Smith examines the common claim that the mere threat of physical force does not qualify as a type of coercion.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

It may be said, and often has been said, that the libertarian distinction between voluntary and coercive interaction is value‐​laden. After all, “voluntary” sounds more appealing than “coercive,” so perhaps the libertarian social theorist has merely smuggled his preferred type of sociation into what should be a purely descriptive, value‐​free inquiry.

Indeed, it has been argued that what libertarians call “coercion” is actually a type of voluntary persuasion. According to this perspective, if an armed robber demands your money or your life, he is not literally forcing you to surrender your money, as if he wrestled you to the ground and took it himself. You still have a choice of sorts: You can choose to hand over your money or you can take your chances with the robber. From a purely descriptive point of view, the robber’s so‐​called coercive action merely changes your options while leaving you “free” to choose among those new options. In other words, the armed robber is engaged in an effort to persuade you to surrender your money. Only if he lays hands on you and extracts your wallet by rendering you physically unable to resist should we say that he used force.

This type of analysis, which is quite common among social theorists (including economists), was presented by the distinguished sociologist Amitai Etzioni as follows:

Of course, power may be coercive; more often, however, power takes effect indirectly by altering the situation. Rather than preventing those subjected to power from following a course of action, it makes the course less attractive (and, by implication, the other alternatives more attractive). Here, the actors still can–if they are willing to pay the higher costs–pursue their original courses. Since few if any acts are without costs (even when these are outweighed by gains), the more common effect of the injection of power into a situation is to alter the costs rather than to destroy the capacity to choose. That is, there is frequently a voluntary element in submission: the unwillingness to pay the cost of not submitting.…It has been argued that even in the most coercive situation, the actors still have a choice; they can choose to die rather than submit.

The voluntary differs from the coercive in degree, not in kind.

[I][t seems useful to treat the concepts of coercion and non‐​coercion not as a dichotomy but as points on a continuum.…By this definition, some but by no means all or even most power is coercive, initially or “ultimately.”

According to Etzioni, when (classical) liberals wish to evaluate power negatively, they label it “coercion.” But a correct understanding of power explodes this deceptive tactic. Power exists on a continuum; what liberals call “coercion” is simply a highly effective kind of persuasion.

Proponents of this view concede that the armed robber may be acting immorally or unjustly, but they maintain that our normative judgments should not warp our descriptive sociological analyses, which should be value‐​free. Thus if we view the state as using, not coercion (which has negative connotations), but an effective kind of persuasion, then a libertarian analysis of the state as a strictly coercive institution will not hold up. The “persuasive” methods employed by the state would differ from voluntary social institutions only in degree, not in kind.

Whether the libertarian distinction between coercion and persuasion is entirely value‐​free is a complex issue that I may consider at a later time (when I discuss the relation of values to the human sciences generally). For now I shall consider some implications of the argument that the mere threat of physical violence, properly considered, is a type of voluntary persuasion, since threats still leave the victim “free” to choose among alternatives.

If we wish to view threats of physical force as just another kind of persuasion, then we should consider the following points. Let’s begin with the influential discussion of the “state” by the celebrated sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920).

(1) Max Weber maintained that we should not define the state in terms of its ends (i.e., what it attempts to do) because many tasks have been undertaken by a state at one time or another, and no one task has ever been pursued exclusively by the state. Weber concluded: “Ultimately, one can define the modern state sociologically only in terms of the specific means peculiar to it, as to every political association, namely, the use of physical force.”

Weber pointed out that physical force is not the only method employed by states, but force is their distinctive mode of operation.

[A] state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. Note that “territory” is one of the characteristics of the state. Specifically, at the present time, the right to use physical force is ascribed to other institutions or to individuals only to the extent that the state permits it. The state is considered the sole source of the “right” to use violence.

The state is the legal sovereign of a territory. “Legalsignifies the realm of legitimate coercion. “Sovereign” signifies a final judge or arbiter. “Territory” signifies a geographical area. Hence the state is the ultimate judge and enforcer of legitimate coercion within a given geographical area. The state renders the final verdict on the legitimate use of violence and executes that verdict. This does not mean that the state is the only institution that may use legitimate violence in society, but other institutions (or individuals) do so only with the permission or sanction of the state, and they are answerable to the state for their activities.

Since Weber’s analysis of the state is accepted not only by many libertarians but also by many sociologists and political philosophers, it provides a useful framework in which to explore the argument that the threat of physical force is a type of voluntary persuasion. State laws, after all, are standing threats. Those who disobey a law are threatened with physical force, even if this threat is not always imposed. Indeed, a state that needed to enforce every law on every subject would be unable to govern.

Only if a state is generally regarded by its subjects as morally legitimate will it be able to function effectively. It is crucial to understand that this is a sociological observation, not a moral judgment. To say that a given state is generally regarded by its subjects as legitimate is not to say that a given state can be justified by the moral standards of a political philosopher. Social legitimacy, in this context, means that subjects subjectively believe in the moral legitimacy of their state, which is not to say that the state in question can actually be justified by philosophical standards. Thus when a sociologist says that a state claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, he is referring to moral legitimacy as generally understood by the subject population.

Now, suppose we assume that the threat of physical force is value‐​neutral in a given society, that it is a normal and socially acceptable activity. This seems promising for the state because its activities will no longer require legitimation. But consider: If coercion carries no social stigma, then there is no reason to legitimate its use in the first place, nor is there any reason to monopolize the legitimating process. If coercion is not socially suspect, if there does not exist a widespread presumption against the use or threat of physical force in a given society, then a Weberian analysis of the state makes no sense.

What would we think, for example, of a state that claimed, as its basic raison d’être, a monopoly on the legitimate singing of songs? If singing is socially acceptable, if there exists no general presumption against singing, then the state cannot legitimate it, since singing is already regarded as socially legitimate. And if singing is a normal part of social life, then on what grounds can a monopolistic state punish those who sing without its permission?

If a society ranks coercion on the same moral level as the singing of songs, then the state has no place in that society. Only if the use and threat of physical force are generally regarded as prima facie unacceptable in a society will it make sense to talk about the need for a monopolistic institution, the state, to render final judgment on when the use of force is legitimate.

There is an important lesson here, namely that the bright line between voluntary and coercive interaction was not concocted by classical liberal philosophers for the purpose of smuggling illicit value judgments into their sociological analyses. On the contrary, this distinction has already been made by members of a society in which there exists a general moral presumption against the use or threat of physical force–a presumption that does not apply to voluntary social institutions. In such cases the negative value judgment associated with the use or threat of physical force is a social fact, not an evaluation imposed by the libertarian sociologist. Indeed, as we have seen, only if the members of a society evaluate coercion negatively and require that its use be justified (as in self‐​defense) does it makes sense to speak of the need for a state to legitimate and monopolize its use.

(2) What does it mean to describe the threat of violence as a kind of persuasion? And what does it mean to say that a person who, threatened with violence, surrenders his money to a robber has acted voluntarily, since he chose this course of action rather than run the risk of being injured?

To call some actions “voluntary” is to classify such actions and implicitly to contrast them with another category of actions, such as “coercive.” But this distinction is pointless if all actions, by definition, are voluntary.

All human action (in contrast to behavior, which is a broader category) is purposeful; we act when we value something and must choose among various means to attain that value. If a robber forces me to the ground and physically takes my wallet, then it would be incorrect to say that I gave him my wallet, whether forcibly or in any other manner–for the action was his, not mine. I was a mere object in his hands, a means to his end. Strictly speaking, I was not forced to give the robber my wallet, because “to give” requires an action on my part, and I took no such action. The robber took my wallet: I did not give it to him.

This situation, therefore, cannot be what we mean in distinguishing voluntary from coerced actions, as when we say that a person is forced to do something. To be forced to do something is a type of action, whereas physical control by another person renders the victim unable to act in any manner. It is normal and accurate to say that the victim of a robbery is forced, or coerced, to surrender his money. True, he has a choice of sorts, for this is implicit in the meaning of “action”; but during a robbery any such choice is made under the duress of a coercive threat. This is why we call robbery a coercive act, and such usage is perfectly correct. To claim otherwise, to claim that all actions are voluntary by definition, is to define coerced actions out of existence, because all actions require that we choose among alternatives, even if one of those alternatives is death.

When one’s alternatives do not include the use or threat of physical force by others, the interaction is voluntary. Conversely, when the use or threat of physical force is present, the interaction is coercive. This fundamental and commonsensical bright line cannot be erased by the definitional fiat of sociologists and philosophers.