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Property is coercive and libertarians should not define their way into exception.

Ross Kenyon
Silver Circle Underground, May 2, 2011

Yes, it sure is a provocative title, but when I hear libertarians say things like “there are two options: freedom or coercion,” I feel equivalent to how I would feel if I had a goat that someone was accustomed to getting. Of course property is coercion. You are also using coercion when you defend your life from bandits or when you are taking someone’s milk money. Libertarians are arguing for a specific set of rules which they would be willing to defend with violence the same as any political actor. They just think their sets of coercive institutions are better because they’re more efficient and/or more moral.

My dear and brilliant friend, Seth Goldin, illustrated this perspective for me awhile ago and I’m grateful for it. Libertarianism is way more nuanced than those sorts of tallow dichotomies and rhetorical flourishes allow for, but in the age of corporate news bumper sticker slogans is how we communicate.

Property only has meaning in a social setting. It only matters if there are other people who seek to interact with it.

Morality (if it exists) only really has substantial practical meaning in the context of what rights and responsibilities we have to others. If you’re the only conscious agent on the planet, why does it matter how you maintain virtue?

“Wait a second, Ross.”

What’s that you say? You’re saying that coercion only refers to unjustified acts of violence, i.e. aggression? Well, technically coercion is merely the application of force, and some people think that fencing off land which you may not even use constitutes aggression. As someone who hasn’t found an especially compelling moral argument for libertarianism but instead favors liberty based upon decentralized negotiation and emergence I find that there may be some validity in the case being made against such property claims.

We could even concede the terms to our anti-fence interlocutors. Maybe fencing off property constitutes an act of aggression, but we’d just argue that it is a justified action within our preferred system of coercion. Our system of owed rights and responsibilities (morality) is internally judged superior to those which do not permit fences.

This same allegation can be hurled against anarchist thought. Egoist Dora Marsden replied to Benjamin Tucker’s incendiary response to her writing at The Egoist:

The point at issue is “whether in Anarchism, which is a negative term, one’s attention fixes upon the absence of a State establishment, that is the absence of one particular view of order supported by armed force with acquiescence as to its continued supremacy held by allowing it a favoured position as to defence in the community among whom it is established; or the absence of every kind of order supported by armed force and maintained by the consent of the community, but the presence of that kind of order which obtains when each member of a community agrees to want only the kind of order which will not interfere with the kind of order likely to be wanted by individuals who compose the rest of the community…

The first half is what we should call Egoistic Anarchism which The Egoist maintains against all comers. The second, which is that of [Benjamin Tucker] …has in our opinion no claims at all that are not embedded in a hundred confusions as to the label Anarchism. We should call it rather a sort of Clerico-libertarian-Anarchism…It represents more subtle, more tyrannical power of repression than any the world has yet known, its only distinction being that the Policeman, Judge, and Executioner are ever on the spot, a Trinity of Repression that has a Spy to boot, i.e., ‘Conscience,’ the ‘Sense of Duty’…Compared with the power of egoistic repression the Ego comes up against an ordinary ‘State,’ that which it meets in the shape of conscience is infinitely more repressive and searching. The Archism which is expressed in the Armies, Courts, Gowns and Wigs, Jailers, Hangsmen and what not, is but light and superficial as compared with our Clerico-libertarian friends.”

As the quote entails, libertarians and even anarchists still prefer a system of order and coercion. They’re just swapping out the state as a bad archy and replacing it with a new archy, if you’re willing.

Politics isn’t just about who gets what materially; it is a struggle between competing values. Even my values, which might be described as decentralist and radically federalistic, depend upon coercing my macro preference of non-aggression upon people in order to allow for societal experimentation to occur. At the macro level, I respect the reasonable right of people to defend their homes, properties and commons from alternative models of coercion, but my pluralistic and tolerant anarchy is still an archy.

I understand people who try to make their libertarian persuasion efforts about freedom from coercion, I really do. I used to talk like that. It’s a valuable tool of the rhetorician, but people who are a little more advanced in their understanding of the social sciences look at that narrative as a sort of truncated framing of libertarian politics. The simple dichotomy between freedom and coercion does help sway Americans who aren’t going to spend a ton of time thinking about politics but ultimately I think it may be damaging to our academic progress and understanding of what system it is that we anti-authoritarians truly endorse.

The libertarian model is better because it allows for far more individual choice, civic participation and flexibility. It has less coercion, praises be, but libertarianism will never and can never not be coercive.