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More On Libertarianism

Posted by on May 12, 2007

Daniel Klein argued, at Cato Unbound, that minimum wage laws were coercive, based on the conception of coercion as “the initiation of physical aggression”.

Richard Chappell does an excellent job at Philosophy, et cetera of  pointing out three conceptual errors in right-libertarian ideology that Klein falls prey to:

  1. It neglects the coercion inherent in the very institution of property.
  2. It neglects other kinds of constraints that can impede us, leading to an impoverished conception of “freedom”.
  3. It conflates personal and institutional action.

I believe I’ll let Mr. Chappell have the last word:

The upshot: yes, instituting a minimum wage involves an element of coercion. But not in the same way as if your neighbour did it. More in the way that instituting property itself involves an element of coercion. Whether either set of laws counts as “coercive in any significant sense” will depend on context. It’s not as cut-and-dried as someone who makes the above three errors might assume.

Finally, I should emphasize that the alternative to ideological libertarianism is not a blank cheque for statism. I wouldn’t claim that “whatever stuff you have really belongs to the government”, or anything like that. It’s possible to set up an unjust institutional order, and even within a largely just order it’s possible for government agents to violate their (e.g. constitutional) obligations. So there’s plenty of room for political criticism. The point is simply to warn against the complacent assumption of laissez-faire as the “natural” or default system, to be contrasted with all the “coercive” alternatives. In principle, it ain’t so different. As with every other system, it must be assessed on its practical merits.

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