# Coercion (again) and Power

Patrick

Patrick is a mid-40 year old geek with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's degree in Information Systems. Nothing he says here has anything to do with the official position of his employer or any other institution.

### 90 Responses

1. John Howard Griffin says:

Perhaps I am heading straight into the weeds, yet I couldn’t get past your definition: this part “…between two independent agents in a social system…”.

I read “system” according to the definition used in systems thinking. The system is made of many pieces and many independent agents. Therefore, we cannot really evaluate the interactions of only two agents in the system. We must evaluate all interactions amongst all agents. Though, that is a difficult proposition.

Perhaps, you have simplified things because otherwise it would be the equivalent of calculating the gravitational force between more than two bodies.

And, yet, I still think it is important, because I don’t think coercion is ever between ONLY two independent agents.

• Patrick Cahalan says:

That’s a good point, John.

In the context of the system, this is where proportionate power, classes of power, and why I talk about context-dependence.

But note, coercion between two agents doesn’t necessarily need to be coercion between two individuals. One of the agents can be “the government”, and the definition still works, although it starts to creak at the edges.

> You have simplified things because otherwise
> it would be the equivalent of calculating the
> gravitational force between more than two
> bodies.

Ya gotta start somewhere.Report

• John Howard Griffin says:

Thanks for the clarification. FWIW, I assumed that “agent” was proxy for person, group, tribe, nation, government, etc.

The government uses violence against a person because they belong to group A. Other persons (not part of group A) view the violence (let’s call them group B). Is there not potential to create coercion in group B because they viewed the coercion of group A?

I do like your post on this tangled subject. I like the way you’ve analyzed it. But, it’s too narrow for me, I think. I’ll leave it to others to hash this out.Report

• Will H. says:

A few variables in the equation that defy one common answer:

1). The extent to which Group B self-identifies with Group A or gov’t (Group G);
2). The manner of coercion entered against Group A (as exploitation, betrayal, & expropriation are all forms of coercion, as well as threats of such);
3). And most likely a few others that I fail to recognize at this point.Report

• greginak says:

I think you have a good question about what exactly “system” means. If i have a preexisting medical condition and want insurance but no insurer will give me insurance are we actually two independent actors in some neutral system. I am dependent on companies, or the gov, to give me something i can’t get on my own, while the companies are independent. There is a serious imbalance in power and need. I have all the need and they have all the power.

How the system is arranged heavily influences the context in which we will view who is independent and who isn’t.Report

• Patrick Cahalan says:

Well, not everything is going to map into this definition of coercion.

Your relationship with an insurer who doesn’t want to provide you service because you are an untenable customer (as you will begin as a negative impact and likely remain there forever) isn’t coercion unless we start talking about you (through a proxy of the government) coercing the insurance company (regarded as a collective agent) to provide you service.

Properly, they’re not rejecting you because you have a preexisting medical condition. They’re rejecting you because you cannot pay a rate that will cover your preexisting condition. If you had more money, this wouldn’t be a problem*

* yes, if you had this much money, you probably wouldn’t be shopping for insurance anyway.

In that particular case, one can argue all sorts of things about this being just or unjust.

In this particular thread, I’m not terribly interested about discussing whether or not basic medical care ought to be a default privilege or right. The answer to *that* question would immediately tell you whether the coercion in this case is “good” or not, right?Report

• John Howard Griffin says:

I think this is important: How the system is arranged heavily influences the context in which we will view who is independent and who isn’t.

I’d go even further and say:

How we perceive the system is arranged heavily influences the context in which we will view who is independent and who isn’t, as well as who has more power than the other and who is coercing whom.Report

• Patrick Cahalan says:

That’s why I brought up the privileged class issue.Report

• John Howard Griffin says:

Yes, of course. I should have added that you discussed this specifically in your post. Apologies for the omission.Report

• Will H. says:

But, of course, such a class can be of hidden privilege, some type of agreement or understanding among certain members of the group; the whole allies and treaties thing.Report

• Patrick Cahalan says:

Yes, absolutely.

To be fair, sometimes these classes can be hidden for all sorts of justifiable reasons, too.Report

2. Roger says:

Patrick,

By now I think you are aware that I disagree with this definition.

“the leveraging of power imbalance between two independent agents in a social system to produce an outcome desired by the agent with the disproportionate amount of power.”

I have no idea who gets to determine this objective absolute of power. Is this something the supreme being does, big government, democratic majority, or you?

If a low power person (defined as above?) steals from a high power person is it okey dokey? Or just bad non-coercion?

Coercion is using force or deception to produce an outcome on another against the other’s will.

This can be objectively (though imperfectly) discovered through voluntary actions. If it is voluntary and not based upon deception, it is un-coerced. And yes, joining the military voluntarily is normally non-coercive. And holding a gun to someone’s head to get them to stop smoking — for their own good — is still coercion.Report

• Patrick Cahalan says:

> I have no idea who gets to determine
> this objective absolute of power.

I’m pretty sure I stayed very far away from the use of “objective”. Outside of the case of violence, this whole post is more or less about subjectivity.

> Is this something the supreme being
> does, big government, democratic
> majority, or you?

Roger, if this is your objection…

> Coercion is using force or deception to
> produce an outcome on another
> against the other’s will.

… who decides what is “force”? What is “deception”?

When it comes to “against the other’s will”… what, today? What if they agree with me tomorrow? What if they agree with me, and then suddenly change their mind? How do we know what the “other’s will” is? Who decides… them? If they decide, are you’re stating that it is objectively the case that every agent has complete knowledge of themselves, at all times?

Is the threat of “force” == “force”?
Is the threat of banishment from the community = “force”?

Who’s setting your definitions? The democratic majority? A supreme being? Or you?

> If a low power person (defined as above?) steals
> from a high power person is it okey dokey? Or

If I sneak into your office and swipe a \$10 bill out of your desk, that makes me a thief. If I hold a gun to your head and demand you give me \$10, I’m robbing you under threat of violence (coercion).

Hey, if I say, “Sell me your business at a discount, because I’m Boss Tweed and nobody in this town will do business with you on my say-so if you don’t sell me your business”… that’s coercion too, isn’t it? No force or deception involved, though.Report

• Roger says:

Patrick,

The point I was trying to make is that it is easy to rationalize power imbalance and totally subjective.

As I explained in my response, deciding on whether there was coercion is easy in my definition. If it was a voluntary action without deception, then it was non-coercive.

In a two party interaction, a non-coercive act is anything they mutually agree to. The standards used to determine this are those of the individuals interacting. They decide! That is why it is an expected win/win.

I am most certainly not assuming anyone has perfect knowledge or will not later regret their voluntary decision. I am stating that for rational adults, it is very rare to expect another person to have a better awareness of the values, needs, trade-offs, contextual situation, etc than the deciding party. Furthermore, rarely is another person in a better situation to live with the decision and therefore benefit from it or pay the cost of a mistake. In other words, the individuals receive feedback on the quality of their decision. That is why my definition works better.

Yes threat of force is coercion. Forced banishment is coercion. Refusing to play further is not coercion — but leads to interesting issues.

By the way, sometimes EXPLOITATION is a better or broader word than coercion. It allows us to discuss a broader range of win/lose activities. Let’s not go there though.Report

• Patrick Cahalan says:

> The point I was trying to make is that
> it is easy to rationalize power imbalance
> and totally subjective.

Well, yeah. This is the hard part.

I don’t deny that your definition is more straightforward, Roger, but it’s also (IMO) less useful. It’s a Newtonian Mechanics approach to coercion when I’m shooting for a General Relativity, I’d guess.

> By the way, sometimes EXPLOITATION
> is a better or broader word than coercion.

Ah. So. This is a very good point.

I will muse.Report

• MFarmer says:

“I’m shooting for a General Relativity, I’d guess.”

From Paul Johnson’s, Modern Times:

“At the beginning of the 1920s the belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value. Mistakenly but perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism.

No one was more distressed than Einstein by this public misapprehension…..He believed passionately in absolute standards of right and wrong. His professional life was devoted to the quest not only for truth but for certitude. He insisted the world could be divided into subjective and objective spheres, and that one must be able to make precise statements about the objective portion.”Report

• Patrick Cahalan says:

Sorry, Mike, that’s not what I meant to say, really.

Newtonian mechanics is at a layer of abstraction where relativity (and quantum mechanics) don’t really matter; functionally they all work the same. Move slow enough, and have big enough objects, and your equations in relativity just collapse into K^e = 1/2(M)(V^2).

So using the tools of relativity to, say, compute orbitals of the moon is kind of stupid, it just leads to a bunch of algebraic steps you don’t need.

On the other hand, if you want to compute the effects of an object traveling at near-relativistic speeds on the moon as you head out to Alpha Centauri, Newtonian mechanics will give you a decidedly wrong answer.

I’m trying to find a definition of coercion that everybody can use, regardless of political stripe. I think it might be useful in winnowing down which of all the subjective cases I’m talking about cause what sorts of problems for which frameworks of political thought.Report

• Will H. says:

I was thinking that a lot of coercion would take the form of exploitation.

I said as much in the first draft of the comment down-thread, which was eaten up by Cyberspace. (and I hope Cyberspace chokes on it, though not for very long, but long enough to give Cyberspace quite a start and think twice about doing that again)
It is a much shorter abridged second attempt which appears.Report

• Will H. says:

A few things I really don’t get here.

First of all, the quantity of matter need not be known objectively as a precondition to an objective belief in matter.

Secondly, this thing about coercion being voluntary action minus deception is untenable. Surely treaties ending wars are obtained through coercive means. The promise of peace is as directive of action as the threat of force.

Is war coercive, and are treaties which end war likewise coercive?Report

• Roger says:

Patrick:
“if I say, “Sell me your business at a discount, because I’m Boss Tweed and nobody in this town will do business with you on my say-so if you don’t sell me your business”… that’s coercion too, isn’t it? No force or deception involved, though.”

Good question. It seems like it is coercion, and it seems like no force…

But then so would this: “Boss Tweed you need to give me a raise because I know you are cheating on your wife and will tell her if you don’t.”

I think we are arguing over what is FORCE though. This may be a useful. I would be glad to explore further if you’d like.

My concern is with deciding upon power imbalance.Report

• Patrick Cahalan says:

> But then so would this: “Boss Tweed you
> need to give me a raise because I know
> you are cheating on your wife and will
> tell her if you don’t.”

Oh, hells, yes.

> I think we are arguing over what is FORCE
> though. This may be a useful.

Jawol. This is where the meat is; this is why I break it down into different classes of power imbalance.

Some people just aren’t going to regard anything other than “I’m forcing you under threat of violence” as a power imbalance/bad use of force.

Other people will regard some list of other things such as the ones I mention as legitimate/real forces/powers.

The interesting discussion will come from the second group of people. Not that the first has nothing to say, mind you, it’s just pretty straightforward.Report

• Roger says:

Patrick,

Okay. I agree that threatening harm is coercion. This can indeed come about without violence. Well argued.

Do you agree that anyone threatening harm — regardless of power imbalance — is being coercive? (And let me concede that I agree it is easier for the powerful to so threaten.)Report

• Patrick Cahalan says:

Not really. I mean, almost always, but if some almost-blind drunk teenager (even a fairly big football player teenager) starts bloviating at me, I’m not going to be particularly threatened.

But in almost all cases, lots of other people would be; and it almost all other cases of being threatened by the same teenager, I probably would be, too 🙂Report

3. 62across says:

Patrick –

Thank you for taking this subject on. (Next time I’m going to ask for a pony.) Also, I appreciate that you’ve tried to steer clear of policy implications in the discussion. There’s a tendency, I think, to reclassify some actions as non-coercive when remedies to that coercion aren’t available.

Contra Roger, I think the “coercion as the application of disproportionate power” formulation is pretty useful. (Roger – stealing is clearly not okey-dokey; there is a power imbalance in there somewhere.) Your list of power forms was a good start, but I’m surprised you didn’t touch the power of the purse. It’s what came first to my mind when private coercion was mentioned.Report

• Patrick Cahalan says:

> I’m surprised you didn’t touch the power of the purse.

We can get there. The power of the purse is dodgy because in a perfect world, the power of the purse isn’t necessarily unjust. Of course, in a perfect world we don’t have rent-seeking and all that other stuff that comes with it.

If you want to flesh that out, go ahead 🙂Report

• Roger says:

62 and Patrick,

You write: “stealing is clearly not okey-dokey; there is a power imbalance in there somewhere”

So what do we call it when those with low power lie, cheat, steal, from those with greater power?

When those with low power get the backing of government and thus become high power is everything reversed?

It is virtually guaranteed that any and every two parties interacting do not have 100% equal power on all dimensions. Therefore are all voluntary actions coercive? If not which are not?Report

• Patrick Cahalan says:

#1: Theft

#2: It could be, in some cases, yes.

#3: Power imbalances can be not relevant in many (if not most) cases.

I’m a parent. Child asks for a cookie, I give ’em one.

Sticking with old Boss Tweed, I’m Boss Tweed. I walk into the general store and ask for a pack of bubblegum, put my four bits on the counter and walk away. The fact that I own a bunch of the town isn’t really relevant, because I’m not asking the storekeeper to give me a *different* outcome from someone else with less power than me.

But of course, there is the potential for misuse there. Just like Jason pointed out on the coercion thread; we have to be careful because it’s always there in the background. Vigilance.Report

• Will H. says:

This seems obvious to me.

So what do we call it when those with low power lie, cheat, steal, from those with greater power?

It doesn’t happen.
When someone with lesser power would engage in deception or theft from one with greater power, they do so by negating the power of the one greater.
In such cases, the lesser becomes the greater for a time.
Consider this:
If you know beforehand that someone is going to lie to you or steal from you, wouldn’t you take precautions against it?
The mice can tell when the cat is sleeping.
And if not, then they’re screwed.Report

• Will H. says:

A couple of things that I would like to add to that.

1). Power is not one thing only, but involves a sphere of influence.

2). Power is dynamic, not fixed.Report

4. 62across says:

Roger –

So what do we call it when those with low power lie, cheat, steal, from those with greater power?

Can we call it lying, cheating, and stealing? There’s no need to force things into a dichotomy of coercion and non-coercion. There’s 51 flavors of bad acts.

When those with low power get the backing of government and thus become high power is everything reversed?

Could be, though it could just as likely be making the disproportionate power more proportionate.

As I said in the other thread, there’s a lot to be said for applying the non-zero-sum model to the question of coercion. To my mind, “voluntary” is where it gets muddy.Report

5. Roger says:

Patrick (and 62),

Bravo Patrick! Your position is making much more sense to me, and I will be more careful when using the term. But I have more questions…

Let’s adopt your leveraging of power imbalance definition. Voluntary interactions between consenting adults likely involve various forms and degrees of of power imbalance, and it is difficult to measure and subjectively perceived. Indeed, as you wrote, some types of leveraging power imbalance are not considered bad or inappropriate.

“Coercion isn’t inherently bad, as I’ll show in a just a bit. However, from the perspective of liberty, on a sliding scale of value… “goodness” to “badness”… one can say that the more the outcome is desired by both parties, the “better” the coercion is, and the less the outcome is desired by the agent with the lesser power, the “worse” the coercion is.”

My question. Is there also a dimension related to HOW the power imbalance is leveraged?

For example, it is not coercive to outbid somebody when you have more money. It is coercive to say that you can’t bid or I will tell your dad you are gay.

It’s not coercive to use better conditioning imbalance to beat an opponent in a boxing match. It is coercive to threaten the boxer outside of the ring.

The problem isn’t just in the imbalance, but seems related to fairness, legitimacy and whether we are operating within or outside the expected rules of the game. Thoughts?Report

• Patrick Cahalan says:

I like this, Roger. I’m chewing on this, too.

Now we’ve potentially got an X, Y, and Z. I might have to re-write this post.

> For example, it is not coercive to outbid
> somebody when you have more money.
> It is coercive to say that you can’t bid or

Yes. Well…

Actually, I can imagine it can be coercive to outbid somebody when you have more money, if what you’re actually trying to do is produce an outcome other than “I now own this thing”.

Let’s say your real goal isn’t to own that Monet. You don’t give two shakes of a lamb’s tail about Monet. But you really don’t like me, and I’m bidding on it, and you know that you can hurt me by buying it and setting it on fire, just ’cause.

In this case, you’re leveraging what would otherwise be a legitimate use of your economic power (buying things you want), for a (subjectively, granted) illegitimate purpose (again, from a justice standpoint).

> It’s not coercive to use better conditioning
> imbalance to beat an opponent in a boxing
> match. It is coercive to threaten the boxer
> outside of the ring.

Exactly like this, actually. Except substitute “fighting ability” for “economic ability” and look at “inside the ring” as “normal economic transactions” vs. “outside the ring” as “fish you, buddy, because I can”.

> The problem isn’t just in the imbalance,
> but seems related to fairness, legitimacy
> and whether we are operating within or
> outside the expected rules of the game.

Yes, exactly.

I realize that “expected rules of the game” is squishy. And again, this isn’t (yet) a terribly useful lens to use to talk about policy, because there are huge problems with trying to embody a whole bunch of this in the law, not the least of which is trying to encode it in the law will just enable a bunch of perfectly legal but morally reprehensible gaming of the system anyway.Report

• 62across says:

The problem isn’t just in the imbalance, but seems related to fairness, legitimacy and whether we are operating within or outside the expected rules of the game.

Roger and Patrick, I like this as well and think it is a critical point. Squishy or not, the expected rules of the game matter greatly. We rightly celebrate the superior boxer, especially if they got there through the hard work required for better conditioning. We rightly loathe the boxer who pays the judge to look the other way while he hits below the belt.

Sorry, but in this imperfect world, I can’t help to circle back to the power of the purse. It is the primary tool for gaming the system, used the direct “reprehensible” way and sometimes even for the “perfectly legal” way, by proxy through a bought government.Report

• Will H. says:

Not everything breaks down into money.
I like the ‘spheres of influence’ model better; in which ‘monetary’ would be one sphere, while ‘social’ wold be another, and still others.
Consider an old meddling granny-lady with her nose in everybody’s business. She might not have much money to spend, but she could certainly ruin peoples’ lives by spreading vicious rumors, whether warranted or not.

6. Brandon Berg says:

Since we’re talking about coercion as the application of disproportionate power, the members of a privileged class of any sort ought to be fairly up front about the fact that they do indeed possess disproportionate power, even if the power is in a different category altogether.

It’s worth noting that this rule tends to be applied asymmetrically. That is, a person’s opinion on anti-discrimination law is to be discounted if he does not stand to benefit directly from it. But I don’t recall anybody ever suggesting that a person’s opinion on anti-discrimination law is to be discounted if he does not stand to be harmed by it.

That is, supporters of anti-discrimination laws will want to privilege the preferences of blacks over the preferences of whites. But they never say that we should privilege the preferences of business owners, who are vulnerable to frivolous discrimination lawsuits, over the preferences of those who are not.

Just as it’s easy to oppose anti-discrimination law when you don’t stand to benefit, it’s easy to support it when you don’t stand to bear the costs.Report

• Patrick Cahalan says:

This is a fair observation, Brandon.

Indeed, whenever you’re talking about “coercion with cause”, as it were, it would follow that you would need to be careful not to miss all the consequences of your coercion.

I’m not so certain that I think your particular example is a great poster child for it (that’s a subject for a topic on AA, which this ain’t); but your observation has merit.Report

7. Stillwater says:

Patrick, first, this is an excellent post! I rather like this line of reasoning (I’ve argued it myself). In some very important sense I think that coercion simply reduces to leverage with coercive actions occupying the far end of the leverage spectrum.

And the nice part about invoking the concept of leverage is that it is as continuum. As I said in a comment yesterday, outright coercion may not occur in market activities (wrt employment, say), but the leverage some market players have over my actual choices and actions comes pretty close to meeting the criteria.

There is a useful role for the concept of coercion to play in political and economic arguments, but when issues about what constitutes an injustice are decided by either meeting or failing to meet the basic criteria of a very rare and extreme behavior, the discussion gets blurred. Usually, coercive force, what I’ve also called leverage, is more subtle than simply putting a gun to someone’s head to achieve a desired outcome. So I agree that leverage is a much more useful concept to employ when discussing politics, economic policy and the role of government in remedying power imbalances.

And second, this is a damn fine post.Report

• Stillwater says:

Or actually, I shouldn’t say the concept is more useful, but an equally useful concept which is often overlooked or denied.Report

• Will H. says:

I like the leveraging framework; but I believe what makes coercion distinct (similar to what Patrick says below) is the element of volition.
Let’s say that an enticement undertaken voluntary is enticement, which is distinct from coercion.

It looks to me like that’s what he’s trying to do here, is to separate coercion from enticement and other manners of influence.Report

• Stillwater says:

Will, I can’t speak for Patrick about this. But I agree that coercion ought to retain it’s normal meaning: that is, coercion in some sense entails the use of force, or the threat of violence (broadly understood) to compel actor B to agree to the demands of actor A. So in that sense, I don’t think each and every exercise of leverage constitutes coercion.

But power imbalances exist, and the exercise of differential power exercised by one actor to achieve an outcome which otherwise wouldn’t be mutually agree upon is a type of leverage. And it’s very amenable to the concept of coercion. In fact, I would define coercion as occupying a fuzzy bounded set at the outside end of the leverage spectrum, where the leverage exercised to compel a particular action or agreement is based on the use of force, or the threat of violence, or etc.

As I understand it, the idea of leverage isn’t a means to cleave off and separate other types of agreements from the more extreme, but to subsume them under a general concept. One that exists as a matter of fact, but which also reveals, or highlights at least, some of the overlooked moral dimensions in play.Report

• Pat Cahalan says:

> And second, this is a damn fine post.

Thank you, sir.

I think Roger has made some good points.

I’m also not sure that just using “coercion” is the right way to handle this, since the major difference between “coercion” and “exploitation” is… they’re sorta the same thing, really – at least in this framework. Except they’re not. There are active/passive differences.

One thing is clear: coercion is known (or knowable) by both parties to be occurring. Exploitation isn’t, necessarily.

I’m suffering from word choice, and I’m not sure how to spread the continuum here.

I’ll work on it later, unless someone else comes in and saves me the effort.Report

• Stillwater says:

Roger certainly made some good points. I think the problem I had wasn’t what he argued for, but what he left out. On the view he endorsed (Roger, are you reading this? am I getting this right?) A) market based agreement’s are always voluntary, and B) voluntary agreements cannot be coercive. Personally, I think that on a limited, very narrow understanding of those terms, those statements are true. But these claims somehow lump a decision based on desperate physical and economic necessity and a decision to buy an ipad into the same category. And I wanna say that that’s wrong, that there is an almost categorical difference between them.

But language gets in the way there. ‘Leverage’ seems to capture the idea as well as any, and I think it’s a rich topic to discuss. Like you’ve done in the above post in a particularly excellent way. And I hope it leads us to some interesting discussion.

We might even be able to get Freddie to make an appearance!!Report

• Patrick Cahalan says:

> But these claims somehow lump a decision
> based on desperate physical and economic
> into the same category.

Like you, I have a problem with this, for just this reason.

I have less of a problem with it now, after 20 years of adulthood, than I did when I was 18. Mostly because I’ve figured out that people aren’t starving in the world because of commodity traders in Chicago. They’re starving for all sorts of other reasons.

However, as the recent financial mess indicates this current massive disparity in wealth, wherein a reasonably finite number of agents control a massive preponderance of the economic power, leads to a case where there is simply too much of a difference between how much \$1000 means to most people and how much it means to those who control half the capital.

I don’t knock ’em for it. They’re not evil because of it. But the economy isn’t the better off for it.Report

• Roger says:

Patrick, Brandon, 62 and Stillwater,

I agree with 99% of what is being said above, specifically including most of the caveats and corrections or add ons that you each suggested to my comments.

So where are we?

Some of my take-aways so far:
1) Coercion is narrower than harm and narrower than exploitation (or should we just say not the same as?)
2) Coercion is quite possible without direct force
3) Coercion does involve power imbalance
4) Power imbalance can be extremely complex, subjective and multi-dimensional
5) Coercion can be good in some cases
6) There is something about operating within as opposed to outside the rules of the game (which may not even be written or agreed to)

Feel free to correct, counter or add to these…

I too think it would be good to get fresh input from further left (ED or Freddie?) and further libertarian (James H?)Report

• Patrick Cahalan says:

This seems like a pretty good takeaway so far.Report

• Will H. says:

Quite.
That could have been a whole new post.Report

• Roger says:

A thought exercise:

If a prince is collapsed in the desert and on the verge of death from thirst and I ride up to him on my horse, I could freely offer to him a canteen of water in exchange for all his earthy possessions.

This is okay per some as it is a voluntary exchange. The problem with it is that most of us don’t see this arrangement as one subject to the rules of free enterprise. This isn’t about creating and allocating scarce resources among competing interests. It is about saving a man’s life.

We have multi-dimensional power imbalance, we have using the imbalance to affect the outcomes, and we have someone using the wrong rules for the situation.

Feedback?Report

• Stillwater says:

We have multi-dimensional power imbalance, we have using the imbalance to affect the outcomes, and we have someone using the wrong rules for the situation.

This is precisely where the concept of leverage – as I use the word – makes sense: in the situation described, the canteen carrier has disproportionate leverage over the Prince. He can, in some sense, extort high concessions from the Prince based on the ability to provide a commodity that, due to happenstance or poor planning (it doesn’t really matter which), the Prince highly values. Perhaps values above all other things in that moment. The situation reveals the tension between normal morality on the one hand and ‘voluntary market-based agreements’ on the other.

You mentioned that the canteen carrier isn’t playing by the right rules, but that seems to me to be presuming too much. It assumes that there is a single correct answer to the question ‘How ought the canteen carrier act?’ Should he unconditionally give the water to the Prince, or are conditions permissible? Are only altruistic conditions permissible, or do they include the purely self-serving? I think people would radically differ in how they answer these questions, with lots of people agreeing that self-serving conditions on the provision of water are not only permissible but would require no justification whatsoever. As you said, it can be viewed as a purely voluntary exchange, so what’s there to quibble about?

You also mentioned that the canteen carriers actions aren’t about ‘creating and allocating scarce resources among competing interests’, which again, I think, presumes too much since what the canteen-carrier is doing is exactly what effective markets are intended to do: provide goods and services at a price determined ‘voluntarily’ by the participants. That the canteen carrier was fortunate enough to already possess the water, and found himself in a fortuitous location at a fortuitous time, and that he didn’t create the resource provided, all seem incidental (and in some sense irrelevant) to the market activity he engaged in.

So, if we conclude that the Prince is being coerced, or at a minimum that the disparity in leverage in the imagined scenario reveals an aspect of immorality in the exercise of power imbalances, then I think it provides a critique of market economics given the already existing power imbalances of the players.Report

• Patrick Cahalan says:

This is good.

Coercion can take many forms here. Let’s say this isn’t the case of surplus water.

Dude: “Yo, prince, you seem hard up. It’s two days ride from here to the oasis, if you don’t get caught in a sandstorm, but it’s sandstorm season so it might take three. I have four days’ worth of water, here, so if I take you on, I could die too.”

Prince, answer one: “Truth, no man’s life is worth more than anothers’. I can give you no guarantee of safety, but should you share this, which may be all that you own, I shall share all with you.” (that sounds like a fair deal, to me).

Prince, answer two: “My men scour the desert even now, seeking my presence. They should find me within a day. Leave me but one day of water, and I shall grant you ten sacks of gold and the camels to carry them.” (still okay with me).

Prince, answer three: “My men scour the desert even now, seeking my presence. Should you not assist me, and they find me, I shall with my dying breath utter your name and ensure the death of you and yours unto a thousand generations. But should you assist me, leaving me half your water, I shall grant you twenty sacks of gold and the camels to carry them.” (now we’ve jumped the shark).

Prince, answer four: “My return to the capital is the only thing preventing war with our neighboring kingdom, which shall rend the land asunder and put your friends and relatives in danger! Should you assist me, leaving me half your water, you may save the kingdom!” (okay, provided this is all true)

Prince, answer four: “My return to the capital is the only thing preventing war with our neighboring kingdom, which shall rend the land asunder and put your friends and relatives in danger! Should you assist me, leaving me half your water, you may save the kingdom!”

Dude: Grant me twenty sacks of gold and the camels to carry them, and you’ve got yourself a deal.

(dicey on the Dude).

Prince, answer five: “My return to the capital is the only thing preventing war with our neighboring kingdom, which shall rend the land asunder and put your friends and relatives in danger! Should you assist me, leaving me half your water, you may save the kingdom! I shall grant you twenty sacks of gold and the camels to carry them.” (this is fine, it’s all voluntary on the part of the prince).

Prince, answer six: “Dog! My men scour the desert, seeking my presence. Give me all of your water, and should they find us, I will ensure you live. Refuse me, and when they find me I shall have you and yours tortured for a thousand suns!” (I think we’re all okay with saying this ain’t kosher).Report

• 62across says:

Patrick –

Nice storyteller voice there.

I’ve got a couple questions about your two versions of “Prince, answer four”. They read to me as analogous of the financial sector bailouts, though I don’t know if that’s what you intended.

The Prince is basically saying “if I die here in the desert, I’m taking you, your friends and the kingdom with me.” That’s Too Big to Fail right there, isn’t it? Even if it is all true, why isn’t that coercion from the Prince (through extortion)? It sure doesn’t seem legitimate to claim the canteen-carrier is providing the water voluntarily anymore and he certainly didn’t have any part in creating the political situation that makes the Prince indispensable. Yet, in the scenario the Dude is risking his survival (sandstorms are likely) for the sake of the common good.

Further, though it might be dicey for the Dude to withhold the water until he has the gold, what is wrong with the Dude’s putting some conditions on the Prince in exchange for the risks the Dude will assume for saving his life?Report

• Patrick Cahalan says:

> Even if it is all true, why isn’t
> that coercion from the Prince

It *is* coercion from the Prince (again, provided it is true). He’s applying social duty obligations to the Dude.

But of course if it’s true, the Prince may be saying what he is out of obligation to the country, rather to save his own hide. And the Dude may want to know that indirectly, the Prince’s survival is, in fact, in his own best interests.

> They read to me as analogous
> of the financial sector bailouts,
> though I don’t know if that’s
> what you intended.

That is, in fact, what I intended. My sneakiness is getting less sneaky, I guess.

One can make the case that bailouts are “necessary” for the common good, after all. Those arguments are not entirely without merit if they are true.

> What is wrong with the Dude’s
> putting some conditions on the
> Prince in exchange for the risks
> the Dude will assume for
> saving his life?

Not a thing. It’s just potentially dicey, that’s all. It *could* be unjust; I can unpack that conversation a bit more if you want me to illustrate.

Comparing conversations #4 and #5, to illustrate:

Conversation #5 is more just on the part of both the Prince and the Dude. The Prince, because he recognizes that *he* has a greater duty (via his position of greater privilege) to the common good than the Dude does. By offering the Dude recompense voluntarily, he’s saying, “Dude, I realize that you may be getting a more raw deal than I do from the kingdom. But we both think the Kingdom is at least a marginally good thing. So here, I’ll make your raw deal less raw in return for you helping me prevent disaster to the kingdom”

This in fact, is *not* what happened with TARP, to stretch it back to the bailouts. The government came along and said to the Dude: “The Prince is not lying. Give him your water or war will start.” And then the Prince survives, and the Dude survives, and the Prince goes on living in a palace and the Dude finds out that there’s a new tax to pay for the road to the neighboring country that you’re not at war with any more which is going to cost him his stall in the market, and the Dude is saying, “Why the hell did I give that fisher my damn water, anyway?”

Conversation #4 isn’t played out enough to make a clear cut distinction between justice.Report

• 62across says:

That works.

It’s seems obvious to me that exchanges that are voluntary for all parties will be the most just. It also seems obvious to me that the “voluntary” characterization is applied too generously when we discuss market economics in this country given the already existing power imbalances that are ubiquitous.

TARP is Exhibit A.Report

• Roger says:

Stillwater,

Are you saying that disproportionate leverage of power imbalance:
is bad, or can be used for bad ends? (or something else all together?)

When you mention the tension between normal morality and market based agreements are you pointing out that market-based is inherently at odds, or can be at odds? (or something else all together?)

You write: “You mentioned that the canteen carrier isn’t playing by the right rules, but that seems to me to be presuming too much. It assumes that there is a single correct answer to the question ‘How ought the canteen carrier act?’”

I meant only to imply that it is possible to mix moral landscapes. Bringing market rules to what others perceive as non market interactions can introduce a sense of coercion. One sees it as fair (that is the going rate) and the other sees it as exploitive. I think in a hunter gatherer society the guy that shared water by exploiting the situation would be a prime candidate for a future “hunting accident.”

You write: “As you said, it can be viewed as a purely voluntary exchange, so what’s there to quibble about?”

Good question. The quibbling would come from those that don’t view it this way.

For the record I don’t see it as an ideal market based system. Free enterprise is a creative problem solving system that evolved to facilitate productive division of labor and mutually voluntary exchange between larger numbers of generally unrelated players. Yes, some of these factors apply here. Some don’t. One factor clearly missing is competing alternatives. Absent any alternatives, the imbalance is such that even if it is voluntary (and is even a win/win) it is clearly not very FAIR.

You write: “So, if we conclude that the Prince is being coerced, or at a minimum that the disparity in leverage in the imagined scenario reveals an aspect of immorality in the exercise of power imbalances, then I think it provides a critique of market economics given the already existing power imbalances of the players.”

I believe it reveals a critique of using market mechanisms in inappropriate circumstances. I think it is also inappropriate to use market mechanisms in many social engagements, or in the field of science. Free enterprise is a system that can solve a range of problems. It is not appropriate in all situations, and is not perfect even where it is appropriate. Where a better system can be used to create and distribute solutions it probably should be.Report

• Brandon Berg says:

This isn’t about creating and allocating scarce resources among competing interests.

In a sense, it is. The bottom line is that if someone hadn’t wandered by with a canteen, the prince would be dead. If it’s possible to win a kingdom by patrolling the desert with water, then that creates an incentive to do just that, and people’s lives will be saved as a result.

Granted, this is such a highly contrived and unlikely situation that if it happened once people might just assume that it’s so unlikely ever to happen again as to make it not worthwhile.

But this logic applies much better to more commonplace scenarios than it does to highly improbable ones. It really is good that people can make money by “exploiting” the poor, because it gives them an incentive to creates opportunities for mutual benefit. Take the profit out of “exploiting” the poor, and they’re forced to rely on what charity they can get.Report

• Brandon Berg says:

More concisely, rules that intuitively seem fair in a one-off game can lead to inefficient outcomes in an iterated game.Report

• Patrick Cahalan says:

This is a good point.Report

• Roger says:

Brandon,

I agree. Much of the consequentialist benefit of free enterprise is allowing the dynamic to play out. That said, I’d still give the prince water and I would still think badly of you if you didn’t.

What would you do?Report

• Stillwater says:

I think this misses the point of the thought experiment, or at least as I’m understanding it.

The situation in which the canteen carrier finds himself is one where he confronts choices.

He can act purely morally by giving the guy water.

He can act morally with conditions attached: he will provide the water only if the prince promises to do some good act in the future. This is an exercise of leverage by the canteen carrier.

He can act in a purely self serving way based on ‘market principles’: he can offer to provide the water for a price which both he and the prince mutually agree on. Leverage again, not quite coercion, but surely less moral than the other cases.

The upshot, tho, is that in all the scenarios the canteen carrier saved the princes life (that is, he fulfilled his moral obligation to not let the prince die) even tho he did so for different reasons in each case.

The final case, I would say, is very analogous to a view of markets in which ‘free’ markets are viewed as the best way to allocate resources – by two parties voluntarily agreeing on a price for the good or service provided.

So, while your point about this being a one off is correct, the situation reveals (at least to me) that what would otherwise be viewed as immoral behavior is consistent with, and in fact entailed by, ‘market mechanisms’ and the exercise of market-based leverage.Report

• Stillwater says:

Ooops. I just realized that the above comment is misplaced: it’s supposed to be a response to Brandon Berg at #55 (10/7/11, 8:01 PM) and not a response to Roger.

It’d’ve helped if I quoted the relevant passage I was responding to: BB wrote: More concisely, rules that intuitively seem fair in a one-off game can lead to inefficient outcomes in an iterated game.

Sorry if this caused any confusion.Report

• Patrick Cahalan says:

> t really is good that people can
> make money by “exploiting” the
> poor, because it gives them an
> incentive to creates opportunities
> for mutual benefit. Take the
> profit out of “exploiting” the poor,
> and they’re forced to rely on
> what charity they can get.

You’re using exploit in very particular way.

You’ve also got some things out of order, in my opinion. Here’s my go at your last paragraph:

“We would prefer that everyone can participate in market exchanges for their labor, as we regard charity as suboptimal. Therefore, it makes no sense whatsoever to remove profit incentives for people to enter into exchanges with the poor. Indeed, because the opportunity for mutual benefit can exist, engaging in just exchanges with the poor by the capital holders is optimal, as it enables the poor to make money, and the capital holder is compensated for their contribution with profit. However, since the capital holder and the poor are a clear case of asymmetric power, the potential exists for capital holders to engage in exchanges with the poor whereby the benefit is not relatively mutual, which is unjust.”

If you disagree with that last sentence, that’s fine, throw it out there. If you’d like to tweak it and then agree with the tweaked version, that’s fine too.

I appreciate that you’re engaging on this thread, Brandon, but if you could go *with* the framework I’ve provided (you can certainly critique it, I’d encourage that too), and get from where I’m at to where you think it ought to go, that would be more useful.Report

• Brandon Berg says:

I was replying specifically to Roger’s comment, the one I quoted. I haven’t read all the other comments, so I’m really not even sure how the topic morphed from the original one to this one. But regarding this:

However, since the capital holder and the poor are a clear case of asymmetric power, the potential exists for capital holders to engage in exchanges with the poor whereby the benefit is not relatively mutual, which is unjust.

I’d like to see a model describing how this works. As it is, I’m not convinced that you’re describing a real phenomenon, but I’m also not entirely sure I understand what exactly the claim is, so I can’t say for sure.Report

• Brandon Berg says:

One particular problem that jumps out at me is that “asymmetric power” would seem to me to imply either a monopoly or monopsony but not both. But the market for unskilled labor doesn’t at all look like this. Unskilled workers are broadly interchangeable, as are the jobs that employ them. It’s not exactly perfect competition, but it’s pretty close.

Now, what I think you actually mean is that capitalists are rich and unskilled workers are poor. But I’m not aware of any reason to expect that to result in a situation that could reasonably be described as “asymmetric power.”Report

• Mike Schilling says:

“You’re fired” is a much bigger threat than “I quit”, particularly when jobs are hard to come by.Report

• Brandon Berg says:

If jobs are harder to come by than workers, that’s a sign that wages are too high, not too low.Report

• Brandon Berg says:

Also, empirically, nominal wages seem to be resistant to downward pressures, even during times of high unemployment. It really isn’t all that common for employers to use the threat of firing or layoffs to extract wage concessions.Report

• Mike Schilling says:

None of which alters the fact that “You’re fired” is a much bigger threat than “I quit”, particularly when jobs are hard to come by, and thus power is asymmetrical.Report

• Brandon Berg says:

And from this, you conclude…what, exactly?Report

• Roger says:

Patrick and Brandon,

PC offers up:

“We would prefer that everyone can participate in market exchanges for their labor, as we regard charity as suboptimal. Therefore, it makes no sense whatsoever to remove profit incentives for people to enter into exchanges with the poor. Indeed, because the opportunity for mutual benefit can exist, engaging in just exchanges with the poor by the capital holders is optimal, as it enables the poor to make money, and the capital holder is compensated for their contribution with profit. However, since the capital holder and the poor are a clear case of asymmetric power, the potential exists for capital holders to engage in exchanges with the poor whereby the benefit is not relatively mutual, which is unjust.”

My version:

A free market in labor, finance and goods is a rule-based system that allows people to discover, create and exchange value via voluntary interactions and the division of labor (integrated specialization). Profits, losses and prices act to direct labor and resources toward their highest valued use, with value meaning the aggregated values voted on by consumers within the system. The potential exists within any voluntary exchange for asymmetries of power and various forms of coercion. Coercion can often lead to less efficient and less just results. Using coercion to counter coercion doesn’t necessarily eliminate this effect, and if used unwisely may amplify it.Report

• Stillwater says:

I think this is where it gets dicey. No one ought to say right outa the blocks that additional coercion is the answer to coercion; or that additional coercion is coercive, so therefore bad; or any other permutation of those things. (Although that’s still the broader topic under consideration: that libertarian-based theories attempt to justify coercive actions by government as a way to prevent the coercive actions of legislation. But let’s leave that aside for the moment.)

The point and purpose of the above discussion is to determine whether there exists, and perhaps even the prevalence of, leverage in the market place which is inconsistent with normal morality, or further, whether such leverage violates basic rights.

Perhaps there is even wide spread agreement that such leverage exists, that it is immoral (along a sliding scale), that it can be coercive (ie., be a form of unjustice) that it is endemic to the nature of markets and market activities.

Understanding that point all on it’s own constitutes a significant shift in the prevailing conception of market activity and how we ought to understand its mechanisms. The standard view (the one you’ve articulated very well) of markets is that all market based agreements are voluntary, and therefore not coercive. Additionally, the prevailing conception amongst market supporters/defenders is that the exercise of any power imbalance short of outright coercion merely constitutes an unfair, rather than unjust, outcome. (I’m paraphrasing you’re earlier views here.)

This, btw, gets to a significant difference between how I understand the concept of leverage and how Patrick understands the term. On my view, coercion would be defined in terms of leverage and power imbalances, but it would not be identified with it. That is, the exercise of leverage in establishing agreements between two parties with differential power doesn’t in an of itself constitute coercion. The term ‘coercion’ ought to be reserved for the extreme cases it is commonly understood to apply to: broadly undderstood, in instances where the use or threat of force and/or violencecompels people into making a choice they otherwise wouldn’t. So on my view, not all exercises of leverage in market-based agreements constitute coercion.

All that said, I think the issue at this point in the discussion is how to ameliorate or deflect some of the adverse effects of leverage in the marketplace, and if it’s even possible or prudent to attempt to do so. Potential solutions can be argued/rejected on principled grounds or on pragmatic grounds. But one thing I’m very open to, especially given some of the things James Hanley’s said, is that markets may be the best way to achieve a more just society, even while admitting that leverage exists and admitting it shades very close to activities that are more than merely unfair, but perhaps unjust as well.

(To tip my hand a bit here: I don’t think there’s a cure, but there are ways to treat the symptoms, as it were, to create a more just society, one which maximizes the overall set of basic liberties.)Report

• Brandon Berg says:

All that said, I think the issue at this point in the discussion is how to ameliorate or deflect some of the adverse effects of leverage in the marketplace, and if it’s even possible or prudent to attempt to do so.

What exactly are those adverse effects?Report

• Stillwater says:

I take it you think one of two things: either that power based leverage doesn’t exist, or that leverage doesn’t entail moral problems.

I don’t know how to respond to that. It’s like you haven’t been paying attention to the discussion.Report

• Brandon Berg says:

What I think is that shared assumptions are doing a lot of the heavy lifting here. The problem is that these are only shared among the people who agree with you. Since I’m not really seeing any kind of rigorous argument here, or even entirely sure what exactly is being claimed, there’s nothing solid for me to evaluate and accept or reject.Report

• Roger says:

Stillwater,

S: “No one ought to say right outa the blocks that additional coercion is the answer to coercion; or that additional coercion is coercive, so therefore bad; or any other permutation of those things.”

My point too was that coercion may not be the best response to counter coercion, and we’ve already agreed coercion doesn’t have to be bad, but often is.

As to whether it exists in the marketplace, I think again we are in agreement that leverage and coercion are commonplace in human interactions, including ones with a voluntary dimension.

To clarify, I no longer assert that voluntary actions in the market cannot involve a coercive aspect.

I am OK with running with your distinction of leverage being a situation of power imbalance that is not as egregious as full out coercion.

To “tip my hand” in an oversimplified way, I believe that there are 4 ways to survive and thrive.

1) Independently — Be self (or family) reliant by being generalists. Raise or hunt own food, build own house, etc. Not very productive, can’t sustain large populations. Self reliance is very exposed to coercive aggression from others (below).
2) Exploit what other have produced — Steal from those that have produced. Specializes in exploitation. Doesn’t actually produce anything, just takes what others have produced. Very coercive in worst sense of the word.
3) Master planning — Use specialization and division of labor to take on a wide range of task with greater knowledge. Sustains much larger populations, but is inherently coercive, as a master plan requires a uniform plan, a means of getting others to comply, a hierarchy, and enforcement power.
4) Free enterprise — Allow voluntary division of labor and exchange to solve each other’s problems. Sustains much higher populations at significantly higher standards of living than the others. Coercion and exploitation are discouraged, but are not eliminated.

In the first path, you never have to worry about being fired — just starving to death. In the second you can’t be fired either, as long as you constantly hurt others you can do fine. In the third YOU WILL CLEAN THE Toilet, or it is to the gulag. In the fourth, you can be fired or quit with all the leverage and power imbalances.

Real world is that every society involves a complex blend of these extremes. They really are OVERsimplifications. That said, no path is free from leverage and coercion. I am fine with experimenting into creating “a more just society, one which maximizes the overall set of basic liberties.” Indeed, I suggest we experiment voluntarily, in a bottoms up, minimally-coercive manner with lots of options and variation.Report

• Stillwater says:

Brandon Berg:

You wrote: What I think is that shared assumptions are doing a lot of the heavy lifting here. The problem is that these are only shared among the people who agree with you.

I’m not sure I agree with that characterization of things. From my point of view, the existence of power imbalances between various market participants is just a basic and undeniable fact. That some market participants use their differential power to shape agreements more in line with their desires also seems like a fact of the market place.

I guess I don’t think either of those is a contentious, loaded assumption (as you’re implying): they both seem like basic observable facts to me.

What follows from those two claims is open to dispute, of course, and that’s what’s happening on this thread. But where you get off the bus, it seems to me, is limited to somewhere after conceding the basic points in play. : that market participants have, and often act on, basic power imbalances to gain advantage over their negotiating partner.Report

• Stillwater says:

Roger, I very much appreciate that you’ve revised your ideas about some of these issues. When we first discussed this stuff with James Hanley, he was also of a mind that leverage was a bigger problem than outright coercion, and I think getting clear on the concept and also teasing out what follows from the concept is important. As I said earlier in this thread, I’m willing to concede that most (if not all) market activity is not coercive, but that doesn’t really settle the issue (for me anyway). Coercion (as it’s normally understood) is a very rare and extreme behavior, and imposing that as the only moral category by which we can judge market activities seems both arbitrary and too narrow.

The exercise of leverage based on power imbalances (and restricted to economic and market based power differentials) seems to capture the ideas we were discussing earlier (in the thread with James). It’s also just simply a fact of market activity. So we ought to be able to make judgments about what it means wrt freedom, morality and rights as well as how and whether we ought to try to remedy some of it’s worst effects.Report

8. Brandon Berg says:

From my point of view, the existence of power imbalances between various market participants is just a basic and undeniable fact. That some market participants use their differential power to shape agreements more in line with their desires also seems like a fact of the market place.

Again, this is very vague. What exactly do you mean by “power imbalances” and “shape agreements more in line with their desires,” and what problems do you think result from it?Report

• Brandon Berg says:

That was supposed to be in reply to Stillwater above. It’s just as well, given that it had reached the nesting limit anyway.Report

• Patrick Cahalan says:

Well, look at comment #49.

There’s a bunch of different possible outcomes to one particular negotiation.

If you don’t agree that those are all different, well, I guess we’re done here. If you don’t see how some represent problems for just exchanges, I guess we’re done here, too.

Now, one can agree with all that and then come down on the side of, “all of these possible power imbalances and leverage/coercion situations can exist in a free market, but this is still *practically* a better situation than the alternatives for (list of reasons).”

The whole point of the thread was to see if people from varying political philosophies could at least all start coming at the discussion from a particular viewpoint, and if coming at the discussion from this particular viewpoint would be useful in hashing out the substance behind some of their disagreements on the earlier thread(s).Report

• Brandon Berg says:

What you’re describing there is a bilateral monopoly (only the passerby can give the prince water, and only the prince can give the passerby a kingdom). This does model certain types of real-world negotiations, but as I said in my first comment in this thread, it’s not a good model for the types of situations people usually have in mind when they talk about power imbalances in market transactions—i.e., the low-skill labor market.

If you’re talking about monopolies, that’s all well and good. But then you can’t apply any conclusions based on reasoning about monopolies to the low-skill labor market, unless you have a good argument for why we should consider a monopoly a good model for this market.Report

• Patrick Cahalan says:

Brandon, you’re jumping so far ahead.

One of the disconnects I noticed on the previous threads is that people are talking past each other, as is common when you talk about this stuff.

Because if we’re talking about particular conditions on the ground, and contributor Alice has a particular idea of what is a just outcome in that set of conditions, and contributor Betty is arguing against that idea, Alice is assuming either that Betty isn’t interested in justice, or Betty is an idiot, or (most charitably) Better has a different idea of what justice is, and Alice disagrees with it.

If instead we start talking *about justice*; what is a just use of negotiating power in an exchange, then we might all find that hey, we actually agree (or not) on more principles of justice than we thought, originally.

Your point (that monopoly situations are different from other market situation) is certainly valid. But you’re jumping ahead: you’re looking at the conversation so far and saying, “You’re headed here, here is not this it is that – and by the way I have opinions about that that you disagree with…”

You’re doing what was done on the other thread. You’re assuming that Stillwater or Roger (or I) will disagree with you before we even get there. Let’s make sure we’re all *here*, first, before we go over there.

Do you more or less agree with the sort of description and my conclusions to the Prince/Dude section of the thread? If you do, we probably have similar ideas about justice, and when we move on to non-monopoly situations we can figure out much more particularly where we disagree if we do. If you have a different way of writing that dialog that more accurately represents the way that you would rate them, then we can figure out if we have differing foundational principles, right now.Report

• Brandon Berg says:

Fair enough. It’s just so contrived a scenario that I’m having trouble seeing any real-world applications, aside from the vanishingly rare situations in which something like this actually does happen.

I actually don’t have much of an opinion on the specific scenario in question. Bilateral monopolies are weird. In a unilateral monopoly, prices generally end up above marginal cost, and this is inefficient because output is below where it would be in a competitive market. In bilateral monopolies, the price is indeterminate, but the quantity sold is determinate. So there aren’t really any questions of efficiency—just a question of who gets the most out of the deal, and by how much.

And I don’t really have a strong opinion regarding what allocation is most fair. You can stack the deck by telling the story in a way that makes one or the other participant more likeable, but I’m not sure that that’s a particularly enlightening way to go about it.

By the way, it’s not at all clear that the passerby can actually get the prince to give up his kingdom. If the prince refuses to deal, he dies, but if the passerby refuses to deal, then he almost certainly will never again have an opportunity like the one he’s just walked away from. A sack of gold may not be as nice as a kingdom, but it’s much better than a sack of water.

And if we’re really going to take the scenario at face value, it’s not clear that the prince has any more a right to his kingdom than the passerby has. I mean, he’s a prince. One of his ancestors killed a bunch of people, so now his right to rule over the land those people lived in, and its inhabitants, is sacrosanct? Meh.Report

9. Patrick Cahalan says:

Re:

Coercion vs. Leverage vs. Enticement (nice contribution to the discussion, Will)

I was using coercion because that was the language that was used in the previous posts, not because I particularly liked it. I was trying to get at/tease out the difference in the moral opprobrium we attach to the word “coercion” independently of the odiousness of “encouraging people to do what you want by any particular means”. Leverage is a better baseline.

Let try this reformulation.

In any particular social interaction, for a party with disproportionate power to attempt to use this power to alter the outcome of the interaction in their favor is to use leverage. When the leverage consists of withholding something good and/or imposing a negative outcome on the other parties, we call it coercion. When the leverage consists of adding something good and/or protecting a party from a non-related negative outcome, we call it enticement. In some cases, the exercise of leverage can be both.

One note that is relevant here is that this is dependent upon the party attempting to alter the interaction. To illustrate further, examine the Dude & Prince dialogue above. Using this reformulation, we get:

“Prince, answer one” is a relatively straightforward negotiation, with the prince offering an enticement to the Dude.

“Prince, answer two” is of the same category.

“Prince, answer three” is a case where the Prince is simultaneously offering an enticement and attempting to use coercion: I will pay you if you help me, but I’ll have my men kill you if you don’t (presuming that I get to communicate with them).

“Prince, answer four” is enticement on the part of the Prince (depending upon how invested The Dude is in the Kingdom), which makes it the most complex case (also the hardest to judge, since this requires us to evaluate not just the two actors in our little play, but also what “the kingdom” means to both of them)… and also a case of coercion on the part of the Dude. Whether or not this qualifies as a bad case of coercion depends upon further argument.

“Prince, answer five” is double enticement on the part of the Prince: I pay you, and I protect the kingdom (which, one presupposes, the Dude thinks is a good idea). There is no coercion here on the part of the Dude, because he didn’t ask to get paid.

Re: Exploitation vs. (Something we haven’t decided on yet – largess?)

To discuss exploitation, we have to disjoin several things.

Exploitation is an outcome, independent of the negotiation itself.

In an exploitative exchange, one party gains an unjust amount of preference in the outcome over the other party. You can have a cooperative agreement that is exploitative (I will sell you this vitamin supplement for lots of money because you erroneously believe that it will help you lose weight). This isn’t necessarily bad on the part of the party benefiting unjustly because they might not know that their negotiating partner is under- or mis-informed.

You can have a leveraged enticing agreement that is exploitative (I will sell you this vitamin supplement that I marketed to you as helping you lose weight for lots of money).

You can have a leveraged coercive agreement that is *not* exploitative (No, child, I won’t give you a cookie because I’m your parent, and one more cookie is not good for you, but basically because I say so).

So the negotiation itself may be coercive or not; and the outcome itself may be exploitative or not.Report

• Stillwater says:

This is good Patrick. I wrote a comment which turned out to be too long to post about some of the stuff you address above teasing out some of the subtleties introduced by the concept of leverage, in what ways it’s consistent with coercion, how it’s different, potential moral problems, etc. I was going to send it to you to hear your thoughts on whether it was worth posting independently as a separate contribution to the discussion.

But getting back to the discussion at hand, I like the framing which views leverage as the exercise of a power imbalance resulting in an outcome which wouldn’t have occurred otherwise, that is, one that wouldn’t have occurred in the absence of the power differential providing the leverage. (Which isn’t to say that all power imbalances are bad, or that they don’t also lead to good outcomes, or even that all power imbalances in market-based negotiations need to be leveled.)

In the end, I think the discussion moves towards important distinctions that are difficult to tease out – whether current (and potential) types of market mechanisms are unfair, to what extent unfairness is tolerable, and to what extent leverage may move into outcomes that are unjust. I’ve been teasing out some arguments supporting these conclusions that might constitute another topic ripe for a separate post.

Also, there are pragmatic arguments that come into play: whether on balance remedying some of the adverse outcomes which result from the exercise of leverage in market based negotiations results in a more just society, whether those efforts are practical, other issues along those lines.

And I agree with you wholeheartedly about the value of reorienting our views of markets to include the idea of market-based leverage as a bridge between competing views of markets and the roles collective action, government and individual rights play in justifying our preferred views.Report

• Patrick Cahalan says:

Post it independently. You have front page rights, ya? I wanna read it 🙂Report

• Stillwater says:

Not a member of the League, bro. 🙁

I’ll email ED about it, see what he thinks. I don’t want to beat on what might be a dying horse just because I (and you!) think it’s interesting!Report

• Jaybird says:

Awesome.

(We’ll still be “The Libertarian website Ordinary Gentlemen” whenever folks talk about us, though.)Report

• Patrick Cahalan says:

I was actually surprised at who didn’t comment on this thread.Report

• Jaybird says:

(I didn’t want to gild the lily. I loved the essay, by the way… did I forget to say that? I forgot to say that. Sorry.)Report

10. Kimmi says:

And there’s A HUGE Discussion going on above. But I’m going to cite one term at the bottom of the whole damn mess. Dark Liquidity.

It’s not a problem to sell insurance on insurance on insurance. It is a problem when this process conceals and magnifies risk because the person who is giving the insurance guarantee is also the person who has the bloody properties to begin with (and thus your big circle jerk is doing nothing to stabilize the market)Report