Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Property and Coercion in the Absence of Government

Thoughts on Robert Hale's "Coercion and Distribution in a Supposedly Non-Coercive State"

Hale’s central thesis is that the distribution of income depends on the relative power of coercion which the different members of the community can exert against one another. Central to his argument is that private property is the source of all coercion.

“In protecting property the government is doing something quite apart from merely keeping the peace. It is exerting coercion wherever that is necessary to protect each owner, not merely from violence, but also from peaceful infringement of his sole right to enjoy the thing owned.” [472]

Thus when the government enforces private property rights of capitalists, it oppresses labour. Unless X sells his labour for wages, X will not be able to eat. There are no alternatives to being coerced by capitalists to work, so the argument goes, as X owns no land X is unable to grow his own food without express permission from the legal owner (since trespass is actionable per se). The usual way to gain permission is to sell labour, which, in turn goes back to the capitalist. “They can escape, of course, by going without the product. But that does not prevent the payment being compulsory, any more than it prevents the payment of the government tax on tobacco from being compulsory” [473]

However, this coercive power is weakened by the fact that the capitalist’s customers and labourers “have the power to make matters more or less unpleasant for him”. Customers have their legal power to withhold access to their cash, the labourers to withhold their services. What ever is given beyond the minimum upkeep to replenish the workers physical and mental faculties is either by reason of the employer’s sense of moral obligation or a competitive constraint.

The absence of governmental interference will have no impact on the level of coercion in society. Rather it would likely exacerbate it. Hale mentions the usual reasons: inequality of bargaining power, monopolies restricting supply etc. However, Hale concedes that unless ‘economic science’ invents new tools to quantify the level of freedom in society, this is not testable to fact.

Hale makes some very strong arguments against proponents of Libertarianism, in this case Thomas Nixon Carver. He writes of Carvers proposed libertarian scheme “has the appearance of exposing individuals to little coercion at the hands of the government and to none at all at the hands of other individuals or groups.” However since all private property is coercion, this claim is false.

The beauty of Hale’s paper is that it shows how libertarians presuppose that the current distribution of wealth is fair and this is ideologically motivated not simply a neutral concept or ‘state of nature’ as they suppose. As I pointed out in my earlier post, this ignores the social and historical relationships that went into the current state of affairs. As another blogger outstandingly explains:

a right of public access is no less a valid form of freedom than is a right to private property. Freedom to use common land and resources is restricted by private property rights, which replaces it with a (particular individual's) freedom to dispose of property, and exclude others from use of it.

What I found surprising is this is Hale is no extreme left winger, let alone Marxist. He was a Law and Economics Professor at Columbia and a key member of the legal realist school.

References

Robert L. Hale, "Coercion and Distribution in a Supposedly Non-Coercive State," 38 Political Science Quarterly (1923), 470-478.

37 comments:

Chris said...

Dush,

Have you ever read any of the works of Henry George with regards to land ownership? They seem relevant here.

- Chris Cella

Dush said...

Na, I haven't. Anything in particular you recommend? I'll see what I can get a hold of.

Chris said...

I think you might really appreciate some of his insights. His perspective sort of blows away the whole libertarian / marxist dichotomy that dominates a lot of discussions. Although he accepted the notion of private property in lockean sense, he rejected that anyone could ever 'own' natural resources or land. He believed that these things are owned by the community. This lead him to support a land value tax. Its quite interesting, and he has been praised by both libertarians and liberals alike.

His most famouse book is "Progress and Poverty" which is available online:
http://www.progressandpoverty.org/pcontents.htm

Dush said...

Ordered Progress and Poverty off Amazon marketplace, sounds quite interesting from what I read online.

Chris said...

Great! Like you, I share a great interest in the philosophical, economic, and legal underpinnings of property rights. Sometimes we may arrive at different conclusions, but more than not, I think we may be in substantial agreement over many things. libertarian ideals do not have to cloud an honest appraisal of reality and history. When was realizes that the current state of ownership and wealth in this country did not occur in a libertarian vacuum, then the story becomes more complex.

Henry George illuminates a lot of this.

Anonymous said...

Actually Hale was a leftist, and the Legal Realism movement is definitely to the left. See also Morris Cohen, another Legal Realist of the time. Also see the Critical Legal Theory movement which grew out of Legal Realism.

Dush said...

What post are you after? And of course you can use whatever you want, just reference it properly!

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