When are we "forced" to do something?

Bob Murphy claims that a threat of firing doesn't constitute "forcing" someone to do something.

But I contend in the ordinary sense of the word, it does.

No one can be "forced" to do something if "forced" is taken to mean, "compelled to act against their will." If you give someone a drug that knocks them out and then use their finger to fire a gun, they did not "do" anything. But if they consciously do it, then it was not against their will.

What "forced" typically means is that someone has been presented with a situation, of the "forcer's" making, where they will to do something they would ordinarily resist, because if they don't do it, the forcer will create a situation even less to the forcee's liking than is compliance.

So, the government "forces" me to pay taxes in the sense that, if I don't pay, I will ultimately be arrested. My employer "forces" me to take a drug test, because if I don't, I will be fired. My girlfriend "forces" me to quit smoking, because if I don't, she will break up with me.

Libertarians want to make a special case out of government forcing by citing the threat of violence, but it really won't work, since many cases of private forcing cannot be distinguished based on that or any other important criterion. The government will send armed men to forcibly arrest me if I don't pay my taxes, but my employer will send armed men to get me out of the building if I attempt to keep working as though I were still employed despite being fired. Private property owners send armed men to force me off their property if they decide I am trespassing.


  1. What word should we use when I apply or threaten physical compulsion to remove from you your preferred action or choice?
    It's like Austrians will even deny the concept of opportunity cost when it suits them.

  2. If you don't want to attend our company's wedding, then quit your job.

    If you don't want to pay ridiculously high prices for this item that you desperately need, then look somewhere else.

    If you don't want to pay property taxes, then relinquish your house.

    If you don't want to pay incomes taxes, then don't work.

  3. Does your girlfriend "force" you to quit smoking or do you "force" your girlfriend to put up with your smoking? Could negotiation be a better understanding of the relationship or is all negotiation "forcing"?

  4. Gene, this post-series reaffirms my belief, which dates to the time of my own wedding mumble years ago, that the presumption should be against inviting work colleagues. Particularly subordinates, but I think the rule holds for peers and superiors too. There's too much potential for abuse (subordinates), really inept sycophancy (superiors) or impressions of favoritism (peers). Because this is just one of a whole host of reasons why someone would rather not come.

    You shouldn't even want want this for your wedding. It's supposed to be a joy and blessing shared by all in attendance. If you traduce that with a display of power (or servility), then I don't care who's marrying whom: it sure seems like less of a sacrament. And there's a really good chance you're a bad boss. Or colleague. Or lickspittle. As the case may be.

    1. Yes, but on the other hand, typically I have wound up being good friends with at least some of the people I work with, and then what? Well, there ain't no easy answers!

  5. I think you're right and wrong here, in several respects. Your definition of force feels too materialistic to me. I think the concept of compulsion that you deny is more accurate. I support laws against employers requiring employees to hand over their Facebook passwords, and whenever people say "it's completely voluntary" I bring them back to the fact that the employer is still requiring the employee to give up the password.

    You are correct that "government" and "private" cases of "force" can't be distinguished on libertarians' preferred basis, but I think is kind of because they don't necessarily involve force. If a person commits murder or fraud, then they haven't forced anyone to do anything. Likewise, I never found the description of taxes as involuntary as quite right because, to me, it just involves the government taking the taxes and moving on.