The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism


In The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek defines coercion as occurring “when one man’s actions are made to serve another man’s will, not for his own but for the other’s purpose.” Thus, coercion must be distinguished from other potential threats to freedom. First, coercion involves intervention in the form of human agency. Although it is a fact of human nature that we are not free to do certain things, these limitations cannot be understood as coercive because they are not the products of human choice or human institutions. Second, we cannot understand the concept of coercion as applying to all instances in which the agency of others comes to bear on our choices. For example, it would seem to stretch the term beyond its meaning to say that an individual is coerced whenever he chooses other than he would have chosen but for the intervention of human agency. As Hayek puts it, “If, for instance, I would very much like to be painted by a famous artist and if he refuses to paint me for less than a very high fee, it would clearly be absurd to say that I am coerced.” To set these conceptual difficulties aside, one might say that coercion is defined as the use or threat of force to get an individual to act in ways that are contrary to his own will. This understanding of coercion fits well with its common usage in political contexts.

Because the state exercises a relatively straightforward form of coercion, libertarian political theory views this threat to freedom as the particular moral peril of the state. In fact, the irreducibly coercive character of the state and its institutions generates the central issue for political justification: What justifies the state’s use of force and the threat of force? It is commonplace to suggest that, at best, the coercive powers of the state lend themselves to justification as a necessary evil. Accordingly, a great deal of work in libertarian political thought is centered on questions regarding the justification of the state and the specification of the proper limits of state action. It leaves open the possibility that state coercion cannot be justified and, as a consequence, that the tenets of libertarianism support a commitment to some form of political anarchism. Historically, however, libertarian theory has subscribed to one of two basic sorts of justification for state coercion: (a) that the coercive apparatus of the state is grounded in consent, and (b) that the justification for its coercive nature is grounded in the ways in which our interests are advanced by political institutions. What both justifications have in common is the assumption that the coercive power of the state is necessary to prevent more worrisome forms of coercion among individual members of society.

The consent-based justification for the state’s coercive powers takes the following form: On the condition that an individual gives consent to be bound by the laws of the state, no wrong is done him when the state uses force or the threat of force to get him to comply with these laws. John Locke articulates this condition in his Second Treatise of Government:

The only way whereby any one divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any, that are not of it.

Locke recognized, of course, that it would not be accurate to say of future members of civil society that they were party to any such agreement, so he offered an alternative form of consent to justify their place under the coercive institutions of the state. He held that

every man, that hath any possessions, or enjoyment, of any part of the dominions of any government, doth thereby give his tacit consent, and is as far forth obliged to obedience to the laws of that government, during such enjoyment, as any one under it… 

Members of society subject themselves to the political power of others, Locke thought, in order that they might secure “mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property.”

The interest-based justification of the state’s coercive powers finds expression in David Hume’s essay, “Of the Original Contract.” Hume criticized the Lockean justification of state coercion because it cannot account for the moral force that “the consent of each individual” plays in the argument. According to Hume, unless civil society has already been established on independent grounds, a “tacit promise to that purpose” cannot be binding. In lieu of any appeal to consent, Hume proposes that the state’s justification turns on the fact “that men could not live at all in society, at least in a civilized society, without laws and magistrates and judges to prevent the encroachments of the strong upon the weak… .” In much the same way, F. A. Hayek relies on interest-based considerations in his claim that state coercion is justified “for the sole purpose of enforcing known rules intended to secure the best conditions under which the individual may give his activities a coherent, rational pattern.” The point of such arguments is that we must tolerate coercion with respect to some spheres of human action in order that a “protected sphere” free from such influences might be marked off for each individual.

John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty makes a similar appeal to the “appropriate region of human liberty” in his defense of the proper limits of coercion. According to Mill, “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection.” This principle is commonly referred to as the “harm principle,” and it is to be distinguished from what Joel Feinberg calls other “liberty-limiting principles.” In particular, this principle contrasts with claims that interfering with an individual’s liberty of action can be justified because the action is offensive, harmful to the person engaged in it, or generally thought to be immoral. Feinberg ultimately rejects the extreme liberal position, arguing that both harm and offense serve as legitimate reasons for state coercion. Other advocates of modern liberalism defend the paternalistic view that the state can justifiably force an individual to act against his will for his own good. Some conservatives go so far as to say that state coercion is an appropriate tool for making people morally better or more virtuous. What distinguishes the libertarian position is a commitment to the idea that harm to others is the only plausible candidate for a justification of state coercion.


Further Readings

Feinberg, Joel. Harm to Others. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Hamowy, Ronald. “Freedom and the Rule of Law in F. A. Hayek.” Il Politico 36 (1971): 349–377.

Hayek, Friedrich A. The Constitution of Liberty. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1978.

Hume, David. “Of the Original Contract.” Essays: Moral, Political and Literary. Eugene Miller, ed. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1987.

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1980.

Mill, J. S. On Liberty. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1978.

Originally published .