Protection versus Coercion
Tibor R. Machan
In matters of human conduct it is vital to distinguish between actions that coerce others to do something they must be in charge of choosing either to do or not do, versus resisting their attempts to coerce someone. If I try to make you eat your vegetables and you aren’t my child for whose health I am responsible, I am being coercive. I am lording it over you. If, however, you come after me with a knife to cut me up and I successfully resist your attack, this isn’t my being coercive but acting in self-defense, protecting myself.
The criminal law recognizes this pretty clearly–assault versus self-defense! But it seems like many people don’t. They insist that when other people are acting badly, even if peacefully, they may interfere. So the city of New York may force people to refrain from eating foods cooked in trans-fats. Or California and many other states may force people to abstain from gambling or using dope. These, however, are not actions that amount to attacks on anyone. If you ruin yourself by gambling, that may be lamentable, even morally repugnant, but it is just the sort of issue that must be up to you as a free human being. Otherwise you are being treated like a child, not as an adult. If you are an adult, other adults may not coerce you unless you permit them. You may permit a fellow boxer to beat you up and down in the boxing rink or a dentist to drill your teeth; so they then may do what otherwise would amount to assaulting you.
All that talk in the American political tradition about the consent of the governed has to do with this. Only what a citizen has consented to may be imposed on his or her by another citizen. It is impermissible, not just morally but criminally wrong to coerce another adult to obey one’s will. That is what slavery involves, or involuntary servitude.
Of course, there are some borderline cases but those couldn’t even be identified if there were no clear-cut ones as well. If you are bumped on the sidewalk, does that amount to coercing you? Probably not unless there is intent to assaulting you in evidence. Otherwise it is a minor mishap. And there are some serious problems with such matters as, say, date rape. Might some kind of consent be given implicitly rather then explicitly?
The important point is that when someone else is doing something wrong–being lazy, swearing too much, gambling, living in hazardous ways–if it is peaceful, doesn’t involve an intrusion on others, no one may stop it. One may advocate against it, of course, which is what editorial writers and columnists do a lot. But what vice squad officers do is really something quite impermissible. If a prostitute and her John want to engage in debasing sexual unions, so be it. One can try to persuade them not to but to intrude is to treat the parties as if they had no will of their own, did not possess sovereignty. But free men and women do possess sovereignty.
Now the fact that one can know that someone else is doing something wrong doesn’t change any of this. Even if one knows well and good that other people are acting badly, if it is peaceful no one may intrude. Much of what people do wrong upsets others, of course, even if these aren’t out and out invasive things, even if they do not involve dumping one’s malpractice on other people. But you can tell that some of the conduct targeted by those advocating coercion is, even if offensive, quite peaceful since when challenged, those who want to control it tend to invent some theory of how some people’s misconduct makes others misbehave as well. So If George here smokes pot or sells his body or is a lazy bum, this is often portrayed as leading to other people doing likewise. And at times that may be the case but the responsibility for picking up someone’s bad behavior lies with the one who’s doing the picking up, not the one who carried on badly but peacefully. Influencing others isn’t coercing them!
So the bottom line is that only when others act violently, coercively may their conduct be thwarted. If they act peacefully though badly, all that’s available among free men and women is persuasion. If this idea were widely adhered to, we would be living in a significantly different world. It would be a more civilized world, that’s for sure.