Machan’s Archives: On Libertarianism v. Coercion

Machan’s Archives: On Libertarianism v. Coercion

Tibor R. Machan (10/10/04, revised 1/28/13))

Here is what I wrote, pertaining of Jeffrey Friedman, a political theorists and frequent critic of libertarianism: “A dispute among those who favor the free society concerns whether the merits of that society need to be demonstrated over and over again, in each instance of proposed coercion.” Those who hold to this are usually called consequentialists and are distinguished from those who take a principled approach, judging government conduct based on whether it is defensive (good) or aggressive (bad).

I believe that was the main thrust of an essay by Friedman, editor of Critical Review, published in that same journal back in 1997, titled, “What’s Wrong with Libertarianism,” Critical Review 11, no. 3 (1997). (See, for a discussion of Friedman’s challenge, in Bruce Ramsay’s essay at” Friedman never responds to me and why should he–I am not Nozick or Rawls? What I wrote is, in fact, the main thrust of all those who criticize those libertarians who consider well defended moral and political principles a sound basis on which to oppose various private actions and public policies.

Indeed, what coercion is, what amounts to initiating force against others, is not the issue in that debate–certainly there can be question about whether one or another objectionable interaction with others involves coercion, just as there can be dispute about whether a case of sexual intercourse amounts to rape, seduction, assault, harassment or something else. I have never found those who join Friedman actually state, unequivocally, that they oppose the use of coercion by some people against others as I understand libertarians to do. No, they seem to want to debate whether coercion itself may or may not be effective public policy. As Friedman puts his most general point, “libertarians do not yet possess an adequate critique of government interference in the market economy–a critique, that is to say, that establishes not only why the state–left undefined by him–should be kept on a very short leash, but why it should be emasculated.” Why would it be necessary to show that the state, specifically, should refrain from such interference? In fact, anyone must do so lest they become criminals in terms of libertarianism.

Friedman set out to see whether libertarians have shown that two supposedly incompatible attributes of statism have been established, namely, “harmful empirical effects” of state interference, and the “allegedly intrinsic evil of state regulation or redistribution.”
Many have responded to Friedman’s paper but Friedman keeps insisting no one has rebutted his points successfully. And perhaps he is correct, but not because no libertarian has managed to show that state coercion has harmful effects (the “empirical” is a pointless qualifier–harmful effects are harmful effects, and what “empirical” adds to this is anybody’s guess; perhaps he means material effects, like run down housing produced by urban renewal, which was demonstrated several decades ago by, for example, Martin Anderson in The Federal bulldozer; a critical analysis of urban renewal, 1949-1962 [Cambridge, M.I.T. Press,1964], a work and others like it that Friedman ignores) but because there is nothing to indicate what would count for Friedman as a demonstration of any such thing. He leaves it entirely indeterminate what criterion is to count as having shown what he wants to have shown. For many libertarians violation of rights, not harmful impact, is what matters–one can violate rights and actually benefit another quite objectionably. What matters is robbing others of their sovereignty, their self-rule. (This is like objecting to one country invading another and making improvements there. It is the invasion that’s the issue!)

This is also the case with the second attribute of the state Friedman asked libertarians to demonstrate, namely, the “intrinsic evil of state regulation or redistribution.” Those libertarians who argue on the basis of the natural rights of individuals to their lives, etc., or some other principle such as “equal liberty,” rarely if ever uphold intrinsicism about the evil of state regulation or redistribution but they do maintain that forcibly mandating some conduct or extorting the wealth of others, whether it be done by the state or by some criminal or criminal gang such as the Mafia, is morally and should be legally wrong.

Many, many libertarians have advanced different arguments for this but Friedman takes no notice of a great many of them so his dismissal of them all–”libertarians do not yet possess” refers to all libertarians, with no qualification such as “the bulk of them,” “some of them,” “the most prominent of them” or the like–is plainly unjustified. By 1991, when Friedman’s paper appeared, several Herculean efforts have been placed on record regarding whether “state regulation or redistribution” is morally and politically wrong, unjustified, a violation of principles of justice (that is, individual rights). (See, M. Bruce Johnson & Tibor R. Machan, eds., Rights and Regulation [1983], for just one example of a rich collection of papers addressing some of these matters. My own contributions are numerous but at that time Individuals and Their Rights [1989] advanced a sustained critique of, among other coercive policies, wealth redistribution; a chapter, “The Non-Existence of Welfare Rights,” from this work has been repeatedly reprinted in various collections of essays on social and political philosophy, testifying to the fact that at least some folks had deemed the points raised there by a libertarian worthy of discussion. Essays by other libertarians, such as Eric Mack, have also made the rounds in this kind of literature, yet Friedman appears to find them all worthless.)

So if there is someone who hasn’t met the requirement of demonstrating his points, Friedman and those who join him in this dispute are prime candidates. Moreover, the practice of recasting the views of those who are being criticized–actually “criticize” is too generous a term when people aren’t quoted and some of the main contributors to the discussion aren’t even mentioned–makes it very difficult to take up what he puts forth, since in too many cases–for example, his talk of “intrinsic evil”–none fit the characterization he advances.

It is my understanding that when one discusses people in scholarly papers and books with whom one disagrees, one ought to try to conscientiously to lay out their position in their own terms and deal with them accordingly. This Friedman and those who join him in their dismissal of libertarians haven’t done. So when Friedman states that “What I wrote in 1997, and what I teach in the seminar on which Ramsey reports, concerns what, if anything, makes infringements on capitalism coercive; and what makes coercion bad,” appears to me confused. What makes “infringements” “coercive”? Well, if they really are infringements–say, taking someone’s property in a phony eminent domain scam so the government can collect more taxes than otherwise by leasing it to Costco (see, as an example of more on this, Steven Greenhut, Abuse of Power [2004])–then they are coercive, inasmuch as “coercive” means “violation of someone’s basic rights” (in this instance to private property).

What makes coercion bad? What makes rape bad? What makes assault bad? What makes robbery bad? Surely Friedman must know that many libertarians have answered these questions and to declare that none has produced “an adequate critique” is groundless, given his skimpy examination of libertarian arguments. In effect, Friedman needs an impossibility proof–showing that no libertarian can possibly produce “an adequate critique”–to sustain his claim and he has produced nothing remotely close to that.

So, perhaps we can now carry on with the work that matters, namely, developing some of the nuances and detailed legal implications of the several very promising libertarian arguments that have shown beyond any reasonable doubt that those who are identified as “the state” are embarking on harmful policies and are being unjust as they are infringing coercively on capitalism–that is to say, on human beings going about the innumerable facets of the peaceful task of production and trade.

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