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ROBERT CUNNINGHAM, The Case Against Coercion - Ralph Raico, New Individualist Review 
New Individualist Review, editor-in-chief Ralph Raico, introduction by Milton Friedman (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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The Case Against Coercion
IT IS A RATHER easy sport to show how particular collectivist measures have gone awry. But we conservatives cannot neglect the task of attempting to articulate a theoretical justification for our position. And this is especially important for a journal such as New Individualist Review. In this article I have attempted to outline some of the more general and abstract arguments for limiting governmental coercion to the narrowest possible sphere. While one cannot in so brief a space show conclusively where the line between governmental and non-governmental action should be drawn, I hope to provide support for the premise that is fundamental to the conservative position: that a prima facie case exists against governmental coercion when extended beyond its role of preventing violence by private individuals, and that consequently the burden of proof is always on its proponent.
To avoid the usual arguments over the “true meaning” of coercion, I will stipulate the following definition. Coercion is violence or threatened violence designed to cause a person either to perform an act or to refrain from performing one. Most would agree that governmental coercion in this sense ought to be used against the private coercive action of one citizen directed against another, and against those agents of foreign governments who initiate coercion against us. Are there good reasons for wanting to minimize the overall coercion of one man by another, whether by an agent of government or by anyone else? Are there reasons for wanting to maximize “freedom” (which I stipulate to mean the absence of coercion initiated by one man against another)?1
When coercion is exercised upon a man, he does not act according to his own plans and for his own ends, but out of fear, acts as a tool in the hands of him who coerces. Not only are certain choices closed to him, but the opportunities freedom offers for self discipline are closed to him. Whenever the sphere of fully voluntary acts is thus narrowed, the number of choices open to the agent is reduced and he will consequently find it impossible to act in accord with the best judgment of his own conscience; and so not only the egoist, the man who lives for himself, but even the altruist prefers to be left free to make his own choices.
Coercion may be justified insofar as it removes obstacles to virtuous acts, and it is on this ground that coercion of children by parents may be justified: the bulldozer of coercion cannot build the house of virtue, but can push away the obstructions of unrestrained passion. Coercion of adults cannot be justified for this reason because nothing similar to the loving interest and detailed knowledge that parents can be presumed to have of their own children—and how many are the blunders of parents!—can be found on the part of governors of adults. Such interest and knowledge may exist, but there is no institutionalized way of picking out those who possess it. The appropriate means for one adult to lead another to a good end is persuasion, example, moral suasion, etc.—all of which attempt to affect only the choice and not the physical environment or body of the actor.
Unless an adult is permitted to guide himself to his own ends, he will fail to concern himself with matters which he knows best and cares for most. And unless there were some assurance that the governor’s circumstantial knowledge of and concern for what is good for each individual exceeds that of the individual, it could not be justifiably claimed that the governor is right to coerce individuals for their own good. As Thoreau said, “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.”
There is a question one might raise about this analysis: “How distinguish coercion from other forms of non-rational influence?” One cannot of course deny that people differ in ability to withstand pressures of various sorts, and that there are circumstances in which some individuals will fear certain moral sanctions as strongly as they would fear threatened violence. But though at the margin non-coercive forms of pressure may be as strongly felt as the threat of physical violence, one must not blur the difference between the two: Not only is it far easier for a man of conviction to resist jeers than it is to resist a club, but it is also true that while one can usually accomplish his ends though he feels the force of social disapproval, one cannot usually accomplish his ends when in jail.
Thus far we have said, in sum, that governmental coercion is desirable as a means of reducing overall coercion, and that there is an initial prejudice against using coercive measures for other reasons, because an act done under coercion fails to be a fully voluntary and thus a fully valuable human act. On this analysis, governors are the guardians of the peace, not spiritual directors. The conservative position is that governors hold a warrant only to promote that outward peace without which social life is impossible. As Jefferson said in his first inaugural address, government is to confine itself to restraining men from injuring one another: “this is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.” There is no way to guarantee the possession by agents of government of the special wisdom and other virtues demanded to know and carry out progress which uses coercion to make people good, or better. To put this point another way: I may believe I know what is good for you, but I do not trust you to know what is good for me. And if I might lose my power to coerce you for your own good, and if you might gain power to coerce me for my own good—then I want to deny myself the power to coerce you, and want to try to persuade you to deny yourself the power to coerce me. Surely it is true that individuals often act against their own best interests. Surely it is true that there are some who could use coercion to make people really better. But the problem is, how can we find these paragons of wisdom and virtue?
It should be clear that on this view of government, the most important question is not the classic “Who should rule?” but “How can we stop rulers from ruling too much?” For only if political sovereignty is thought to be essentially unlimited would the question “Who is to be sovereign?” be the only important question left.2 The problem of getting rulers who will always, or even more often than not, know and act for what is really in the best interests of all, beyond the minimizing of coercion, is practically insoluble; though of course every ruler and candidate professes love of and devotion to the “common good”—equivalent only to a denial that he is motivated by purely sectional concerns—and certainly no one could fault even Hitler in this respect. I am not maintaining the theory of the “outlaw conscience,” conscientia ex lex, the theory that the individual’s conscience is unrestrained and unrestrainable by anything other than its own subjective imperatives. Rather I approve a form of natural-law theory according to which certain moral truths (the Ten Commandments, let us say) are known with very little discourse. But I deny that any civil governor or governors, or even the majority of people in a democracy, will always or even usually act wisely when it is a matter not of minimizing overall coercion, but of coercing people to be better. This is not to say that one should not sometimes use every means short of coercion to lead others to what he considers to be virtuous activity or intelligent thinking about some matter. But he will either convince all or only some: if all are convinced, coercion will be unnecessary; if only some are convinced, coercion is, in my opinion, undesirable.
One must be willing to distinguish accurately between what is valuable in itself and what is a desirable goal of men acting through the instrumentality of the coercive state. To illustrate: one may believe that some men are “natural slaves” (in the Aristotelian sense); and yet, because of the difficulties of identifying these slaves and the dangers of giving to some men the power so to identify others, one may deny the desirability of a political order in which men are distinguished as “naturally” free or “naturally” slave.
Now even though the principle that state coercion is justified to minimize overall coercion be accepted, it must be in somebody’s discretion to answer the question: is such-and-such a coercive measure necessary to prevent worse coercion? The formula “better prevention than cure” would tend to stifle spontaneity and to presume more knowledge on the part of governors than can reasonably be expected. So there is no easy answer to this question and at the margin there will be room for dispute. But some administrative arbitrariness may be avoided if the onus probandi be placed on those who propose new legislation and if such coercive measures as are adopted be general abstract rules, known beforehand, and equally applicable to all.3
A number of other reasons have been offered by political theorists for justifying the reduction of coercion to a minimum. Among them we find the alleged fact that there exists a sphere of private, non-social activity in which no one but the individual concerned is interested, a sphere which does not involve the well-being of others; and so in this sphere no government coercion is justified. But no such purely private sphere exists; all behavior affects others at least indirectly and remotely, and those effects of my actions, though relatively unpredictable, may be quite as important to others as the obvious and immediate effects. One cannot, furthermore, assume the relativist position that no one knows what is morally or otherwise good for the individual better than he himself does; to my mind, at least, relativism is an indefensible position. Nor can one assume that most men are morally good and can well be left alone to pursue their own interests; the contrary I believe more likely: most men are morally bad in that most men seek the good of sense in opposition to the good of reason. The only telling argument for minimizing governmental and other coercion is this: there is no way of getting rulers who will know and do what is best for all concerned. If there were a way of getting rulers who would use force when necessary to teach us to use our liberty rightly, to become strong in resisting the determination of our own instincts, to stand firm against non-coercive sanctions—the curled lip, the raised eyebrow, the cancelled invitation, the economic deprivation, the scorn and ridicule, or the applause, the bonus and the medal—then one might not unreasonably be willing to give up a measure of freedom; to stop insisting on as large a protected “private” sphere of activity as possible. This is not to say that each of us is a little god, almighty and allgood, who asks only to be left alone to enjoy himself and his works; it is only to say that the state is not in Hegel’s words “a Big god almighty and allgood,” whose will is carried out by angelic agents.
To sum up in a sentence: We need governmental coercion, but we want no more than is “necessary.” But how much is necessary beyond what is called for by internal and external aggression? The conservative answer is: none. The hypothesis the conservative defends might be stated: if no more coercion be admitted than is necessary to reduce coercion to an overall minimum, then the conditions of the “good life” will be preserved. How could we verify this hypothesis? By attempting to falsify it, and failing. If we could find some interventionist measure (one by which government interferes with the voluntary actions of individuals to force them to do or refrain from doing certain non-coercive acts) whose consequences would be on the whole beneficial, then we should have falsified the hypothesis. Now the conservative does not hold that should one, or even a number of interventionist measures be introduced, the sky will crack and the world tumble about our ears. Some governmental interventions have worse consequences than others; one should take the middle path when the best path is closed; etc. But the conservative does hold that the fact that coercive measures are introduced “democratically” does not make them less undesirable. And he does believe that the better arguments can be found on the side of those who oppose interventionist measures—measures such as minimum wage laws; price and rent control; Social Security; FEPC legislation; Communist Party registration; the establishment of “free” and public schools; tariffs and quotas; regulatory commissions such as the ICC, the FCC, and the like; government monopoly of the post office; state licensing provisions; and the TVA. Now every such interventionist proposal would require a careful critique if one expected to convince a reasonable person of the rightness beyond question of the conservative position. It seems to me, however, that at a minimum the considerations we have just educed on the undesirability of coercion unmistakably throw the burden of proof on those who announce plans to increase the scope of governmental activity.
[* ] Robert Cunningham is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Francisco. He received his Ph.D. from Laval University and is the author of articles in Mind and other philosophic journals.
[1 ] Freedom is a word with many meanings: Isaiah Berlin tells us that over 200 have been recorded by historians of ideas. I have given one of them, and when I use the word without qualification, “absence of initiated coercion” is sub-stitutable for it. I do not in so defining “freedom” wish to deny that there are other goods which ordinary usage in some contexts may justify calling “freedom,” “freedoms,” “liberty,” etc.; if one wishes to say that other “freedoms” are more valuable than the absence of initiated coercion. I shall be willing to hear him out—for in giving a definition I have proved nothing.
[2 ]Cf. Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1960), p. 120 et seq.
[3 ]Cf. F. A. Hayek, “Freedom and Coercion: A Reply to Mr. Hamowy,” New Individualist Review (Vol. I, No. 2).