The sources and extent of coercion in a society is one of the big fault lines that divides the different currents of liberalism. Paul Crider’s remark that “Coercion is an unsavory but unavoidable aspect of living with other people” offended several of our readers, while many of the comments on Samuel Hammond’s recent piece argued that capitalism is the source of all systemic oppression. In reality, neither markets nor government nor any other sphere of society has a monopoly on violence, cruelty, or domination, and any system which attempts to rein these in across the board will necessarily involve coercion.

The relationship between children and their parents is a good starting point for a discussion of vulnerability and the need for at least some coercion. Children have many characteristics that render them uniquely vulnerable, as will be discussed below. Moreover, child-rearing has always been challenging for liberal jurisprudence, which tends to rely on a particular ideal of adulthood. But we could start from any human relationship. Whether it is between friends, coworkers, client and server, boss and employee, or strangers. All bring their potential vulnerabilities. Every method for guarding those vulnerabilities creates its own vulnerabilities in turn. Courts are intended to provide a third-party perspective without a stake in the case under examination, but suffer the biases of the particular backgrounds of the judges. Unions arose to correct the imbalance of power between employers and employees, but they ended up with a mixed legacy on race, and often used their leverage to help skilled workers at the expense of the more vulnerable unskilled workers and women.

Suffer the little children

There is no relationship more basic than the one between a parent and child. Biology has wired parents to worry about their children and be upset when they are harmed or unhappy. The evolutionary pressures here are fairly straightforward and point in basically one direction—towards promoting the safety and prosperity of one’s offspring. And it is basically universal across cultures that parents are given special social roles when it comes to taking responsibility for the care and upbringing of their children.

Instinct, evolutionary pressures, and culture therefore all work together to make parents the best possible caretakers of their own children. Yet child abuse is hardly unheard of. Whether it involves beating, or sexual assault, or simply emotional manipulation, parents are frequently the perpetrators. This is because they are in the best position to be perpetrators—children are in a relationship of dependence with their parents. Dependence creates vulnerability.

This does not negate the very good reasons for parents’ special role. There isn’t anyone who would be at lower risk for abuse of the caretaker role than parents. But parents’ risk is uncomfortably far from zero.

How should the laws and institutions around childcare be organized, given these facts? Emancipating children isn’t an option. Children are dependent and vulnerable by their nature. Arguments about whether teenagers could take on more adult responsibilities are about the placement of the line, not its existence. No one thinks an infant can provide for himself, much less vote or drink beer or serve in the military.

This issue goes beyond vicious behavior. Even after infancy, children lack the experience to rely on their own judgment for many years. If a child does not want to go to school or visit a relative, their parents have the authority to make them. When a parent ends an argument with “because I said so,” a pure argument from authority, it is nevertheless a valid reason for the child to obey, even if they have reasons not to. Parents get to decide on a wide range of affairs that will continue to have an impact into adulthood. There are clearly important matters such as the sort of education their child gets—whether a conventional public school (in a good or bad school district), or a Catholic school, or something unconventional like a Montessori school. Then there are smaller things: whether to make their child take piano lessons, or to send them to a summer camp, or to set a curfew on how late they can be out with friends. These things all influence the child’s trajectory, however small the difference it may make in the course of their life. However harmless and even beneficial these parental decisions are, they still constitute a kind of coercion, if we take the word to mean the imposition of one person’s will over another.

Coercive justice

What do we do when parents neglect their responsibilities or harm their children through active malice? The current answer to this question in most countries is to bring in the criminal justice system. We have laws that are enforced by police, prosecutors who seek to get offenders punished, and courts to determine guilt and the severity of the punishment. But all of these carry their own risks, individually.

Mere contact with the police creates the risk of a violent altercation, because of several important asymmetries. Police are constantly looking out for the risk that someone might attack them, because the nature of their job puts them in dangerous situations. Meanwhile the vast majority of civilians do not perceive themselves to be in a dangerous situation, especially if the contact with the police is over something like a speeding ticket or being a little disorderly in public. That is an asymmetry in perception; the other asymmetry is that most criminal justice systems end up effectively holding their police to a lower standard than civilians. Whether it’s because juries trust police or because prosecutors rely on their relationship to them, an officer who physically assaults civilians without justification is much more likely to get away with it than a civilian who does the same—never mind a civilian who assaults an officer!

As a result, simply bringing the police into the picture at all drastically increases the chance that matters will come to violence. Meanwhile, prosecutors make their careers by getting convictions, not by dropping charges when matters appear ambiguous. And in America, prosecutors are granted such broad discretion in filing charges that they can intimidate most suspects by cobbling together enough charges to result in enormous potential jail time, and use this threat as leverage to get plea bargains. Faced with 60 years in jail, many innocent people may opt for a guarantee of less than 10. Such tactics resulted in the suicide of the tech luminary Aaron Swartz in 2013.

Judges and juries, meanwhile, are entirely removed from the circumstances. They have to make their judgments based on the evidence that can be presented in a courtroom, which is obviously partial and imperfect. Their individual ability to make good judgments on the basis of that or any evidence is just as obviously imperfect.

The long and short of it that once we empower police, prosecutors, and judges to coerce people in order to protect certain vulnerabilities, it simply creates more vulnerabilities. And police, prosecutors, and judges are all systemically biased towards certain abuses. In attempting to stop abuse they create the risk of abuse, in attempting to correct coercion gone wrong they introduce the possibility of their own variety of coercion going wrong.

Not a ‘liberal problem’

Some might argue that these are problems particular to a liberal order; that settled religious communities would be much better at internally policing such things without the razor-sharp edges of a modern criminal justice system. But closeness breeds many of the same risks we already see within families—only more so, because those outside the family lack the pressures mentioned above that parents face, and are potentially capable of perpetuating abuses on a larger scale. Sexual assault is a real problem among the Amish, though the scale is very hard to know from the outside. The more famous Catholic Church abuses occurred in less isolated communities, but the dynamic is similar. The high-trust social environment so praised by traditionalists is exactly what leaves people, and especially children, vulnerable. Trust can be abused—in a way, trust is vulnerability. They call it “sticking your neck out” for a reason. And when trust is placed in authority, and authority is abused, those who fear the erosion of that authority have a strong incentive to cover it up rather than face it .

Nor do kinship-based clans escape this tragic dilemma. Even when there is no central authority capable of meting out official punishment—as in medieval Iceland or any number of stateless clan-based societies throughout history—the individual is vulnerable to the needs of the family and clan. Indeed, the individual in these societies isn’t really understood as an “individual” at all but rather a member of the clan who must fulfill certain roles. This places especially great burdens on women, who must fulfill the maternal role for the sake of lineage. Transgressions against the family honor, real or imagined, result in oppressive shame. And in the worst cases individuals are at risk of honor killings and deadly inter-clan feuds.

We should never forget that in Europe in the Middle Ages, a period between the rise of strong empires like Rome and the modern nation-state, the murder rates were horrifically high by modern standards. If it is true, as Judith Shklar says in “The Liberalism of Fear,” that “Systematic fear is the condition that makes freedom impossible,” then we should be incredulous of any claim that the only threat to liberty in the United States is its democratic nation-state.

From a certain perspective, the liberal project is the attempt to balance authority and the sources of coercion against one another, in just such a way as to minimize cruelty and vulnerability as much as any system can. This is precisely Shklar’s liberalism of fear, as opposed to the liberalism of hope of someone like Immanuel Kant. The liberalism of fear is the liberalism of checks and balances, due process protections, and separation of powers. Of democratic checks on powerful political elites, but also institutional checks on the tyranny of the majority. Of property rights to protect the fruits of labor, but also redistributive social safety nets to protect against misfortune.

Consider the case of Tony and Susan Alamo Foundation v. Secretary of Labor. The Alamo Foundation ran a plethora of commercial ventures which they staffed with “associates,” ostensibly volunteer labor. The Supreme Court ruled the foundation was in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, legislation which chafes conservatives and libertarians. But Nancy Rosenblum explained why the application in this case was consistent with liberal principles:

Before their conversion and rehabilitation, Foundation associates were mostly drug addicts, criminals, and derelicts. Like the Unification Church, Alamo was widely thought to prey on the vulnerable and to take advantage of the intense need for connection and care, perhaps by engaging in infantilizing and guilt-inducing recruiting practices that made voluntarism doubtful. Former associates testified that they had been “fined” heavily for poor job performance and were prohibited from getting food from the cafeteria if they were absent from work due to illness or bad weather; members’ standing seemed closer to indentured servitude than volunteerism.

This is a classic case of the federal government intervening in the operation of an association whose internal norms are incongruent with liberal principles. But sometimes it is precisely such incongruent associations which are the lifeblood of liberal institutions. At the time Rosenblum’s book, Membership and Morals, was written, Jehovah’s Witnesses had litigated 40 precedent-setting Supreme Court cases and 150 state supreme court cases, most of which expanded the scope of our First Amendment protections.

The point is that there is no one way to deal with the problem of vulnerability, cruelty, or the ways that coercive powers can be abused. But the first step is to admit that these things are not going away; they are a basic feature of human nature. No specific set of relations or spheres of society creates a single supreme villain; all carry their own risks. Delicately balancing these risks has been the task that liberals have set themselves to for over 300 years.


Featured image is Fight With Cudgels, by Francisco Goya

Adam Gurri

Adam Gurri is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Liberal Currents.


  1. Attimus Morlandre April 24, 2017 at 9:58 pm -

    If a child does not want to go to school or visit a relative, their parents have the authority to make them. When a parent ends an argument with “because I said so,” a pure argument from authority, it is nevertheless a valid reason for the child to obey, even if they have reasons not to.’

    No, “because I said so” is a horribly invalid reason for a child to obey and there is some evidence suggesting that this kind of parental reasoning causes psychological problems later in life.

    The solution in parenting is to ensure that everyone in the household is held to the same set of rules, which can be explained logically and which are applied fairly and consistently, both to the children and to the parents.

    In the political sphere, this concept has been described by Hayek among others as “Rule of Law,” which I am quite sure you already know. The question I have is why you haven’t presented the Rule of Law as being the natural, fairest, and most liberal way to resolve this particular concept?

    • Adam Gurri April 25, 2017 at 12:38 pm

      And on the subject of the law, “because I said so” is indeed a valid reason—as a matter of law—for a child to obey their parent, and indeed *no* reason need be given at all.

      • Attimus Morlandre April 25, 2017 at 2:28 pm

        You make clear in your article above that the discussion regarding parents and children is more than a mere matter of law. You’re discussing society, not simply law, so I’m surprised you would retreat into the law on this one point.

        • Adam Gurri April 25, 2017 at 2:32 pm

          Well, certainly, yes. Beyond the law, I think that interference in the life of a family by those outside of it is a bad thing, even if it does within the confines of the law. But I mention the law, not to retreat to it, but simply to give a sense of what I meant by “valid” which might be distinguished from “good”. Valid because it must be accepted, at the end of the day, and the child must obey, and outsiders to the family have no right to interfere on the basis of it being an invalid reason.

    • Adam Gurri April 24, 2017 at 10:38 pm

      The rule of law is one of many important aspects of a liberal institutional order, but it would be a cold, absurd way to run a family. Hayek himself said as much; he said the fastest way to ruin society is to run it on the principle of the family, and the fastest way to ruin a family is to run it on the principles of society. In the Fatal Conceit, I believe.

      • Attimus Morlandre April 25, 2017 at 2:25 pm

        Colder than saying “because I said so?” You and I have two very different ideas about what constitutes coldness.

        • Adam Gurri April 25, 2017 at 2:28 pm

          What could be more human than a stubborn “because I said so?” It’s at least as likely to be said in heated frustration than with cool indifference. Mind you, I don’t think it’s a _good_ reason, but it is a valid one. Children must obey their parents, whether or not there is a good reason offered for what they are told to do.

          • Attimus Morlandre April 25, 2017 at 3:14 pm

            So you’re saying “because I said so” is valid because it is human? That’s a mother of a naturalistic fallacy!

            The title of your piece is “Finding Liberty Between Vulnerability and Coercion.” Presumably, you are writing about this because you want to find that liberty.

            According to sources – – “because I said so” is correlated with low self-regard and emotional intelligence.

            Still “valid?” Certainly not if part of what constitutes “validity” is the emotional well-being of the child. And how interesting that more democratic styles of parenting correlate to higher self-esteem and emotional intelligence. I was under the impression that the authors of this website oppose authoritarianism and favor democracy. One would expect that, when confronted with clear evidence that less authoritarian homes tend to produce happier, more confident, and more empathetic children, the authors would hasten to agree with that evidence, rather than bandy about “valid” versus “good” and what is literally true under the law.

            If liberty is what you wish to find – and I choose to differentiate “liberty” from “authoritarianism” – then starting at home with proven strategies that reduce both authoritarianism and its negative consequences seems like a point that supports what you’ve written here. But I could be wrong about what your intended meaning was.


            • Adam Gurri April 25, 2017 at 3:22 pm

              …I didn’t say it was valid because human, I was responding to your argument that it was “cold” by saying it was a full-blooded human response, even if not a great one.

              Color me skeptical of your developmental argument, when separated twins studies indicate minimal long-run impact from “parenting styles,” and your citation is a blog post, and the entire field is in the midst of a massive replication crisis in any case.

              The idea of a democracy of the household is, to be blunt, absurd. The conflation of authoritarian politics with basic parenting is one of the persistent problems of political rhetoric that we would due well to move beyond. Parents are not dictators; the spheres in which they operate are simply too different.

              The point of the piece is that liberty is found by balancing coercion and vulnerability to the best of our abilities, to minimize cruelty and fear, so that as adults people are able to make their own choices as free from systemic fear as possible. That is where liberty is found between such things, in such a balance.

  2. jz April 23, 2017 at 7:05 am -

    i’m hesitant to call mocking peaceful behavior a threat, but i contend that if we shit on each other less we would have more time to defend liberty. and the guidelines have been in the NAP all along.

  3. James Oswald April 23, 2017 at 3:18 am -

    How much of my academic life have I wasted trying to find principles whereby coercion is minimized? Too much. This article was very well put together. I feel like a lot of the time, people abstract away far too much in economics, when the real work is going through the nitty gritty interactions at a very personal level. Coase tried and failed (mostly) to push the field in that direction. I am just as guilty as anyone, as I prefer to do grand sweeping claims myself.

    • Adam Gurri April 23, 2017 at 3:42 am

      I’m just as guilty, too.

  4. Epiphyte April 22, 2017 at 7:19 pm -

    The products at the grocery store aren’t equally relevant to my reality. Fortunately, I get to pick and choose which products I spend my money on. I have the chance to use my money to let the store know which products are the most important to me. The store offers me, and everyone else, the opportunity to substantially participate in the prioritization process. In other words, the store is a market.

    The products (shows/movies) on Netflix aren’t equally relevant to my reality. Unfortunately, I don’t get to pick and choose which products I spend my fees on. I don’t have the chance to use my money to let Netflix know which products are the most important to me. Netflix does not offer me, or anyone else, the opportunity to substantially participate in the prioritization process. Netflix is not a market.

    Coercion can be defined as preventing people from substantially participating in the prioritization process. With this definition, the government really does not have a monopoly on coercion. Netflix also engages in coercion.

    However, the fact of the matter is that hardly anybody wants Netflix to be a market. So the real issue isn’t “delicately balancing” anything. The real issue is figuring out the rules of coercion. When is it beneficial to disregard how relevant things are to people’s reality? When is it beneficial to prevent people from substantially participating in the prioritization process? When does coercion truly make the world a better place for everyone?

    • Adam Gurri April 22, 2017 at 7:37 pm

      Coercion is making someone do something against their consent. Netflix certainly does not coerce anyone.

      • Epiphyte April 22, 2017 at 8:11 pm

        Netflix certainly doesn’t force me to subscribe. But if I choose to subscribe… does this mean that I necessarily consent to Netflix spending my money on products made by Michael Moore?

        The government doesn’t force me to stay in the US. I certainly have the freedom to move to Canada. If I choose to remain in the US and pay taxes…. does this mean that I necessarily consent to the government spending my money on the drug war? If the government asked me… “Hey guy, do you consent to having your tax dollars spent on the drug war?”… my answer would be… “F no!!!”

        The government and Netflix don’t care how relevant their specific products are to my reality. But I don’t choose to exit from their services because the alternatives sure aren’t any better. Also, in the case of the government, exit certainly isn’t cheap or easy…

        “Yes, you can change citizenship, but it takes years of paperwork, many thousands of dollars, and requires a total uprooting of yourself and all your work/family/friend connections. It’s a herculean labor even for those for whom it goes smoothly, and the hard experiences of so many immigrants demonstrates how exercising that choice rarely generates a smooth passage thereafter. So we live caught between that rock and the hard place of living under a government that may have nothing to do with how we want to live or be governed.” – Ada Palmer, The Dystopian Question and Minorities of One

        Preventing people from substantially participating in the prioritization process has a serious consequence. The consequence is a big disparity between the world we live in and the world that we want to live in.

        • Adam Gurri April 22, 2017 at 8:39 pm

          When you give Netflix your money, your consent no longer enters into how they use it.

          When you do not give the US your money, they fine you or send you to jail. That’s coercion. If you don’t pay Netflix, they just cancel your service. The parallel simply doesn’t hold.

          • Epiphyte April 22, 2017 at 10:17 pm

            When you do not give the US your money, they fine you or send you to jail… because you’re using goods (roads, defense, etc) that you aren’t paying for. You’d be punished for stealing. Same thing if you somehow used Netflix without paying for it. I don’t know if anybody has necessarily gone to jail for stealing cable but some people have certainly been caught and punished for doing so.

            So the parallel does hold. And again, whether we’re talking about Netflix or the government, the actual and real issue is that the products are not equally relevant to your reality. Is it beneficial when the money that you earn is spent on products that aren’t at all relevant to your reality? Is it beneficial when you’re prevented from substantially participating in the prioritization process?

            Whether we’re talking about Netflix or the government… ideally you should be as happy as a kid in a candy store. There should be a gazillion products that are extremely relevant to your reality. But this ideal won’t be realized if you can’t pick and choose which products you spend your money on.

            Basically, it’s less than useless to talk about coercion without considering the tangible consequences of coercion. Just like it’s less than useless to talk about theft without considering the tangible consequences of theft.

            • Adam Gurri April 22, 2017 at 10:26 pm

              Well I agree with your conclusion, but as usual you took a highly eccentric path to get there, hahaha.