Force, Fraud and Question-Begging

Those of you who haven't been following Bryan Caplan and Will Wilkinson's exchange on Rothbard and the role of fraud in libertarian theory really ought to do yourselves a favor and go have a look. Here's Bryan's initial post, Will's response and Bryan's rejoinder.

I can't do the entire exchange justice here, but the gist of the disagreement is Will's objection that:

Even when I was a believer in Rand/Rothbard-style libertarianism, I found the ‘or’ in the “no force or fraud” formulation of the non-coercion principle a bit vexing and suspect. It seems too frank an admission that fraud isn’t force or agression [sic] at all. It’s another morally questionable way to get someone to do something they might not otherwise choose to do. But there are yet still other morally questionable ways to get people to do things. Why not add more ‘or’s?

Bryan finds Will's objection puzzling:

Frankly, I don't see the problem. If you accept the initial libertarian equation of "coercion" with non-consensual use of others' property, then the impermissibility of fraud follows. If you offer me a Mitsubishi 5500 projector in exchange for $2000, and hand me a box of straw instead, you are using my $2000 without my consent (which was contingent, of course, on you giving me the projector).

I'm with Will on this one. Indeed, I'm quite puzzled by Bryan's reply, as it looks like it pretty blatantly begs the question. Is it me, or doesn't this exchange really boil down to something like:

    Will: It's strange to cash out "coercion" as meaning "no force or fraud."
    Bryan: It's not strange at all, as long as you accept that coercion really just means force or fraud.

I mean, the question of whether to include "or fraud" as part of the definition of coercion is exactly the question at issue here. To then just define coercion as "non-consensual use of others' property" just is another way of saying "force or fraud." This isn't to say that Bryan's definition is wrong. But it's not a particularly good argument. Indeed, it's not really an argument at all. It's more an eloquent "Is too!"

As for the underlying question...I think that Will is right there, too. It's not clear to me that fraud is really coercion. But that requires a longer post. And maybe a bit more thought and reading first.

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The core of the argument

The core of Will's argument seems to be:

But there are yet still other morally questionable ways to get people to do things. Why not add more ‘or’s?

That is, Will is saying that the common factor of force and fraud, and the common reason for prohibiting them, is that they are both morally questionable ways to get people to do things - of which there are many besides force and fraud. Therefore the logic implicit in the libertarian prohibition of force and fraud, if applied consistently, must also include these other questionable ways. "Force or fraud" is inconsistent and arbitrary in stopping where it stops and failing to include the other questionable ways, and therefore libertarianism is inconsistent and arbitrary.

Bryan answered Will's argument by offering a common reason for prohibiting force and fraud that is not as all-encompassing as Will's "morally questionable ways to get people to do things." Bryan's common reason is:

non-consensual use of others' property

Bryan places the sanctity of property at the center, as the common element underlying the prohibitions of force and fraud. This common element is less all-encompassing than Will's "morally questionable ways to get people to do things", thus taking the air out of Will's argument, which really relies on the common denominator of force and fraud being all-encompassing.

Maybe you have rebutted Bryan's response, but I read your entry a few times and have so far failed to discern a response to this last point.

Let me derive the prohibition against force from the sanctity of property. A person's body is his property. Force is - well, let's given an example. To shoot someone is force. Shooting a person's body is an offense because it alters (a species of use) his property without his consent. Shooting someone is, therefore, wrong for precisely the same reason that burning someone's car is wrong. Both use his property without his consent. Thus we may derive the prohibition against force from the prohibition against the non-consensual use of another's property.

You can think about an exchange of property in different ways and I am not sure how to think about it, but to apply what appears to be Bryan Caplan's thinking about it, both sides of an exchange are logically linked. If you buy X and are instead given Y (the seller having defrauded you), and if you paid for X, then that money which you paid for X is still your property even though the other party has come into possession of it. It has not stopped being your property because the change in ownership is dependent on the other side of the exchange having been executed as well, and since you did not receive X but instead received Y, the other side of the exchange was not executed.

I am not sure this is the best way of understanding exchange, but I do not currently have any particular reason to reject it.

It's about autonomy, not aggression

Two cents:

I don’t obsess about aggression; I obsess about autonomy. Thus, the question about whether to call fraud a species of “aggression” or not just doesn’t interest me. I’m more interested in exploring what autonomy consists of, and its relationship to coercion and fraud.

Developmental psychologists recognize the value of predictability – of prediction, planning, anticipation, and fulfillment – to anyone’s ability to gain a sense of mastery and confidence in their world. Dogs that are subject to threat of physical pain can nevertheless lead apparently happy lives provided that they can also learn behaviors that let them avoid the pain. But when the rules suddenly change and nothing the dog tries enables it to evade the punishment, the dogs come to evidence “learned helplessness,” an apparent realization that the dog exercises no control over his circumstances. Ironically, the dogs are healthiest when they have an (illusory) sense of control than when they have an (accurate) sense that they lack control.

Similarly, people can lead normal lives in the midst of poverty and injustice – indeed, most of the world does – provided that the poverty and injustice are reasonably predictable and techniques can be developed to cope with them. It’s people living in poverty, injustice and CHAOS that are really screwed. It’s a sense of disillusionment and being out of control – especially in a violent setting – that makes people paranoid (and that often makes them libertarian!)

What is culture other that the propensity of a group of people that associate with each other to form patterns of behavior? Why do people love patterns so? Who knows – but it’s hard not to observe that pattern are, by definition, predictable. People love being able to anticipate.

In many contexts, predictability is adaptive. When you’re in unpredictable circumstances, all your senses may be heightened, but you’re attention is diffused, your adrenaline is pumping and your body is stressed. In contrast, when you believe that you're in predictable circumstances you can relax and focus your attention on the new, the surprising, the novel. That tends to be a more efficient way to live.

Courts regularly recognize the importance of predictability. Property rights – especially the right to exclusive use, to avoid trespass – reflect the importance of maintaining predictability. It matters not whether the property is big or small; what matters to the court is that the owner gets to exercise her discretion about how the property is used (and not used), and can plan accordingly. Courts bar government agencies from withdrawing public benefits without due process, arguing that if a legislature provided a benefit, then people have a property right in those stream of benefits, and should be able to count on them. And courts enforce remedies for violations of contract on the theory that a person deprived of her “investment-backed expectation” is deprived of property – that is, something she was counting on.

Thus, I value autonomy because I want to have the sense of mastery that comes from a modicum of predictability and control. And I only get that to the extent that I can limit the number of people who can impinge upon my life without my consent. No, I never get pure autonomy; I can’t control the weather, for example. But we can structure institutions to maximize the degree to which we have autonomy.

Does someone using force against me alter my sense of control, my ability to predict future events, my ability to make and implement plans? Yup.

Does someone defrauding me alter my sense of control, my ability to predict future events, my ability to make and implement plans? Yup.

Does someone maliciously withholding her affections from me alter my sense of control, my ability to predict future events, my ability to make and implement plans? Well, to some extent, I guess. But it’s hard not to conclude that any effort to compel her to have affection for me would obviously impinge upon her autonomy more.

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