Economic theory goes far beyond numbers and ratios. At the bottom, a social unit’s economy is underlined and presupposed on a philosophy. If we view economic philosophy on a spectrum, on the one end there is a coercive philosophy while on the other end there is a voluntaryist philosophy. The coercive philosophy imposes and requires members of a society to act commercially in a particular way, while the voluntaryist does not. Both ends of this spectrum have a variety of reasons why they believe their philosophy is the true one. In this short paper, we will explore those reasons.
What exactly constitutes coercive action? As Klein (2007) put it, “the distinction between voluntary and coercive action lies at the heart of many economic controversies” (para 6). It is not a distinction that can be glossed over, because it weighs significantly on the morality of economic theory and policy.
The first gauntlet of this controversy is over a matter of principle. If coercion is ever moral, then when it comes to economic theory, philosophy, and policy, the question isn’t whether or not it can be coercive, but of how coercive it can be. On the other hand, if coercion as such is immoral, then no amount of it is acceptable.
One way that those who say coercion is moral in principle argue the point is by attempting to demonstrate that economic activity is, at the bottom, fundamentally coercive. That the coercion of economics cannot be removed. Bruenig (2013) argues that even in allegedly voluntary transactions, such as paying rent, there is always a “third choice” (added to the choices of paying for a good or just going without the good): to take the good and not pay for it. Most people, though, will not just move into an apartment and not pay rent, or go to a store and select their item and not pay for it—because government laws protect personal property. The point is that most of the allegedly “voluntary” transactions we make are influenced, to some extent or another, by the threat of violence from the government.
But this does not prove that coercion is moral, only that it is ubiquitous. Voluntaryists and libertarians would argue that we have a right—not just a civil, but a natural i.e., “human” right— to ourselves and our things. So the fact that we are restrained by the civil law from just moving into an apartment and not paying rent doesn’t really affect their argument about the morality of free commerce since whether or not the law forbade you from squatting, they would oppose it on moral grounds anyways.
The universal axiom of voluntaryism (viewed strictly) is one of personal liberty and ownership. From the premise that we all have an absolute right to ourselves and things, it follows that aggression is universally proscribed (Klein, 2007). The only instance in which aggression is ever moral is in the defense of one’s self or things, which is an exception rendered fairly obvious by the first principle. With that being the argument and the starting point, the only way to really overcome this principle is to show it isn’t true or at least cast doubt on it.
Probably the best way to try to do that is to show that if we carry the principle out, there doesn’t seem any room to admit that there is such a thing as a legitimate government. An essential and definitional power of a government is the power to coerce; criminal justice systems, taxation for emergency services, etc. If a government merely relies on the goodwill of people to support it, then it seems that it is really a charity, not an authority. And perhaps that is true—perhaps there is no such thing as a legitimate government. But to argue such would seem to fly in the face of thousands of years of human practice and wisdom, as political science is a discipline as old as man himself. Political thought and philosophy over thousands of years have debated what the best form of government is, what its scope is, etc., but not whether or not it is legitimate in principle. Since principled voluntaryism seems to logically entail the illegitimacy of government as such, it seems a tenuous theory and probably wrong simply because of it leading to absurd conclusions.
In truth, most who seem to argue against government coercion are arguing against certain types of it, not it as such. They object to tax dollars paying for abortions, or of governments regulating who you can and can’t do business with, etc. This is an objection that deals more with the scope of government, rather than the intrinsic legitimacy of it. As Glaeser (2007) puts it, “just because something is coercive, doesn’t mean that it is wrong” (para 3) because without some power to coerce, governments are not only ineffective, they aren’t governments. Without the power to coerce (however limited it should or shouldn’t be, which is a separate and highly controversial issue) then a government is without the power to protect its people, and that’s the fundamental purpose of government.
With all that in mind, it still seems most moral for governments to be non-interfering in economic policy and to not develop coercive policies beyond the bare minimum required for it to fulfill its basic function of protecting the people. If we grant that man is a free and rational animal with an interest in survival, it follows that it is good for him to be able to pursue that survival within the confines of the moral law. A government whose economic policy restrains him from morally pursuing commerce or who takes more than it needs from him is a government infringing on his most basic liberties and pursuit of his most basic end.
Of course one might retort that without such coercion there would be droves of people who would suffer. That we need coercion in order to protect the weak, and so on. What the weak, impoverished, and disenfranchised need are certain material goods to help them up onto their feet. Historically, these have been provided through charity, religious institutions, etc. The idea that only government can help the poor and that only can they help the poor by raising taxes is a highly arguable idea, and its effectiveness—as well as its morality, with these considerations—is hardly settled.
Bruenig, M. (2013). Libertarians are huge fans of economic coercion. Demos. Retrieved from http://www.demos.org/blog/10/28/13/libertarians-are-huge-fans-economic-coercion
Glaeser, E. (2007). Coercive regulation and the balance of freedom. Cato Unbound. Retrieved from https://www.cato-unbound.org/2007/05/11/edward-glaeser/coercive-regulation-balance-freedom
Klein, D.B. (2007). Economics and the distinction between voluntary and coercive action. Cato unbound. Retrieved from https://www.cato-unbound.org/2007/05/06/daniel-b-klein/economics-distinction-between-voluntary-coercive-action