My main point, that the concepts of coercion and liberty are indeterminate along politically significant fault-lines, seems innocuous enough; but it is not being received that way in this discussion. One wonders why this is, since this simple and hardly deep point is not in itself an objection to anyone’s political theory.
The business end of the libertarian position can be very clearly and unambiguously stated. People have natural property rights and the right to enter into agreements as they see fit. Violation of these rights, as with any rights, requires special justification. And, yes, we can rephrase all this, without fault, in terms of a particular idea of liberty. The idea of liberty in question requires a theory of rights for its statement, but that’s all right, since libertarians already have one of those.
What is the threat in saying that this particular sense of liberty is distinct from others in wide currency and that those others are no less linguistically or conceptually valid or correct? I can only assume that it comes from the difficulty of carrying the audience once the various different senses of “liberty” are untangled and the dependence of the libertarian sense of the word on a controversial theory of rights is brought out into the open. Far better to try to convince someone that libertarianism just follows from taking seriously the liberty he has always loved—the liberty, what’s more, that was also loved by such profound and profoundly different figures as Locke, Hume, Mill, and Rousseau. (OK, maybe not Rousseau.)
So I repeat that the real issue between libertarians and their opponents is what rights people have and what our social goals should be. I do not believe that when it comes to rights it’s either all conventional or all nonsense. I believe that there are, in fact, real natural, moral, preinstitutional rights, certain rights against aggression being among them. But I don’t believe that property rights are among them.
What about promissory or contractual rights? There is no plausible general right to freedom of contract; no one really believes that I have a right to enter into an agreement of any content I like. The general recognition of the value of freedom of contract is qualified by our ability to identify certain classes of agreements that, as we believe, typically retard our social goals or are in some way ethically objectionable. One might like to say that there is a right to freedom of contract, but it can be outweighed by considerations of social policy. But if a net social gain is sufficient to justify overriding this “right,” it is not worthy of the name.
In the end, a purely instrumentalist approach to the minimum wage issue seems inescapable. (Here I echo some of what Edward Glaeser wrote.) Not only is this not an issue where the concepts of coercion or liberty can play a useful role, it is not even an issue that requires us to think about the relative significance of rights within social policy. There are no rights involved. It all comes down to the question of whether a minimum wage makes poor workers better off, and whether we care about that.