In my post the other day I wrote about trying to reframe the binary of “coercive/not coercive” into a spectral analysis of “coerce-iness” and today is as good a day as any (actually, maybe a worse day than most) to discuss the problematic way libertarianism views coercion.

This is not an original point, but libertarians and conservatives tend to focus solely on public coercion (ie, coercion that originates in state institution) to the exclusion of private coercion, for reasons of mood affiliation, ignorance, misplaced focus, or even malice. What I think is less clear sometimes, though, is that in our modern era most coercion is private coercion.

It is certain true that the state acts coercively all the time. But private institutions do the same, and in ways that are far more pervasive. This should be wildly obvious to anyone who has ever read, say, Romeo and Juliet or The Age Of Innocence. In fact, that is a very trite way of saying that there is a tremendous wealth of fiction that deals with the thorny, complex, and overwhelming nature of private coercion, while the realm of fiction dealing with public coercion is much smaller. This, I think, is proper; private coercion long predates public coercion as a source of human misery and still overwhelms it to this day. In fact, properly understood, many “coercive” acts taken by the public sector, like instituting a minimum wage or mandating universal health-care, are attempts to use the power of the state to counter private coercion.

This is what is so frustrating about someone like Arnold Kling, who vacillates between being quite intelligent and insightful to infuriatingly patronizing. His “three-axes model” reduces questions of politics to mostly mood affiliation, one in which libertarians are concerned about coercion and progressives about oppression; he then repeatedly makes it clear that a) even though this could be an egalitarian model it is in fact one that highly privileges his own viewpoints and b) never acknowledges that progressives also care deeply about coercion; they just care about private as well as public coercion which is distinct from oppression per se.

This is how you get Arnold Kling wondering aloud about pernicious coercion in American public schools while weirdly endorsing terrible arguments against Social Security by claiming progressives support old-age insurance because they believe senior citizens are an oppressed class.

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