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Thoughts on Freedom, Coercion and Control

What do we mean by freedom? One standard definition that is widely accepted is that freedom is the absence of coercion in the life of the individual and in the society as a whole.

Coercion is usually defined as physical force. An implicit threat, even if not everyone realizes the presence of the threat, is still coercion. In this definition, freedom is the total absence of any threat or hint of threat that physical harm would be used to render a decision from another person.

A question I wonder about is whether most people can really be "free," and that is what brings me to wonder about definitions.

Is that really the proper definition of freedom? Often we hear talk of people as "sheep" and followers for adopting mainstream opinions and attitudes from popular culture, media and education. Their characteristics as sheep are a matter of behavior, separate from any sense of being coerced or fear of physical harm.

Suppose for a thought experiment that all threat of force was removed from the equation, and the government simply used social pressure, the power of exclusion from its network and its privileges, and propaganda to get people to pay taxes. Suppose the government imposed and collected taxes, but never used any violent enforcement mechanism to force anyone to pay, and used the proceeds collected voluntarily to bestow benefits on members who paid. Banks, corporations, etc. would get the public currency and supposed benefits of the state umbrella, and taxpayers were provided public services. The government used its bully pulpit and social ostracism against individuals and private concerns who opted out and "free rode."

Suppose the government was able to exist and operate more or less successfully without ever using actual violence in tax enforcement. Would we call such a government legitimate or such people free?

What if the people still supported wars we consider unjust or backed politicians we considered scoundrels? What if they still supported nationalism and some measure of voluntary socialism in their institutions? Would we consider the people free simply because there was no coercive taxation apparatus?

What about other laws besides taxation? Most people who refrain from theft and murder and other crimes don't do so just because there is a threat of coercion against them. Are people not free because there exists an explicit and implicit threat of coercion against committing these kinds of crimes?

Is it legitimate for a community to have laws in a territory against crimes? If so, what provides the legitimacy? A majority vote? If one person refuses to agree to the wishes of the other 999, is the law not legitimate?

Suppose all members of a community in a specific defined territory agree in a public forum not to allow access to the territory by people outside the territory, and one person does allow access via their property, is the community justified to punish the offender? If yes, are there limits to the punishment? Can they merely expel him from membership and withhold benefits and protections, or can they also expropriate property, physically expel, imprison or execute? How is legitimacy determined?

Suppose the principle is simply non violence except in self defense. How do you define self defense in that case? Does it have to be direct and immediate defense from physical attack? What about preemptive defensive measures against an impending and organized attack? Is it a hard and fast principle or is it situational?

Does the self defense principle mean anyone who witnesses violence is then a legitimate co-enforcer of the principle, even if they weren't attacked directly, or does the defense have to come from the offended or attacked party?

If anyone can be the enforcer, does that mean a group can go around attacking any aggressor around the world as long as the group is self funded and doesn't use coercion against innocents to fund itself?

Would the US military be a legitimate policemen of the world if it only funded itself from the spoils of vanquished enemies who were the initial aggressors in conflicts?

But how determine the aggressor in a two sided dispute, and where does the legitimacy come from to arbitrate the conflict?

If there is a dispute over a piece of property or a territory, who is the valid judge of the dispute? If there is no valid judge, then the dispute would have to be decided by violence. So the aggressor in such a dispute is just enforcing his own claim to the property, since there is no third party with the right to decide.

If an individual or voluntary group makes a claim to a specific territory, and imposes a law on it, and then people voluntarily flock to that territory, don't they implicitly grant legitimacy to the law?

Are children born into that law bound by it, despite not being consensual contracting parties? If not, then how change the law from one generation to the next if majority vote is illegitimate?

Is parental coercion legitimate? If yes, on what grounds, to what age? Who decides, and what is the determining principle?

Is the principle dependency? The dependent party is subject to the rule of the patronizing party?

Is the principle the child's lack of culpability for actions?

In either principle, how does that impact the mentally handicapped and economically dependent? Do they become rightful wards in a client/patron relationship in a society free of coercion?

Finally, what's so special about physical coercion? Isn't physical coercion of comparatively small significance in human affairs when set aside economic pressure and propaganda/education?

Suppose all physical coercion was absent, and economic power was concentrated among the most economically successful, and propaganda power concentrated along with it, so that the majority of people were smoothly managed and controlled without ever needing resort to physical coercion?.

Suppose that the people were led into a voluntary slavery in a dystopic future of genetic engineering, chemical control and psychological manipulation.

Suppose then some minority revolutionary cadre used physical violence to disrupt or attack the system of control. If the sole principle is non violence, wouldn't the rebel cadre be in the wrong? If not, then is there a higher principle than non violence and a higher meaning of freedom than absence of coercion?

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Lots of questions

What is the problem with the following definition?

Freedom is the ability to pursue one's desires without human interference.

I think it's a reasonable definition. Do we want it? Maybe or maybe not, but I think that is roughly what most of us mean by freedom.

It does rule out natural restrictions on freedom, like not being able to ride your bike when it's cold and leap tall buildings in a single bound, so maybe it should be called "freedom in the realm of human social interaction." And maybe I'm wrong, but I think that is perhaps a fitting restriction to place on our conversation.

Here are some anticipated answers: Is it possible to have the freedom to kill another person? It certainly is according to this definition, if that is what a person desires and the person has the freedom. There is no value judgement in freedom.

But the key is: *It all (or at least mostly) depends on your desires.* That is the responsibility part.

I realize that I haven't answered most of the questions above, but concerning the definition of freedom, does anyone have a problem with my answer? Can we start with this as a foundation?

If there is no problem, then the question of whether you want a particular person (e.g., yourself) to have freedom depends on the person's desires. If a particular person has a desire to kill me, I might want to limit his freedom. If I have a strong desire to eat fat, sugar, and drink large quantities of alcohol, then I might want to limit my own freedom.

Agreements made with others to reject certain freedoms/desires as non-valid fall under the category of liberty rather than freedom. *Liberty* is the collection of freedoms you have after agreeing to give up some freedoms to get along with others.

Agreement within yourself to reject certain freedoms/desires as non-valid is called restraint or discipline.

In the long run, I think people who want freedom (or even more liberty) have to answer the question: What do you plan to do with your freedom? I'm not saying we need to answer that for other people. That kind of thinking leads to central planning, and then a few people decide the answer for everyone, and no one even has much liberty and things become a mess---like what we've got now. Socrates was thinking that way, but it was a wrong turn. But what I'm saying is that we need to answer that question for ourselves. And we need to come up with the "right" answer.

I think that most, if not all, central planning results from some people thinking that others are unable to answer that question satisfactorily. Anyway, I've rambled on a bit too long under the assumption that we can agree on a definition of freedom without too much controversy. Let's see if that's true.

TwelveOhOne's picture

Freedom vs. Liberty

I liked the distinction you made, that Liberty is what's left after removing from Freedom those actions which damage others.

It reminds me of the game Go, in which the places around a stone are called "liberties", as in, those are the places that you can place additional stones to extend the group. Once a stone (or group)'s liberties are captured, the stone (or group) is removed. When you have no liberty, you are crushed. I really like the lessons of that game, and I'm by far no expert.

I love you. I'm sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you.
http://fija.org - Fully Informed Jury Association
http://jsjinc.net - Jin Shin Jyutsu (energy healing)

The only problem I see with

The only problem I see with your definition, if it is a problem, is that freedom from human interference is not restricted to state interference. If the presence of a state, however small, produced an outcome that had less NET human interference with other humans pursuing their desires, then it would oblige you to support the state.

After all, why is non state violence and interference privileged over state violence for a freedom lover? If having no state predictably resulted in more restrictions on individual liberty from other people than having a state, then liberty lovers would have to prefer some level of government to protect individuals from violent non state actors. That is after all the whole dispute between limited and no government libertarians.


So we can agree on a definition of freedom. I agree that the definition of freedom makes no distinction among sources of interference. I don't think that's a problem.

Your next assertion, however, does not follow. *If* the presence of a state produced an outcome of less human interference with my ability to pursue my desires, then that would be something to consider. Such a (dubious) possibility would not oblige me to support anything. Notice that I have modified your possibility. The idea of less *net* human interference with other humans pursuing their desires, does not make much sense as far as I can see. For example, if there is no interference for all but one individual, and that individual has no freedom whatsoever, what is the net interference?

And beyond that, some people have desires to interfere with others. It seems you get into an incalculable mess when you have to take into account the non-interference of the desires of psychopaths engendered by the state compared to the interference with virtuous desires---which I would like to maintain the prerogative to judge even if it be only for my own personal tally of net interference. In short, according to our own individual evaluation and wieghting of virtue, we'll get different net values.

A final (but important) point in this regard is that to assert I am obliged to support the state under your hypothesis is, it seems to me, to assume that freedom (or the largest possible level of liberty) is my *ultimate goal*. That is an incorrect assumption. There is a difference between thinking liberty (or even absolute freedom) is a good thing and having that as an ultimate goal that overrides everything else. Ultimate goals---like "I want to serve God" or "I want to help others be healthy"---vary wildly from individual to individual in both practical and theoretical terms (and even in meaning), and I don't think we have much hope of developing any agreement on the basis of such things.

But back to a solid point of agreement: Non state violence is not privileged over state violence for me. May I suggest that before we jump to a debate over the adoption of a state that we consider simply living in society?

We know what freedom is. The question is: If I am to agree to "give up" certain freedoms to "get along" with other people (in society), what should be the guidelines for that agreement?

As an aside, the existence of a state provides the following answer (as so clearly described by Hoppe): A certain group of individuals, having qualified as "members of the ruling class" according to the rules indicated in the constitution of the state, will have or claim monopoly authority to make final judgement and execute enforcement with respect to all disputes arising between individuals and also between individuals and the ruling class. This answer allows the possibility that the ruling class can seek out conflict with non-ruling individuals and then legitimately pass judgement against them. Thus, the ruling class has final say over all property, and life or death of all those subject to it. Hoppe asserts that no sane person would choose this answer.

Here are what I view as some reasonable guidelines:

0. If I give up a freedom, then others should agree to give up the same freedom.

1. Castle doctrine: Every individual should have a place to call his own and in which he is completely free from others.

Can we explicitly agree on those two? Could a significant number of people explicitly agree on those two?

And having gone down that road, let me suggest another road entirely: I think it's possible for certain groups of individuals to live in society with *complete* freedom. It all depends on their desires. If I have a desire to see others have their own spaces, then not only will I not violate those spaces or execute violence against those people in their spaces, I will work to help them have spaces *and* defend them. Thus, if we have a common desire to live together peacefully with each other and defend ourselves from outside aggressors, why can't we do it? What I referred to in my post above as restraint or discipline might also be called virtue. If my desires are guided by virtue---if my freedoms are suitably limited thereby---why should they even be limited by any explicit agreement.

This reminds me of a comment by Bill Buppert: I don't have anything against police or government. I just have no use for them.

It also reminds me of the book title "Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal" by Joel Salatin.

Cyril's picture

The consciousness of freedom

The consciousness of freedom does seem to imply that one can feel compelled to make the most serious accusations without concern whatsoever for the consequences against themselves by the stating their opinions:


Does it not?

Or, rephrased, would that be fair to say that this sort of consciousness would cease to exist the very moment that nobody is left to dare making such statements when they feel they can't hold them back any longer?

For, anyway, is there any man on earth with such powers that everybody else would have no other choice than to fear him as a would-be almighty god?

Where does that man live, if he exists, and are we not rightfully owed to be provided with some evidence about such supernatural superiority he has over all other men, women, nations?

I know, these are nothing but mostly-redundant questions - however, have they ever been answered in the light of recent (and ongoing) news that suggest only the same specific kind of answer? That is, that he does exist, and indeed it is perfectly "normal" for people to be taught more and more thoroughly that fearing him and perfect obedience to him is the only way to go... for everybody's "safety".

Are people not receiving this so generous teaching every day, by now - in this country?

(As this is the rather strange impression I have, anyway - and quite a peculiar one for me to have, in THIS COUNTRY.)

But hey, "just asking".

"Cyril" pronounced "see real". I code stuff.


"To study and not think is a waste. To think and not study is dangerous." -- Confucius

Michael Nystrom's picture

For most people freedom will forever remain a myth.

I'm still stuck at the beginning of your essay thinking about the correct definition of "freedom." If we take it that "freedom is the absence of coercion" it is unlikely that the majority of humans can every truly be free.

Right now I'm being coerced by the 12º cold outside, to stay here on the couch, nursing this coffee. I'd like to be out riding my bicycle, but the bitter cold is coercing me to stay in.

In the days of the caveman, it might have been the threat of being eaten by a sabertooth tiger. Try arguing your natural right to life with a beast of the animal kingdom! After you get eaten, you can plead your case to God about how your rights were violated by that tiger.

For some reason, people think it should be different with governments, because governments are creations of men. But governments take on lives of their own, just like that tiger.

There is another current Original discussing the topic of freedom. KineticX describes freedom as:

It is the REAL Freedom to speak, The REAL freedom to act, the REAL freedom to think, and to challenge the existing system without fear. The freedom to choose your own destiny and not be presided over by a thug who obtains his power through threat of violence.

His key to freedom seems to be without fear. Will humans ever be free of fear?

Say a gay man is afraid to come out of the closet to his parents, and lives a life of shame. Is that man free? His freedom is taken not by any government. It is taken by the psychological coercion that he ultimately places on himself. Maybe he values his parents view of him more than he values being true to himself.

But if one truly values freedom, one acts in the face of whatever consequences await: One is free to come out of the closet, to taunt a sabertooth tiger, or to not pay taxes. What limits freedom is fear: fear of consequences. Of being shunned, of being eaten, or of being thrown into jail.

Your essay brings up in me a question I have been pondering for some time about the NAP, something touch upon as well: What's so special about physical coercion?

What if someone gets up in your face and screams at you about what an idiot you are, how you're worthless, you're a disgrace, you're nothing. He's screaming so loud that his veins are popping out of his head, and his face is red like the devil's. And he does this to you day in and day out, but never strikes you. Never inflicts any violence on you. Is he still in harmony with the NAP?

Ultimately, the NAP is a nice idea, but we live in a physical world. In the physical world, physical force, whether it is inflicted by nature, a wild animal, a man, or a group of men ultimately trumps everything. Ultimately true freedom is a spiritual journey, and for most of us, freedom will forever remain a myth.

He's the man.

So true. Our freedom starts

So true. Our freedom starts with ourself. Freedom to set our own standards, whatever they are, and be free of the judgment of others. So few people achieve that, and for many, the bogey of Pride is the price of that self freedom.

We all remain in fear mostly of things not physical or outside ourselves, and so in the deeper sense slaves to our own internal fears more so than as slaves to others or governments.


Is it really so difficult to draw a distinction between "coercion of the weather" as "natural, and therefore fundamentally acceptable, coercion" and coercion from malicious, psychopathic humans?

It seems to me we're, on the whole, willing to confuse the two because we take the benefits of being temporarily spared unwanted natural coercion by externalizing the costs through societal structures which impose the other kind (mostly) on others. As long as we feel we are benefiting from the coercion of others and "getting something for nothing," then we have no problem with psychopathic coercion. It's only when we feel the boot of these psychopathic social structures on our own necks that we get upset.

Perhaps the other thing to mention is that human psychopathic coercion has inherent in it this idea of externalizing costs, and this readily extends to the natural world, or the "environment" if you like. And that makes all the difference. This also relates to the "higher principle." The higher principle is the morality of kindly use of the world.

Practically speaking, the elimination of taxation (or equivalently the use of violence against those who refuse to consent) would be a great step in the right direction. But it might not be enough. If it allowed voluntary defense of an honest sustainable way of life, then it would be enough.

In short, coercion (of the human variety) is something like half the equation. Responsibility and constraint is the other half. But recognizing and embracing the honest demands of nature and responding to them in a sustainable manner (even if that means death), it seems to me, is definitely desirable.

I agree. Make taxation voluntary and all services subject to...

competition from the marketplace.

We'll call the system - Anarcho-Capitalism.


Thanks, I hadn't seen this one the first time around.


this post suggests to me the next possible movie for movie night

The Shawshank Redemption.

This is a movie about freedom, about how freedom is a state of mind. The fact that this movie has been consistently rated #1 on imdb.com since 2008, suggests to me that the message of the movie resonates deeply with the human psyche.

“The welfare of the people in particular has always been the alibi of tyrants.” — Albert Camus

Yeah I was wanting to watch

Yeah I was wanting to watch that today for some reason.

Michael Nystrom's picture

I'd be up for watching it.

I'm not even sure if I've seen that movie, the whole thing. Maybe snips of it, on TV. I'd be up for it.

I'm watching the Matrix later this week, but there's no reason that these movie nights have to move in any kind of linear progression. I know that jrd has one in mind as well. But we can have multiple movie threads going on simultaneously.

This is kind of a live and let live place.

He's the man.

I like the direction of the

I like the direction of the new DP. I feel less stifled and less stifling to others.

It's time to be nice....

Until it's time to not be nice.

Cyril's picture

It wasn't impossible to answer.

It wasn't impossible to answer.

Someone did exactly that, and to the attention of the youth of his country, 200 years ago:


That answer has no holes that I would feel are still in need to be covered.

As far as I am concerned, and even if 200 years later, anyway.

"Cyril" pronounced "see real". I code stuff.


"To study and not think is a waste. To think and not study is dangerous." -- Confucius

Not until I tell people out

Not until I tell people out there become an internationalist learn oral traditions, learn to respect life. Make war on machines, marry your mother. Technology will enslave us. Buy my book! It's printed on bark!

Seriously though, I don't get

Seriously though, I don't get the whole non violence principal. If you're willing to yell at someone over something why not settle it in a pretty straight forward way. Melee combat I feel is honorable, even if it is an aggressive unprovoked attack. Say maybe a neighbor is tossing leaf clippings on your lawn, looking at your woman, or harboring desires regarding your longboat. You enslave his children, set his house on fire. He shall not bother you again.

I agree with your sentience.

I agree with your sentience.