[ExI] The Circle of Coercion

dan_ust at yahoo.com dan_ust at yahoo.com
Thu May 7 21:46:22 UTC 2009

--- On Wed, 5/6/09, Damien Sullivan <phoenix at ugcs.caltech.edu> wrote:
> On Tue, May 05, 2009 at 08:12:54AM -0700, Dan wrote:
>> The key point is: it's forced.  The whole system
>> is based on coercion
> There's a thing called the Prisoner's Dilemma.  It's
> sort of solvable by
> tit-for-tat.  Then there's the multiperson prisoner's
> dilemma.

I don't think so.  Prisoner's Dilemma's result from the inability of participants to signal each other and to depend on anything more than each participant trying to maximize some specific reward.  In the real world, people can signal each other and they have different notions of what constitutes a reward.  On the latter, for example, some of us want to live in a world with lower coercion and will forego at least some potential near term rewards from coercion for this -- and even suffer some specific punishments for it.

It's also the case that one can't do interpersonal comparisons of value, so specific rewards can be measured between people.  This is why some will work harder or longer for what seems to be the same objective reward than others.  This goes for monetary rewards and all other rewards -- even ones some people might think are not rewards at all.

> Coercion, whether by government or very powerful social
> norms, seems the only way of solving it. 

I would not put the two together: government and social norms.  The latter are really just norms some people -- sometimes a majority -- hold.  They are not necessarily coercive and, even if wrong, should be addressed non-coercively.  To use an analogy, if someone holds the wrong theory about how life came to be, you try to persuade him -- you don't seize his property or person or take his life.  (Recall my earlier mentioning about virtues in relation to libertarianism: justice is the only virtue that intersects with coercion.  If someone does something unjust -- as in and only as in violating rights -- then she has initiated force.  The negation of any other virtue is not the same.  E.g., if someone is unkind, one can't beat kindness into him.  So, in that case, one must seek a non-coercive remedy, such as ostracism.)

> Yes, choice is reduced,
> because free individual
> choice leads to us all following our individual
> self-interest to an
> outcome that makes us all worse off; only uniform and
> enforced
> commitment lets the cooperative option be stable. 
> Thus taxes (and
> possibly draft) for defense, and law enforcement, and
> welfare, and
> social insurance, and insurer-of-last-resort, and pollution
> control functions.

Actually, it's questionable that everyone is better off.  Given the inability to do interpersonal comparisons of well-being and of value -- how can one tell, for instance, that one person is better off by some specific amount to judge this is worth harming another person by some other specific amount -- this is, at best, a guess.  In fact, the best way to tell if people are better off is to allow them to freely choose or not choose.  If they all decide to go along with it, then they all at least expect to be better off.  If they continue to go along with it -- that is, they are allowed to choose not to but keep choosing, then I believe it's safe to safe they think they're better off given the options they're aware of.

And this is where coercion can be seen to fail.  At least one person is obviously made worse off: the person who is coerced.  We can know this because she or he is forced to do what she or he would otherwise would not have done.

And in the long run, I think it's more Extropian to keep the ability to choose open rather than sacrificing it -- either allowing others to choose for us or pretending we're so wise as to choose for others -- for some supposed immediate gain and thereby establishing the notion that whoever has enough power should likewise always take away freedom whenever it seems expedient.  In fact, I'd rather establish the "powerful social norm" that coercion is almost always if not always bad and should be avoided -- both because this makes sense and the opposite empirically leads to the kind of mess and morass we live under now.

>> and on perpetuating coercion: you were robbed, so
>> you're entitled.
>> Where does your entitlement come from?  Well,
>> from robbing others to
>> keep the system going.  From an Extropian
>> perspective, is this the
> Or from a social contract: people finding a compact that
> guarantees a
> minimum more attractive than a compact that guarantees a
> lack of
> explicit coercion but otherwise provides no security.

This is pure fantasy.  No such contract exists.  All do not consent to it; it's merely a fabrication used to justify whatever the person using it feels is right, but won't allow people to actually freely choose.

> Or from the fact
> that the unequal distribution of property is pretty morally
> tainted if you look at the history,
> and ongoing redistributive taxes
> are less
> disruptive than a sweeping act of reform, which might well
> destabilize
> by the next generation anyway.

There is nothing wrong or un-Extropian _per se_ with inequality.  However, even without an unjustified egalitarian presumption, property rights have been trampled (sometimes in the name of equality) and this must be addressed.

Regarding how reform should be attempted within the present system, I disagree that perpetuating or expanding the system is the correct approach.  I think as libertarian ideas slowly spread, we will slowly evolve away from the coercive system.  A more radical approach is not likely to succeed simply because most people don't understand libertarian principles -- even if they default to practicing them successfully in most of their lives (i.e., most people do not initiate force in most cases to get what they want and live their lives) -- and lack imagination to see how a non-command system will work.  (In a sense, just as people find it hard to grasp evolution -- how life can self-organize -- they are unable to understand how free people can self-organize via markets and other voluntary institutions.  They can't, for the most part, understand how order can arise without some central dictator or planning board telling everyone or everything what to do.)
>> kind of thinking and system we want to perpetuate?
> I quote a friend of mine:
> ===
> I sometimes make the argument that the world *is* a
> libertarian
> "paradise". There is, after all, no world government. You
> want to talk
> about "private" police forces and infrastructure companies?
> We call them
> "nations". There are many, and they offer a variety of
> "packages". Some
> do well and others do not.
> "What," I say to the spluttering Libertarian, "You want to
> talk about
> hegemony, bundling, required contracts, the importance of
> colocation,
> and natural monopoly? Those aren't very Libertarian points
> to make."
> I then argue that apparently nation-states are the
> equilibrium result of
> anarchy. Good news: Libertarianism "works"! (Well, insofar
> as our
> nation-states "work".) "You're absolutely right; people
> will, and have,
> self-organized to the degree they see necessary. Now what's
> your point,
> again?"
> ===

Yes, I've heard the notion that nation states -- coercive entities -- are in anarchic equilibrium.  My belief is the world is not and never will be in equilibrium.*  There might be some stable states -- no pun intended.  But nation states, while they might be anarchic between themselves to some degree, they don't play that way internally.

Also, the argument that things are now as people want them has some merit -- in the sense that few are rioting over there being monocentric legal orders.  (Monocentric legal order: fancy term for a legal order where a monopoly controls legal rulings.  This is distinguished from the polycentric legal order or anarchy.)  However, in the same way, one would not argue that current scientific theory is great and shouldn't be improved on because no one is up in arms about it and everything, on the surface, appears to be working smoothly.

Finally, the spontaneous order between nation states is not libertarian at all.  Nation states do not eschew initiating force -- either against their subjects or against foreigners.  (Libertarianism, too, does not recognize nation states themselves as having rights, so there can be no analogy between say a person and a nation state in terms of the nation state having rights to life, liberty, and property.  In that sense, the strict libertarian view is nation states have no right to exist period.)  Yes, libertarianism followed consistently is anarchic, but anarchy per se is not necessarily libertarian.  (In the same way, people who argue for some form of government don't usually believe any form of government is okay.  They usually have an ideal or a range of governments in mind and find fault with other forms.  The practical question to ask though is whether the particular form someone advocates is somewhat stable and feasible.**)



*  Not news to most libertarians.  Even a late comer to the table such as me has written on this.  In regards to the false view that legal standards require a government to enforce, I wrote:

"Current nation states agree on standards even when they maintain their sovereignty.  Surely, we do get some nations who do not agree to such, just as we have dissenters inside nation states who do not agree with a given nation's government's standards... But this disagreement does not mean that no agreement is possible.  The fact that nation states form alliances, sign and enforce on themselves treaties and agreements as well as form transnational institutions at least demonstrates that an overarching government is not necessary."

This is from "Anarchism, Minarchism, and Freedom" at:


And another self-quote, if my vanity can be forgiven once more:

"One can imagine a polycentric one that is probably many a minarchist’s view of anarchism: civil war or the international system of today. In the latter case, there is no international government, so the legal order is polycentric, but not the type most anarchists would applaud. (Waltz 1979) Note that this condition is not completely lawless as even between nation states spontaneous orders can arise – as well as planned ones such as treaties, agreements, alliances, and international institutions."

This is from "Free Market Anarchism: A Justification" at:


I hope the links will still work, but my site is soon going down for good.  Alas, soon I'll be a charity case again.  :/

**  From my "Free Market Anarchism: A Justification":

"I believe that one can be objective here by asking a few questions that won't prejudice the issue. For example: would a polycentric or a monocentric legal order work better at rights enforcement? (It could be that the answer to these questions is neither – that both work equally well, as good or as bad.) Which type of order is more stable? Do different types of cultures fit better into one type of order or the other? How do such orders evolve over time? Are there historical examples of either worth considering? Can either be applied to today’s world? How do we get to either from current social arrangements? (It might be that there is no easy path to either or that one is much easier to accomplish than the other, so we should take the easier path.)"

Some had already addressed these questions before I asked them, but usually only from the libertarian anarchist perspective.  It'd be nice to see some minarchists and non-libertarians who are well-versed in anarchism address it.

My experience is the minarchists and non-libertarians are not so well versed.  Even highly educated ones tend to just make up some points and not study their opponents' literature.  A good example of this is:


The articles from the older edition -- from the 1970s -- show these intellectuals pontificating on anarchism without even thinking to read the works of Molinari, Rothbard, and the like.  Thankfully, Stringham updated the book and the newer articles address this lacuna.


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