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“The Bane Of Political Life In America”: For Conservatives, Government Coercion Is Bad — Except When It’s Not

For conservatives, government coercion is the bane of political life in America. As members of the self-styled anti-government party, they very much are interested in making the case that coercion is inherently illegitimate, whether it is a law requiring you to purchase health care or a law requiring businesses to serve LGBT customers. The problem with this logic is that all laws are coercive — even the ones conservatives like.

Last week, I wrote about the intrinsic coerciveness of all laws in the context of protecting LGBT people from discrimination, which prompted a hilarious yet telling reaction from Sean Davis at The Federalist.

Davis, possibly because he quite obviously did not even read past the first couple paragraphs of my post, is not just wrong, but has missed the entire axis of debate. However, he does inadvertently provide a great example of just why conservatives are ill-advised to admit that all laws are coercive. Because if this is true, then conservatives will have to give up one of their favorite rhetorical tropes — being against coercion in the name of individual liberty — or resort to outright hypocrisy.

The argument was not about LGBT laws in themselves, something Davis failed to grasp. Instead it was about the justification of such laws. My position is that being against government coercion is not legitimate grounds on which to oppose any policy. This applies to liberals, too, though as members of the pro-government faction they generally don’t worry about it much.

But conservatives do. Most of what is referred to as “government” in popular media is liberal stuff like Social Security, Medicare, or food stamps. Labeling those programs as coercion gives conservatives a convenient pro-liberty sheen when they’re talking about slashing poor people’s incomes.

That changes when you bring up things like property. Though ordinary people rarely talk about it in this way, property is underpinned by exactly the same kind of coercion that bolsters civil rights or tax laws, as is the entire superstructure of what we refer to as the free market system — that is, by government coercion.

Therefore, conservatives can’t be principled anti-coercion advocates unless they are willing to throw out private property, which they obviously aren’t. Coercion can’t be bad when it supports things you don’t like and good when it supports things you do — no matter what some conservatives maintain.

Let me emphasize that this line of reasoning doesn’t mean you can’t oppose some civil rights law, just that you can’t oppose it on the grounds of being against coercion in general.

Of course, framing the discussion in this way powerfully strengthens left-wing arguments. If being anti-coercion is utter nonsense, then the debate moves to which kinds of coercion are best as judged by some other moral framework. Whether that’s utilitarianism, contract theory, or Christian ethics, under such conditions it’s a lot harder to oppose transferring income from rich to poor or social insurance programs.

Thus, when presented with left-wing slogans like “property is violence,” your average conservative, perceiving a trap, will resist. In reality there is no escape.

But what makes Davis such a great example is he genuinely doesn’t seem to understand what the problem is here. He argues in one breath that, duh, of course all laws protecting property depend on coercive violence. Then in the very next paragraph, he writes this:

At their core, however, Kohn and Cooper appear to desperately want to avoid the real question at the heart of the religious freedom debate: should the government force individuals to participate in religious ceremonies against their will? [The Federalist]

Government coercion is good, except when it’s not. That’s the kind of stark hypocrisy conservatives would do well to disguise better.


By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, April 14, 2015

April 15, 2015 Posted by | Anti-Government, Conservatives, Liberty | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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