Coercion (again) and Power
On the recent coercion follow-up thread to an earlier thread that was itself a response to two earlier threads (I’m now officially going to make you backtrack on that if you want more context)…62 across said, in response to the question “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.
So, in the spirit of continuing my new-found purpose in life (be wrong, in all things), I’m going to attempt to provide my answer to this question so that everyone can chime in and we can either achieve higher consciousness or dive into the weeds. Whichever works; see the comment thread for the results, I suppose.
Generally, I’d define “coercion” as “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.”
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. Logicians will notice there are some gaps here leading to possible ambiguity, we can get into that in the comments.
Coercion is also scaled by severity. The greater the power imbalance is between the two agents, and the more of that power is leveraged by the agent performing the coercion, the stronger the coercion is. Many libertarians, of course, will have a gut-level aversion to strong coercion on principle, but the severity of the coercion, itself, isn’t necessarily bad.
Jaybird has pointed out the classic example of this before on many comment threads: lots of libertarians have problems with children. Probably the main reason for this is that the power imbalance between a parent and a child is extremely favorable to the parent, assuming you have what I would characterize as a healthy relationship with your child. It is of course difficult to decouple as the goodness and badness of the parent relationship with the child, as this isn’t something that is easily measured by interrogating both agents. I don’t know many children who would argue that withholding a cookie is “good”, but children obviously aren’t fully formed agents.
But I digress.
You can coerce someone who actually agrees with you; I brought up this example here.
People who have gone through strict anti-smoking regimens or gone to militant “anti-drug camps” may have a very strong desire for the outcome but for whatever personality trait reasons may also desire a very significant outsourcing of liberty to some agent in order to overcome their condition. The agency in the power position may indeed have a lot of power and may be using quite a bit of it, but this may be a recognized, voluntary, situation with a recognized, mutually agreed upon good outcome for both parties.
So, know that I’ve waxed philosophical about coercion, how does one answer the original question? What does constitute coercion between private parties?
Well, obviously, it’s a matter of power. Power, of course, comes in a lot of forms, though, so let’s discuss some of them.
You have the power of violence (cops enforcing the law, criminals taking your money by sticking a gun in your mug, vigilante groups, et cetera). In the particular case of violence, the coercion is usually incredible strong in severity. Also in the particular case of violence, the libertarian is going to come down really hard on the badness scale, as the integrity of the person is a pretty solid libertarian value. Me violating that by kickin’ your behind – even for your “own good” – is very hard to justify, no matter who is measuring the “good”. This is the least subjective case of measuring power, measuring the strength of the power, and measuring the value of the use of the power.
You have the power of rejection from opportunity. This is more subjective than the case of violence, but not as murky as the lands below. Belief in equal access to opportunity is not exactly universal, but for the purposes of the audience here at the League I’m going to take this as a given. I’d say we all generally believe that it is unjust to overlook someone who is competent for employment, or office, on the basis of non-relevant criteria.
Note, I’m talking justice here, not the law.
While this might lead us occasionally into debates over what constitutes good evidence for strength of character (cough, Congressperson Weiner, cough), I’m pretty sure everyone would say given two candidates, Alice and Bob, and given a reasonably objective reason to choose one of them over the other for said office or employment, we would all regard it as an unjust leverage of power – in fact, this fits coercion under the definition above – to reject that candidate for the other based upon criteria (sex orientation, gender, color, whathaveyou). We may certainly have quibbles over the value. Indeed, we may also have quibbles over the actual power; in a high flying economy the power imbalance between the unemployed and a particular employer is very low. On the other hand, in a down economy with high unemployment, the power imbalance between a particular employer and a particular candidate can be very high, indeed.
What we do about this case, as far as the law, is open to discussion, but for the purposes of the comment thread let’s try to stick to justice, eh?
Now, grab your machetes, fellow explorer, as we are about to go into the forest. Let us attempt to ignore the weeds, for they are all about.
You have the power of social opprobrium (shunning, gossip across the back fence, teenagers twittering about what a dweeb you are). Judging the power of this is hugely context-dependent, and this makes it a lot harder to gauge than the case of violence. Shunning an Amish someone in the Amish sense can be an extremely powerful coercive tactic. On the other hand, an Amish someone trying to shun Lady Gaga is obviously lacking in “oomph”, we might say. This case is actually most interesting when it intersects with, say… the next paragraph.
You have the power of rejection from service (“We Don’t Serve Darkies”, “You’re going to have to take your Gay Pride poster and leave”). In this particular case, the “strength” is context dependent, and this has led to a lot of the back-and-forth on the earlier threads. “If you’re not wanted, why don’t you just leave?” is a practical position, but this implicitly rejects the idea that the lack of equal access can cause harm.
In and of itself, this isn’t an entirely off-the-wall position to take, I’ve done it myself on occasion. In some cases, a principled rejection of a rejection from service (with or without middle finger extended) may itself be an expression of power – see the “social opprobrium” case, above. Skillful members of the social body can take soft power and really sock you upside the head with it, dishing out more than they take. You can probably think of an example or two of scathing takedowns of this sort of power misuse that have taken flight on the magic Internet machine and come down as stories that supporters of a cause find amusing as it makes their opponents look like morons. We generally admire people with the strength to do this sort of thing.
Ah, but now we’ve exposed the extra-hidden problem. By punching back, metaphorically, the victim of the power imbalance has subliminally jumped inside our heads from “average bloke” to “courageous awesome guy.” They’ve made a transition from a non-privileged class (the non-confrontational person) to a privileged one (people that don’t take no shit). We’re Americans. We like gumption or sass or whatever gender-linked adjective you want to use. We have a harder time empathize with the wimp. Unless we were the wimp, at some point in our past. Hrm; sometimes especially when we were the wimp in the past.
It is certainly the case that in a society with privileged classes, the perception of equal access is going to look very, very different to the privileged classes over the non-privileged classes. In some sense, “there are N institutions within reasonable range, if this one is refusing you service just go to the next one” discounts the idea that it is the rejection of service by the one that is harmful, even if all the others are accommodating.
When “lack of equal access” is regarded as “no big deal”, there is a very high correlation between those who think it is no big deal and their presence in one of the privileged classes. Either because they’re white males, like me… or because they’re gay female black Muslim anarchists who don’t take crap from anybody, or a million other reasons, really.
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. This doesn’t, of course, automatically destroy their credibility, but it certainly ought to give one a very long pause and a reason to take a hard look at what’s going on.
Because after all, when you’re talking about these more subjective power imbalances, much of the power involved in the equation is indeed in the eyes of the two agents involved in the dispute over the outcome, not in their actual power imbalance, but their perceived power imbalance.
“Malcom X vs. a hick redneck” is not the same power differential dynamic as “Rosa Parks vs. a bus driver” or “A lonely geeky gay teen vs. the ‘in’ clique.” Or “Casey Heynes vs. some kid who thinks a willingness to throw a punch is representative of how much power you have”.
Pulling all the above into public policy discussions is of course a whole ‘nuther kettle of fish. You can agree with my characterization of coercion, and agree with the types of coercion I talk about here, and you can still have principled objections about what is or isn’t the right venue (the law or other) to try to deal with these cases.