05 October 2012

The meaning of “coercion” as libertarians understand it

“Coercion” is an important word to libertarians.  I want to write about the meaning of this word because, as a libertarian, I believe the meaning which libertarians convey in this word is not always understood by non-libertarians.

Coercion means force, that is physical force, or the threat of physical force.  It does not mean persuasion or cajoling or force-of-argument.  But much more needs to be said.

The reader should go ahead and look in a dictionary.  Probably the dictionary mostly confirms the libertarian’s definition: The first-listed or most common meanings of “coercion” pertain to force.  But dictionaries often list other softer meanings as well.

I do not want to get into an argument about the true meaning of the word “coercion”.  Because a word can mean anything intended by the person who chooses to use it.  But I hope that my reader will allow that libertarians who use the word “coercion” do mean something by it.  My purpose is to attempt to clarify that one meaning.  Although other people often use the word “coercion” to mean something else, something softer, and although dictionaries report this softer usage, sill I trust my reader may focus for now on the one meaning, force, which motivates libertarians’ use of “coercion”.

Examples: If three people gang up on you and pin you to the ground and take your wallet, this is coercion, physical force.  If someone points a gun at you and says, “Give me your money or I will shoot”, this is coercion, the threat of physical force.  If the Internal Revenue Service sends you a letter and tells you to send a payment, this is coercion, the threat of physical force.  Because we all know what will happen if you do not send the payment.  If you persist in not paying eventually a policeman wearing a gun will appear at your door.

Counterexample:  Suppose Bill is hired to work a day shift.  A few months later Bill’s boss tells him that the company has to make tough choices.  Bill can continue working only if he is willing to work weekend shifts.  Bill reports this to his wife, saying his boss is “coercing” him to work on weekends.  No.  This is not coercion.  There is no force, no threat of force.  Under common terms of employment, either party can terminate the exchange at any time.  The boss is only refusing to renew an agreement to continue under previous circumstances.

Now I must add a few caveats.  This gets more complicated.  First, libertarians believe that self-defense is acceptable.  You may use force within reason in self-defense.  So libertarians who are being careful with their definitions often say it is wrong to initiate coercion.  It is wrong for Jones to initiate coercion against Smith.  But if Jones has initiated coercion against Smith then Smith may use measured coercion against Jones to defend himself.

In this way libertarians are not pacifists.  Pacifists are opposed to coercion in all circumstances, as I understand it.  A pacifist will not use force even in self-defense.

I add another nuance to the meaning of “coercion”.  Property rights are important to libertarians.  A person’s property is an extension of himself.  Someone who steals your property is initiating coercion against you.  Furthermore, your property includes benefits you may expect from contracts you have entered.  If someone takes your money today with a promise of delivery of a good tomorrow, but fails to deliver the good, then that person has stolen your property and is guilty of initiating coercion against the extension of you, your property.

This last point probably seems more debatable.  We imperfect humans commonly stumble into misunderstandings when we enter contracts or commitments.  Therefore society needs ways to resolve disputes peacefully.  But still a libertarian’s framework stands, with allowance that adjudication will be needed at times.

Let us return briefly to the example of Bill’s employment, mentioned above.  Suppose Bill had a signed contract promising pay for weekday work.  Then that contract would be part of Bill’s property.  In a libertarian’s interpretation, the boss may be coercing Bill by trying to unilaterally change the terms of the contract.

Now, having said all this in an attempt to clarify what a libertarian means by “coercion”, let me add a tie to the bigger picture.  If you learn to perceive “coercion” as a libertarian perceives it, then you may begin to see that virtually everything done by government relies upon coercion.  Government coerces in raising taxes, coerces in enforcing statutes.  But enough for now. 


  1. Rich- Fascinating post! I relish the opportunity to see inside the reasoning process of this worldview. As I'm sure you can imagine, I've got some points, some of which may appear in the form of the Socratic question.

    I think that the meaning of 'coercion' and its usage here are very interesting. Without arguing precise meaning, I wonder how strategic this usage is. What I mean by this is that, while many words or phrases could conceivably stand in for the idea that you articulate, the use of this word is loaded emotionally, especially when restricted to the most violent aspect of the definition.

    As far as government versus private coercion, it could certainly be argued that residence in territory with a democratic government constitutes the acceptance of an implicit contract in which a degree of individual sovereignty is ceded to the state, in exchange for the rights and benefits of citizenship. I suspect that you find this notion spurious, but this argument must be considered.

    As an aside, if in fact the above concept is to be rejected, what natural rights do individuals have to explicitly contract for the establishment of a commons? If they do not have this right, under what moral precept is this so? If they do, what provision is to be made for minor children of the parties? Do they implicitly have the rights and duties of the parties when they reach the age of majority, or must there exist an explicit acceptance of citizenship?


      If one heads down this path of trying to understand the libertarian worldview, a few steps past the thorny word of “coercion” you meet the kinder word “voluntary”. This is an opposite concept, roughly. Libertarians would prefer that all interactions be voluntary. Voluntary relationships are entered without coercion.

    2. 3) OTHER POINTS

      You recall the argument that residence in territory with a democratic government constitutes acceptance of an implicit contract. This argument will be offered, I agree. I am not convinced by it.

      Concerning a right to contract for establishment of common property, I would caution that people should not be able to form a commons containing assets which were not owned by any parties to the contract. It is not okay for you and me to contract to form a commons including the property of Jones if Jones has not agreed.

      You raised still more points. But I will stop here for now.


    Thank you for pointing out the emotive content of “coercion”. This had not occurred to me. I suppose “coercion” might be employed in an almost technical sense, as for instance I suppose “warfare” may be used. But of course it would be natural for libertarians to use “coercion” for strategic reasons, to the extent the word carries emotion.

    But then too it seems to me that Bill in my counterexample employed “coercion” for strategic purpose. I propose that the initial meaning of “coercion” was the harsher meaning (physical force or threat of physical force), and that the meaning has evolved with usage which includes softer meanings (such as threatening to withdraw from a relationship of exchange unless the terms of exchange are changed). Such evolution of meaning would have taken place as many people like Bill chose to say “coercion” for its emotive content even though no physical force or threat of physical force had occurred.

    You say that many words or phrases might conceivably stand in for the idea libertarians seek to convey with “coercion”. But I do not know of any. Can you suggest a word or phrase, and possibly one without emotive content?

    If there were a clearer term I believe that libertarians would delight to have it. We libertarians try to be understood but usually fall short.