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November 2013

Tracking Freedom with the Human Sciences, Part 1

Smith discusses the distinction between freedom and coercion, and explains some of its implications for the human sciences.

In the two previous essays I discussed some general features of the human sciences and methodology. Although I will have much more to say about these matters, I now wish to discuss some aspects of the distinction between freedom and coercion. This is necessary because (as I shall explain in later essays) the dichotomy between freedom and coercion has played an indispensable role in the libertarian (or classical liberal) approach to the human sciences, most notably in sociology and economics.

Throughout the libertarian tradition freedom and coercion have been viewed as conceptual opposites; they cannot coexist at the same time and in the same respect. Where we have coercion we necessarily lack freedom, and vice-versa. Freedom consists of the absence of coercion.

Although freedom and coercion are opposites in this sense, they do not have symmetrical properties. It would be misleading, for instance, to compare freedom to the negative of a black-and-white photograph of coercion in which the colors are the reverse of those in the developed print but follow the same pattern. The concepts of freedom and coercion are not related in this way. One is not a negative image of the other.

A significant difference between freedom and coercion lies in the fact that coercion is a motive for specific actions, whereas freedom, in most cases, is not. Suppose a gun-toting robber approaches Marilyn and says, “Your money or your life,” and suppose Marilyn complies by surrendering her purse to the robber. Now, if we ask why Marilyn gave her money to the robber, it makes perfect sense to say “Because she was forced to do so.” This means that Marilyn surrendered her money in order to avoid being injured or possibly killed. The presence of a coercive threat therefore gives us a reason, or motive, for Marilyn’s decision.

Now consider this question: “Why did Marilyn give money to a harmless panhandler?” Here it would be peculiar to reply “Because she was free to do so.” This does not provide a reason for Marilyn’s action in the same way that coercion did in our previous example. To specify that Marilyn was free to comply with or refuse the panhandler’s request describes the general context in which her decision was made, but it does not explain why she chose one course of action over another. For this we would need an explanation like “Marilyn felt sorry for the poor fellow,” or “Marilyn likes to help people who are down on their luck.”

I previously said that freedom does not provide a reason for specific actions, but I also qualified this statement with “in most cases.” What I have in mind here are politically motivated actions. We may say, for example, that many Americans fought the British in 1776 because they desired freedom from British rule; or that many libertarians do what they do politically because they hope to bring about a free society. In such cases freedom does function as a motive or reason to act, so it serves to explain, at least in part, why specific actions were taken.

Aside from this kind of politically oriented behavior—and a few other cases, as when a slave escapes from bondage—freedom does not function as a reason to act in the same manner as coercion. Freedom is not the motive of our everyday decisions and activities. Rather, freedom is a social condition that makes certain actions possible. Freedom expands our range of options, but it does not usually motivate us to choose one particular option.

This point becomes clearer if we keep in mind the epistemological function of attributing motives in our attempt to explain human actions. A motive, or reason, for acting must explain why we chose to do x rather than pursuing an alternative course of action. A motive that explains every possible course of action actually explains nothing. Why did Marilyn choose to give money to the panhandler? Because she was free to do so. Why did she give him one dollar instead of five? Because she was free to do so. Suppose Marilyn did not give the panhandler any money and we ask why she refused. Because she was free to do so.

This generic reply obviously fails to explain any particular decision by Marilyn. The statement “I was free to do so” applies to every alternative available to her, so it does not address the question Why this action rather than that?

I have emphasized the asymmetry between freedom and coercion because it illustrates an important point. Freedom is an invisible feature of social interaction, so to speak, one that is not usually felt or perceived as a distinct experience with identifiable characteristics. And this feature has made the identification of freedom’s consequences quite difficult. Freedom cannot be perceived by the senses; it must be understood by the mind.

Because freedom does not normally function as a motive, it is a difficult task to trace the causal impact of freedom on human action. What is the relationship between freedom and virtue? Or between freedom and social order? Or between freedom and economic prosperity? Or between freedom and personal happiness? To answer these and similar questions we need a causal theory that enables us to link freedom to various phenomena—virtue, order, prosperity, happiness, and the like. But since freedom is not normally a motive for action, the cause-effect relationships between freedom and such phenomena are normally indirect.

Consequently, we can trace the causal influence of freedom, especially its long-term effects, only with the aid of abstract concepts and theories. Consider the science of economics, which is indispensable for an understanding of how the unfettered pursuit of self-interest, within the boundaries of justice, generates unintended economic benefits for society as a whole. Or consider sociology, which explains how a spontaneous social order can arise that has not been designed or foreseen. Both of these disciplines are essential if we are to appreciate the social effects of freedom and its many benefits.

Modern libertarians have these and other human sciences to draw from in our defense of freedom, and these disciplines have greatly enhanced the quality of our arguments. But most people have neither the time nor inclination to study the human sciences, so they remain ignorant of many of freedom’s benefits.

In this respect freedom resembles the moons of Jupiter, which could not be observed until the invention of the telescope. The human sciences, like the telescope, enable us to observe—understand is a more accurate term—phenomena that we cannot see with the naked eye. And just as most people do not possess a telescope, so most people do not possess a knowledge of economics and other human sciences that would enable them to observe the otherwise invisible phenomena relating to freedom. The abstract disciplines known as the human sciences enable us to track freedom through time and across many types of interaction.

I now wish to discuss a basic role that freedom plays in social interaction, but first a note about my terminology. The great German sociologist Georg Simmel (1858-1918) was suspicious of the word “society” because it might convey the mistaken impression that society is an entity—whereas what we call “society” is actually an ongoing process of reciprocal interaction, not a thing. Simmel therefore coined a German word that is normally translated as “sociation,” and I shall follow his lead. Thus when I refer to “sociation,” this is merely a shorthand for the process of social interaction. And when referring specifically to an interaction between two persons, I shall sometimes use the word “bisociation.” Again, this is merely a matter of linguistic economy.

I maintain that freedom, or the absence of coercion, is a standing presumption that guides our sociations. By “presumption,” I mean an implicit expectation of how others will respond if we choose to interact with them. By “standing,” I mean a presumption that operates continuously throughout every form of sociation—a presumption, in other words, that is fundamental to the process of sociation and without which it would not take place.

Standing presumptions are essential to social interaction. If we choose to interact with others, we do so because we expect them to respond in a certain way. In many cases, as when dealing with strangers, this presumption is not based on personal knowledge of the particular individual with whom we choose to interact. Many of our everyday interactions are oriented toward others who, from our point of view, are anonymous to some degree or other. We deal with anonymous others—those strangers of whom we have no personal knowledge—not as unique personalities, but as ideal moral types. Specifically, we presume that others will exhibit at least a minimal degree of justice when interacting with us. When this presumption is not operative, as when we anticipate that another person might use coercion against us, we will typically avoid sociation altogether.

In this sense, it is not freedom per se but the expectation of freedom that drives social interaction. And though our expectations are based on our past experiences, it is not the past but our beliefs about the future that make sociation possible. It is not past events per se but our expectation of future events that impels us to interact with others. We choose to interact with others when we believe that this sociation will prove beneficial (as determined by our personal values), and we will decline to interact when we believe that a particular sociation will prove harmful rather than beneficial.

The preceding summary, which requires a good deal of elaboration, is intended to highlight the crucial role that freedom plays in social interaction. The distinction between freedom and coercion is by no means an arbitrary construct of libertarian ideologues; rather, it is grounded in psychological and sociological facts. Human action is motivated by our subjective valuations, by our desire to replace a less satisfactory state of affairs for one that we regard as more satisfactory. Human action, in other words, is purposeful; we act as a means to an end, an end that we value more highly than what we presently have. We will not choose to interact with others if we believe that our sociation will thwart rather than facilitate achieving our values.

An action occurs through time and requires continuous effort. We are not infallible, so, after undertaking an action in pursuit of a goal, we may reassess that action in the light of new information. This may cause us to alter the original action, choose a more suitable action, or abort the project altogether.

This ability to change an action in progress, to adjust and adapt as we go along, is essential to most of our actions. If this power were denied to us, then this fact alone, if known in advance, would profoundly influence our original decision to undertake a particular action. Suppose a deity were to issue this command: “When you decide on a goal and begin to act to achieve that goal, you are not permitted to quit, change goals, or alter your action in any way. You must continue with your original plan, no matter what the consequences, or I will punish you with death!”

This additional element of coercion, by increasing the cost of failure, would obviously change our initial evaluation of whether or not to take a particular action. If I have agreed to meet a friend across town at 2 p.m., I might ordinarily decide to catch a bus at 1 p.m., figuring that this will leave enough time to make my appointment. But if the penalty for tardiness, as decreed by God, is death, then I would be likely to leave much earlier or perhaps select a more reliable means of transportation, such as a cab. I might even have refused to make the appointment at all, or, if I had, I might have insisted on a more accessible meeting place. As the cost of failure increases, our willingness to take an action decreases.

Let us now apply this reasoning to face-to-face interaction with another person, or what I call bisociation. When we engage in bisociation, we do so on the assumption that this interaction will promote a subjective value, that it will bring about something that we want, that it will result in a desirable state of affairs. And, as with other actions, the benefits of bisociation depend upon our ability to adjust and adapt as we go along, according to our ongoing assessments of its potential costs and benefits. Above all, we presume the right of free exit. We presume that we will be able to end the bisociation at our discretion when and if we deem it undesirable.

If we knew (or strongly suspected) otherwise—if we believed that the other person would not permit us to exit freely after the bisociation had begun, but would himself decide if and when we could sever our relationship—then, with our right of free exit denied, we would never interact with that person at all. Without the right of free exit the bisociation would have no value for us. It could no longer serve as a means to our ends, because, upon engaging the other person, we would be subjected to his coercive control. We would thereby become an instrument of his will, a means to his ends. Without the right of free exit we could no longer reap the personal benefits of bisociation, because we could not reasonably foresee its consequences.

To be continued….

This is part of a series