The Intersection of Government Coercion and Private Discrimination


Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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203 Responses

  1. Avatar Michael Cain says:

    The question of how many alternatives must be available has certainly been a factor in the various lawsuits about pharmacists who choose not fill prescriptions for birth control or morning-after drugs for religious reasons. Not exactly analogous situations, of course, since oil change places aren’t typically licensed by the state beyond the basic business licensing that all businesses go through. I’m not up on the current status of the results in the pharmacy disputes; perhaps someone who is could write a brief summary?Report

    • Avatar Will H. says:

      I don’t think that’s the same exactly.
      I currently live in a small town. The selection of dark beers available is atrocious, and especially so if you happen to not care so much for Guinness.
      But I stock up whenever I go to the City.
      And I have about a three-month supply on hand of some rather fine dark beers.
      The point I mean to illustrate in this is that it’s not so much a matter of availability, but one of convenience.
      And no, I don’t believe that the free market is doing such a fine job, because not so many are drinking dark beers that otherwise would were they widely available.
      Which brings me to Girl Scout cookies– the minty ones covered with chocolate…Report

      • Avatar Silver Wolf says:

        Morning after pills need to be available “the morning after” and because one is using this method and not birth control they probably won’t be thinking ahead to stock up. It is critical for that woman that the drug be not only available but convenient.Report

        • Avatar Will H. says:

          I’m not so sure that ‘critical’ is the proper term for such a concern.
          On the other hand, not being to nibble on the cookie of my choice effectively negates the very concept of ‘pursuit of happiness.’
          It is By-God un-American.Report

  2. Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

    Nicely done, Mr. Kelly.Report

  3. Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

    The premise is false: non-Christians can get the oil change discount too. Race is no analogy here and invoking it muddies, not clarifies. If someone wants to give a discount for quoting The Autobiography of Malcolm X, my white ass is cashing it in.Report

    • Avatar wardsmith says:

      How’s joining the black congressional caucus working for you there? Is that a private club like Augusta National?Report

    • Avatar JG New says:

      I respectfully disagree that the premise is false. A person lacking religious convictions (me, for instance) might be happy to spout off what I feel to be a meaningless bunch of words to obtain the discount. But what of a person of sincere and deeply-held religious conviction, who would honestly feel that they had compromised their religious faith to say those words; blasphemed even (and then extend it to TK’s hypothetical)? Or, perhaps better, let’s expand the premise – what if the oil-change place gave the discount only to individuals wearing a cross? Or a Star of David?

      Race may be seen by some as an immutable character (though I strongly disagree), but others (including many Christian martyrs) have gone willingly to their deaths rather than compromise their faith.Report

      • Avatar wardsmith says:

        Well JG, it can be difficult to change your skin color (excepting Michael Jackson of course) so race is something that kind of seems immutable – at least physically.

        Ate at a Chinese restaurant in a small state college town. I can’t read Hanzu (Chinese writing) but can read the numbers easily enough. I noticed on the menu that the prices were different in English (Arabic) than in Hanzu. I asked to speak to the manager. The owner came over and I showed him his “mistake”. He said it wasn’t a mistake, it was his way of giving a discount to the poor students from home – and no one ever noticed. The Chinese automatically go to the Chinese side of the menu and stay there.

        This episode didn’t even occur to me in the discount discussion because I took him at his word. After all, my wife was once a poor struggling foreign exchange student. On the other hand, by someone like Burt this would be an open and shut case of racist exploitation (against whites).Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

          That’s not quite fair to Burt’s position.

          He’d say it is a legally unjustifiable leveraged position based on race, which ain’t okay in the current legal context. I don’t think he’d use the words “racist” or “exploitation”.Report

          • Avatar wardsmith says:

            Burt would couch the phrases in quality legalese to be sure. “Someone like Burt” on the other hand would have said what I said, or close enough for government work.Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

          I believe it’s possible for people of different races to read Chinese.Report

        • Avatar James Vonder Haar says:

          At the risk of absurdity, I’m pretty sure Burt would note that language spoken is not a protected class under federal law. That the policy was avowedly adopted to benefit one racial group over another, despite the fact that someone not from that racial group could benefit if they knew the language, is interesting. I’d be very much interested to hear Burt’s take on whether that makes a material difference as a matter of law, and whether it should make such a difference.

          As to my own opinion, such a policy does seem to me to be discriminatory, and the fact that it is aimed at the majority doesn’t really make a difference.Report

        • Avatar Kimmi says:

          if he’s serving two different products
          1) “authentic chinese” — cow stomach and what not
          2) “American chinese” — chicken with broccoli

          I don’t mind, so long as the authentic chinese price is the same for all comers (I like authentic chinese, myself, particularly szechuan/hunan).Report

        • Avatar Burt Likko says:

          Someone who actually is Burt would say, based on the statement of the owner (“it was his way of giving a discount to the poor students from home”), that’s national origin discrimination and a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000a.

          Without that evidence, it looks like it could be a discount for knowing Hanzu, which would require a futher evidentiary showing to demonstrate unlawful intent.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      Tom, the issue that I was trying to table wasn’t the question of the guy from Plano per se, but the question of governmental coercion, and more specifically federal governmental coercion being an inherently bad thing.

      More specifically to the guy from Plano, there was (I thought) a pretty vocal majority from Burt’s posts saying that anti-discrimination laws were in some way or another an infringement on people’s rights.

      These are the issues I was tackling, and why I had (and have) no problems combining racial, religious, even gender discrimination into this post. All of those groups are protected, and all protected by government coercion.

      As to the first bit, that this isn’t meant to be a Christians Welcome, Others Not So Much, for me that argument doesn’t really pass the sniff test. As I said before in Burt’s thread, this seems like a pretty conscious effort to get away with the letter of the law (though per Burt perhaps not so successfully) while thumbing your nose at the spirit of the law.Report

      • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

        Tod, I argue it’s free exercise of religion, and not analogous to discrimination atall atall. The spirit of the law is on the side of free exercise, preaching one’s religion. How that got turned around in some people’s heads to violating the First and/or Fourteenth Amendments is what’s wrong here.

        I do see your side argument, that some libertarians argue that private discrimination is indeed permissible under the Constitution. As mentioned elsewhere, perhaps outlawing it is more legislating morality on behalf of society than fulfilling the demands of the Constitution. Food for thought, anyway, and very untasty for “rights” warriors.Report

  4. Avatar Charles says:

    The point about coercion being present in both public and private activity is a fair one, and is often overlooked by advocates of limited government. Still, I’d add three caveats to this discussion:

    1) Governments have a territorial monopoly on the legitimate use of organized violence. There’s at least the possibility that private coercion can be avoided, or can be counteracted by other private actors. You’re not going to make the government stand down through superior force or arms, and it’s difficult to evade government action once they have you in their sights for some violation. Thus, their application of force is qualitatively different, in that it is a qualitatively different proposition to oppose it (even when the government is in the wrong — as Washington said, government is *not* reason and it is *not* eloquence, it is force.)

    2) It’s also not clear that the avenues of resolution of grievances against the state are any less likely to work than they are appeals to end private coercion/discrimination. Democratic procedures are just that, procedures — they are regular and predictable, and minorities often get the short end of the stick. We often assume that democracy provides a way to prevent the state from doing things that are injurious to the legitimate interests of individuals, minorities, or even majorities — in practice, this may not be true, especially considering that governments often must decide things in a “one size fits all” way, to which markets and civil society need not conform

    3) Even if we conclude that coercion is justified in a particular instance, we are still having the right conversation — it is *important* to note that all government activity involved coercion or the threat of coercion. Noting this induces us to set a *higher* standard of justification for government action than we otherwise would (e.g. if we merely assumed that the government should just *do* things that have some good consequence associated with them.) Highlighting racial discrimination is a perfect example of this — the evil of private racial discrimination is *immense*, so it justifies government action. Not all private evils rise to that standard, though, and each public remedy must be justified with the costs of coercive enforcement in mind.Report

    • Avatar Charles says:

      Point 2, first sentence: should read “any *more* likely to work.”Report

    • Avatar DarrenG says:

      Governments have a territorial monopoly on the legitimate use of organized violence.

      “Legitimate” does a lot of heavy lifting in this particular argument, since private actors can, and regularly do, engage in coercive use of organized violence, from company towns and trans-continental railroads to lynch mobs to modern drug gangs and cartels.

      The threat of non-government-initiated violence is not as remote as your argument would imply.Report

      • I’ve often wondered myself about “legitimate” in that formulation, and I should probably get off my duff and read some Weber to find out what he meant. To me, it sounds almost question-begging: how do we know it’s coercion that’s exercised by the state? well, it’s legitimate. how do we know it’s legitimate? well, it’s being used by the state.Report

        • Avatar DarrenG says:

          As best I understand from secondary sources (not having read the original Weber either), Weber was attempting to define the necessary attributes of a state, not claim that states should regularly engage in violence or that only states engaged in violence, hence the “legitimate” in his formulation.

          Sadly, that phrase is now often misused in bogus anti-statist arguments to frame violence as exclusive to states.Report

          • Avatar Charles says:

            I am leaning on the word legitimate here, in that nearly everyone sees violence perpetuated by non-state actors as undesirable, whereas some see all violence conducted by the state as legitimate, even in the furtherance of an unjust law. Also, the magnitude matters — drug gangs have semi-automatic weapons that they mostly don’t know how to use properly. The state has much larger ordinance to bring to bear, and they do know how to use it.

            So, a lot of people who would gladly take up arms to defend their property against an intruder would not take up arms if said intruder was mistakenly serving a no-knock warrant — either because they believe that whatever the state does serves some legitimate purpose, or because they know they can’t succeed in deterring the state.

            In some sense, states and gangs on the same scale in their capacity to engage in coercion, but eventually a difference in magnitude starts to look like a difference in kind. Simply noting that other organizations use violence or coercion does not imply that the state’s use of coercion requires special consideration.Report

        • Avatar Kolohe says:

          Libertarians also don’t believe that all violence exercised by the state is legitimate. The radical ones, of course, believe none of it is, the other minarchists and various squishy types can point to examples of both legitimate and illegimate exercise of violence by the state. The key is only the state has any claim to be an *initiator* of violence (or in other contexts use the threat of force to back up its request for action – or inaction – among a person or people)Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        ” lynch mobs to modern drug gangs and cartels.”

        Regardless of their positions on various civil rights legislation currently codified in US law, most libertarians are against lynch mobs and drug gangs.Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

        “Legitimate” does a lot of heavy lifting in this particular argument…

        It certainly does, and I wouldn’t want to generalize to other times and places too quickly. But the KKK was certainly viewed at the time, and behaved as, an ordinary (if secret) part of white southern society. The so-called upstanding people belonged to it; its violent actions were either celebrated or excused, but almost never condemned. For this particular instance, I am content to say that southern society gave the Klan legitimacy — reserving, of course, my own judgment, which is to give it none.

        Drug gangs, company towns, and many others are separate cases, and I would argue that they should each be judged on their own merits too, taking into account the prestige associated with these institutions, their relationship to the state, and the degree of impunity with which they operate. In the case of drug gangs, I would say they were not legitimate in the sociological sense. Company towns seemingly were, whatever objections we might raise to them ourselves notwithstanding.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:


      “3) Even if we conclude that coercion is justified in a particular instance, we are still having the right conversation — it is *important* to note that all government activity involved coercion or the threat of coercion.”


  5. Avatar Will Truman says:

    Tangent (before I write a comment on the guts of your post, which I am still mulling over):

    Tim Tebow famously prints John 3:16 on his eye black.

    It annoys the crap out of me that the NCAA waited until *after* Tebow graduated before banning this. I mean, right after. Another example of the big boys getting a pass…Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      Tell me about it. As an Oregon fan, the decision to make a ruling on Cam Newton after the BCS game makes me grind my teeth.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

        Ruling before leads to accusations of prejudice and general fan dissatisfaction if the team loses.

        Ruling after lets the guy ruled against say, “Well, I was robbed of the official trophy, but we won the game, so I know my boys were the real winners!”Report

        • Avatar Burt Likko says:

          Without Cam Newton, the game would have been considered worthless. Which tells you something about the NCAA’s attitude about its own rules versus the market power of the spectacle it offers. That, of course, is the subject of a different thread (and a cover story on The Atlantic).Report

  6. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    Next in line after the “But that’s coercion!” argument, of course, is the “Coercion by the government is evil, coercion by citizens is good/not nearly as evil” argument and it’s distant cousin “coercion by the Federal government is evil, coercion by the State governments is good/not nearly as evil.” (If this is overly simplistic verbiage for your views, feel free to slide any of the coercive entities to wherever on the ‘good to evil’ spectrum you feel most comfortable.)

    Not for me. Coercion by the state can be justified at least (a) as a response and/or deterrent to private coercion or (b) to repel other states.

    This is not to say that response or deterrence is noncoercive. Only that coercion itself seems to call for nothing less.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      I just thought I would say that I really appreciate the thoughts you’ve shared on coercion. It makes a lot more sense than when I hear the simplistic equation coercion=bad. Maybe it is bad, but it is, as you said and Tod points out, unavoidable at least to some extent.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      How does one determine what is private coercion? Is a diner that refuses to serve blacks being coercive?Report

      • Avatar wardsmith says:

        If you refuse to serve someone you are being coercive to their desire to be served.

        There are lots of places to go with this:
        Refusing to perform a gay marriage.
        Refusing to perform an abortion.
        I could go on, but you get my drift.Report

        • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

          Do you have a right to be served pancakes wherever you want? (I suddenly feel like Jaybird.)Report

          • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

            If you start guestblogging on MD, it gets worse.

            He’s like a cancer.Report

          • Avatar wardsmith says:

            Not wherever you like, but whenever you like. Hence IHOP’s raison d’etre.

            This leads to the bigger issue of capitalism responding to real and/or perceived needs of the community at large. So a Muslim joint serving shish kebobs goes in across the street from Joe’s RibShack where they make the best pork ribs in the state. No coercion needed (or wanted).

            Yes reducto ad absurdum allows us to posit a location of such few customers/vendors in such a tiny community that the wheels fall off the ability of legitimate enterprise to fill voids and vacuums. Too bad. Should coercion be expanded to fulfill the most minority of minority cases?Report

            • Avatar wardsmith says:

              Damn, could you fix that /b Patrick? It belongs above directly after the when in ‘whenever’.Report

            • Avatar Tod Kelly says:


              So a Muslim joint serving shish kebobs goes in across the street from Joe’s RibShack where they make the best pork ribs in the state. No coercion needed (or wanted).

              This is assuming that the Christian town leaders (do not read: government officials) agree that they want him to be able to lease a place there. Without government coercion, our own history suggests this would be a common thing.Report

              • Avatar wardsmith says:

                Tod, I wouldn’t recommend he name his joint “Jihad Joes”. Agreed that in places like (gasp!) Boston this happened all the time – to blacks and the Irish.

                Economically speaking societies that are more diverse are wealthier – but there’s always some backwater someplace that doesn’t care about that. After all, it is easier to be the big fish in a little pond.Report

          • Avatar Katherine says:

            At a restaurant that serves apple pancakes, during its opening hours, yes.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        It’s coercive in precisely the sense that it’s coercive to keep unwanted intruders out of your home.Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

        Is a diner that refuses to serve blacks being coercive?

        It happens I’ve already written at length on this question.Report

        • Avatar Herb says:

          I gotta hand it you, Jason. That was good.Report

          • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

            JasonK’s linked piece raises the question of whether some anti-discrimination laws are “legislating morality” rather than demanded by the Constitution.

            Not that I’m opposed to legislating morality, mind you. We do it all the time. 😉Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

          Nice work; just one thing to add:

          Stepping back a bit, it is bizarre and embarrassing to me that this should be the hill that anyone wants to die on in the name of originalism.

          Embarrassing yes, but bizarre? Ron Paul’s name wound up on a boatload of inflammatory, racist claptrap because it was considered a useful fundraising and recruiting tool. His son’s public “doubts” about the CRA are more of the same.Report

          • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

            As I experience the arguments, I find them bizarre. Whether they come from Ron Paul or not makes no difference. While obviously the founders were in large part slaveholders, I prefer to dwell on how they appear to have been deeply embarrassed about the fact, and I like to think they’d be proud of us if only we did two things — kept to their ideas, and ditched their practices.Report

            • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

              The arguments are certainly bizarre so far as logic and reason go. They make perfect sense politically. It’s a damned shame how often that’s not a paradox.Report

        • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

          Jason, 3 things.

          First – great post, thanks for linking.

          Second – that is not even remotely how I pictured you looking! I think I am influenced by the avatar.

          Third – First off, I’m not sure how this actually gets us anywhere we weren’t already at before we started. People will always feel that they/their side are on the natural law end of things, and that those wishing to foil their intentions guilty of coercion. Is the guy from Plano coercing? Or is he just nuzzling up to coercion?

          What about basic government mandated worksite safety standards? They do not step in and address private citizens being coerced, but they have made a world of difference in mortality rates. Were the mortality rates without the government interference so much better?Report

          • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

            Is the guy from Plano coercing? Or is he just nuzzling up to coercion?

            Honestly, I don’t understand why you’re even asking this. A take-it-or-leave it offer like this is so obviously not coercion that this doesn’t even strike me as a sensible question.Report

            • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

              So BB, let’s say the guy owns the local real estate firm and gives a Muslim two prices for the same house in a good neighborhood. But you can only have the lower price if you are willing to say “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

              Is that coercion?

              What if he allows the man a lesser price but only if he says “All Muslims are filthy terrorists.” That falls under the ‘take it or leave it’ category. Is that coercion?

              If it’s one realtor in a big city, either of these hypotheticals are probably dick-ish but not coercion. But when it get’s to be the majority of realtors in a community doing it on a regular basis, it starts to become very real social coercion.

              So you can either pick a number of how many real estate agents in town are allowed to make differently priced homes based on what you’re religious declarations you’re willing to make, or you can decide not to go there at all.

              I choose not to go there at all.Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                Or to take a bit farther, what if a real estate agent won’t even show a house in certain towns to be people of a darker hue. ( this actually happened when we were selling our house year ago. The RE didn’t bring a Haitian couple to see our house even though he knew the house, it was exactly in their price range and requirements and was directly across the street from the wifes work.)Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                That’s a heckuva slippery slope argument you got there, Tod. 😉Report

              • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

                Um… Yeah. (blush)


              • Avatar James Vonder Haar says:

                A parade of horribles argument is rather strengthened by the fact that legislators passed the law whose repeal we are discussing in response to those very same horribles, and whose passage at least partially contributed to the diminution of those horribles.Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

                No. If it’s your property, it’s your property, and you can offer to sell it, or refuse to sell it, to any person at any price for any reason or none at all. And none of that is any of my business, or yours.

                That said, real estate brokers are just brokers. If the actual owners of the properties aren’t aware of this, I’d think that they’d have decent grounds to sue.

                And again, there’s the question of why anybody would want to live in a place where everyone treats them like this unless forced not to. Because living there is going to suck in a hundred other ways that the law can’t do anything about. If someone really wants to live in a such a place, I don’t think the law should intervene to stop them. But neither do I think it’s such a terribly important issue to justify the severe compromise of property rights and the collateral damage.

                Let’s take out the middleman. Suppose we’re in a world where all sales are by owner. And everybody lives in his own house. So a bunch of people are selling their own homes on Craigslist, and every single one of them has a John 3:16 discount. Do you think this is coercion?Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                Mr. Berg, the history of “blockbusting” is fascinating in this respect. Wiki will do here as a primer.


              • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

                Ha! I officially disapprove of fraud, but off the record, that’s awesome.Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

                Note to self: Do not enter off-the-record comments into permanent, publicly searchable databases.Report

              • Avatar RTod says:

                Wait, people can see thing we wrote later? Ooo boy…Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                People want to live in certain areas because they are for a variety of reasons better then other places. That could be closeness to work, better schools, more parks or less crime. All sorts of minority people have moved into areas where they weren’t wanted by some because of all those other advantages, they were willing to put up with bigotry to gain other benefits. Keeping people of certain colors out of certain neighborhoods prevents them from moving into house with greater value to appreciate in value and move away from, often, harsher areas.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                But neither do I think it’s such a terribly important issue to justify the severe compromise of property rights and the collateral damage.

                That’s the problem with dark-hued people: they just don;t know what’s good for them.Report

        • Avatar Renee says:

          Great link.

          “Did legislation shape public opinion, or vice versa? This relationship is hard to untangle, because the law really can affect individual dispositions, and individual dispositions really can affect the law.”

          Bingo. The relationship is too coupled to ever pull apart. But I feel like we spend a lot of time on the law aspect and not on the culture/individual dispositions (which are also coupled) aspect. Although I completely agree with you that Title II is a stupid place to make an originalist stand, I am not sure I agree that law was “the driving factor.”

          (Full Disclosure: I was not alive during the civil rights era, nor am I a serious student of the time period, so y’all can point out where I am full of it.)

          Your argument is (primarily) that previous movements did not take hold. But I would argue that there was truly a cultural sea change in the 60’s. Perhaps because TV was putting atrocious incidents in people’s living rooms, it was not so easy to ignore them (parallels with Vietnam). But what of the argument that Title II acted to kill, if not greatly reduce, the cultural movement of the civil rights movement? After all, we no longer need to protest racism: it’s the government’s job to end it. The movement achieved its goal – now the government can handle the rest. No need to protest or shame the diner not serving blacks pancakes, the offended diners can use the law.

          To bring these thoughts back to the original post: even if government coercion is used for *obviously* good reasons — how can we possibly understand the unintended cultural consequences. Race relations today (for good and ill) are products of government coercion trumping private coercion. I am certainly not wise enough to know what would have happened without government coercion, better or worse. To those who are, I envy your certitude.Report

          • Avatar wardsmith says:

            Renee, the act was passed in ’64 (yes I was alive then, please don’t rub it in that you’re young and beautiful and I’m… not). Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, or 4 years later. The law didn’t co opt the demonstrations, quite the reverse in fact. I personally think MLK, the movement and the martyrdom of not only he but others twinged the collective conscience of a nation. It took both I believe to truly start to change things for the better. Public plus private coercion.

            Full disclosure, my attorney friend and ex-dean of a prestigious law school and at the time a Jesuit marched with King on multiple occasions. Yes he was beaten, had dogs attack him and was firehosed. Yes he was white. Whites getting hurt meant more to whites watching on TV than blacks for reason #11 in this post.Report

            • Avatar Renee says:

              Wardsmith – thanks for your comments/insight. Always glad to learn something from people who were on the scene. I may be young(ish), but beautiful is a step too far. I have seen a number of interesting discussions on LoOG, and I think many of them have to do with the interplay between law and culture.that Jason mentions in his link. Figuring out the causal relationships between the two is an extremely tough nut to crack (in general) and I find it fascinating.

              Your comments regarding your friend and point #11 is indicative of what I called the sea change in the culture. Many reasons for it, but regardless of legislation, I think the country would not have gone back to pre-civil rights days.Report

      • Avatar 62across says:

        How does one determine what is private coercion?

        I’d really appreciate the League diving into this question. I’m sure my definition is more expansive than others here and it seems to me that disparity is at the heart of a lot of disagreement.Report

        • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

          This is a great idea 62, and I might try to work it into a one or two paragraph post just to see what comes out of the hive.

          I suspect in practice, though, that the trouble you’d run into is that everyone would have a different opinion about what was private coercion that, coincidentally, matched up closely with their own views on things.Report

          • Avatar Roger says:

            62 and Tod,

            I have tried to define private coercion as below (scroll to my post below)

            The solution to Tod’s dilemma is that everybody does not have to define coercion. The absence of coercion is demonstrated by what people voluntarily do. Where multiple parties are involved it is where they arrive at a consensus.

            In 2 player interactions voluntary actions can be described as win/wins. Coercion is a win/lose. It is forcing a suboptimal outcome on another.

            Honest, mutually voluntary interactions among adults are by definition non-coercive.Report

            • Avatar DarrenG says:

              Honest, mutually voluntary interactions among adults are by definition non-coercive.

              At the risk of polluting this otherwise-fine discussion in Google, I would point out there are a bunch of BDSM practitioners who might take issue with this.

              Seriously, though, this definition only works if you assume all interactions are completely and atomically independent, as I pointed out in the other threat. People, can, and do, voluntarily submit to coercive regimes in what they perceive as a net win-win all the time. Military service is an obvious example. Most private employment arrangements are another.Report

              • Avatar Roger says:

                Thanks Darren.

                LOL (I had to look up BDSM).

                I basically agree with you. Volition and coercion can certainly be nested into hierarchies. Voluntarily submitting to coercion is not coercion. Voluntarily joining a club that has mandatory dues is not coercion. Voluntarily agreeing to let someone whip you is not coercion. Joining the military is not coercion.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain says:


      Coercion by the state can be justified at least (a) as a response and/or deterrent to private coercion or (b) to repel other states.

      I would go deeper. What if there is an elaborate mixture of private and public rules, regulations, circumstances, happenstances, etc. that have led to massive inequality in our economic and political systems? Can those be remedied through other efforts such as redistribution of wealth? Universal healthcare? If you view the situation as it stands (basically it’s impossible to get health insurance if you’re old, poor, sick, etc.) as a coercive situation with no direct (but many indirect) sources of coercion against individuals then doesn’t the state have similarly justifiable grounds to use redistribution to provide access to healthcare?Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        I think you have good question here Erik. However of the ways these debates go awry, or start off poorly, is the constant usage of one loaded word. I would say the inability of many peeps to get health insurance isn’t coercion unless you take a truly vague expansive definition of coercion. To many good innocent words and phrases ( ponzi scheme, coercion, kick backs, bribery, etc) get mangled and misused due to ridiculously wide vague definitions.Report

      • Avatar wardsmith says:

        E.D. This sounds a lot like where you were going with your recent OP. I called you on it here. Is this redistribution mindset from a deep seated moral compass or a desire to reestablish your liberal credentials?Report

        • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

          I’m not sure what you mean. I’m not a libertarian and I’ve given up on liberal-tarianism also. I’m not sure I have to “reestablish” anything. I’ve been a long-time advocate of universal healthcare of some variety, public education, etc. I’ve tried to place this within in the framework of libertarianism, but as much as I admire libertarians I just don’t fit. Is this because of some deep-seated moral compass? Probably, and probably also due to pragmatism. Actually – definitely on both counts. What is your point?Report

          • Avatar wardsmith says:

            Mostly curious. During the whole mansplaining episode there were those who called your ahem, liberalhood into question and it seemed your subsequent posts had a stronger liberal bias than what I’d read of your previous ones. Interesting on a psychology level if real or it could have been my imagination.

            Coerced redistribution of wealth has been tried. That was socialism and as Thatcher said, “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money”. Now the question that remains is how strong is your pragmatism side? Or are you only pragmatic concerning benefits but not concerning costs?Report

            • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

              Yawn. Redistribution of wealth has not just been tried it is in practice in most places in the world and it works fine, I don’t care what Thatcher said.Report

              • Avatar wardsmith says:

                E.D. I’m guessing you didn’t follow the link. Socialism (ie wealth redistribution) can indeed work fine, until the money runs out. Greece has discovered this and the other P.I.G.I.S are soon going to. Are we permitted to learn nothing from their example?Report

              • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

                I think Erik is referring to the fact that redistribution of wealth happens even in areas we don’t consider redistribution of wealth. If you live in a part of the country that doesn’t pay for all of it’s highways by toll collections, for example, you are a recipient of a redistribution of wealth. Coercively redistributed, at that.Report

              • Avatar wardsmith says:

                That’s not where he was going with post 43.

                He wants to “remedy” what can’t be “remedied”. Jason’s pal Shermer at Cato quite neatly does what I now don’t have to and identifies a dozen lines of evidence as to why we have a True Nature rather than the altru(istic) one imagined in utopian dialogs.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                … and this is why the whole libertarian “don’t use government to provide welfare” pisses me off. Because, being selfish, I tend to see most people as selfish.

                and what use is it anyhow, to remove government coercion, if your proposed remedy is religious coercion?Report

            • Avatar DarrenG says:

              Socialism is just one of a rather large spectrum of redistributive arrangements (speaking of words that have lost all meaning through abuse, “socialism” is right up there…)Report

            • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

              WS, always a delight to see you bitch slap these youngins’ around. Be of good cheer, many of them get it and I’m sure they’ll toss and turn this evening before falling off to sleep.Report

              • Avatar wardsmith says:

                Now now Bob, that would be an ungentlemanly act. Plus we shouldn’t use language like that and offend those of a more sensitive disposition whom we would like to attract hereabouts. As for making people actually think and lose sleep therefrom, no problems.Report

          • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

            I’m not a libertarian and I’ve given up on liberal-tarianism also.

            This is why I don’t bother writing any grand refutation of Erik’s political beliefs.

            I just wait a couple of weeks, and he does it for me.Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

          How about just structural engineering?

          Can one just think that the current liquid capital disparity is not good for the economic system?Report

        • Avatar greginak says:

          He can’t get his liberal credentials back without waiting the mandated waiting period and background check of all his public statements.Report

          • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

            Oh shit, is that how it works?

            Look, as I’ve been saying in post after post after post I have a lot of respect and admiration for the advocates of Voluntary Land (as Jim Henly phrased it) but it’s just not for me. Whatever this may have to do with my credentials, there it is.Report

            • Avatar Kimmi says:

              It does indeed say something about your writing credentials that you’re the self-avowed liberal writing in Forbes. After all, the side that has fewer supporters is likely to have a better writer, at least in modern journalism.
              [For a larger scope, one can trace strength of arguments to see exactly when the media stopped being liberal and started to become conservative.]Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

          a desire to reestablish your liberal credentials

          This is one of the dumbest memes I know.Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

        What if there is an elaborate mixture of private and public rules, regulations, circumstances, happenstances, etc. that have led to massive inequality in our economic and political systems? Can those be remedied through other efforts such as redistribution of wealth? Universal healthcare? If you view the situation as it stands (basically it’s impossible to get health insurance if you’re old, poor, sick, etc.) as a coercive situation with no direct (but many indirect) sources of coercion against individuals then doesn’t the state have similarly justifiable grounds to use redistribution to provide access to healthcare?

        It is curious here to reach for coercion first. Indeed, it seems to violate your “chains first, then crutches” maxim. Let’s try removing some restrictions on health insurance, starting with its tax deduction.

        Why has healthcare become steadily more expensive in the United States but not elsewhere? Because healthcare is a way of providing compensation to employees that, owing to the tax exemption, is relatively cheaper than paying them cash.

        If it were cheaper to pay my employees in turnips, I’d do that too. But it would really play havoc with the turnip market. Why do we expect the much more complex healthcare market to do just fine?

        So — remove the exemption, and treat health insurance as ordinary compensation. Immediately, employers and employees alike will start looking for ways to save money. Individual insurance plans start to look more attractive, and as they gain members, their costs go down. Competition will get keener, as it won’t be for corporate sinecures, but for individual accounts, much like auto insurance.

        This seems a reasonable set of actions. It’s not much more coercive than the (former) system, and if the tax change were made revenue-neutral, it couldn’t be called more coercive in any sense at all. Why no one wanted to try it is just beyond me.Report

  7. Avatar greginak says:

    Great post. I think this is a good way to look at what coercion means in the actual world.Report

  8. Avatar Will Truman says:

    Okay, now my thoughts on the post itself:

    I think Tom makes a good point. You don’t have to be Christian in order to get the discount. The impact is disproportionate, as it’s something some will be more inclined to say and others more reluctant, though. And that’s worth mentioning. Forcing people to say “Allah Akhbar” to get a discount would, to say the least, rub a lot of people the wrong way. But nobody would ever do that. It’s the privilege of the majority.

    What if it’s not Plano, but a small town that has only one or two places to change your oil?

    I live in a pretty small town and we have no less than three lube places (that I am aware of, I want to say that there is at least a fourth). And practically speaking, the smaller the town, the less likely you are going to have people that are not of a certain mold. And of those that don’t fit the mold, having to say John 3:16 is going to be the least of their problems. And it’s generally going to be the case that at least one lube place is a national chain anyway, and they would be more likely to put a stop to a 3:16 requirement in no time flat.

    But enough with the nitpickery. Yes. Great points made here. Especially with regard to coercion (broadly defined) being the inevitable result of people living together. That doesn’t make all coercion the same in type or severity, but it’s a valuable point regardless.

    I once worked for a company that fired its chief counsel for being gay. It’s easy to say that the guy can just find another job and get on with things, but this was in Mormonland and his ability to leave was hindered by his ex-wife and children. Whether the law should step in on something like this or not is an open question. But as a philosophical matter I have a hard time looking at that and saying the coercion on the employer (to not fire him) is more onerous than coercion on the employee (to stay in the closet, to marry a woman).Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      Will, great comments as always – I may address in more than one reply. First, regarding this –

      “I think Tom makes a good point. You don’t have to be Christian in order to get the discount. “

      As I said to Tom, I’m not sure that I buy this. It’s hard for me not to read this as a message with a wink. If the guy had made it so that you had to quote a passage from Mein Kampf (and no, I am not equating the two things) that was disparaging of Jews, wouldn’t we all know that it was meant to be a signal? Why is this not?

      If he had a daily Biblical quote, or even something where he posted a different verse number each week, I wouldn’t go where I am going mentally. But the fact that it’s just one verse, always, and it’s that verse, makes it hard for me to not smell a little BS on the “we didn’t mean to exclude anyone” claim.

      And it’s generally going to be the case that at least one lube place is a national chain anyway, and they would be more likely to put a stop to a 3:16 requirement in no time flat.

      This is true, but I would argue it’s not true just because its true. It’s true because the federal government implemented laws and case rulings to make it so the national chains would be more likely to step in and stop it.

      I once worked for a company that fired its chief counsel for being gay… Whether the law should step in on something like this or not is an open question.

      But it shouldn’t be.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        As I said to Tom, I’m not sure that I buy this. It’s hard for me not to read this as a message with a wink.

        It is a message with a wink. And one that disproportionately benefits some to the exclusion of others. And I don’t think that’s accidental. But it’s still different from a policy of asking what LDS ward you belong to in Utah during a job interview (to pick a real life example).

        This is true, but I would argue it’s not true just because its true. It’s true because the federal government implemented laws and case rulings to make it so the national chains would be more likely to step in and stop it.

        I think it’s true because we as a society have made it true. If all laws against racial discrimination were gone tomorrow, most of the major chains would still put a stop to “No Blacks Welcome” signs.

        I agree that in a different society (including ours in a different time) this would not be the case. But right now? I believe it is. The discrimination you would most have to worry about would be the mom and pop operations who don’t answer to a larger corporate entity that wouldn’t want the bad publicity.

        But it shouldn’t be.

        That depends on where you fall on the tension between the right of free association (to hire who you want) and the right of a lawyer to find and retain a job in Deseret.Report

        • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

          But it’s still different from a policy of asking what LDS ward you belong to in Utah during a job interview (to pick a real life example).

          Quite so.

          “If all laws against racial discrimination were gone tomorrow, most of the major chains would still put a stop to “No Blacks Welcome” signs.”

          Agreed – but would they stop locations from certain parts of the country from discriminating against, say, Muslims? Maybe, but I’m not so sure. About all of them, anyway.Report

          • Avatar Will Truman says:

            I would certainly expect most of them to. Especially the bigger ones. All of them if it were discrimination against “non-Christians” including indirect discrimination as with 3:16.

            Corporate America was on board with gay marriage benefits before all but the most liberal states. I don’t think this is accidental.Report

  9. Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

    What if a law firm, populated by a coterie of dedicated Devil worshippers, fired a recently hired Christian?Report

  10. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    Great post, Tod.Report

  11. Avatar Steve Horwitz says:

    Slippery slopes are slippery in both directions.

    Once we grant that government can legitimately coerce people into associating via exchange with those they would rather not, don’t we open the door to coercing people into doing all kinds of other things they’d rather not? On what grounds do we now allow lube guy’s church to choose not to marry gay couples? Can we no longer have all-girls or all-boys private schools? And if we can coerce people into selling to people they don’t wish to, why can’t we coerce people into buying a product they don’t want? (Now why might THAT be an interesting question?)

    In 21st century America where we have the Internet to publicize the bad behavior of those who would exclude blacks, women, etc., I’m less concerned about the slope from allowing the lube guy to do his thing than I am the slope from telling him he can’t. We have effective ways of boycotting and publicizing the error of his ways. It’s a hell of a lot harder to turn back the tide of government coercion when IT heads down a slippery slope.Report

    • Avatar greginak says:

      The slippery slope is the weakest argument in the world. It doesn’t prove anything other then you think things will get worse and strawmen are fun to poke at.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

        If you have a probabilistic reason to support things getting worse, then it’s not the worst argument in the world.

        But there’s a lot of heavy lifting to do there, and most people don’t want to do the work.Report

        • Avatar greginak says:

          Fair enough Pat. Like you said most people don’t do the work to justify it. But how to figure a probability of some policy leading from A to Z is pretty darn difficult. I’ll change the statement to the slippery slope is the laziest argument in the world.Report

    • Avatar Dan Miller says:

      That assumes that potential customers of the Plano Lube King see his John 3:16 requirement as a bad thing, and that he’s capable of being shamed. You can’t really assume that either of those is true.Report

    • Avatar DarrenG says:

      In 21st century America where we have the Internet to publicize the bad behavior of those who would exclude blacks, women, etc.

      Yet despite the Internet and civil rights laws, such bad behavior continues (checked the suicide rates of gay teens lately, or tried to get a job or housing as a minority in, say, South Carolina or Utah lately?).

      And given that the Civil Rights Act has been the law of the land for 47 years, how much longer do you plan to wait for this dangerous slippery slope to destroy Life As We Know It?Report

      • Avatar Steve Horwitz says:

        I never suggested bad things don’t happen. They do.

        Government does a lot of bad things too. And at the end of the day, I’m a lot more afraid of the guys with the really big guns, the printing press, and the belief that it’s okay to use those to systematically torture brown folks than I am of much less powerful and much more decentralized people who choose not to associate with people they don’t like.

        The summed power of all the racists in the south to coerce people doesn’t come nearly as close as the power of the state to do so. If you want me to risk one type of coercion or the other, I’ll risk private coercion every day.Report

        • Avatar DarrenG says:

          It seems like you’re making an argument that should be supportable by the historic record given how long civil rights laws have been on the books.

          And your blithe dismissal of Jim Crow as a lesser evil than civil rights legislation and your hand-wave of “the Internet would fix it” leads me to believe you’ve never had much first-hand exposure to discrimination, and may not even have much second-hand exposure via historic sources.Report

          • Avatar Steve Horwitz says:

            Since when did I dismiss Jim Crow as worse than Civil Rights legislation? Aside from the fact that much of Jim Crow was in fact *government* sponsored discrimination and thus most of civil rights legislation involved *stopping* government-driven coercion, I would have, in fact, voted in favor of the civil rights act of 1964 on the grounds that it did way more good than harm.

            Finally, as a college professor, I can assure you that I’m quite familiar with the history of discrimination (which apparently you are not, based on what you seem to be saying about Jim Crow – you think the streetcars weren’t forced by law to segregate? Read some history.). And, as a Jew, I can further assure you that I’ve experienced it. So please put your claims about my life away and deal with the merits.Report

            • Avatar DarrenG says:

              This is the statement that triggered my response:

              The summed power of all the racists in the south to coerce people doesn’t come nearly as close as the power of the state to do so. If you want me to risk one type of coercion or the other, I’ll risk private coercion every day.

              Along with this from your original post:

              In 21st century America where we have the Internet to publicize the bad behavior of those who would exclude blacks, women, etc., I’m less concerned about the slope from allowing the lube guy to do his thing than I am the slope from telling him he can’t.

              This seemed to strongly imply that you weren’t in favor of civil rights laws.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        checked the suicide rates of gay teens lately, or tried to get a job or housing as a minority in, say, South Carolina or Utah lately?

        Worth noting that discrimination for jobs and housing on the basis of sexual orientation is illegal in Salt Lake County. And on a personal note, for all of my faults with them, the Mormons are among the least race-focused people I have known.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      “Slippery slopes are slippery in both directions.”

      Yes. That’s why I think that that having an absolute rule, like “federal government coercion is bad,” will bite you in the ass.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      The limit on the slippery slope is the political will of the majority to impose limits on the slope, in either direction. If the majority finds imposition of civil liabilty on Christian Car Lube guy intolerable, it will exempt religion from the antidiscrimination laws.Report

  12. Avatar Roger says:


    In the recent liberty and democracy thread, I expressed my view that coercion is the problem, not the solution. The logic can be laid out in terms borrowed from game theory. My argument was as follows:

    1) People must constantly solve problems to survive and thrive. To accomplish their goals.
    2) They accomplish this via individual acts of production (grow, design, create, build,etc)
    3) Or they can accomplish this in interactions with others (Trade, marry, steal, rape, etc)
    4) Coercion is a situation where one party expects gains by forcefully inflicting a loss (or at best a smaller win) on another. It is a win/lose interaction. This is a zero sum interaction according to the relevant parties.
    5) The value of liberty is that reasonable adults can be expected to engage in productive (win) activity. Interactions that are mutually voluntary can thus be expected reasonably to be win/wins. They create value. Nobody is harmed and all gain. Mutual freedom solves lots of problems. (add caveats for mistakes and imperfect knowledge)
    6) One way to discourage win/lose activity is to convert the incentive to win at others expense (to lie, cheat, steal, rape, force) into a lose/lose via punishment. It may not be the best way, but it is a solution to the problem.
    7) By converting individual coercion into a negative situation, coercion is rationally minimized. To clarify, using coercion to eliminate coercion is an attempt to eliminate or at least minimize coercion. It is using steel to stop steel as a last resort.
    8) Secondary effects and win/lose externalities also have to be accounted for (pollution, etc)

    Social progress is generated by people producing solutions (growing, manufacturing, creating) and via exchange and positive sum interactions. Coercion is just fighting over scraps. The key to optimize social progress according to the members of the society agreeing with these concepts is to maximize productivity and positive sum interactions and to minimize coercion and zero sum exploitive activity. Positive sum interactions can be added up and combined infinitely. That is how free enterprise works.

    Private coercion is consequentially self defeating on a broader scale. For every winner there is a loser. As James and I argued in the last discussion, it self amplifies out of control and gets us nowhere. Government coercion is acceptable only when used to limit coercion. This optimizes social productivity.

    We are all tempted to take the quick and dirty shortcut to social progress by coercively forcing our values on others. They then do it back. It never ends. The wise path is to explore bottoms up win/win solutions that optimize freedom and voluntary actions. Coercion must be a last resort!Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      Wow, awesome comment per usual Roger. Not entirely sure where I agree and disagree, so forgive me if I wait to reread and respond later tonight.Report

    • Avatar DarrenG says:

      I still can’t agree with your point #4 that coercion is automatically zero sum and win/lose (although I see you’ve modified it slightly from your previous version), and numbers 5 and 8 still seem to have some huge asterisks attached.

      Also, since civil rights has been a hot topic in this and other recent threads, how would you envision a non-coercive win-win solution to both institutionalized and non-institutionalized-but-endemic bigotry of various sorts?Report

      • Avatar Roger says:

        Thanks Darren,

        I am trying to learn!

        I agree that all the points need to be clarified and explained further. Big asterisks indeed. Your feedback helps me in this process.

        On Civil Rights, I agree that the government should not be allowed to discriminate. On private actions, I believe society needs to be very, very careful about coercively righting a wrong or solving a problem. Forcing people to interact economically is coercion.

        I recommend subsidiarity wherever possible (local over state, state over national). I recommend opt outs and options wherever possible. I recommend never establishing a bureaucracy that thrives on the problem (agencies should be established to thrive only on solving/eliminating problems.) And I recommend super majorities on coercive action to minimize when the tool is used.

        Subsidiarity WAS tried on this. The failures in the Southern states are what caused it to escalate up to the national level. (This was then used to emasculate subsidiarity). Opt outs make no sense in this case.

        I believe I would support and push for adoption of civil rights via a supermajority.

        In the last thread I was comparing coercion to narcotics. I do believe narcotics are necessary in some cases. Hopefully less and less each century.Report

    • Avatar 62across says:

      Roger –

      I’ve got no argument with the wise path being win/win solutions whenever possible. Robert Wright actually makes a strong case in Nonzero that humanity has trended toward non-zero-sum outcomes over the arc of history, so there is reason to be hopeful that wisdom will prevail.

      However, the rub for me lies in 5 and 6:

      5) The value of liberty is that reasonable adults can be expected to engage in productive (win) activity. Interactions that are mutually voluntary can thus be expected reasonably to be win/wins. They create value. Nobody is harmed and all gain. Mutual freedom solves lots of problems. (add caveats for mistakes and imperfect knowledge)
      6) One way to discourage win/lose activity is to convert the incentive to win at others expense (to lie, cheat, steal, rape, force) into a lose/lose via punishment. It may not be the best way, but it is a solution to the problem.

      Reasonableness can be very subjective.
      There is a glibness in characterizing a lot of interactions as mutually voluntary that are no such thing due to imperfect information among other things.
      For a lot of the most pernicious behavior (read the FIRE sector’s role in the current financial turmoil), there has been insufficient punishment to disincentivize wins at others expense. Actually, the opposite has occurred, as the winners have been rewarded.Report

      • Avatar Roger says:

        Thanks 62,

        I read Non-Zero when it came out and — though I strongly disagree with some parts — it is probably one of the most influential books I have ever read in forming my views.

        I apologize for the glibness. I can only write so much per concept before I bore the others.

        I agree with your concerns on imperfect information, and other’s concern for fairness, and with your concern for insufficient punishment. If coercion is used to suppress coercion, it needs to be used, not just threatened. Of course in the real world, the Financial Powerhouses pretty much own the coercers. Crony capitalism is an ugly beast isn’t it?Report

  13. Avatar wardsmith says:

    Human nature in Shermer’s nutshell. Posting it here so we can just refer to these by number.

    1) The clear and quantitative physical differences among people in size, strength, speed, agility, coordination, and other physical attributes that translates into some being more successful than others, and that at least half of these differences are inherited.

    2) The clear and quantitative intellectual differences among people in memory, problem solving ability, cognitive speed, mathematical talent, spatial reasoning, verbal skills, emotional intelligence, and other mental attributes that translates into some being more successful than others, and that at least half of these differences are inherited.

    3) The evidence from behavior genetics and twin studies indicating that 40 to 50 percent of the variance among people in temperament, personality, and many political, economic, and social preferences are accounted for by genetics.

    4) The failed communist and socialist experiments around the world throughout the 20th century revealed that top-down draconian controls over economic and political systems do not work.

    5) The failed communes and utopian community experiments tried at various places throughout the world over the past 150 years demonstrated that people by nature do not adhere to the Marxian principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

    6) The power of family ties and the depth of connectedness between blood relatives. Communities have tried and failed to break up the family and have children raised by others; these attempts provide counter evidence to the claim that “it takes a village” to raise a child. As well, the continued practice of nepotism further reinforces the practice that “blood is thicker than water.”

    7) The principle of reciprocal altruism—I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine”—is universal; people do not by nature give generously unless they receive something in return, even if what they receive is social status.

    8) The principle of moralistic punishment—I’ll punish you if you do not scratch my back after I have scratched yours—is universal; people do not long tolerate free riders who continually take but almost never give.

    9) The almost universal nature of hierarchical social structures—egalitarianism only works (barely) among tiny bands of hunter-gatherers in resource-poor environments where there is next to no private property, and when a precious game animal is hunted extensive rituals and religious ceremonies are required to insure equal sharing of the food.

    10) The almost universal nature of aggression, violence, and dominance, particularly on the part of young males seeking resources, women, and especially status, and how status-seeking in particular explains so many heretofore unexplained phenomena, such as high risk taking, costly gifts, excessive generosity beyond one’s means, and especially attention seeking.

    11) The almost universal nature of within-group amity and between-group enmity, wherein the rule-of-thumb heuristic is to trust in-group members until they prove otherwise to be distrustful, and to distrust out-group members until they prove otherwise to be trustful.

    12) The almost universal desire of people to trade with one another, not for the selfless benefit of others or the society, but for the selfish benefit of one’s own kin and kind; it is an unintended consequence that trade establishes trust between strangers and lowers between-group enmity, as well as produces greater wealth for both trading partners and groups.Report

    • Avatar greginak says:

      You do realize that while all of 1-3 are half genetic, they are also, therefore half enviro based. That is without even getting into how to test for some of those things or how very very simplified your synopsis is.

      6- This is just plain wrong. Whoever said it has no knowledge of the wide variety of child rearing strategies in place in various societies in place. This is solid fail.Report

      • Avatar wardsmith says:

        If you have that much heartburn with it Greg, I suggest you take it up with Dr. Shermer. I’m guessing as the head of Skeptic Magazine he would not put something out there that could be so easily dismissed as you seem to think, but perhaps you’re considerably smarter than him. Good luck with that.Report

        • Avatar greginak says:

          Nice appeal to authority. Skeptics, and i am one, can be just as wrong as anybody. I read through his article and i guess i wont’ go through all the problems with that. He doesn’t actually present any evidence for 6. If anything he was trying to cover way way to much ground in a relatively short essay.Report

    • Avatar Trumwill says:

      Worth noting that the implications of 1-3 can very easily lend themselves to the moral legitimacy of liberal policy conclusions. The more genetic, the more legitimacy.

      As with Greg, I am skeptical of #6. I’d need to see more.Report

      • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

        Re #6: “Raising a child doesn’t take a village, study finds”

        • Avatar DarrenG says:

          “Or so it appears in at least one tribe in Mali.”Report

          • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

            Yup. Enough to keep minds open, Darren. If they are able.

            I saw it just the other day and pass it on here. Do what you want with the info, altho in yr case, I suspect it will be nothing.Report

            • Avatar DarrenG says:

              The point is that this research does absolutely nothing to contradict the very valid criticism of Shermer’s point #6.

              Child-rearing arrangements vary a lot between different societies, and the particulars of one tribe in Mali are irrelevant to the posts you were responding to.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                Fine, Darren. Chew on the other 11 posted points. #6 remains open to argument, and you haven’t made even a dent in the overall thesis, only chewed a bit on one of its toes.Report

              • Avatar DarrenG says:

                I wasn’t offering a comprehensive criticism of Shermer, just your response to criticism of one of his points.

                I haven’t yet read Shermer’s full essay, but based on this list I’m very skeptical of his ability to describe a Grand Unified Theory of Human Nature, as the above list reads very much like a common attempt to shape evidence to match a pre-determined conclusion.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                Well, keep your eye on the ball then and stop niggling then.

                I’m not a Schermer fan particularly, but his points span the ancient Greeks to modern science with a lot of hard-won empirical knowledge in between of how humans work. He’d be the first to admit his is an aggregation of wisdoms, not some grand a priori pronouncement.

                The thesis is that we must deal with human nature as we find it, something George Washington even said once.Report

        • Avatar greginak says:

          ha…yes in the one tribe studied they did not find that statement to be true. Your google fu is indeed impressive. But in reality there are many many variations of child rearing in humans. Its very common in Alaska Native and Native American families for extended family or close friends to care for children for long periods of time. Here is Alaska tribes take a significant interest in raising any child in the foster care system usually placing them with relatives or with tribe members if no family are available. In some cultures the children are raised primarily with the women with the men having little direct input until puberty. What is silliest about Shermer’s invocation of a catch phrase is how it turns a complex subject into a simplistic tag line.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            “You are the child. Washington is the village.”Report

            • Avatar greginak says:

              Forking spendocrat elitists in washington and their top down SCHIP and food stamps stopping people from solving their own problems.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                Food Stamp Nation. That’s something to brag about, MrG.


                With a little more effort and a few more elections, I bet we can get it up to 75%.Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                oh tom… tom… tom
                If you are going to play it like that then i prefer a food stamp nation over a starvation nation. It’s indeed SHOCKING that in a serious recession more people get unemployment benefits, food stamps of Medicaid. Like WTF…really why the hell are people using social safety net programs in a difficult time. Next your going to tell me a lot of old people are on SS and Medicare.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                Mr.G, what’s you plan for reducing the %age of people on gov’t assistance?

                See, that was the point of even answering your driveby. Because the concept doesn’t fit into your ideology anywhere.

                Because it’s not just the result of the current hard times. It’s the trend throughout the Western world for many decades now.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                (what? I knows our strengths. We ain’t nearly the engineers that the Japanese and Germans are, but we got ’em licked on new stuff).Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                I got into an argument with someone who pointed out that corn subsidies made it possible for me to enjoy Coca-Cola so what kind of (g)libertarian is *THAT*???

                My pointing out that I buy Hecho en Mexico Coca-Cola would not have addressed his underlying point.

                It does show how every nook and cranny of our lives has government “assistance”… and how irritation at this fact is seen as insufficient gratitude.Report

        • Avatar Trumwill says:

          It’s the “depth of connectedness between blood relatives” part I find questionable rather than the village part. Not that there isn’t a connection that is greater than that of non-relatives, but that it’s so all-important.

          I might need a better idea of what Shermer is trying to say on that. I might be reading a more broad statement than he is making.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      I’ll say as an adoptive parent that I’m also skeptical of #6. I’ve seen reasoning along these lines to the conclusion that I don’t sufficiently love my daughter. I can’t possibly, after all, because she doesn’t share my genes.

      Which is both stupid and evil to an astonishing degree.Report

  14. Avatar Koz says:

    I haven’t gotten too involved with the coercion threads. I’m against coercion in general of course. But more than that, while it’s probably possible to resolve the business about “Your coercion is my freedom.” as a practical matter it’s very difficult to do so in the context of other political disagreements, maybe related or maybe not.

    It’s sometimes helpful for me, though, to shift the perspective. Coercion is usually talked about the relation of the state (or some authority) to us. They make us do x, which is or isn’t legitimate. Instead of putting government in the driver’s seat, let put us there instead.

    Economic activity moves at the speed of trust, which you can regard as the absence of coercion if you want. Even if trust and (lack of) coercion are in some way objectively the same thing, for the context of these discussions it might be more useful to think about trust in lieu of coercion.

    Trust is a presence, whereas lack of coercion is an absence, and it’s harder to fake a presence than argue about the meaning of an absence. Therefore when such controversies occur, we can ask ourselves, does this form of government or action by government tend to create economically and culturally valuable trust, or does it tend to destroy it?Report

    • Avatar Renee says:

      Nice jujutsu move there. This is a great perspective.Report

      • Avatar Koz says:

        Thanks Renee. At the risk of harshing our buzz, this is the premise of why I tend to disagree with the policy conclusions in the OP (and the one before that).

        If the zoning commission or City Hall or whoever is able to stop the Plano Kwik Lube from offering a discount based on reciting John 3:16, there will be less trust among the citizens of Plano because the possibility of overbearing interference from John Law will always be there.

        It’s like seeing a cockroach on the kitchen floor. You have no reason to be particularly afraid of him. You step on it, and pick him up with a Kleenex and he’s gone. What you’re afraid of, is that one cockroach that you can see likely indicates the presence of a hundred others that you can’t, and those are the ones you’re afraid of.

        Similarly, whenever law enforcement or the courts are allowed to micromanage situations where they’re not needed, it sows distrust in the citizens in general that they will be able to manage their affairs in peace, the raw material of economic and cultural capital.Report

        • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

          I said it up above but it deserves repeating. This is a great point, Koz; of all the counter arguments I have come across on this issue, I find yours the most persuasive. (I’m not sure I’ve ever had it posed to me until now, in fact.)Report

          • Avatar DarrenG says:

            I agree, and it also shows that using coercion as a first-order value for everything isn’t always the best framing.

            This argument absolutely gets to the heart of why many of us can look at the Christians For Cheap Oil Changes story and shrug it off as stupid and obnoxious, but largely irrelevant and not worthy of state intervention while still passionately supporting civil rights legislation and intervention for the Serious Stuff.Report

          • Avatar Koz says:

            Fwiw, this is also a large part of what I was trying to get at in our last conversation, ie,


            and related comments.Report

            • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

              I wonder if this is a case of you wording it differently in a way that better spoke to me, or if I was just more ready to hear what you were saying after a week of thinking about this stuff.Report

              • Avatar Koz says:

                Probably the latter, at least to some extent. Recall from the earlier thread, that part of the issue was that, in contrast to Tim’s point, it wasn’t something that you had previously considered.Report

              • Avatar Renee says:

                I may be stating the obvious here, but what I like about your formulation (and why I mentioned jujutsu) is because it takes the argument from the negative (“You can’t use coercion against me!”) to the positive (“Let’s find policy and social institutions that maximize trust in peoples relations”). People in this thread will still disagree as how to do that, but framing the conversation positively will provoke more thought than defending the notion that I should be able to do what I want.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      I guess I need to pipe up and be a lone dissenting voice on this claim. I think the argument that government action in the oil-change case fosters distrust begs the question: it’s only people who are already distrustful of government who would see this as an example of (as you wrote below) “sow[ing] distrust in the citizens in general that they will be able to manage their affairs in peace, the raw material of economic and cultural capital.” If the broad swath of civil rights legislation and court cases has shown us anything, it’s that ‘people’ are in fact incapable of ‘managing their own affairs in peace’. One person’s peace is another person’s injustice.

      I also think that all the extensions of the case and the other reasons listed by RTod in the OP are sufficient to show that government is justified in taking a position on it.

      That’s not to say that in the bigger scheme of things I really care one way or the other about this particular case.Report

      • Avatar RTod says:

        I still agree with you, SW, but this argument of Koz speaks to me far more than “coercion” and “right to discriminate” arguments.

        And even if I still think my OP thoughts are right, I still think there is a valuable truth to consider in what Koz says.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater says:

          Suppose it fosters distrust. Is that distrust principled or pragmatic? Is it that government ought not get involved in these types of situations in any event?; or that the triviality of this particular case shows that government is overly meddlesome?

          The former can be rejected for all the reasons provided in your OP. If the latter, then it’s merely a matter of whether you think the case is compelling or not – whether you think this counts as a form of discrimination or not. And which way you go on that presupposes that you have a view of government’s meddlesomeness as being evidence of its inherent untrustworthiness.

          Maybe I’m not getting the argument. It seems like a tight little circle to me.Report

  15. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    I’d like to express my agreement with Tod here by reproducing a comment I made in the previous thread, responding to a point of James Hanley’s. My quotation of James will be in italics, followed by the reproduction in normal formatting

    I’m having trouble with this idea that there’s no meaningful distinction between a) coercing people to prevent them form coercively taking something from other, and b) coercively taking something from others.

    The difference is context, and what that means is that if you want to insist on the difference, then you (not meaning you, James, cuz I know you don’t) can’t have an absolute position on the absolute value (as it were) of coercion. Meaning if you want to say one of these is bad and the other okay, then you have to admit that coercion isn’t just simply bad (and I know you do) – indeed government coercion isn’t all bad. But all coercion is coercion – the mugger, the law that is enfirced to prevent muggings, and the tax law that you may see as itself a mugging. It’s all coercion. None of it is inherently bad or good; it depends on context and it depends what we want.

    We do want to coerce intended murderers and rapists against carrying out those acts (at least I think we agree on that). We may not want to coerce people against smoking marijuana. So it’s a matter of what we do and don’t want to apply official coercion to. We discussed who we want making the decision the other day, but it is a decision. I know you know all this; I think it’s what Erik’s trying to say as well. I don’t think you have much of a disagreement. He’s not saying all coercion is the same. He’s saying all coercion is coercion, and it differs, and we variably want or don’t want it, based on the context. So there’s no absolute answer; we have to decide, and where we decide is going to be precisely at some threshold point where the precise decision is not going to be perfectly clear, especially in a democracy.Report

    • Avatar wardsmith says:

      @Drew, this is completely off topic and I apologize in advance, but in a different thread (which I’ve now lost) you said were unemployed. I’ve been unemployed more times than I can count. But I don’t even need to work anymore because I’ve hit several lottos, starting and selling businesses.

      I’d like you to read this link not because I have any great respect for Mark, but because Steve Jobs died today and he was one of my heroes that I never met. Because of what Steve (and Woz) did, I refocused my entire life (and career) towards PC’s (at first) and entrepreneurism (always).

      At the risk of super-sleuth Patrick collecting more bread-crumbs, I can say that long before Cuban and his partner put their first Indiana game online, we had already placed a commercial radio station online 24×7. In fact his partner called me up to ask how we did it. I was only too happy to oblige. Mark ended up a billionaire and I’m only a millionaire but I’m not complaining. I’d do every single thing I did over again, with a smile on my face – again.

      Why am I being all weird like this? Well, Jobs is dead, I’m in the cups as the bard says and it twinged my own heart when you f’d off at Mike but later said you were unemployed. As stupid as it sounds, that brings a tear to my eye. I want you happy, I want you (to stay) smart and I most of all want you successful. I hope reading Cuban’s flow of consciousness writing makes you feel smarter (you’re definitely smarter than he is) but also makes you feel inspired to do something great.

      Watson at IBM told an employee once, “Fail faster”. The employee walked away chagrined. That was the single most brilliant thing he could ever have said to anyone. Fail gloriously, and learn from it.

      And now I’m off to open another bottle of Chateauneuf. In honor of Jobs. Even if he was an ass. Like me.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        Cheers, wardsmith. I appreciate this a great deal. I admire Jobs; I actually think I may admire Cuban almost as much. Not sure how you fit into it, but internet radio is big part of my life, and I’m nothing but thrilled that it’s something that has made people lots of money.

        I’m doing my best, I promise. I’m looking for opportunities, and I’m not complaining. I actually am in large part responsible for my particular situation, as every individual person of course is. Me more than average though, maybe. But macro forces also shape the environment in which every individual’s assets and flaws are evaluated.

        If I could ask something of you and the League tonight it would be this: let these people in New York have their moment. They may be exasperating and hypocritical in certain respects, but they represent something real that’s out there. It’s not 99% of anything, but it’s real. And the macro part of it is also real, and truly not their fault. We are in an extraordinary situation right now: let’s allow a bit of extraordinary reaction. Let’s see what we can learn from it or think about how it might be helpful despite being maybe kinda ridiculous before rushing to assure ourselves of the reasons it doesn’t matter. And I’ll do the same for the Tea Party. (Actually, I already did!)

        Thanks all. And don’t worry about me; I’ll be fine.

        (Shoutout my homie, Mike Farmer. w00t!)

        Also: drew (dot) mike (at) gmail (dot) com. Anytime.Report

        • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

          Dude, you’re in my prayers! And, even as a paleo, when you parse what it is some of the WS protesters are saying, you find the truth.Report

        • Avatar MFarmer says:


          Good luck on the job search. I have a feeling we’re at a bottom and that in a few months we’ll see movement upwards. I’m not unemployed, but I might as well be, because my business has taken a heavy hit in the last two years. We’ll make it, though.

          other MikeReport

          • Avatar Michael Drew says:

            Thanks, Mike. I needed to let you know where I was at in no uncertain terms, but I regret lashing out like a child. Truly: no hard feelings here. Of course I know you don’t think I’m tyrant. 🙂Report

        • Avatar wardsmith says:

          Drew, By the way, this Jobs speech was what I was originally looking for, but in my befuddled state I Google’d badly and found the Cuban story instead. It was interesting enough in its own right so I sent it on. I have all the faith in the world that you’ll end up fine, and we’d all love it if you were successful beyond your wildest dreams. 🙂Report

    • Avatar Roger says:


      My thoughts are with you too.

      Coercion is not a Platonic BAD. The problem is that coercion is forcing a suboptimal or bad outcome on one or more party, usually for the perceived benefit of another person or party.

      This is because if it was optimal, you don’t need to force the adult to do it, you can persuade them. All this is based not upon some absolute set of standards and values, but upon the coerced person’s actual objective values and needs at the time, place and context.

      Using coercion (as a last resort) to suppress coercion isn’t a subjective use of coercion. It is a somewhat objective, simple, rule-based process used to minimize coercion. As follows:

      My “ideal” is to form a voluntary state where anyone is free to join. The rules are minimally set and consistent over time and stress that you are free to do as you will, but you are not allowed to use coercion (lie, cheat, steal, hurt) on others. If you do, coercion can be used back (to discourage initiating it in first place). Do you want to join?

      Eric’s model seems to me to be: let’s democratically decide how we want society to look and use majority voting to coercively push it on those that do not agree. Democratic master planning is just a better version of master planning. Good and bad coercion are argued out and decided and then coercively applied to those disagreeing. Not only am I not asked to join, I am discouraged from leaving or carving out a zone or voluntary range of liberty. After all, those exploited (being coerced) are being used to fund his vision.

      500 years ago the world was chock full of coercion and exploitation. The progress in health, prosperity and knowledge was in great part due to the enhancement of liberty and the restraint of coercion. Free enterprise, free inquiry (science) and democracy all contributed to this progress. I believe the future progress of society involves creating institutions, ideas, technologies and so forth that continue this trend.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        I am actually right on the edge of being willing to say it’s a platonic bad. I certainly don’t disagree with much at all that you’re saying.

        It’s just that I’m just enough of a Hobbesian that I don’t think that as long as humans live in groups, the potential for people to consider armed robbery and murder a route to getting what they want, or just something interesting to spend an afternoon at, is going to go away. I think it’s inherent. And as a result I feel that I can positively embrace coercion as a deterrent to having to face those things every time I walk down the street. And I just have a principle I try to hold to that says that there isn’t any point in trying ot preserve an inherent bad/good value distinction in places where I can’t reliably reject the bad. What else is the point of such a dichotomy? Obviously, as I’ve said, coercion in some contexts is bad, but in other contexts, I positively embrace it, so as result i don’t want to say it’s inherently bad. It may be regrettable that it is necessary (in my mind) in certain contexts, but it is indeed inherently and authentically desirable in those particular contexts as well, so I’m not sure there’s even much point in dwelling on the regrettable part. I prefer to just accept my view for what it is and move on.

        None of this is meant to distinguish our views; I imagine you more or less agree.Report

        • Avatar Roger says:


          Here is why I won’t go so far on coercion as BAD.

          Coercion can be GOOD with children and mentally challenged adults (and pets too). The reason is that they are not rational enough to be expected to optimize their own behavior. Therefore the volition assumptions that the person best capable of choosing an action is the person affected is not always true. I’d trust the parents of a 4 year old over the 4 year old.

          This gets back to the point of positive sum interactions. It is rarely expected that one rational adult would be better at selecting the optimum course than the person affected. Coercion usually leads to suboptimal results for the party coerced. The point of allowing some coercion to parents and pet owners is that they are able to care for the affected party. Practical levels of parental and pet coercion are positive sum.Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew says:

            Perhaps it is mentally challenged adults about whom I am concerned that leads me to embrace coercion as a positive choice in the case of murder and a robbery. That’s not the assumption the legal system operates upon, with their need for culpability and hence for compos mentis and the ability to distinguish right form wrong, but that is a question of arriving at an institution that can apply coercion justly, not the question of whether coercion is justified as a deterrent to future coercion as a general matter.Report

  16. Avatar Stillwater says:

    RTod, you’re getting really good at this blogging thing, what with all the pictures and stuff. Good work.

    Oh, and the content’s pretty awesome as well.Report

  17. Avatar Kolohe says:

    (g)Libertarian: “Democracy? I’m somewhat skeptical, people can be fishin grassy knolls you know.”

    Response: “What are you some kind of authoritarian fascist!?”

    (g)Libertarian: “You know, it’s not high on my agenda, but I don’t think we necessarily need laws to ban private discrimination”

    Response: “What?! You know, people can be fishin grassy knolls! What then?”Report

  18. Avatar Will H. says:

    Just a few notes here:

    1). You can look at the writings of Uraih S. Stephens and see that there was certainly a civil rights movement long, long before the “Civil Rights Movement.” And it appeared to have some degree of success.

    2). People develop work-arounds for prohibitions on behaviors, and especially so when those prohibitions are deemed unfair.
    For example, there were people that would give personal loans to racial minorities (Indians) at times when banks would not loan to them. I’m fairly certain that the same is true of other racial minorities.
    A crude system, but only a point of development. Given time, the banks themselves would have come to make such loans.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      only if it was most profitable to do so, and that remains to be seen. The greeks did a fine job of lending to their own community…Report

  19. Avatar Katherine says:

    Wow. This is by far the best discussion of the issue that I’ve read. Thanks for that.Report