In Defense of Coercion from a Lover of Liberty
As someone that believes that true free will is an illusion, I’m often asked how I can object to coercion if we ultimately have no liberty anyway. I think this question conflates two separate types of coercion. Just because I’m constrained by the laws of physics and have no moral responsibility for my genetics or for the circumstances of my birth doesn’t mean that self-determination and slavery are the same thing. Even though at a fundamental level you can’t decide what reasons and emotions are persuasive in deciding one’s own actions, at the proximate level of the brain your own reasons and emotions are still the fuel of your decisions. It certainly feels different and your conscious perception isn’t trivial. You might say it’s the only thing that matters. If you can’t appreciate the difference between autonomy and bondage , you’re probably trying your best to misunderstand me.
With that out of the way, I turn to this recent article from the New Scientist titled: ‘Nudge’ policies are another name for coercion.
All this suggests democratic arrangements, which foster diversity, are better at solving problems than technocratic ones. Libertarian paternalism is seductive because democratic politics is a cumbersome and messy business. Even so, democracy is far better than even the best-intentioned technocracy at discovering people’s real interests and how to advance them. It is also, obviously, better at defending those interests when bureaucrats do not mean well.
While democratic institutions need reform to build in dialogue between citizens and experts, they should not be bypassed. By cutting dialogue and diversity for concealed and unaccountable decision-making, “nudge” politics attacks democracy’s core.
It’s widespread in American politics to treat democracy as a good in itself. Anything anti-democratic, therefore, is ipso facto bad. Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi, the authors of the piece, don’t seem to notice that democracy itself is a form or coercion – at least for the people in the voting minority. It feels like heresy to say, but the justification for democratic governance does not spring from some intrinsic property of casting a ballot or some numerological virtue of percentages higher than 50.
We agree to democratic coercion because giving political power to the people being governed is generally a reliable safeguard against flagrantly nefarious policies. In other words, people tend to appreciate their own experiences better than a tyrant might. But it’s not a perfect safeguard. We all still understand that certain individual rights are necessary to protect us from our domineering neighbors. Democratic politics doesn’t ensure maximally beneficial policies. There is good reason to believe that democracies often choose suboptimal and outright harmful policies. Libertarian economist Bryan Caplan wrote a whole book on the topic. Can anyone living in America right now really believe that democracies always choose the best policies?
Yet we accept the compulsion of voters. Coercion falls on a gradient of typical consequences. Slavery isn’t simply bad because of coercion, per se, but because that type of coercion invariably leads to undesirable consequences and suffering for the individual being violently controlled. The problem of a benevolent dictator is that even a dictator with good intentions will predictably cause worse problems than an individual acting in his own self-interest. At some level individuals resist any type of direct coercion by another because total servility just doesn’t feel right. Democratic coercion is acceptable to most people because the consequences aren’t as uniformly bad as under serfdom or authoritarianism. Also, by allotting citizens a division in the power structure – even if one’s vote isn’t decisive and can be trumped – coercion by a democratic government feels less forced. Perception is one of the pillars of democracy’s acceptability but is criticized as a defect in “nudging.”
Much criticism of this approach comes, in fact, from libertarians, who see little difference between guiding a person’s choices and eliminating them. A nudge is like a shove, they argue, only more disreputable because it pretends otherwise.
As a classical liberal I believe that liberty should always be the presumptive policy unless we collectively (or through our representatives) decide that we have sufficient evidence that the negative externalities of an activity outweigh the benefits. Policymakers should ask, “do we have strong reasons to suspect that the consequences of an alternative policy will lead to better outcomes?” In many cases, we do. Think of many environmental regulation like the Clean Air Act or financial regulations that stabilize our markets.
Do we always know a priori that setting up a nudge, regulation, or law that blunts liberty will be successful? No, but that shouldn’t lead us to the technocratic fatalism that many extreme libertarians embrace. Any political coercion needn’t be permanent. If the evidence accumulates that a specific nudge’s harms outweigh its benefits regulatory agencies, democratic representatives, and voters are free to act to change the policy.