Nobody’s Forcing You

So I’ve heard more than a little bit of grumbling about how libertarians don’t care about the poor, and the truth is if you read some of the more out there screeds *cough*Atlas Shrugged*cough* I can see where you might get that impression. And the truth is there’s a lot of distance between even the most bleeding heart libertarian and “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”. That being said, I still believe there is an argument to be made that not all libertarians are looking to throw the baby out with the bathwater if the baby didn’t pay for the bath first.

Now I’m no philosopher (as has been pointed out to me on more than one occasion), and I’m certainly not an economist (as has also been pointed out to me on more than one occasion), but I think somewhere between the two disciplines we might be able to find an answer that, if not perfect, at least gets to a reasonable engagement of the issue at hand. While I’m not big on addressing the notion of social justice as such (that ground has been tread quite thoroughly by stronger minds than mine), I would like to address one small slice of the view: the question of the use of force as coercion, and specifically whether it is possible to use economic force as coercion.

Now obviously I think every libertarian (and most everyone else) would agree that violence is bad (mmm’kay?). More specifically, either the express or implied use of force is what we object to. Because government usually has a monopoly in a given geographical area on the use of force it tends to be the target of libertarian ire, but contrary to what you may have been told I don’t know any libertarians who give a free pass to corporations or private individuals who utilize force to get their way either.

But is violence the only kind of force? What about economic pressure? After all, the government uses economic pressure in the form of sanctions on other countries all the time, so there has to be something to it, right? And if that’s the case, how is that any different from Wal-Mart threatening to fire employees for joining a walkout or working in sweatshops?

My coworker and I had a talk about this at lunch, and I came up with a theory that, while by no means unassailable (see my caveats re: my status as philosopher and economist above) seems to be a good starting point. It goes something like this. In order for a situation that does not involve direct physical violence to be considered coercive, it must meet two criteria:

(1)    The next best option is catastrophically bad.

(2)    The fact that the next best option is catastrophically bad is not a direct result of an improvement in station caused by the current situation.

So for example, if your current job requires you to work 16 hours a day, and your next best option is no job and starvation, then yeah, I’d say that’s catastrophically bad. But if you were unemployed and starving before you got your current job, then a threatened return to that state isn’t coercive. By the same token, if your next best option is to make less money but still get by (which is most Americans), then again, bad but not catastrophically bad.

Does this justify all kinds of horrible behavior? Certainly not. At no point am I saying that anyone should be subject to violence or assault as a precondition for keeping their job (and I do include unwanted sexual advances in that category). But I think it may help to frame the discussion about whether or not corporations are coercing their employees to work long hours or whether “sweat shops” are coercing their employees to work there at all, among other discussions.

I welcome honest and respectful debate on the matter. As I said, I am sure the theory could use some work.


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