Coercion and Motivations in the Political Sphere (Deconstructing Coercion, Pt. 4)

I’m sorry it has taken so long to post this fourth installment, especially as it was already basically written up and all I had to do was tweak a couple things.  At the end of this segment, I would like to invite feedback from anyone who has been reading, so that any questions or objections can be taken into account before I proceed to the final segment–a Christian answer to coercion.

Now, having complexified our understanding of the economic realm, I’d like to turn to the political realm, which is often depicted as essentially coercive in all its operations, to see if a more complex account is necessary here as well.  The idea of the civil authority as the realm of “the sword” of course goes back at least to St. Paul, and has dominated much of the Western political tradition since.  Max Weber famously defined a nation-state as an entity which claims “a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within a particular territory.”  Although I suggested above that the language of violence and the language of coercion are not exactly the same thing, it has been long been conventional (e.g., most notably in Marsilius of Padua and the whole tradition following from him) to describe the State’s role as essentially coercive.  While not wanting to deny the traditional identification of coercion as a modus operandi of the State, I do want to seriously question whether it is always, necesssarily, or even most often the modus operandi of the state.  Governments use coercion, yes, and the fact that they can legitimately resort to it in many different situations can often give a coercive flavoring to all their activities, and explains why this has often been viewed as their defining distinctive.  However, I want to suggest that it is not usually, and cannot long remain, their dominant tool, and that most of their activities most of the time depend on other motivations.

To see how ambiguous coercion is in reality, let’s look at an environment where coercive force seems to be clearly the norm–the military.  Now, soldiers in an army are required to obey, and discipline is rigorously enforced, often by severe punishment.  Soldiers are generally not permitted to simply choose whether or not to obey and fight, or to give up and go home–they are required to do their duty.  Desertion, particularly in wartime, is often punishable by death.  Now, this looks like coercion–fear of punishment and death is the motivation for obedience.  And that is an accurate account of how many armies have functioned at many times.  However, these are not generally the most effective armies (something the US, for instance, has recognized in their repudiation of the draft for all-volunteer armies). There are also armies whose chief motivation to fight is reward, whether the crude financial reward of the mercenary, or the desire for honor that has motivated countless soldiers throughout the ages, from Achilles to modern Marines.  Perhaps most powerful of all are armies that are motivated by love–love of country, love of commander (and the latter, being more personal and less abstract, is generally more effective than the former).  Hannibal is said to have accomplished the miracles he did becasue of the intense personal devotion which he inspired in his soldiers, which led them to follow him through any dangers.  Would we say that Hannibal’s soldiers were “coerced” to fight for him?  Well, in a technical sense perhaps, since he always could (and occasionally did) have deserters executed.  But this would not be an accurate psychological description of how most of his soldiers perceived it.  This example suggests, fascinatingly, that there is a subjective, not merely objective dimension to identifying coercion: Hannibal’s soldiers were not coerced until they thought they were. As long as they loved Hannibal and wanted to fight for him, coercion was not operative; but if they once stopped loving him and started fearing him, then all of a sudden, they were fighting only because they were coerced to do so, and if they tried to desert, that coercion became very real and active.  This may seem at first like a vapid truism–of course you’re not liable to punishment unless you disobey–but I think this actually has the potential to change our perceptions of coercion a great deal, as I shall explore in particular in the final segment.

The same principle operates of course at a national level.  Were the German people coerced to go to war in World War I and World War II?  By and large no.  Even though they were under very coercive regimes that would have acted swiftly and mercilessly against dissenters, this fact was not relevant for most of the German people, who went to war not out of fear of punishment, but out of eager love for the Fatherland.  Only later, as the war began to seem a burden, did fear take hold and coercion become prominent.  (Even if you disagree with this particular example, clearly there are many such examples that could be given.)  This sort of response is every smart nation-state’s dream.  There have of course always been the Pinochets of the world who felt that the creation of a constant climate of fear was the most effective way to ensure an obedient populace, but usually the cost of such a policy outweighs the benefits, and the loyalty thus coerced is short-lived and always looking for an out.  We lump Hitler and Stalin together in the same category, but forget a key difference: Stalin ruled almost entirely by fear, while Hitler, brutal as he was to minority dissidents,  recognized that ultimate success required that a solid majority of the German people served by love, either personal loyalty for him or for the Reich.  This is why Hitler’s armies were so much more effective than Stalin’s at the beginning.  In general, states recognize that they will not get very far if most of their people are motivated to go along with the policies only by fear–fear is not a very productive emotion, but is often downright paralyzing.  Most states thus seek to instill in their people a genuine love for the country and what it stands for, a sense that the proposed policies are objectively good and should be supported, and a conviction that they themselves will benefit therein.  When a small minority do not feel this way, they can be coerced to go along with everyone else, but as that small minority becomes bigger and coercion becomes the dominant element, it also becomes less and less feasible, and, once it reaches the point where a majority of people are obeying out of coercion, the situation is so unstable that it will generally not be able to last long.   

(A brief note about hate: hate is an emotion that often gets tangled up with love as its flip-side; because we love one thing, we start to hate its opposite; because we hate its opposite, we start to love the first thing more.  In the political sphere, and particularly when it comes to war, hate can become a very powerful emotion and motivation, and if it becomes more powerful than its corresponding love, the consequences are devastating.  Thus, although hate can be in the short-term a very productive motivation, in the long-run, it is the worst of all, just as love is, in the long-run, the best of all.) 

Interestingly, since the frightful outpourings of nationalistic fervour that came to a head in World War II, many politicians have concluded that love of country (with its accompanying propensity to hate) is perhaps too volatile an emotion, and though they still summon it up on occasion when poll numbers are really low and they need a war to energize the people, they have generally resorted to the more stable motivation of reward.  Modern states have therefore become remarkably like large corporations, resorting above all to marketing their policies to their citizens, something increasingly necessary in an increasingly democratic system.  We carelessly talk about how the government can do whatever they want, and can just coerce people to pay for public healthcare.  But clearly, if it were that simple, Obama, Pelosi, et. al. would not have exerted such enormous efforts trying to persuade the American people that the healthcare reform was a good idea.  As it is, months and years were spent marketing the idea that healthcare reform was something for which citizens should willingly vote and willingly devote their tax dollars, in expectation that they would be getting more for their money than under existing healthcare arrangements.  Governments are now in the business of using the media to convince their citizens that they have a serious unfulfilled need or want, that existing suppliers of that need are insufficient–offering poor quality, a bad value for money, etc.–and that the government is best suited to supply that need.  They boast of their excellent track record of success, of the higher literacy rates and GDP growth that their schemes have produced, and use this as a basis to convince their citizens that these schemes are worth continued financial support and customer loyalty.  The goal is to produce taxpayers who are by and large willing to support the schemes with their tax dollars.  Of course, “willing to support” does not mean that they’re exceptionally eager to to part with a portion of their paycheck, anymore than voluntarily buying gas means that you don’t grumble at the pump over the astronomical sums you are forking over.  But it means that on balance you are convinced that you’re getting more for these tax dollars than you would if you spent them elsewhere.  If you aren’t convinced, then you try to oppose the legislation and get it overturned.   

Now, needless to say, most folks in America nowadays are not convinced that they’re getting a good value for money for their tax dollars.  They are not willing customers.  And so coercion enters the equation…more and more people feel like they are being coerced to pay their taxes.  I am far from denying that this is the case.  However, it is important to note that I speak of coercion entering the equation–it is not an inevitable part of it.  There have been and are plenty of times when most citizens willingly pay their taxes, or willingly pay a large part of them (approving of what they’re going to).  There have been and are times when citizens have felt that when their representatives act, they are genuinely acting as a community, tackling a problem together, and when this is the case, they are not being coerced to obey their government, even if coercion is always theoretically an option.  Coercion only becomes operative when they begin to think of their obedience in terms of coercion.  Now this tends to happen, indeed perhaps inevitably happens, in more centralized governments, where the decision-making processes become impersonal, bureaucratized, and completely out of touch with real citizens and communities.  In such environments, skepticism and mistrust flourish, both because there generally is greater corruption, and because, even when there isn’t, it is simply harder for citizens to understand clearly why certain decisions are being made.  Policies become inefficient, so it is hard to see the reward, and as they seem arbitrary it becomes impossible to feel love, unless a war is declared, artificially generating love by means of hate This is certainly the case in America today, and so I expect the sense of unwillingness and coercion to grow.  And, as governments cannot long function effectively when they have to rely increasingly on coercion, I’m afraid that the situation may become increasingly unstable in America in coming years.

In any case, I think we have seen enough to establish that coercion does not necessarily characterize the political sphere, any more that freedom from coercion necessarily characterizes the economic sphere.  The similarities, indeed, are remarkable in today’s world.  In both economics and politics, we have very large institutional actors with enormous resources that both dedicate to persuading individuals that they they are providing important and valuable goods and services that those individuals should support with their money and loyalty.  If more positive motivations fail, both are prepared to resort to more or less subtle forms of fear or manipulation to persuade people whose rational perceptions leave them skeptical of the value of the service, or else to use their weight to maneuver so that there are no other viable options in the marketplace, and people support their product because they can’t imagine alternatives.  The remaining differences, while significant, tend (in modern Western democracies at least) to be differences of degree, rather than absolute differences.  

In making this argument, we have seen that there is a striking subjective component to coercion–it isn’t at all merely a matter of what others outside of you do to your or intend to do to you, but how you view them and how you respond, and that coercion as such tends to become effective only in the absence of love.  This suggests that ethics–in particular Christian ethics–may have a great deal to say about how we should act in the face of potential coercion, economic or political.  I shall try to develop some of these ethical answers in the final segment.


Coercion and Motivations in the Economic Sphere (Deconstructing Coercion, Pt. 3)

Now that we have outlined the general motivations for human action, how do these function in different spheres of human life?  (I will not, of course, be comprehensive here and try to cover the entire scope of human life!)  

In most people’s conception, and certainly in the “Christian libertarian” (for lack of a better term) conception, the religious sphere is governed primarily by the love motivation, the economic sphere is governed primarily by the reward motivation, and the political sphere is governed primarily by the fear motivation: we obey God because we love Him, we obey our boss because he will pay us, and we obey the government because we don’t want it to kill us.  (Hate could also enter into any of these spheres, and I will give brief attention to its role in the economic sphere and a bit more attention to its role in the political sphere.) 

However, as I think is apparent already in that quick summary, this is dangerously oversimplistic.  The example just given above about serving God shows the complexity of motivations even in the religious sphere, a sphere from which even the coercive element does not seem entirely absent.  (This is a contentious subject, and not one I want to enter into here, but inasmuch as leaders of the Church are entrusted with the power of binding and loosing, the exercise of church discipline has a coercive character–it moves to action by the motive of fear–at the very least fear of losing fellowship, at the most, fear of losing salvation.)

The economic sphere is certainly more complex.  First, briefly, the most marginal motivation in the economic sphere, it seems to me, is hate.  Of course, it is quite possible that I could hate someone enough that I would refuse to sell to them.  This was common in the age of segregation and still is in regions charged with racial conflict; classical economists claim that good economic sense will automatically overcome such behavior, but this is to underestimate the power of irrational hate.  Or I could hate someone enough that I would go buy from their competitor even when it didn’t make economic sense, or hate someone enough to refuse to employ them.  However, it is worth noting that in each of these cases, hate doesn’t really motivate an economic action as such; it motivates a refusal of an economic action: I won’t buy, I won’t sell, I won’t employ.  So we might consider hate as an occasional but relatively infrequent intrusion upon the economic sphere, rather than something which characterizes it.  

If we cannot exclude hate as a possible motivation in the economic sphere, then we certainly cannot exclude love, however much we may tend to view the realm of love and the realm of contract as mutually exclusively.  Most obviously, I might often buy things out of love for others.  But on a larger scale, could I not, for instance see my neighbors in desperate need of some good that I am able to provide, and so start up a business out of a desire to help them and provide it for them?  Defenders of capitalism often speak in this way–the entrepreneur identifies a need, and develops a business to serve it–however, they do not really believe this provides the true motivation for the entrepreneur; instead, it is the profit motive, which is to say reward.  Adam Smith of course said it most famously: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”  This has been a pillar of capitalist theory since–we must expect people to work, buy, and sell chiefly because of the benefit to themselves that they expect.  Within reason, of course, there is nothing terribly wrong with this, but if the reward motivation completely detaches itself from any love motivation–if I seek my own self-interest without any regard to that of others, then we will soon have a very ugly situation on our hands.   

For my purposes here, though, I want to take chief note of how the reward motivation, which I acknowledge to be the dominant one in economics, can easily become distorted into a fear motivation.  Consider someone happily working at a small company–he does his job, to be sure, out of a desire for a paycheck, and perhaps does it well because he wants a bonus.  Of course, he will probably be a better worker if there is an element of love as well–if he really likes his boss, and wants to please him, and if he thinks the work he is doing is valuable.  A new manager takes over, and efficiency is the name of the game (I’m imagining an Office Space sort of situation here).  Workers are afraid of getting laid off.  The motivation to work because of desire to get a paycheck has changed into a motivation to work because of fear of not getting a paycheck.  And as the movie Office Space shows, once this becomes the dominant motivation, you have a very unhealthy work environment.  Moreover, I would submit that once this happens, we have a subtly coercive work environment.  Now, the free marketeer will object and insist that we have a perfectly voluntary system here, because no one is under any legal compulsion–the employees are perfectly free to choose not to work.  However, the free marketeers believe that if someone is legally required to do something, on pain of receiving a steep fine, then this is coercive.  Now, what, I must ask, is the material difference between these two situations?  If someone acts in a certain way because they are afraid of the severe financial consequences of acting otherwise (in losing their job), how is this different from someone who acts in a certain way because they are afraid of the severe financial consequences of acting otherwise (in paying a steep fine)?  

 The coercion, of course, becomes less and less subtle the more desperate the situation of the employee.  If the employee has plenty of independent means, he is unlikely to be very intimidated by threats of losing his job.  Indeed, if the work situation becomes too unpleasant, he will probably just quit.  A typical middle-class worker has a lot more cause to fear unemployment than a wealthy person, but given an unpleasant enough work situation, he will probably take his chances and quit, and try to get a job elsewhere.  Someone who is dirt-poor, isolated, and unsure of the chances of getting any other work may, through terrible fear, put up with the most horrific work conditions lest things become even more horrific by losing his job.  This of course happens all around the Third World, and more often than we care to think in the First.  And yet our free marketeers will insist that this remains a perfectly voluntary arrangement.  But, as soon as any legal strictures are brought into the picture, be they the tiniest fines or penalties, capable of inducing much less fear and much less severe consequences, they decry these as “coercion.”  

 So, coercion is undeniably a reality in employment.  What about in buying and selling?  Here, the fear motivation is rarely as strong, because it is rare that any single purchase will have ramifications as great as the loss or maintenance of employment.  Of course, there are certainly exceptions.  In large enough purchases, so large that the merchant or manufacturer’s livelihood depends on them, or in desperate circumstances, the buyer can gain a great deal of leverage over the seller.  The seller absolutely must make some large sale or face bankruptcy, and so the potential buyer is able to play on this fear and wield great power over the seller, forcing him to agree to terms that he would not normally accept and that we would not normally consider just.   Inasmuch as in this situation persuasion now takes place through fear, we have a coercive situation.  Of course, this may not be morally objectionable.  Perhaps the shopkeeper made several very foolish gambles, and that’s why he is in such straits.  If no one is willing to buy his product except at very unsatisfactory terms, that is perhaps his fault and not theirs.  However, we can certainly envision situations in which the seller is genuinely a victim.  Wal-Mart, for instance, is well-known for strong-arming small producers through its enormous buying power in some pretty unsavory ways. 

What about buying?  This is the part that interests me the most, because of the great increase in the sophistication of coercion that modern marketing has introduced.  In buying, there has always been a potential fear motivation, the fear of starvation, illness, or some other kind of great danger or suffering.  If a farmer loses his whole crop and is in fear of starvation, and comes to buy grain, then the seller is suddenly in a position of power over him, able to use that fear as a lever.  If the seller does so, and ratchets up his prices absurdly high, it is hard to see how this does not count as a kind of coercion.  However, for reasons unknown to me, our free marketeers will treat this as a completely voluntary transaction, and one in which the laws of supply and demand should have free rein to set a reasonable price.  They might object that the farmer does not need to pay the unreasonable price–he can just go to another merchant.  If this were true, then we would have no problem.  But of course, it is very often not true. Businesses know how much greater coercive leverage they can gain if it is not true, and that is why monopoly is such a prized goal.

 Now generally such coercive power over buying has been restricted to absolute needs–if someone breaks their pencil and has to buy another, the seller is unlikely to be able to bring much of a fear motivation to bear.  Enter the power of modern marketing.  Marketing of course has many valid uses, but one key function of modern marketing has been to redress the limitation that only absolute needs can put a buyer in a coerceable position.  The solution, of course, is to increase the scope of absolute needs, since “needs” are largely a matter of perception.  Take me, for instance.  I would say that I need a regular supply of milk, eggs, bread, butter, meat maybe three times a week, some cheese, salt and pepper, at least a cup of coffee a day, preferably some tea as well, several sets of nice clothing, a computer, earbuds, several albums of music, a cell phone, a number of computer programs, a steady supply of new books, wireless internet access, a comfortable bed and blankets, and some basic hygiene supplies.  Clearly, most of these are not genuine absolute needs.  But the fact that I perceive them as such means that I am prone to fear if I do not have them, and thus prone to having that fear worked upon to persuade me to do things or pay prices that I rationally would not want to pay.  And of course I think I would be reasonable in saying that this is a fairly short list of needs compared to most young people in the modern West, who are fairly easily persuaded that they need iPods, iPhones, thousands of songs of music, a digital camera with at least ten megapixels, an almost endless supply of the latest and most fashionable clothing, along with various food and drink addictions, ranging from the grossest junk food to the faddiest health food.  Some of this need-creation is done by marketing working on our physical appetites–whether the lust of the flesh or the lust of the eyes–but the most powerful forms work on our emotional appetites–on the pride of life–and sometimes by creating or preying on fear.  Teenagers are probably the most vulnerable demographic, easily convinced that they will be a complete social failure if they do not buy any number of fashionable absurdities.  We would point out that most of these “needs” are illusory, but in some cases, that’s not quite true.  For instance, in the realm of business, most businesses now pretty much need to have a website–if a new device can be successfully marketed to the majority of businesses in an industry, then suddenly, the others will find that it has gone from being a luxury to a necessity if they want to stay competitive. 

Now, again, not all of this by any means is morally objectionable.  In the latter example–of businesses constantly having to upgrade–that’s just part of how the advance of technology works, and although we might legitimately argue in certain cases that technology ought to move a bit more slowly, it is not necessarily exploitation for the purveyors of such technology to make it so that everyone has to jump on board.  And in the former example, we would no doubt say that the insecure buyers bear plenty of responsibility for letting themselves be duped into “needing” luxuries.  However, it is crucial to note that the fact that there is fault on the one side does not mean there is none on the other.  If someone has an irrational fear of something, and I decide to play up their irrational fears and use them to convince them to do all sorts of things for me, then I am certainly guilty of a wicked kind of manipulation, and probably, given the definitions we have been working with, a subtle form of coercion.  I think that we are naive if we do not recognize that a kind of “coercion” may be going on when a clothing company convinces a girl to pay four times what a pair of jeans is worth because they have played up her fears that she will be rejected by everyone if she doesn’t buy them.

The point here, of course, is not to argue that all or even most modern marketing is “coercive,” or to deny that most needless purchasing decisions are still made out of a vices as simple as covetousness, rather than fear.  The point is simply to establish that we need to offer a more complex account of how the economic sphere really operates in our world, and such an account, it seems to me, must include an analysis of the various subtle and even overt kinds of coercion at work.  In the next segment, I will turn to try and offer a similarly complex account of the political sphere.


The Psychology of Coercion (Deconstructing Coercion, Pt. 2)

Now, what do we mean by the concept of “coercion”?  The dictionary offers this as a definition for “coerce”: “to persuade (an unwilling person) to do something by using force or threats.”  This is a helpful starting point, I think, particularly inasmuch as it helps to free us from an overly physical mental image we might have of coercion.  My guess is that when most of us hear “coercion” we visualize policemen wielding batons, beating someone into submission, or perhaps a group of people being forced at gunpoint to do some task. 

But coercion does not necessarily consist in such bald displays of physical force.  Indeed, if we are to take the definition offered here, then pure force does not count as “coercion”–if someone is bound and hauled along on a rope, then there is no persuasion involved, but mere force (thus, it is helpful to distinguish between “violence” and “coercion” more carefully than much contemporary discourse does).  Indeed, I would suggest that the “threats” part of the definition offered above is generally much more prominent than “force,” for except in cases such as torture where overwhelming violent force is used to break down all will to resist, it is generally the threat of violent force that persuades.  If someone puts a gun to my head and tells me to blaspheme, they are attempting to persuade me to blaspheme by the threat of the violence (in this case, fatal violence) they might do to me otherwise.  In short, then, coercion operates by the tool of fear.  If I do not fear death, or if I fear it less than I fear blasphemy, then this attempted coercion fails to be coercive.   

Coercion is often defined in contrast to the voluntary–we do the voluntary because we want to, the coercive because we have to.  But it is apparent from the blasphemy illustration that the voluntary element always has, in theory, the possibility of triumphing over the coercive–I could always choose to do something else than what someone is trying to coerce me to do (and if I do, it is presumably because the threats being made seem less dangerous than the consequences of giving into them, as in the blasphemy illustration).  This simple duality of voluntary and coerced is thus not all that helpful, and most of our decisions actually lie somewhere on a spectrum being the completely unconstrained and the completely constrained.  So I want to step back from the simple voluntary vs. coerced duality and suggest instead a triad, based on consideration of how persuasion actually works.

 

I would submit that humans are persuaded to action by one or more of three basic motivations: fear, reward, and love.  Fear is the expectation of something evil or unpleasant that may befall us, reward is the hope for something good or pleasant that we may receive, and love is the wish for good to befall another.* 

Now I recognize of course that these three are not always so distinguishable in practice.  Love, for instance, though it ought to be unselfish, is generally not utterly selfless, nor indeed should it be, and thus the motivation of love seems linked with the desire for reward.  For instance, when I seek to make my wife happy, because I love her, I generally find my own happiness in that, whether in the cruder sense that I expect that she will reciprocate by doing nice things for me, or in the somewhat “nobler” sense that I take joy in seeing her happy.  However, the fact that desiring another’s good usually (and rightly) includes a desire for one’s own concomitant good does not mean that we cannot distinguish between which of these two motivations is dominant.  For instance, we are quite capable of recognizing the difference between a man who uses a woman merely for his own pleasure and one who takes joy in making her happy.  Additionally, while I have defined fear as “the expectation of something evil or unpleasant that may befall us,” there is also a kind of fear that is a by-product of love, namely, the expectation of something evil or unpleasant that may befall another.  If someone threatens my wife, I may be afraid because I love her.  For now, we can treat this kind of fear as an element of love, but I will return to consider it further in Part 5, when I try to develop a constructive ethical appraisal of these motivations.

Likewise, it is not always so easy to distinguish between reward and fear.  Logically, indeed, it is possible to treat them as completely convertible.  If for instance I promised my son that I would give him ice cream if he did such-and-such, we could say that he obeys out of fear of the unpleasant outcome that he will not get ice cream; or alternatively, if I threatened him that he would be grounded if he did such-and-such, we could say that he obeys out of desire for the reward of continued liberty.  However, this misrepresents our actual experience–if I do something because I want ice cream, I experience myself as doing it out of desire for ice cream, not out of fear of not-ice-cream.  Nevertheless, there are situations where these two often do seem to become interchangeable.  Consider a social situation: I may go to a party because I want to experience the pleasure of others’ company, or I may go because I am afraid of being left out; we can distinguish between these two in theory, but in practice, I may not know myself which is the better characterization of my motivation.  Indeed, what begins as the first–desire for the reward of others’ company–may quickly, because of my insecurities, morph into the fear of exclusion.  (This relationship between fear and reward will be important later on.)  

There are even cases where all three motivations seem to be potentially in play.  For instance, do we serve God because we love Him and want to glorify Him, or because we desire the reward of heavenly bliss, or because we fear the terrors of hell?

Now, from the illustrations I have already given, it should be clear that we have a general hierarchy in our minds of these motivations: love is highest, then reward, then fear (in the abstract, at least).  For instance, we will think highly of someone who goes to a party he doesn’t enjoy because of love for his wife, who really wants to go; we will have no particular praise or blame for the person who goes to the party because he takes pleasure in the company of others there; we will criticize the insecurity of the person who goes to the party simply because he fears the idea of others enjoying themselves together without him.  This hierarchy is of course not absolute, and any of the three motivations may be legitimate in certain situations (for instance, any of the three motivations for serving God has a certain basis in Scripture, even if we might want to put the emphasis on the first.).  In most situations, though, it seems that we want to encourage a motivation of love conjoined with (in a subordinate position) a motivation of reward–a situation in which someone acts out of benefit for a neighbor and simultaneously seeks his own benefit therein–and to discourage motivations of fear.  But I will reserve a proper ethical discussion of what we should think of these various motivations till the end. 

For now, it suffices to note that based on what we said above about coercion, it seems that coercion is the attempt to persuade someone through the motivation of fear.  In the next segment, I will seek to apply the analysis of these three motivations, and the fear motivation in particular, to the sphere of economic life.

 

*There is, I suppose, a fourth motivation that we could consider, hate–however, I think that we can leave this out of consideration here because structurally, it is simply the inverse of love, and therefore can only serve as a positive motivation if it is couple with a corresponding love of which it is the shadow–e.g., love good, hate evil–otherwise, it can only motivate negative action.  Thus I don’t think that omitting hate from consideration here will undermine any of the following argument–but if anyone thinks it does, please tell me and I will try to refine accordingly. 


Coercive Corporations? (Deconstructing Coercion, Pt. 1)

Nowadays if you listen to any conservative media, you can expect to find an almost reflexive hatred of everything relating to the government, and an almost reflexive confidence in everything relating to the market and to corporations.  This seems deeply puzzling, since it seems that most of the things that people hate about “the government” apply equally to many large corporations–they are massive entities, reaching their tentacles into everything, sucking up our money, trying to control our lives, faceless and bureaucratic, always expanding–plus, large corporations add an additional unsavory feature not shared by governments: they are legally bound to look out for their own interests firsts, as opposed to the common interest first.  The government may fail to advance the common good, but at least it is supposed to be trying to.

The ferocious reply comes back: “No!  The difference is that corporations aren’t trying to control our lives!  Corporations leave you free to buy or not buy as you see fit, and they can only survive if you choose to buy.  Governments, however, rule by coercion–they force you to pay taxes, even if you don’t want to–that’s the essential difference.”  Hard right libertarians or anarchists will push this further, and describe every function of the government in terms of the baldest coercion: “We have to pay taxes for our schools because otherwise they’ll lock us up in a cage; we’re being forced to pay for these new roadways at gunpoint”–that sort of supercharged language.  All this, I want to suggest, rests upon a rather oversimplistic concept of “coercion” and indeed a false understanding of how human psychology and human societies work.  

In this series, I want to explore a provocative pair of questions: Just how uncoercive are markets really?  And, for that matter, just how coercive are governments, really?  The tantalizing answer, I suggest, is: It depends–upon you, that is.

Let’s try to unpack this.  My main argument rests on deconstructing the concept of coercion, but first, let’s offer an easier, purely empirical challenge to the notion that governments coerce where corporations do not.  Is it true that corporations do not exercise coercion?  As a matter of fact, many do.  Here in the US, the largest corporations have long learned how to harness the power of the legal system to destroy smaller competitors, or to repress protesting workers, or, more frighteningly, have manipulated foreign policy or even collaborated with military forces, CIA, etc., to take down obstacles to their expansion, or to take foreign markets captive.  This isn’t conspiracy theory stuff, but a pretty open-and-shut part of history (not just, of course, in the last century, though the massive reach of multinations has amplified the effects of corruption).  Books like Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, or even Niall Ferguson’s Empire are a good primer in this sort of thing.  

Of course, the right-wingers will reply that this is just because the state, with its coercion, has gotten mixed up in business: in each of these examples, corporations are calling upon the coercive power of the state to do their dirty work, not doing it themselves.  This, however, is a rather poor defense–it reminds me a bit of Boniface VIII’s argument that the Pope doesn’t wield the coercive sword directly–he just gives it to civil authorities and tells them how to use it, so he remains spiritual and peaceful.  If corporations are asking the government to wield coercive power for them, then corporations themselves are seeking to exercise coercive power.  Moreover, outside the First World, private companies often do maintain their own security forces that will protect their interests by force.  So even with direct coercion, a neat distinction between governments and corporations is not possible.  

However, I’m not so interested in direct coercion.  Later on, we’ll try to find an actual meaningful definition for coercion.  But for now, let’s go back to that phrase above “trying to control our lives,” which for now we could call “coercion broadly construed.”  Now, do corporations try to control our lives?  Well, not all of them, sure, but many of them.  They try to control what we eat, how we sleep, what we do for entertainment, what we read, where we travel–in short, all of our lifestyle choices are not left simply up to us, but are pushed and pulled by marketing.  This isn’t a conspiracy theory either, but simply a truism about the purpose of much modern marketing.  “Ah, but the difference,” our free marketeer will object, is that the choice is still always up to you whether you will listen to the marketing, what you will buy, etc.  A corporation can never force you to choose one thing over another.”  But this is to return to a narrow definition of coercion.  When we say that someone has a “controlling husband” or that “so-and-so’s friends are trying to control her” we usually do not mean that physical force is being employed–no, control is usually exercised by psychological and social pressures, by all sorts of forms of bullying, alluring, and manipulating.  We rightly detest the idea of being manipulated–indeed, almost worse than being outright coerced, because at least then we know what’s being done to us, instead of being secretly pulled and prodded.  We are so immersed in the manipulative power of marketing that we often don’t even notice it anymore; we think we’re freely choosing to eat at McDonalds, and then finally we wake up one day and ask, “Why do I eat at McDonald’s?  I hate it!  It’s terrible food, and terribly unhealthy,” and so we try to stop, and then we realize how strong the impulse remains.  Later on, I will return to offer a more thoroughgoing psychological evaluation of choice and this sort of subtle coercion.

For now, though, we shouldn’t forget another even simpler way in which companies try and “control our lives”–by limiting the number of choices available.  If I want something to eat and you present me with a choice between corn chips and oatmeal, but I don’t want either, I may still be technically “free,” but I sure don’t feel like it.  The panegyrists of capitalism tell us how much capitalism has increased the number of choices available.  But as many critics have documented, this proliferation of choice is in many ways an illusion.  The vast number of food products seemingly available are often just variations on various corn products and hyper-processed foods; we are not necessarily given the choice to eat healthy beef or natural vegetables.  The most dramatic example of the deceptive proliferation of choice is in drugs.  Supposedly, we are now blessed with an amazing plenitude of medicines for every conceivable need; however, most of these contain one of a few basic chemical ingredients, chemicals that often are far less effective than the plethora of natural remedies that have been pushed off of drugstore shelves everywhere.  More obviously, choice is limited by monopoly.  The massive number of brands out there reflect, in many industries, only a small handful of actual companies, many of which basically follow the exact same production processes.  The goal of most large companies is to choke out the competition and establish a monopoly, or at least an oligopoly, and of course it is precisely the monopoly role that the government seeks to play that angers so many of the libertarian stripe.  Here, then, we cannot draw a clear dividing line between the “control” exercised by government and that exercised by the “private sphere.”  And of course it should be pointed out that this blurriness between the private and the public realms is not a modern development; on the contrary, the modern period has seen an attempt to differentiate between these two much more sharply than ever before.  

Now, this empirical case is not really my chief interest.  In the following three sections, I want to analyze the concept “coercion” and see how useful it really is in enabling us to condemn political action and endorse economic action.