Front Page Titles (by Subject) Hayek on Coercion and Freedom - Literature of Liberty, Winter 1980, vol. 3, No. 4
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Hayek on Coercion and Freedom - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Winter 1980, vol. 3, No. 4 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Hayek on Coercion and Freedom
“F.A. Hayek and the Concept of Coercion.” In Ordo: Jahrbuch für die Ordnung von Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft Vol. 31(Stuttgart, New York: Gustav Fisher Verlag, 1980):pp. 43–50.
F. A. Hayek's impressive attempt to define a systematic political philosophy of individual liberty in his book The Constitution of Liberty (1960) fails largely because of his flawed concepts of freedom and coercion. Defining freedom as the absence of coercion, Hayek's understanding of the crucial term “coercion” is both fuzzy and self-contradictory. It is fuzzy since for Hayek, coercion loosely includes, in addition to the use or threat of physical violence, also voluntary, nonviolent actions that we are free to avoid. Hayek's notion of coercion is also self-contradictory since it lumps together in the same moral-legal category of coercion not only forced actions and exchanges but also certain types of nonviolent, voluntary refusal to make an exchange. On Hayek's criteria, some innocent nonviolent acts are judged “coercive” (e.g., being invited to a party on the condition that one wear a suit), whereas some tyrannical, violent acts are judged “noncoercive” (e.g., government imposed taxation and military conscription).
We should either confine the concept of “coercion” strictly to the invasion of another person or property by the use or threat of physical violence or scrap the term “coercion” altogether, and simply define “freedom” not as the “absence of coercion” but as the “absence of aggressive physical violence or its threat.” “Economic power,” that is, the right to define when one will work or exchange is not coercive. The alternative is to outlaw the refusal to work, which is a form of slavery.
Hayek, by blurring the distinction between aggressive force and justified defensive force, illogically legitimizes the existence of the state which depends on such aggressive force as taxation and the military draft. Hayek asserts that state coercion is justifiable if its edicts are the “rule of law,” that is, general rules knowable in advance. He argues that if we can foresee such edicts we can avoid putting ourselves in such a position. Yet Hayek's avoidability criterion for noncoercion leads to absurd or totalitarian conclusions. For example, one could logically frame a Hayekian general “rule of law,” knowable in advance, which would enslave everyone every third year, forbid anyone to criticize the government under pain of death, and oblige everyone to worship in a particular fashion.