Is the Essence of Government the Open Use of Coercion?

I just read the above claim in a paper. It is false, not based on "my ideology" as opposed to "your ideology," but demonstrably false on a scientific basis. (By science here I mean "rational enquiry into some realm of reality.")

To understand why this is so, let us consider someone who says "the essence of private property is the open use of coercion." "Whoa," you may think, "how can anyone claim this? Private property is about my legitimate authority to control what is mine!''

But what about someone who disagrees with me about my legitimate authority over some property? For instance, I presently own ten acres in the Poconos. But suppose some Lenape Indians show up and say, "This was our ancestors' land: we are going to establish a village here." And they then begin constructing a village on "my" land.

Well, I now have two choices: I can abandon my property claim, or I can use coercion to force them to stop their efforts. In other words, I can let the private property regime I had subscribed to dissolve, or I can employ force to get the Lenape to stop building their village, i.e., I would have to "openly use coercion" against them.

Or imagine I am the NBA commissioner, believing my organization has the right to set the rules for play in NBA games. The NBA has declared that taking more than two steps while holding the ball, without dribbling, will be considered "traveling," and result in the possession of the ball being awarded to the other team. Things are going fine, until a number of players, who call themselves the "three-step league," declare that they will ignore this rule, and simply refuse to give up the ball when the ref calls traveling against them. I would now have the options of abandoning my role as NBA commissioner, or "openly" using coercion to stop these players from violating NBA rules, by, say, using security guards to escort them off the court.

Even the simple libertarian claim that "I own my own body" is a claim of authority, and a right to use coercion against those who deny that authority. Thus, accepting this claim, if someone comes to take hair clippings from me because they are necessary to fertilize our community garden, I can legitimately, "openly" employ coercion against them, to get them to stop, based on my legitimate authority over my own body.

Similarly, my claim to have legitimate authority to regulate my children's behavior means that, if one of them decides to hold drinking contests in his or her bedroom, that I may legitimately ("openly") use coercion against them to get him or her to desist.

And so it is with government: the actual essence of government is the claim on the part of some entity to be the legitimate authority for setting the "master" laws for some domain (usually a territorially contiguous one). Of course, an intrinsic part of this claim, as in our previous examples, is the subsidiary claim that such a government can legitimately use coercion against those who violate its authority in this domain.

My analysis is "scientific" in that I have merely used rational analysis to examine what any claim to authority over any domain whatsoever implies, whether it be one's body, one's children, a piece of property, an organization, or a polity: any such claim necessarily implies the right to openly use coercion against those who deny that claim to authority. I have not, in any of these cases, tried to adjudicate whether any such claim is legitimate: perhaps I do not really own my body, perhaps I have no legitimate authority over my children, perhaps the Lenape Indians really ought to have the right to build a village on my land, perhaps the NBA really has no authority over the rules of basketball, and perhaps some particular nation-state (or even any nation-state whatsoever) really has no authority to make law for the territory it claims to govern.

In short: Any claim of authority, even a claim of authority over one's own body, implies the right to "openly" use coercion against those who deny that authority. Thus, the claim of a right to openly use coercion is certainly not the essence of government, but is, rather, a component of all claims to authority over any aspect of human life.

18 comments:

  1. Oh dear, this is all very muddled. Where to begin? Well, I'm not sure I can improve on the words of Thomas Paine in the Rights of Man 1791, which I hereby reproduce for your intellectual improvement and moral betterment:
    "If we consider what the principles are that first condense men into society, and what are the motives that regulate their mutual intercourse afterwards, we shall find, by the time we arrive at what is called government, that nearly the whole of the business is performed by the natural operation of the parts upon each other. Man, with respect to all those matters, is more a creature of consistency than he is aware, or than governments would wish him to believe. All the great laws of society are laws of nature. Those of trade and commerce, whether with respect to the intercourse of individuals or of nations, are laws of mutual and reciprocal interest. They are followed and obeyed, because it is the interest of the parties so to do, and not on account of any formal laws their governments may impose or interpose. But how often is the natural propensity to society disturbed or destroyed by the operations of government! When the latter, instead of being ingrafted on the principles of the former, assumes to exist for itself, and acts by partialities of favour and oppression, it becomes the cause of the mischiefs it ought to prevent."

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    1. OK, Sean, since you are new here, you get a warning: this is your one free pass to submit a stupid, irrelevant comment, OK?

      "Oh dear,"

      Gee golly wilikers, we got Miss Friggin' Marple posting today!

      "this is all very muddled. Where to begin?"

      Next time, try beginning by pointing out what, in particular, you think is muddled, instead of cutting and pasting a long quote from an ideological loon like Paine that has absolutely no bearing on the topic of my post, OK?

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  2. How about the sort of opposite view - - that a little bit of the 'governing principle' resides in all forms of authority, including our own authorities over ourselves and the things which fall under our purview? That we are all 'little governments' and the 'governing principle' is a sort of diffuse thing that resides in everyone?

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    1. OK, that seems fine. I'm not sure why you call it "opposite," however. It looks to me only like a different way of putting the same thing.

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    2. Right, it is essentially the same thing with different labels. One says only governments wield coercion is wrong because we all wield coercion in some circumstances and we are not governments. The other (mine) says it is right because in essence we are all governments of one sort or another (governing is a sort of transcendent part of human experience, we just experience it in different forms, some of which we like and others we don't, but ultimately it is inescapable. )

      That has been my tentative solution to the 'libertarian crisis' for some time now.

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    3. OK. As I said, I agree with what you wrote, except for the "opposite" part.

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    4. Ok, yes, I'm sorry, you're right, it is not the opposite view, it is the same view arrived at... Or maybe just stated.. not opposite-ly...backwards?

      Also, I think subsidiarity is just the right word to use. That seems to be exactly how it works. Our real choice is in how to structure and allocate it, not in whether or not we'd like to have government at all - - or coercion. So really, a libertarian is saying (realistically) what he wants is a lot of subsidiarity. But he still wants to govern himself, and for others to be able to do the same. He actually wants the governing, just under his own auspices as much as possible as it relates to himself and his affairs. And he actually probably deep down wants others doing lots of governing, too, so that their affairs don't somehow wind up in the middle of his.

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    5. This is actually neat way of looking at it. It does away with the split between public and private, so Rothbardia or Blockovia wouldn't be "private" cities but just cities with their own government.

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    6. Yes. I don't really know much about Blockovia or Rothbardia, but doing away with the public/private distinction is right (or at least, it is what I'm doing). I don't see them as having much of a separate existence anymore, or government either, as things in-and-of-themselves. Mostly, we are just talking and thinking about people and what they do and the arrangements they make, not all these separate things, and it is always a legitimate discussion to have as to whether what someone has done is right or wrong (or proper or improper, or wise or foolish and why, or whatever). But 'government' seems to me to have no real, separate existence anymore. I tend to think more in terms of authority as Gene has used it (though I don't necessarily think with that word) which flows everywhere, from top to bottom and bottom to top and every which direction, in all human arrangements. We all have the things we govern and things granted by various arrangements governance over us. This governance and the arrangements we make is exercised rightly or wrongly, or properly or improperly, or wisely or foolishly, etc. That is always a legitimate discussion. (And, I do still agree, though, that high levels of subsidiarity is 'wise' and 'good' as a policy, generally speaking.)

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  3. Obviously.

    A one word reply, but this is so obviously correct it is hard to know what to add. So I will point out one obvious implication that most here already know. The so-called non aggression principle is just an atempt to use pejorative labels and does not contribute to an argument. The key issue is who is entitled to what.

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    1. There are times that I'm sympathetic to anarcho-capitalism, but even in those moments, the NAP has always seemed like an article of faith rather than any sort of argument. It's an appealing thing for some to believe, so they choose to believe it.

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    2. I agree. Libertarians should try to base their arguments on self-ownership rather than non-aggression. Only after you've shown that self-ownership is legitimate do you move on to non-aggression as a corollary.

      I think a lot of libertarians with left-leaning sympathies shy away from arguing from self-ownership because it puts property at the precipice, and the idea of property makes them squeamish. But, of course, property is at the precipice of every political philosophy.

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    3. "The key issue is who is entitled to what."

      And what they're allowed to do with it. I've often heard them claim that "ownership implies X", but I don't think that anything comes from reflecting on the concept.

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  4. This would be the way in which property is logically preceded by authority, correct? And since authority requires a leader, then the only actual form of anarchy is the total abolition of authority and the subsequent obliteration of any type of "anarcho setup whether it is anarcho-syndicalism or anarcho-capitalism.

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    1. "This would be the way in which property is logically preceded by authority, correct?"

      Yes, somebody (or somebodies) must have the authority to recognize ownership before it is real: I can think in my head "I own Uranus," but if no one else thinks that, I don't.

      "And since authority requires a leader..."

      Granted, if the leader could in fact be the people as a whole operating in some consensus building capacity: this appears to be what goes on in a hunter-gatherer tribe, with the words of some set of elders being given extra weight.

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    2. Yes, somebody (or somebodies) must have the authority to recognize ownership before it is real: I can think in my head "I own Uranus," but if no one else thinks that, I don't.

      Though I take it that this wouldn't mean that the owner of something isn't necessarily the same as who should own it. Like a court could rule that X belongs to Y, but that doesn't mean that the ruling was just, correct?

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    3. Yes, it is clear that descendants of European settlers own most of the land in the US, even if one thinks this is wrong.

      And I should add that this applies to land more than other goods: I can own a rock, even a gold rock, just by bringing it inside my house and putting it in a drawer. But I can't own land that way, at least if there is anybody else around: my claim must be recognized to be effective. Other goods can be more like land or more like the rock: I can't own the LA Clippers, for instance, if no one else acknowledges me as the owner.

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    4. Yes, it is clear that descendants of European settlers own most of the land in the US, even if one thinks this is wrong.

      And I should add that this applies to land more than other goods: I can own a rock, even a gold rock, just by bringing it inside my house and putting it in a drawer. But I can't own land that way, at least if there is anybody else around: my claim must be recognized to be effective. Other goods can be more like land or more like the rock: I can't own the LA Clippers, for instance, if no one else acknowledges me as the owner.


      Which is why property law would need to be codified, correct? Because while thinking over the issue, I've realized that most libertarian thought on property is actually pretty damn sloppy.

      Rothbard, for instance, merely rambled on and on about "property" like it were a monolith, failing to note the rather large gulf between chattel and real property. Similarly, on the LvMI's website you can find claims against IP due its intangibility while simultaneously advocating the privatization of the electromagnetic spectrum. Just goes to show how bogus the 'a priori' approach is, I suppose.

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