The Reading Room

Social Coercion in Libertopia

James moves to the small town of Libertopia, where property rights are respected with perfect consistency. There is no force or fraud. Contracts are still normally in writing but handshakes uphold deals reliably. One can leave one’s doors unlocked at night and walk down alleys without fear of assault. 
Instead of pocketing found money, people will even put up fliers with the assurance that nobody will pretend to be the owner recovering “his” lost cash. Regulations are few and stable, making it relatively easy to start a business. The streets are spotless and the lawns are all manicured topiaries. Nobody litters because they respect their own and others’ property. Potholes are promptly fixed; snow is promptly shoveled; infrastructure is well-maintained and keeps up with growth.
Libertopia is a zero-crime community that’s financially prosperous, has charming architecture, and sports a consistently great high school football team. Sounds like a nice place to live. Here’s the rub: James quickly feels like he’s in a living hell and ready to move away as soon as he can. 
Why? James is an atheist, and the vast majority of the utopia are devout Christians who not only deeply disapprove of his atheism, but make no bones about expressing this disapproval to him. (Flip the script if desired, making James a Christian and atheists the majority.) James is not a jerk about his locally anomalous views. He doesn’t pick arguments, but neither does he back down when confronted, and he would welcome respectful dialogue where he can learn from his neighbors’ beliefs too. He would be happy to take part in charitable efforts and other community activities…if they’d have him. Nonetheless, the townspeople boycott his business, write scathing editorials about him in the local paper, and shun him to the point of averting their eyes when crossing paths with him. They almost revel in expressing how little they think of him, even though they’d never dream of violating his rights. They would even spit on the ground beside him if that didn’t violate property rights, so instead they talk badly about him as if he’s not right there. 
Liberty-minded people who don’t account for social coercion risk neglecting important areas of human freedom. Physical force and rights violations are only one type of coercion that set back a person’s interests. Another type of coercion is social, involving the systematic withdrawal of numerous beneficial interactions to the point where the costs of remaining in that community can become prohibitive. Humans have a fundamental need for connection, and a world where this connection is withdrawn for reasons beyond one’s control is, at best, a highly costly one that only the strongest can bear. Strictly speaking, this person’s formal rights are not violated in Libertopia, but their opportunities for worthwhile uses of their freedom are radically restricted. 
We can’t (and shouldn’t) force the townspeople to interact with James, of course, since that would violate their rights of association, in addition to being ineffectual. But that’s not the point here. I would push back against those who claim James is not being coerced through the shuns and boycotts. True, he doesn’t have a right to their business, but their refusal stems only from ideological differences and not their opinion of his goods and services, which they would otherwise purchase. By shunning him, they deprive James of far more than a world in which, say, he was welcomed but had to pay a modest amount of taxes.   
What is James doing that is prejudicial to the townspeople’s interests? We need an argument for why merely believing as he does is a threat to their, apparently, quite fragile way of life. Short of that argument, perhaps they sincerely find his atheism (or Christianity) deeply foolish. Fine, but it’s one thing to have difficult conversations, which James is willing to have; it’s quite another to assume that because he’s different, the best course is to coerce him through shame and shunning.  
Perhaps social coercion motivates him to think twice and come into conformity with the community’s views, where he is thereafter welcomed for his conversion. That’s possible, but how likely is this, and at what cost in an otherwise diverse world where not everyone’s deepest beliefs (if anyone’s) can be fully correct? Mill suggests in chapter 4 of On Liberty: “[T]o say that we may persecute others because we are right, and that they must not persecute us because they are wrong, we must beware of admitting a principle of which we should resent as a gross injustice the application to ourselves.” Besides the harm their coercion causes James, and perhaps themselves indirectly, it’s small-minded of these shunners to ignore how their attitudes would be if the roles were reversed. 
Luckily, James will not be ruined because he’s of a hardy ilk. Until he moves to a more welcoming community, he will likely bristle at their attempts to coerce him, especially if they also had unobjectionable means of engagement at their disposal, such as welcoming him to their services or breaking bread with him. As Mill writes, “if there be among those whom it is attempted to coerce…any of the material of which vigorous and independent characters are made, they will infallibly rebel against the yoke.” Does James sound like the kind of person a healthy community should risk alienating? 
Obviously, Libertopia is an extreme example meant to illustrate a point. Hopefully no otherwise liberal place today actually reaches its level of intolerance. However, it serves as a reminder that coercion, to some degree, can take forms not always reducible to the standard roster of libertarian rights, and this coercion can be harmful and pervasive especially when we can’t easily sort ourselves through association into communities that welcome our presence.