the partner, presumably, has freedom of exit.

    This would seem to support the BRG thesis that libertarians have trouble seeing coercion outside of the state.

    • bh9

      “Placing someone in a situation of dependence”

      Say again?

      How exactly is an adult person “placed” into dependency? If they have the presumed freedom to exit, they have a choice. That is, they have liberty. But no guarantee against making bad choices.

      There is no presumption that choices will necessarily be easy or graceful. Only that they must be available. Failing to choose is, itself, a choice. That does not reflect a loss of liberty — but more likely a loss of courage.

      This may also account for why libertarians see coercion by the state as unique: only the state has exclusive legal monopoly to inflict violence (or threaten violence) to get its way.

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  • Fangorn

    “Of course, libertarians believe that the most effective and destructive perpetrator of injustice has generally been the state, and so for this reason the state has occupied a correspondingly large role in libertarian social analysis.”

    I have to ask: why analyze the state, when what seems to me rather more important is to understand who forms and runs the state? It’s all well and good to look at how ‘the state is injust and destructive’ and all that, but it seems to me that to counter its influence you don’t need to attack ‘the state’ (which is at bottom just shorthand for ‘an institution with coercive power that has the shape it does because people decided to constitute it that way’ — something that applies equally to most corporations, even if the extent of that power is arguably slightly less extensive), but who runs it, and see what is going wrong at that level.

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  • Moomonk

    A really good essay. Even though I disagree with it in parts, I think you’ve gone to great lengths to try and provide a balanced argument. But, from personal experience, I find flaws in your ‘show up’ / ‘put out’ argument. See, I had an employer who did precisely this. I ‘showed up’ regularly, but he asked me to do certain things with certain bodily parts of his which were not stipulated in my contract, so to speak. He actually made jest at this very point! But in our relationship he had the power. And history tends to show that whoever has the power decides what is moral and what is not. I do not like that at all. In fact I fundamentally disagree with it. But on this point one is reminded of our old pal Machiavelli – just because I don’t like what he says doesn’t mean he speaks less truth… Suffice to say, I had no job the next day. I don’t buy that morality is in any way objective. It’s subjective to lots of different factors. But most of all it’s subjective to who has the monopoly on power. In a statist society it tends to be you know who. But power will find its way to corrupt in any circumstance. It will always find a way to bring about evil, for evil is a most snakelike gent. If evil can’t be done through the state, the ol’ serpent will look to find other ways to manifest that grim countenance. In the family it’ll often go to the alpha male, in the office environment to whoever has the greatest authority, in the trade union it’ll go to the boss harboring delusions of political power. We can go on and on listing examples and counter-examples. My point is, the libertarian mind must not fall prey to the same flaws at state-socialists who think they can cure all the evils of man by doing away with capitalism. A sociopath will not stop being a sociopath just because you take him out of political office. He will look for other ways and other avenues to do his dirty work, with or without the use of violence. Incidentally, the said boss himself ended up penniless and jobless after playing with the wrong people about three months after my aforementioned incident.