A student’s Marxist professor told her that “market society is coercive” as people must “join the market or starve.” The student asked me how I would respond to this line of argument. Here is my reply.
(1) Nobody is coercively threatening you with starvation unless they’re going to proactively force you into cage with no food or steal all your food or something.
The only time when this might be said to not be the case is when, for example, you are utterly dependent on your current employer to keep you from starving. Then if they end their interaction with you—even if they are following the contract or whatever—then they may in some sense be said to be indirectly “threatening” you with starvation. This is extremely rare today and would only occur in extremely dire circumstances.
Dire circumstances may be said to be circumstantially or structurally “coercive” but that it is not what the term usually means in ordinary language or law. It’s not what free market proponents are talking about in any case. Coercion, particularly the kind of coercion libertarians are concerned with, refers to proactive interpersonal imposition—not particular circumstances per se. If your teacher wants to call bad circumstances “coercion,” fine. Don’t get too hung up on semantics. Just point out that he/she is using the word to refer to different concept than libertarians (and most other people).
(2) So once they understand that conceptual distinction, the question becomes economic. What empirically reduces the bad things they refer to as “coercion?” What general rules allow for pluralistic diversity of lifestyle choices so individuals can practically choose whether or not to “join” the market or live in a commune or what have you? What reduces starvation and makes food supply reliable and affordable? What does the opposite? etc. This is where I get into an empirical definition of the state, and a little bit of the history and empirics of market societies vs. societies where the state attempts to impose a particular order. Honestly, one of the best summaries of this that I know of is my essay and my tumblrized version of that essay.
Look at the indices of economic freedom and the robust negative correlation between starvation/malnutrition and economic freedom. Point out that most of the bad things they don’t like in contemporary society are very probably the effects, to large degrees, of statism.
Attempting to collectivize the social order for the transcendent “public good” or whathaveyou more likely results in mass starvation because it eliminates emergent information signals like prices and necessarily replaces them with attempts at some kind of top-down constructed order, and thus adds incentive and calculation problems. Better to allow dispersed individuals to follow their own interests and information according to general rules (which necessarily means “private property” in some form in order to have general rules with regards to stuff outside your body).
If they bring up “workplace democracy” or something along those lines, then it’s best to point out that free marketeers are not opposed at all to such things. They simply think they should be one of many organizational options that people can choose. If they insist, look at these points (1, 2) on why majority rule “democracy” is often quite obviously problematic and not the best option for people. And point out how profit signals and private spheres of control help fix these problems.
(3) It sometimes works, and is sometimes useless, to appeal to “freedom for freedom’s sake,” that is the intuitive and visceral appeal of the liberty that libertarians and others talk about. This is the absence of the kind of coercion that does not refer to bad circumstances, but to proactive interpersonal imposition—like enslavement, murder, government control, theft, and so on. This is the freedom of Camus (1, 2), Hugo, Hayek, etc. This is the kind of freedom that most libertarians and many other people are primarily concerned with. But even if you don’t care about this kind of freedom at all, argument (2) if correct should theoretically convince them.
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