Even if There Were No Hell…

Early in the Institutes, Calvin offers some eloquent and luminous insights on the relation of love and fear, and the difference between the righteous man’s fear of God and the unrighteous’s—passages pregnant with significance for political theology as well, as we consider the way that citizens relate to authorities, their earthly lords and “fathers”:

“For, to begin with, the pious mind does not dream up for itself any god it pleases, but contemplates the one and only true God.  And it does not attach to him whatever it pleases, but is content to hold him to be as he manifests himself; furthermore, the mind always exercises the utmost diligence and care not to wander astray, or rashly and boldly to go beyond his will.  It thus recognizes God because it knows that he governs all things; and trusts that he is its guide and protector, therefore giving itself over completely to trust in him.  Because it understands him to be the Author of every good, if anything oppresses, if anything is lacking, immediately it betakes itself to his protection, waiting for help from him.  Because it is persuaded that he is good and merciful, it reposes in him with perfect trust, and doubts not that in his loving-kindness a remedy will be provided for all its ills.  Because it acknowledges him as Lord and Father, the pious mind also deems it meet and right to observe his authority in all things, reverence his majesty, take care to advance his glory, and obey his commandments.  Because it sees him to be a righteous judge, armed with severity to punish wickedness, it ever holds his judgment seat before its gaze, and through fear of him restrains itself from provoking his anger. And yet it is not so terrified by the awareness of his judgment as to wish to withdraw, even if some way of escape were open.  But it embraces him no less as punisher of the wicked than as benefactor of the pious.  For the pious mind realizes that the punishment of the impious and wicked and the reward of life eternal for the righteous equally pertain to God’s glory.  Besides, this mind restrains itself from sinning, not out of dread of punishment alone; but because it loves and revers God as Father, it worships and adores him as Lord.  Even if there were no hell, it would still shudder at offending him alone.

Here indeed is pure and real religion: faith so joined with an earnest fear of God that this fear also embraces willing reverence, and carries with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed in the law….” (I.iii.2)

“A second sin arises, that they [hypocrites] never consider God at all unless compelled to; and they do not come nigh until they are dragged there despite their resistance.  And not even then are they impressed with the voluntary fear that arises out of reverence for the divine majesty, but merely with a slavish, forced fear, which God’s judgment extorts from them.  This, since they cannot escape it, they dread even to the point of loathing.  That saying of Statius’ that fear first made gods in the world corresponds well to this kind of irreligion, and to this alone.  Those who are of a mind alien to God’s righteousness know that his judgment seat stands ready to punish transgressions against him, yet they greatly desire its overthrow.  Feeling so, they wage war against the Lord, who cannot be without judgment.  But while they know that his inescapable power hangs over them because they can neither do away with it nor flee from it, they recoil from it in dread.  And so, lest they should everywhere seem to despise him whose majesty weighs upon them, they perform some semblance of religion.  Meanwhile they do not desist from polluting themselves with every sort of vice, and from joining wickedness to wickedness, until in every respect they violate the holy laws of the Lord and dissipate all his righteousness.  Or at least they are not so restrained by that pretended fear of God from wallowing blithely in their own sins and flattering themselves, and preferring to indulge their fleshly intemperance rather than restraining it by the bridle of the Holy Spirit.  

This, however, is but a vain and false shadow of religion, scarcely even worth being called a shadow.  From it one may easily grasp anew how much this confused knowledge of God differs from the piety from which religion takes its source, which is instilled in the breasts of believers only.  And yet hypocrites would tread these twisting paths so as to seem to approach the God from whom they flee.  For where they ought to have remained consistently obedient throughout life, they boldly rebel against him in almost all their deeds, and are zealous to placate him merely with a few paltry sacrifices.  Where they ought to serve him in sanctity of life and integrity of heart, they trump up frivolous trifles and worthless little observances with which to win his favor.  Nay, more, with greeter license they sluggishly lie in their own faith, because they are confident that they can perform their duty toward him by ridiculous acts of expiation.” (I.iv.4)

(italics mine)


Three Possible Objections (Deconstructing Coercion, Pt. 6)

When I considered possible objections or qualifications to my “A Christian Answer to Coercion,” I realized that these questions led quickly into a dense thicket of some the thorniest questions of Christian ethics.  Without trying to resolve these fully or offer answers to how we ought to act in every conceivable situation, I will try to address three particularly important objections, without being more laborious than necessary:

  1. Doesn’t this response amount to quietism, leaving coercive structures in power?
  2. Even if we shouldn’t fear for ourselves, isn’t it legitimate to act out of fear for others?
  3. Isn’t there such a thing as legitimate self-interest?  If so, doesn’t this mean that a certain amount of fear and a certain regard for my own well-being is part of an appropriate Christian response to would-be coercers?

 

So first, haven’t we left the coercion of kings and corporations unchallenged?  By saying, “Oh, don’t worry, you don’t have to demand our tax money, we’ll give it to you freely!” or “Don’t worry, you don’t have to threaten to fire me, I’ll work hard freely” don’t we simply leave the power structures in place, to continue demanding, oppressing, trampling on people?  Even if I myself am so holy that I don’t care how much I’m trodden on, don’t I thereby invite the powers to tread on my weaker neighbors and co-workers?  This is a powerful objection, as it appeals to love.  If I love my neighbor, I will resist the would-be coercer–not for myself, but for my neighbor’s sake.  To be a quietist who simply let coercive structures do their thing wouldn’t be Christlike–he challenged such structures in defense of the defenseless.

Two points may be made in response.  First, willing service is not mere quietism; it is not only morally right, but often the most effective way to resist the coercive powers that be.  “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).  The simple act of fearlessly and voluntarily doing good to the oppressor, when they are desperately trying to intimidate you and elicit a fearful response, is a dramatic act of subversion, which knocks the sword out of the oppressor’s hands, unmasks the emptiness of his power, and may even bring him to repentance.  So fearlessness is in itself a powerful response to coercion.  

Second, when a further response is required, fearlessness is a necessary prerequisite for such a response.  We should love our enemies, but not to the point where this requires us to stop loving our neighbors; thus Jesus did not just yield to the Pharisees’ wishes, but openly opposed them and spoke out against them on behalf of the weak and despised.  However, this challenge was so effective because Jesus was not himself afraid of them; he had no fear on his own account.  So, while there will be times when certain government or corporate policies must be opposed for the sake of those who will suffer from them, our opposition will be far more effective if it is clear that we fight not for our own rights, or out of fear of our own suffering, but from love of neighbor.  Conservatives will argue that higher taxation will hurt everyone, including the weakest; the argument may or may not be sound, but if it is, it would be far more effective if anti-taxation rhetoric was not couched so often in terms of “leave me alone,” “I want my rights,” “It’s my money!”

 

With the discussion of love of neighbor, another challenge arises: shouldn’t I be moved by fear for those I love?.  Perhaps I cannot loose coercion’s hold on myself so easily as it seemed above.  Let’s return to the initial classification of motivations given in Part 2 of this series to see how this might be the case.  There we noted not all “fear” is selfish fear; fear for another’s well-being can be driven by love.  At the time, it seemed that we could easily enough say that, being subordinate to love, this kind of fear was simply an element of love.  But if fear can be present even in love, how can perfect love cast out fear?  If I love others, it seems that coercion does not disappear so easily; perhaps I don’t mind if the SS officer points the gun at my head, but what if he points the gun at my wife’s head?  

But I don’t think this fundamentally changes anything.  All fears are to be relativised by our fear and love of God; thus no one should be able to coerce me by fear for another’s well-being to do what is wrong; I will fear God more and still disobey.  Likewise, if they are trying to get me to do something that is not in itself wrong, my response should be motivated by desire to do what is right, and their attempted intimidation should be irrelevant.  Fear prompted by love of another is not in itself wrong, but if it leads us to act in a way contrary to the love of God, it is revealed as the product of distorted, wrongly ordered love.  

 

A third objection might appeal to the notion of “legitimate self-interest,” a popular theme not only of capitalism but indeed of centuries of the natural law tradition.  I am to love my neighbor as myself, not against myself–it is perfectly legitimate and morally upright to have a certain concern for my own survival and well-being, and thus to act in my own defense.  Because of legitimate self-interest, it is not always wrong for me to fear for my own safety, and to act to protect myself.  If someone tries to kill me, I am not required just to stand there and say, “Well, I’m not afraid of you, so go ahead and kill me”–I can legitimately try to run away, right?  After all, the apostles fled Jerusalem when they were being persecuted there.  On a more mundane level, if a thief comes into my house, can’t I defend my possessions?  And if so, if a government demands too much tax money, can’t I try to defend myself against it?  

This is a fair objection.  What I said above was, more or less, that Christian should respond to coercion by voluntarily giving the would-be coercer what he wants, as long as it wouldn’t be immoral to do so, and if it would be, then to refuse fearlessly.  But if a certain degree of self-interest is legitimate, then wouldn’t it be “immoral” to act carelessly against it?  E.g., Wouldn’t it be immoral not to preserve my life if possible, and not to preserve my possessions if possible?  

I confess that I am not altogether sure what to do with this objection, since I am not altogether sure how far I think “legitimate self-interest” extends.  Certainly I think that, if are to think in terms of rightly-ordered love, then self-interest cannot extend to the point of depriving another of what I am seeking to protect for myself.  Thus I cannot seek to kill another merely to protect my own life; but if I can protect my own life merely by escaping, without doing harm to another, then I ought to.  This would suggest that if I could protect my possessions merely by withholding them when they are illegitimately demanded, I ought to.  All of which would suggest, for instance, that I would be perfectly legitimate to oppose heavy taxation, and avoid paying if possible.   But this argument seems to have led us into direct contradiction of Romans 13, at least as I have read it.  It also seems to contradict, “If someone asks you for your cloak, give him your tunic also” (Mt. 5:40).  But that command seems absurd, especially in light of the examples of economic bullying we’ve looked at–does this really mean that, whenever someone tries to intimidate me into buying or selling something, I would have to respond “in love” by doing as they asked, and doing more than they ask?  This seems absurd.  

 

A closer look at the context of commands like “If someone asks you for your cloak, give him your tunic also” readily suggests an answer.  Self-abnegation is not a goal in itself, so I do not have to act against self-interest anytime anyone wants me to do something for them.  Rather, I think that the concern is to avoid and overcome conflict.  If someone demands something from me in a way that I cannot refuse without generating conflict, and if their demand has negative effects on myself alone, then I ought to willingly yield to their demand, and try to go above and beyond, to overcome their evil with good.  However, if someone wants something from me, but I can reasonably refuse without conflict, then I may take self-interest into account and refuse their demand.  This explains why it is that, if the government seeks to coerce me to to pay exorbitant taxes, I should willingly yield, but if a business uses one of the more subtle forms of coercion we explored above, to try to take advantage of me and get me to buy a product, there’s no reason I have to buy it.  (Of course, I still ought never to return evil for evil, e.g., by trying to rip off a store that I know is trying to rip me off.)  Thus, there does remain an important distinction in this regard between many forms of political coercion and certain forms of economic coercion, but, as we have seen earlier, it does not lie where many imagine it.

 

These answers do not provide a comprehensive account of how we ought to respond to all coercive situations.  Clearly, the picture is more complicated than merely saying “‘Perfect love casts out fear,’ so just love God and love very oppressor and there will be no reason to fear.”  We always have to take into account all kinds of questions about what is being demanded of me, why, what will happen if I acquiesce, what will happen if I refuse, etc.  

None of these complications, however, should change our fundamental posture when faced with intimidation and coercion.  We should seek to cultivate a faith that fears God above all else, and which thus cannot be easily swayed by worldly fears.  We should seek to cultivate a love of God, neighbor, and even enemy that strives to do good even to those who don’t deserve it, which thus heaps coals of fire on their heads, and renders their coercive sword powerless.  


Other Posts in This Series

Coercive Corporations?

The Psychology of Coercion

Coercion and Motivations in the Economic Sphere

Coercion and Motivations in the Political Sphere

A Christian Answer to Coercion


A Christian Answer to Coercion (Deconstructing Coercion, Pt. 5)

(Sorry it’s taken so long to post this.  I was trying to anticipate certain objections and the responses to them became so complex that I’ve decided not to include them in this post, but to put up a sixth post, shortly, exploring various objections and qualifications)

My emphasis earlier on the subjective dimension of coercion leads me to a distinctively Christian take on all this.  “Perfect love casts out fear.”  As Christians, we ought to have our desires so reshaped that we are motivated above all by love and become immune to fear–at least to any fear of man.  This is of course a point that we will never fully attain to, but it is our calling.  If this is true, then this suggests that Christians ought to be un-coerceable, and not merely in the sense that coercion fails to persuade them (e.g., I do not blaspheme when the gun is put to my head), but that, because this is necessarily the case, coercion never enters the picture.  If I am committed to love and obey my master as if I am obeying Christ, then the fact that my master could whip me if I disobeyed is simply not relevant to me–it does not have an effect on whether I obey him–in short, he does not coerce me.  If I am committed to pay taxes to my government even though I disagree with it because I love Christ and he commands me to love my enemies and pay my taxes, then the fact that I could be jailed for tax evasion is utterly irrelevant, and I am not coerced to pay my taxes–the hypothetical presence of coercion is, so long as I am following Christ, a contrafactual hypothetical. 

I am convinced that this is precisely what Romans 12-13 is up to: “‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome with good.  Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities….For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil.  Do you want to be unafraid of the authority?  Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.  For he is God’s minister to you for good.  But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain….For because of this you also should pay taxes….Render therefore to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, custom to whom custom is owed, fear to whom fear is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.  Owe no one anything except to love one another.”  

(I opt for the reading on which “fear to whom fear is owed” does not mean that fear is owed to the authorities, but rather, in light of the earlier verses, we are to discern that it is not, and render it only to God.)

In other words, Paul is calling upon the Romans, who would have been paying their taxes out of fear (Roman tax-collectors were not nice guys), and calling upon them to voluntarily render payment to these authorities, recognizing that God had put them in their place.  As long as they are acting out of such a spirit of Christian love (which is, in context, what he means by “good works”), they will have no reason to fear the authorities–not, of course, because there is no chance the authorities will do anything bad to them (Paul is not so naive as that!)–but because “perfect love casts out fear.”  The “sword” of coercion only enters the picture when love leaves the picture, rebelliousness (what “doing evil” means in context) enters the picture, and so does fear.  Taxes therefore must be paid, but joyfully and willingly, as a debt of love, not out of fear.

So I suggest that Christians do nothing but condemn themselves when they rail against the coercive taxation of the government–as Christians, such coercion has no hold on us.  

 

The same principle clearly applies in the economic sphere as well, and is a common motif of Jesus’s teaching in the gospels.  Our faith in God should make us immune to worldly fears, which more often than not concern money.  Jesus addresses this head-on in one of the most powerful passages in Luke: “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; nor about the body, what you will put on.  Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing. Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap, which have neither storehouse nor barn; and God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds?… And do not seek what you should eat or what you should drink, nor have an anxious mind. For all these things the nations of the world seek after, and your Father knows that you need these things. But seek the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you. Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Lk. 12:22-24, 29-34)  If we are freed from the fear of not having enough money, power, and prestige, we will be set free to give to the poor, and economic coercion will have no power over us.  We will not buy simply because we are afraid of not having everything that our peers expect us to have; we will not sell or work out of fear of not making enough money–rather, we will buy, sell, and work out of love for God and neighbor, free from fear and coercion.  

 As Christians, then, we are called to be un-coerceable.  Either we serve willingly, as unto the Lord, and coercion is irrelevant, or else, when faithfulness requires, we refuse fearlessly, and coercion is irrelevant.

 

This answer, however, is clearly somewhat idealistic, and open to at least three challenges.  I will explore these and offer certain qualifications in the following post.

 

Other Posts in this Series

Coercive Corporations?

The Psychology of Coercion

Coercion and Motivations in the Economic Sphere

Coercion and Motivations in the Political Sphere


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.