Outside of didactic novels, it is nearly impossible to find an accessible yet comprehensive treatment of topics in social sciences. So, when a complete treatment of a subject presents itself, especially a libertarian treatment, it tends to be widely spread and reviewed. Thus, it is surprising and lamentable that Adam Knott's monograph, A Praxeology of Coercion, has languished all-but-unrecognized for two years.
As far as I know there are no written laws concerning the number of persons allowed to pass through a narrow doorway simultaneously, although such a law would be sensible and almost universally followed. With the exception of young children who have not yet experienced a good body check to a door jam, the physical harm that would result from too many people in the doorway at once is evident to everyone.
Equally evident is the harm from murder, assault, and rape. These actions would rightly be crimes even in the absence of any written laws. Accordingly, written laws concerning these universally evident crimes are the barest fraction of social laws; the rest deal with non-evident crimes.
Knott begins his essay by noting that, as those non-evident crimes come and go, social laws do not punish “crime”, per se, but rather punish disobedience. This is certainly true, but immediately begs two questions I have often posed: why are such laws afforded legitimacy by such a large section of the populace and why do lawmakers, with the balance of violent force at their disposal, require such legitimacy?
To my amazement, Knott proceeds to scientifically answer both of those questions.
A Praxeology of Coercion does not presuppose a familiarity with praxeology (the study of human action), nor does it require any special academic foundation to digest completely. Knott starts his proof with a human and the incontrovertible apriorism (axiom) that “humans act”. From there, he defines and derives the praxeology of coercion, a requirement of praxeology but nevertheless a convention rarely followed.
Other praxeological authors would do well to emulate Knott in this regard as it makes the material easily accessible. It also makes it clear that praxeology is more than philosophy and logic, it is a scientific notation for the social sciences. As Knott and others have noted, it is the rigor of praxeology that has so far limited its application to fields other than economics, but it is precisely that rigor that makes it convincing (evident even) when the proofs are made.
Although variated, there are general physical characteristics that all humans share. When confronted with the name of your best friend, it is not hard to conjure a mental image of a familiar human with those general physical characteristics and specific wants and needs. However, Knott makes clear, it is important to remember that your mental image is not your best friend, no matter the detail you imagine of your friend's physical characteristics. That image is nothing but an object in your mind that belongs solely to you.
As you can never know your best friend's “true feelings”, it is especially important to remember that the wants and needs you ascribe to your friend are not that persons' wants and needs at all, but an object wholly created by you in your mind, patterned on your own wants and needs and refined by your observations of your best friend. Any non-demonstrated actions or “strivings” you ascribe to your friend, therefore, are not his but yours, and yours alone, a phenomenon known as hypostatization.
In The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, Mises wrote: “The worst enemy of clear thinking is the propensity to hypostatize, i.e., to ascribe substance or real existence to mental constructs or concepts.” (p.80) In this passage, Mises’s point is that only individuals act, and that various collectives such as “society” do not act. He continues: “It [society] does not have “interests” and does not aim at anything. The same is valid for all other collectives.” (p.81) ...
The first question we ask rhetorically is: Is “hypostatization” indeed something that people have the propensity to do? Do people indeed hypostatize? And if so, is hypostatization somehow destructive of the ends of clear thinking as Mises states? The answers to these questions are of more than passing interest. Because as one familiar with Misean praxeology will know, thinking and acting, reason and action, are one and the same. This is because thinking about something is nothing but the “trying to” or “attempting to” “attain” the solution to some thing. Thinking about something is “trying to attain” a (conclusion, solution, answer, etc.). In a word, thinking is acting. So then if it is true that the propensity to hypostatize is in some way harmful to or detrimental to clear thinking as Mises claims, then this same propensity to hypostatize must also be harmful or detrimental to clear (satisfactory, non-contradictory, non-problematic, etc.) action as well.
If hypostatization—the ascribing of human striving phenomenon to various collectives—is something harmful to A’s thought and action, then eventually we will arrive at the question as to whether or not this same principle applies to the “collective” which is person B’s body parts and their movements, when considered from the point of view of acting being A. [pp 59-60]
If you were to devise an incentive for your best friend to act (“help me drink this beer and build my deck”) your expectation of the desired response is based solely on the object of your conception that encompasses your best friend's wants and needs. If you elicit the desired response, your conception is validated or, as Knott describes it, you have “attained” the thing you are “striving” for. However, if your best friend does not respond as you expected, your “striving” is not only frustrated, but the object you conceived (your best friend's wants and needs) is injured.
In other words, the danger of hypostatization is that you may become unhappier as a result of acting on it. Any businessperson who's market has responded unexpectedly to an offer knows full well the truth of this statement.
Another apriorism that follows from “humans act” is that “humans act to relieve some unpleasantness”. All action, including the action of thinking, is concentrated on moving from one state to another that is, ex ante, more satisfactory. The action of coercion is no different.
The classic exemplification of the social phenomenon coercion, is when A points a gun at B and says: “Give me your money or I’ll shoot”. When A does this, he makes (or tries to make) something B thought was “attained” (his safety, well being, etc.) into something B now strives to attain. Then, A offers that thing back to B, in exchange for what A wants from B. [pp. 19]
If A's coercion is successful, he has attained the object he desired and may feel validated. A and his validation are typified in the social coercion of government: “I will not put you in jail if you pay taxes” or “I will not put you in jail if you do not smoke marijuana”.
However, as Knott points out, even if he is successful, A did not do what he thought he did. Since A cannot know B's wants and needs, he therefore cannot know of any change to B's wants and needs. The only thing A can conceive of changing is that imaginary object he calls “B's wants and needs” that is wholly created and owned by himself.
Regardless of any actual physical or mental injury to B, in A's perception what has actually been injured is a piece of his own property. Thus, even if successful, A's coercion introduces an unhappiness in himself.
What is so insidious is that, since all action is aimed at moving to a more satisfactory state (at least, in A's perception) A does not realize that he is, in fact, hurting himself. Even if A makes a connection between his coercion and his unhappiness, he evidently does not see the unhappiness necessarily resulting from his coercion.
In this way, A is like a hamster hitting the proverbial feeder bar and receiving the reward, but not associating the electric shock he receives thirty seconds later with his actions. As the shock is unpleasant, he acts to move to a more pleasant state, namely hitting the feeder bar to get a reward.
The more coercive A becomes, the more unhappy he becomes, and the more he resorts to coercion to relieve his unhappiness. Without legitimacy, A is rightly seen as a sadist. When his coercion is offered legitimacy, as in government, he is called a politician, regulator, or bureaucrat.
Knott provides yet another service in A Praxeology of Coercion, in noting what distinguishes libertarian ethics from other, major ethical frameworks:
What is important about ethical theory from a libertarian perspective?
What are we trying to get at, by constructing a theory of social action that tries to demonstrate a necessary consequence to ethical social acts?
In other words, from a libertarian point of view, what are important societal ethical problems needing a libertarian as opposed to a mainstream treatment? Why is specifically libertarian social theory important or necessary?
Is it because sociopathic crime is rampant, and contemporary society does not adequately address it? Is it because common criminal activity is too widespread, and threatens general social welfare? Is it because there are too many liars, and this damages social cooperation? Do we need a libertarian treatment of ethics because businesses need better ethical guidance? Or do we need a libertarian treatment of ethics simply for the general purpose of becoming better citizens?
The answer to all these questions is: No.
What calls forth a specifically libertarian treatment of ethics is something different than this. What motivates the libertarian theoretical ethical movement is that in contemporary society, it is illegal to implement libertarian ethics. Libertarians are prevented from interacting amongst themselves and with other of their fellow citizens according to the libertarian ethics of voluntary, non-coerced relationships. This is what impels the libertarian to pick up his pen and write down his grievance; not the urge for more knowledge about ethics in general; not to help in the fight against common crime.
What does it mean to say “it is illegal to implement libertarian ethics”? Essentially this means that the vast majority in contemporary society believes it is acceptable behavior to use police power (coercion) to prevent perfectly normal and moral people from forming their own types of relationships (and thus societies).
What motivates libertarian social theory, is a particular belief, held by almost every citizen living in contemporary society: That social coercion of this type is ethically acceptable, and perhaps is even beneficial and necessary.
What motivates libertarian social theory is that contemporary society believes the same police power employed in bringing criminals into submission, is also an appropriate means to attain all other social ends as well.
In short, what motivates libertarian social theory is primarily the phenomenon of social coercion. [pp. 72-73] - emphasis added
Rude, but unfortunately true, every word.