Monthly Archives: September 2013

Thoughts on Social Coercion

Libertarian feminist Cathy Reisenwitz (who, by the way, is a nice person) stirred up some discussion in libertarian circles with her recent blog post on the topic of social shaming and coercion.

A favorite topic for Cathy is what she calls “sex positivism” (which inspires the name of her primary blog, Sex and the State). She passionately denounces “slut-shaming” tendencies in society, and I find many a reason to agree with her on that.

One of her recent posts, however, has caused some mildly heated discussion among libertarians discussing social issues. In her TOL blog post, Cathy argues that societal ostracism, including slut-shaming, should be considered unjustifiably coercive. To quote her directly:

Somewhere we’ve decided that the tools the state uses to influence behavior are “coercion” while the tools non-state actors use are cooperation. Where is the justification for this? I didn’t sign a contract with slut-shamers any more than I did with my government. I may find complete ostracism much more oppressive than a small fine. In fact, there are studies which indicate that social exclusion is far more psychologically damaging than property crime.

Knowing libertarian tendencies, it can be seen why many libertarians have taken issue with this. The question of how to define unjust coercion is an interesting one, which I partially addressed in this post.

First off, to properly identify coercion, there must be a defined framework of rights that individuals have, in accordance with their utilitarian pursuits of happiness and efforts toward this end. In the material realm, these are referred to as “property rights;” in the personal/social realm, we call them “privacy rights.”

Having established these rights, we can now identify what coercion really is. Coercion exists wherever someone either uses or threatens force upon the existing rights of another. Furthermore, this coercion can either be just or unjust. In my view, “just coercion” is that which is done defensively in order to protect rights; “unjust coercion” is that which is not defensive of rights, but is instead exploitative against them.

Outside of this, there exist social actions which are “not coercive.” This is where the traditional debate regarding so-called “negative rights” and “positive rights” becomes relevant. The benefits one obtains from the services and social actions of others, for instance, would be considered in the positive realm. Many people, myself included, argue that no one inherently has an entitlement right to said benefits from another.

Therefore, if someone decides to discontinue a business or social relationship with another for whatever arbitrary reason, or to exercise free speech against that person in a critical fashion, such an action, however unwise or insensitive, is “not coercive,” because it does not infringe upon either property rights or privacy rights.

In accordance with privacy rights, there is a useful distinction to be made between “shame” and “harassment.” Shame can be understood as a negative feeling that one experiences upon being disassociated, ridiculed, or criticized by others, for whatever reason. Harassment is ridicule that is so persistent and pervasive that it continues to be presented to the subject, regardless of one’s attempts to retreat from association and escape interaction with the harasser. Critical discourse crosses the line from “shame” to “harassment” only when it goes beyond a simple discontinuation of positive benefits and begins to infringe upon privacy rights.

In conclusion, it is my belief that social actions are only unjustly coercive if they infringe upon the privacy rights of others. As much as I concur that slut-shaming is socially imprudent, it does not become unjust coercion until it turns into outright harassment.

Hopefully this can add some clarity to the debate being had.

NAP, Voluntaryism, and the Use of Force

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A great many in the libertarian movement have become enamored by deontological, mostly anarchist rationales for their political philosophy. As the title of this blog post suggests, some of the most common rhetoric among libertarians includes justifications such as the “Non-Aggression Principle,” which is the idea that it is illegitimate to initiate force against others.

These libertarians believe that the coercive nature of taxation renders it fundamentally immoral, and that all human interactions should be based upon voluntary association. For this reason, they and their philosophy are often referred to as “voluntaryists” and “voluntaryism,” respectively.

In this blog post, I do not intend to weigh in directly on the merits of deontology vs. consequentialism, anarcho-capitalism vs. minarchism, or any other intra-libertarian dichotomy of this sort. Instead, I want to simply comment on frequent libertarian slogans like the NAP and address how the semantics may be obfuscating the real core of libertarian philosophy.

It is not uncommon for libertarians to reference notions of force, coercion, and voluntaryism in an attempt to describe the motivations for their political beliefs. For instance, they might say:

“The basis for my moral system is the Non-Aggression Principle.”
“I believe that all human association should be voluntary.”
“I want to live in a society that is free from coercion.”

While I do believe that these terms and phrases can be useful depending on the context, they fall short when it comes to capturing the actual essence of what libertarians believe in.

To illustrate this, we must place such concepts as “voluntary” and “force/coercion/aggression” in a different context in order to recognize that they are not the intrinsic root of even the most deontological form of libertarianism.

If, for example, someone were trespassing onto your property uninvited, you could feel justified in garnishing a shotgun in order to “force” him to leave. From the trespasser’s perspective, he might view you as acting aggressively and using “coercion” in order to make him leave your property. He may even note that he is not being given a “voluntary” choice in the matter of whether or not he is allowed to wander upon this land.

What would be your answer to these accusations? Well, it’s your property and he is violating it. Therefore, you are allowed to use force and coerce him to leave. The fact that it’s your property means that your trespasser does not get a voluntary choice in the matter.

The point I am trying to demonstrate is that notions of voluntaryism and aggression are subjective, as they are necessarily conditional upon the framework of rights that are assumed to exist in the first place. One can only argue that an action is unjustly coercive or involuntary insofar as it contradicts a certain set of rights that are presumed to exist for whatever logical reason.

Understanding this is fundamental to understanding what the NAP really means. It is not enough to simply express opposition to the use of force; in fact, doing so would be quite silly. Coercion will exist in society so long as people have claims that need to be enforced. The real question is: Who gets the right to what, and what is the rational basis for vesting this authority?

What libertarians are actually arguing is that individuals have a right to control their own person, as well as those resources obtained through their own productive efforts (which do not violate the similarly processed claims of others). The use of force is appropriate if it is to protect morally justified claims; the use of force is inappropriate if it is to violate said claims.

Do I mean to suggest that the words “force” and “voluntary” should never be used when critiquing government actions? Of course not. In many cases, it is helpful to invoke these terms descriptively, provided that the underlying framework of rights is implied in the given context.

But it is wrong to assume that libertarian philosophy originates from “voluntaryism,” or from an opposition to force and coercion. It does not. Deontological libertarianism really stems from the morality of private property rights; all such NAP notions are secondarily derived only after this premise is established.

Making Sense of the Great Depression

One of the most interesting episodes in economic history to be studied is the Great Depression. And what makes it so intriguing is that the popular wisdom about what caused and prolonged it is so frequently wrong.

I would like to offer a rundown of some of these misconceptions, and explain why they are wrong.

Myth #1: The 1920s stock bubble was a spontaneous feature of unregulated, laissez-faire capitalism.

The reality is that bad central planning within the monetary system is what fueled the stock market bubble in the 1920s.

Prior to WWI, the western nations were operating under the rules of the classical gold standard, without terrible mishaps. During the war, most of the countries departed from the gold standard in order to devalue their currencies and finance war efforts. In returning to the gold standard regime, some countries recognized the reduced value of their currencies and set their gold exchange rates accordingly. The United Kingdom, however, returned to its old exchange rate, ostensibly for purposes of prestige. This caused problems in that it led to an outflow of gold reserves from the UK.

In response to this, the Federal Reserve in the United States decided to lean against this gold outflow from the UK by easing US monetary policy conditions. The expansionary monetary policy resulting from this policy is believed to have contributed to the stock market bubble seen during the mid-to-late 1920s.

As future Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan wrote in 1966:

More disastrous, however, was the Federal Reserve’s attempt to assist Great Britain who had been losing gold…if the Federal Reserve pumped excessive paper reserves into American banks, interest rates in the United States would fall to a level comparable with those in Great Britain; this would act to stop Britain’s gold loss…The excess credit which the Fed pumped into the economy spilled over into the stock market, triggering a fantastic speculative boom.

Myth #2: Loose Fed policy could not have caused the stock market bubble because there was no price inflation during the 1920s.

The reality here is that the productivity boom during this time period concealed much of the monetary expansion that took place. Had there not been this much monetary expansion, there would have been a modest deflation from the productivity boom. Furthermore, even if consumer prices remained stable, asset prices were inflated significantly, as this is where most of the new money in the financial system was put to use.

Myth #3: Herbert Hoover was a laissez-faire, economic noninterventionist.

Contemporary pundits often cite Hoover’s treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon, who advocated that economic policy should be to “liquidate [labor/stocks/farmers/real estate/etc].” In his memoir, however, Hoover was very clear that he did not take this approach.

As Hoover wrote in his memoirs:

But other members of the Administration, also having economic responsibilities—Under Secretary of the Treasury Mills, Governor Young of the Reserve Board, Secretary of Commerce Lamont and Secretary of Agriculture Hyde—believed with me that we should use the powers of government to cushion the situation.

During his Presidency, Hoover launched a number of modest government efforts to create employment and relief during the downturn. Most disastrous, however, was his agreement with business leaders of the time to keep industrial wages high and prevent any cuts from taking place. According to research from Lee Ohanian, such a policy contributed to two-thirds of the drop in GDP through late 1931, when the agreement finally fell out of favor with business leaders due to sharper deflationary pressures.

Myth #4: FDR’s New Deal policies promoted an economic recovery.

Like his predecessor, FDR enacted a number of public works projects and direct relief programs, albeit stronger and more federalized. One program in particular, the National Recovery Administration, stands out for having substantially thwarted the recovery process. The NRA hampered a fuller utilization of excess capacity by facilitating industrial collusion to keep wages and prices artificially high. According to Prof. Ohanian, this and other misguided efforts delayed a return to full employment by seven years.

Myth #5: The recession of 1937-38 was caused by FDR’s premature fiscal austerity.

Again, the research shows this not to be true. The reduction in the federal deficit was about $600 million, whereas the drop in GDP was around $3.2 billion. Monetary policy has been hypothesized as the contributing factor, but this explanation has also fallen short in terms of its magnitude. The actual culprit behind the first “recession” (as opposed to “depression”) was the Wagner Act that had been passed in 1935. As this pro-union law began to effect greater unionization and pursuant wage hikes, this served to thwart employment more sharply than even the NRA, leading to a full-blown economic contraction and a setback in the road to recovery.

Myth #6: WWII got the United States out of the Great Depression.

While it is true that full employment was restored during wartime, this largely misses the point, as it exemplifies the so-called “broken window fallacy.” The fact that artificial war demands drafted millions of men into war and employed millions of others in the production of war goods does not mean that said resources had been reallocated towards where they would have been most useful in fulfilling actual consumer demands.

After the war, many followers of Keynes believed that stimulus would be needed in order to prevent the economy from relapsing into depression absent the war demands. No such stimulus was implemented, but the economy recovered after a brief post-war recession, owing greatly to the fact that inhibitive New Deal controls and uncertainties were no longer in place.