Liberty and Semantics: Response to Murphy, Glaeser, and Epstein

I am grateful to Will Wilkinson, Brink Lindsey, and the Cato Institute for organizing this exchange on the semantics of liberty, or the distinction between voluntary and coercive action.

I think that, by and large, if our society were freer, we would have better housing, food, and healthcare.

But I feel sure that paramount in life are interesting and meaningful lives, loves, losses, and friendships. Better stuff matters mainly as inputs to better culture, including household micro-culture. Culture is the meaning we attach to signs, symbols, and actions. It is paramount to social welfare.

The paramount things vary according to semantic content. Social improvement may come by better semantics, even if public policy isn’t any better. Given the policies we endure, better culture means we can better communicate and commiserate. We can better overcome cultural separation.

So, the next time someone says, “Oh, but that is just a semantic issue,” kindly smack him upside the head for me (an instance of justifiable coercion).

But the quality of semantics does affect the quality of public policy. Confucius spoke of downward movements: “When words lose their meaning, people will lose their liberty.”[1] As for the upward movements, better semantics will mean less coercion.

So I am delighted that three top-flight minds and mine are exploring the semantics of voluntary/coercive on the worldwide web. I am very grateful to Liam Murphy, Ed Glaeser, and Richard Epstein for the confabulation.

I want to confess. I am one of those who think that our political culture has deep-seated cleavages, and that it is far too statist. My view basically follows the Hayekian narrative [2] : First, evolution made us collectivist (and in that sense modern collectivism is natural [3]), then there emerged a normative and institutional revolution called liberalism, and then came the reaction of collectivist tendencies in the form of nationalist and social-democratic cultures, creeds, and institutions. Yes, I see much of modern academic culture as deeply wrongheaded. There are very few Milton Friedmans and Richard Epsteins. In academe, standard formulations and official modes of discourse effectively work to deny the idea of liberty and the integral voluntary/coercive distinction (the syndrome in economics is noted by Richard). Much of political culture represents, or at least accommodates, the cultural reaction to liberalism. Particularly after 1890, there occurred an epochal alteration of the liberal lexicon. Much of it was essentially subversion (see Confucius).

Liberty has become taboo in academia, politics, and polite society in general. Embarrassed by invoking it soundly, politicians invoke the term primarily when they push for something that is actually its contravention.

Yet the distinction remains as vital as Adam Smith, William Lloyd Garrison, and myriad others, and lives proudly and loudly among institutions like the Cato Institute.

In their cable TV series, Penn & Teller recently looked at illegal immigration. The program was predicated on the distinction, and the moral of the story appealed to a partiality towards liberty. The makers banked on viewers getting it. Their apparent success, like John Stossel’s, seems to indicate that they guessed right.

I offer other evidence. In teaching introductory economics, I quiz students on locating examples within the following classification:

Voluntary Coercive
Legal (A) (B)
Illegal (C) (D)

I clarify the person/property basis—“this is my hand”—the focus on coercion as the initiation of force or fraud (or threat thereof), and that an activity is to be dubbed “coercive” if any of the parties involved are so coerced, and otherwise “voluntary.” I locate several examples for them. Then I quiz them. I ask them to locate examples— “smoking pot,” “paying workers less than the minimum wage,” “playing chess with a friend,” “mugging someone,” etc.

College students catch on fine. They get it. They also get clearly that in cell (C) the government initiates coercion. The distinction is intuitive and coherent.

We see the distinction in use all around us. Without it, words like “the free market” and “intervention” mean nothing. But we rarely see it right on the surface of the examining table.

Before the subversion of the liberal lexicon, one often saw socialists and social democrats speaking quite candidly about the compulsory and coercive nature of their proposals. The culture was in transition.

The plea of classical liberals/libertarians is to own up to it. We are not saying it is absolute. We are not saying that it alone is focal. But we ask that laws against consensual activity be recognized as initiating coercion.

I believe that participants of this exchange all believe that semantics are worth arguing over. And all reject deontological grammars of the desirable (deon in Greek mean duty or obligation). We all recognize and count moral and cultural consequences, and we all embrace the “loose, vague, and indeterminate” nature of making big calls—like those made by Admiral Adama in Battlestar Galactica.

But of course that does not diminish the wisdom of consecrating and sticking close to simple rules, natural rules, especially in a complex world. Richard Epstein is a great figure, and I am honored by his participation and reassured in our concordance.

Where Richard addresses “the third argument,” a clarification may be useful. Does the minimum wage coerce any employees? I think Richard would agree that the answer is “no.” It is important to keep “coercion” clearly rooted in the threat or use of force against the coercee’s property/person. In characterizing the law in relation to employees, I like to call it “step-coercion.” But, just as your step-mother is not your mother, step-coercion is not coercion to the step-coercee.

I second much of what Ed Glaeser writes, and like the separation of happiness and utility. But some of his word usage gives me pause. Although he never takes issue with me, he uses liberty and freedom in ways at odds with the semantics I follow. I hope that Ed wants to be like Milton Friedman and Richard Epstein, but, if so, he still needs to make some important steps in reconnecting to the classical liberal tradition.

Liam Murphy’s essay is thoughtful and civil, and more fundamentally at odds with classical liberalism. Good and brave of him to join a Cato discussion in which he is outnumbered.

At one point, Liam seems to suggest that the definition of “voluntary” is contoured by mutual benefit. But it should have been clear that I based it on ownership and consent. He writes as though I would insist that cash for dope cannot be disadvantageous for either party. But that is something on which, like Smith, I certainly would not insist.

It seems to me, that, basically, Liam casts doubt on the coherence and focalness of the distinction I am following. His supposedly “relevant description” of the minimum wage (“We will enforce agreements where …”) is fraught with problems and does way too much. Basically, Liam is saying that liberty and coercion don’t really mean much of anything. Again, I think the denial of the distinction falls back on the idea of the state as encompassing overlord—we are tenants of its property. Is Liam ready to bite that bullet?

And yet, quietly, Liam employs the distinction. He writes of “unrestricted markets” and the “case for free markets.” If the meaning is not per the distinction, then what is it? Despite his argumentation, I bet that as a college student Liam would have aced the voluntary/coercive quiz.

On Robert Nozick: In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, he used “aggression” where others use “coercion” (a choice that I have agonized over). Nozick is a funny figure. In many ways, he supplied a brittle caricature of classical liberalism, and then promptly withdrew from political philosophy, deeds that brought him great renown.

In closing, I want to emphasize the general agreement: We all reject axiomatic libertarianism. If we could agree on the relevant semantics, we would all agree that sometimes coercion—contravention of the liberty principle—is what each of us would favor.

That sensibility, further, is now typical of libertarians. It becomes more and more unfair and irresponsible to characterize libertarians as people with an axiom to grind.


[1] Quoted by F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p. 106.

[2] The narrative suggested here broadly follows Hayek’s works, e.g., “The Atavism of Social Justice,” in his New Studies in Philosophy, Politics, Economics, and the History of Ideas, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978); The Mirage of Social Justice. Vol. 2 of Law, Legislation and Liberty, Chicago: University of Chicago Press); and The Fatal Conceit.

3 On the idea that many of our evolutionarily selected instincts are anti-libertarian, see Hayek, “Atavism;” Paul H. Rubin, Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom, (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002); Bryan Caplan, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, (New York: Princeton University Press, 2006); and Daniel B. Klein, “The People’s Romance: Why People Love Government (As Much as They Do),” The Independent Review 10(1), Spring 2005: 5-37.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • George Mason University’s Daniel Klein begins this month’s lead essay by presenting evidence from a poll of economists showing that more than half of those who are in favor of a minimum wage generally don’t think it is coercive, suggesting that judgments about what is coercive or voluntary underpin professional opinion about economic policy. If so, Klein asks, shouldn’t economists address the question of coercion more directly? Klein argues that we should treat non-coercion as a maxim to be followed “ninety-something percent of the time,” which allows for the legitimacy of coercion under certain conditions. Economists may then ask: “When should we endorse the liberty maxim and when not?” in a principled way. Klein draws on ideas from F.A. Hayek and Adam Smith to argue for the centrality of the distinction between voluntary and coercive action in the ordinary practice of economic inquiry, and to urge a renewed emphasis on the role of liberty in economic theory.

Response Essays

  • NYU philosopher and legal theorist Liam Murphy responds to Daniel Klein’s lead essay by questioning the relevance of the general concept of coercion to the defense of market institutions and disputing Klein’s particular characterization of coercion. Murphy observes that arguments in defense of markets generally appeal to pre-institutional rights or a conception of good consequences. In neither case does the idea of coercion play a key role. Further, Murphy suggests that Klein’s particular account of coercion is loaded with contestable moral baggage. But, Murphy writes, “The concept of coercion … is deeply indeterminate, with disagreement about correct usage tracking exactly the fault lines that have political significance; so there is simply no right answer to such questions as whether a labor contract for below a minimum wage, or its prohibition, is coercive.”

  • Harvard economist Edward Glaeser agrees with Dan Klein that economic regulations, such as minimum wage laws, are coercive, and that this ought to give us pause. “For millenia, governments have abused their control over the tools of violence,” Glaeser writes. “The historical track record insists that we treat any governmental intervention warily.” However, that does not rule out coercion. “The ultimate job of the state is to increase the range of options available to its citizens,” Glaeser maintains, and well-targeted coercion can increase total freedom in this sense. “Certainly, redistribution reduces the freedom of the taxpayer but it increases the options of the recipient of governmental largesse,” Glaeser says. He goes on to argue that laws that restrict the liberty to contract, such as the minimum wage, generally are not freedom-enhancing overall and tempt government abuse.

  • In his reply, University of Chicago law and economics guru Richard A. Epstein attempts to lay out an account of “justified coercion.” Taking the minimum wage as an example, Epstein sets forth and then rejects several grounds on which the minimum wage may be seen as non-coercive. He then sets forth and rejects several arguments that might justify the coercion in economic regulations such as the minimum wage. According to Espstein, state coercion in support of market institutions “is justified because it expands the envelope for gains from trade through voluntary exchange.” In general, coercion may be justified when “it is to the long-term advantage of all,” but detailed and systematic analysis of particular institutions — such as the one Epstein provides for the minimum wage — is required to establish when this is, and is not, the case.