Article Image
IPFS News Link • Philosophy: Libertarianism

Yves Smith: Earth to Libertarians - Private Parties Have Coercive Power Too

I’m sick of the free pass given the libertarian blather, “The state is the only source of coercive power.” I doubt that many non-libertarians buy that assetion, but they too often remain silent because most libertarians are rabid on that issue and arguing with them is like talking to a wall. But since that bogus assertion has been showing up increasingly in comments here as right-wing plants are becoming more common, I might as well do a quick shred, since it does not take much effort to show this claim is nonsense. Let’s look at some simple empirical examples of why this pet argument just ain’t so. The first comes from Tom Ferguson: American history is replete with examples of business groups and individual firms retaining vast armies of military and paramilitary forces for long periods of time. In the nineteenth century many railroads kept private armies. The Pennsylvania Coal and Iron Police ran their own Obrigkeitsstaat [authoritarian state] for decades. General Motors maintained the Black Legion; Ford sported a veritable Freikorps recruited by the notorious Henry Bennett; and any number of detective agencies, goon squads, “special consultants,” and wiretappers have also been active. . . . Force on such a scale potentially menaces competitors, buyers, and suppliers almost as much as it does workers. Some modern versions of coercion don’t involve actual harm, but credible threats. For instance, I know three different lawyers who have been suing banks who have gotten ugly warnings (and some follow-up action, like break ins and messages specifying where children were on specific days; one is spending $20,000 a month on bodyguards). And pressure can be financial rather than physical. Recall the HB Gary plans against Glenn Greenwald. They clearly planned to destroy his professional reputation (not that that would be as easy as they thought) so he would have to choose “career over cause”. But in the US, where jobs are hard to come by and safety nets are frayed to non-existant, someone over 35 and/or with kids who is not independently wealthy or is self employed with a very solid franchise is economically vulnerable.

1 Comments in Response to

Comment by Ernest Hancock
Entered on:

(Comment on this article from NakedCapitalism's article. Comment by "tz")


Reply tz says: May 1, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Speaking as a libertarian, you have said nothing in the post I can disagree with.

(WARNING, long rant ahead)

My problem is with the “solutions”. Instead of letting me arm or even defend myself, whether physically or in a real system of justice, what is created is captive regulators, that tend to do more for show including show trials.

Your solution to coercion is more coercion. I end up being squeezed by the big businesses who don’t want new and disruptive competition, and the government that creates barriers that only economies of scale can handle. I cannot build a vehicle no matter if it would be safer, cleaner, and cheaper – it has to go through tests costing a billion. I cannot even invent since the patent system is capricious and convoluted.

And there is the rub. GOVERNMENT PROTECTS THE COERCION DONE BY BUSINESSES. All the examples you cite, people could have risen up and yes, there would have been war, but it would have been a just war and a different result. When the people rise up? They call in the army, national guard, or financially, the Federal reserve to crush people who would have otherwise been capable of seeing to their own justice. Apple or Microsoft, or the Entertainment giants won’t send out their private thugs if they think I violated something, they will send government thugs.

When businesses grossly violate the law, nothing happens. When any individual does, the government comes down hard.

Power protects power, and corruption protects corruption.

Only humility can crush power, and only truth and honor can crush corruption.

The democrats and republicans are no different – Obama is W’s 3rd term. Why should I expect this bifurcated pantomime to be any different when it is you and the coercive utopian socialists crushing me from one side while proclaiming it is to fight the evil businesses, and the big businesses crushing me from the other side proclaiming it is to fight the evil socialists?


You can’t coerce people who can defend themselves, shoot back, or even start competing businesses, or find somewhere or something else to get what they would have gone to the coercer.

You and the businessmen you hate are both the same. Both evil. Both desiring to be masters. Both crushing freedom.

You are trying to fight corruption with corruption, not purification. You are trying to fight coercion with coercion, not freedom. You are trying to fight lies with different lies, not the truth. You are trying to fight injustice with more injustice, not the full due-process honorable justice.

You simply want power, not justice, truth, honor, or freedom. You say you will use it to my benefit. But you will not give me the power (liberty!) so I can decide to wield it myself. You say everyone else it too dumb to understand, so can’t be trusted. I say everyone is smart enough to educate themselves or at least to realize freedom is better than your slavery or theirs.

Why should I care if it is your heel at my throat or that of the Koch brothers? You will have nicer heels? Nicer guns? I will be your house slave instead of their field slave? You will be a kind mistress? What if I don’t want to be the slave of either you or the Koch brothers? What alternative will you allow me and people like me?

You are absolutely right that there government is not the only means of coercion, but instead of offering freedom, you want the monopoly on coercion for yourself. You do not hate the coercion, merely that you aren’t the one doing all of it.

There is a fairly large Catholic libertarian movement, people like Thomas E Woods. It is appropriate on this feast day of St. Joseph the worker, Divine Mercy Sunday, and of the beatification of Pope John Paul II who wrote Centisimus Annus, in the tradition explaining Labor and the evils of socialism every decade since Rerum Novarum.

That view tries to balance local and national (subsidiarity), recognizes solidarity – that we are all humans with the attendant dignity, and seeks the freedom of both the body and spirit of man against all evils.

The first rule is that you cannot use an evil means to achieve even the most good of ends. No one considers themselves or what they want to do evil and will use every rationalization to call it something else. But if coercion is an evil why is the tool you seek to use?

If you have read my rant this far, you will probably say I’m not proposing anything. Well I am, but you won’t accept it. The 1914 pure food and drug act is a model. If a product is mislabeled, anyone can go to court and get triple damages. Individuals. Not class actions, not the USDA, FDA, or the rest. I should have a similar power over my bank if they defraud me.

Instead I have to depend on the kindness, competence, and the incorruptibly of the latest goldman-sacs drone at the SEC. Or your drones. I don’t want to depend on any drone. Let me and anyone else who is harmed take their cause to an expanded common pleas or a jury trial with judgments where I can go to the local sheriff or police and go to their office and clean out cash and property to settle it.

It’s May Day.

POWER TO THE PEOPLE. Not the bureaucrats or the businesses.

Humans are in the image of God even if that image is marred. They have a mind, will, and conscience that can be darkened or ignored, but it will still exist.

Corporations are entirely a creation of the state (something else most libertarians hate talking about if you bring it up).

I should say you would probably make a wise Commissar and try very hard to do the right thing and might in many cases, but it is an evil thing to have a commissar wielding the power instead of having individuals wield it. You would have to work for me, the individual, at my direction, not be a conservator for poor little stupid incompetent me.

And even if you ran everything you are not omniscient. The billions of small transactions each day affecting price and quantity – where not coerced – produce a signal, information, that no team of the brightest minds or array of the best supercomputer can calculate. You simply cannot do the job.

I’m in software. A 100 line program can be understood and proved correct. A 10000 line program can’t. A simple, short law is easy for everyone to understand and if a judge is corrupt it shows. The clearest example is the Constitution itself. It says how to amend it – if you think it doesn’t scale or inadequate. There is no provision to destroy the clear meaning of the words to permit their opposite.

The billions of lines of regulations handled by lots of diffuse authority is inherently corrupt because it cannot be understood, is designed to be ambiguous, incomplete, and even contradictory. You want justice? Start with shredding the federal register and limiting laws to a few general but clear lines that anyone can understand. Let individuals have the power, not bureaucrats.

If you want freedom and to aid me in defeating coercion on all fronts I am ready to find ways we can work together to defeat it.

If instead you think you can bridle and ride leviathan and control it for your ends, I think you are a dangerous fool. Everyone who has tried has ended up consumed or corrupted, in leviathan’s belly in either case. I am here to slay the beast, not ride it, and anyone who wants more coercion is my enemy.