The Innocuous Indeterminacy of “Liberty”

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.

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.