Monday, March 03, 2008

Hayek on Coercion

What does "coercion" mean? Let's look to Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty:
By ‘coercion’ we mean such control of the environment or circumstances of a person by another 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 is unable either to use his own intelligence or knowledge or to follow his own aims and beliefs. Coercion is evil precisely because it thus eliminates an individual as a thinking and valuing person and makes him a bare tool in the achievement of the ends of another. (20-21)
Certainly this idea of coercion can be related to what happens between people. Theft and assault clearly fit the idea of coercion. In addition, this meaning of coercion suggests to me, almost immediately, the relationships between government and the individual. It seems to me much public policy, and much of the efforts of individuals to influence government to choose this or that public policy, match this idea of coercion very well. Just consider policies like banning the incandescent light bulb, or policies that require automobiles to have passive restraint systems. Both sorts of policies seem to me to be very well described by the idea of being forced to act according to the plans and ends chosen by another, by being unable to use a person’s own knowledge and beliefs and intelligence to act in ways he chooses to in pursuit of his own aims and beliefs.

Hayek’s discussion of coercion and government suggests an interesting difference from my own discussions of government and coercion. I often emphasize that there is one word to characterize government’s inherent nature and it is “coercion.” I also suggest that I want government to be coercive because I want government to be the “protective state” which acts to protect me from harm to person and property caused by the deliberate actions of others. But, discussing things in this way may encourage us to miss something of importance that we can see from Hayek’s discussion of coercion and government.
Coercion, however, cannot be altogether avoided because the only way to prevent it is by the threat of coercion. Free society has met this problem by conferring the monopoly of coercion on the state and by attempting to limit this power of the state to instances where it is required to prevent coercion by private persons. This is possible only by the state’s protecting known private spheres of the individuals against interference by others and delimiting these private spheres, not by specific assignation, but by creating conditions under which the individual can determine his own sphere by relying on rules which tell him what the government will do in different types of situations.

The coercion which a government must still use for this end is reduced to a minimum and made as innocuous as possible by restraining it through known general rules, so that in most instances the individual need never be coerced unless he has placed himself in a position where he knows he will be coerced. . . .Being made impersonal and dependent upon general, abstract rules, whose effect on particular individuals cannot be foreseen at the time they are laid down, even the coercive acts of government become data on which the individual can base his own plans. Coercion according to known rules, which is generally the result of circumstances in which the person to be coerced has placed himself, then becomes an instrument assisting the individuals in the pursuit of their own ends and not a means to be used for the ends of others. (21)
For Hayek the idea of coercion is about being made to do certain things by others. By way of contrast, a person may be prevented from doing certain things. Hayek is discussing a government for freedom or liberty as a government that may make rules and use power and coercion to enforce those rules in order to protect individuals from harm to person or property by others. This seems to be my idea of the protective state, and my idea of wanting government to be coercive for these purposes. But, what my discussion probably misses, and Hayek’s emphasizes, is the idea of the rule of law. Hayek is really talking about what we would want “rule of law” to mean, i.e., known general rules that restrain rather than laws that force certain actions. The known rules will be supported by government’s use of coercion and force, but since they are known general rules about actions and conduct, Hayek sees the individual as being able to act to avoid the coercion or to place himself in position to have to suffer the coercion of government. Government is indeed coercive, even when it’s actions are structured within the rule of law, but as Hayek points out, the coercion is “minimized.” The rule of law is coercion, but it is coercion according to known rules, and as such Hayek suggests that the coercion embodied in following the rule of law becomes an instrument that assists individuals in pursuing their own ends. Coercion in general rules that do not pick out favored treatment for some means coercion that is not used for the ends of others.

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