Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

F.A. Hayek and the Concept of Coercion | Mises Institute

Posted by M. C. on January 7, 2022

For Hayek government—and its rule—of law creates rights, rather than ratifies or defends them.22 It is no wonder that, in the course of his book, Hayek comes to endorse a long list of government actions clearly invasive of the rights and liberties of the individual citizens.23

Murray N. Rothbard

[This article is taken from chapter 28 of The Ethics of Liberty.1 Listen to this chapter in MP3, read by Jeff Riggenbach. You can listen and download the entire book here for podcast and download.]

In his monumental work The Constitution of Liberty, F.A. Hayek attempts to establish a systematic political philosophy on behalf of individual liberty.2 He begins very well, by defining freedom as the absence of coercion, thus upholding “negative liberty” more cogently than does Isaiah Berlin.

Unfortunately, the fundamental and grievous flaw in Hayek’s system appears when he proceeds to define “coercion.” For instead of defining coercion as is done in the present volume, as the invasive use of physical violence or the threat thereof against someone else’s person or (just) property, Hayek defines coercion far more fuzzily and inchoately: e.g., as “control of the environment or circumstances of a person by another (so) 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”; and again: “Coercion occurs when one man’s actions are made to serve another man’s will, not for his own but for the other’s purpose.”3

For Hayek, “coercion” of course includes the aggressive use of physical violence, but the term unfortunately also includes peaceful and non-aggressive actions as well. Thus, Hayek states that “the threat of force or violence is the most important form of coercion. But they are not synonymous with coercion, for the threat of physical force is not the only way in which coercion can be exercised.”4

What, then, are the other, nonviolent “ways” in which Hayek believes coercion can be exercised? One is such purely voluntary ways of interacting as “a morose husband” or “a nagging wife,” who can make someone else’s “life intolerable unless their every mood is obeyed.”

Here Hayek concedes that it would be absurd to advocate legal outlawry of sulkiness or nagging; but he does so on the faulty grounds that such outlawry would involve “even greater coercion.” But “coercion” is not really an additive quantity; how can we quantitatively compare different “degrees” of coercion, especially when they involve comparisons among different people? Is there no fundamental qualitative difference, a difference in kind, between a nagging wife and using the apparatus of physical violence to outlaw or restrict such nagging?

It seems clear that the fundamental problem is Hayek’s use of ” coercion” as a portmanteau term to include, not only physical violence but also voluntary, nonviolent, and non-invasive actions such as nagging. The point, of course, is that the wife or husband is free to leave the offending partner, and that staying together is a voluntary choice on his or her part. Nagging might be morally or aesthetically unfortunate, but it is scarcely “coercive” in any sense similar to the use of physical violence.

Only confusion can be caused by lumping the two types of action together.

But not only confusion but also self-contradiction, for Hayek includes in the concept of “coercion” not only invasive physical violence, i.e., a compulsory action or exchange, but also certain forms of peaceful, voluntary refusal to make exchanges. Surely, the freedom to make an exchange necessarily implies the equivalent freedom not to make an exchange. Yet, Hayek dubs certain forms of peaceful refusal to make an exchange as “coercive,” thus lumping them together with compulsory exchanges.

Specifically, Hayek states that

there are, undeniably, occasions when the condition of employment creates opportunity for true coercion. In periods of acute unemployment the threat of dismissal may be used to enforce actions other than those originally contracted for. And in conditions such as those in a mining town the manager may well exercise an entirely arbitrary and capricious tyranny over a man to whom he has taken a dislike.5

Yet, “dismissal” is simply a refusal by the capital-owning employer to make any further exchanges with one or more people. An employer may refuse to make such exchanges for many reasons, and there are none but subjective criteria to enable Hayek to use the term “arbitrary.” Why is one reason any more “arbitrary” than another? If Hayek means to imply that any reasons other than maximizing monetary profit are “arbitrary” then he ignores the Austrian School insight that people, even in business, act to maximize their “psychic” rather than monetary profit, and that such psychic profit may include all sorts of values, none of which is more or less arbitrary than another. “For Hayek, ‘coercion’ of course includes the aggressive use of physical violence, but the term unfortunately also includes peaceful and non-aggressive actions as well.”

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