Hayek vs Rothbard On Coercion

James Tuttle alerted me to an appendix discussing Hayek’s conception of coercion in Murray Rothbard’s, The Ethics of Liberty. It serves as the jumping off point for a broader discussion of what constitutes coercion. Let us begin by contrasting the definitions of coercion employed by Hayek and Rothbard. Rothbard defines coercion thus:

the invasive use of physical violence or the threat thereof against someone else’s person or (just) property

Rothbard provides several quotations of Hayekian definitions of coercion. The first one goes:

control of the environment or circumstances of a person by another (so) that in order to avoid greater evil, he is forced to act not according to a coherent plan of his own but to serve the ends of another

He also quotes Hayek thusly:

Coercion occurs when one man’s actions are made to serve another man’s will, not for his own but for the other’s purpose.

The third relevant Hayek statement quoted goes:

the threat of force or violence is the most important form of coercion. But they are not synonymous with coercion, for the threat of physical force is not the only way coercion can be exercised.

Hayek clearly embraces a more expansive definition of coercion than Rothbard does. This brings us to the central question of what kind of response to non-physical violence coercion should be sanctioned on libertarian principle. One guide to answering this question can be found in the principle of proportionality. If I aggressively verbally abuse or ostracize you; shooting me would be disproportionate to the offense. On a similar note, the refusal of service doesn’t justify a violent response either. That doesn’t make it any less odious.

An expansive definition of coercion allows libertarians to achieve a greater depth of understanding about the various ways in which people can be coerced. If we wish to comprehensively eradicate initiatory coercion; we will have to understand the many ways in which it can manifest itself. Apart from the obvious use of physical force; there is the use of economic reward and punishment and social ostracism. Both of which can be used to control people.

The solution to dealing with these kinds of controls is to make use of non-state non-violent protest. If people are unjustly marginalized through social ostracism, we libertarians should come to their aid through social pressure. When people are controlled through economic reward and punishment, there should be a concerted effort to help them achieve greater economic independence. These solutions are necessary to achieve an integrated approach to dealing with coercion.

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