Thursday, March 3, 2011

Coercion and Choice

@Bill Ross

Thank you for the thorough post.

When he was alive, my great-grandfather (call him “Pops”) would tell the story of his old neighborhood, where he had a small market. He lived most of his life there, and knew many of the other shopkeepers, as they all grew up together in the neighborhood.

One day the police came to see him. It turns out pops was paying $20 a week to some local guy (call him “Muggsy”) for “protection”. Of course, the “protection” offered was to be protected from further aggression by Muggsy. I think you get the picture.

The officer wanted to know why Pops was paying this to a known ruffian, in fact Pops was funding Muggsy’s illegal acts. Pops explained that he initially tried to protest, but Muggsy would have none of it. One day Muggsy showed Pops a picture of a young girl playing in the schoolyard. That girl is my grandmother. Pops got the point, especially after his fellow shopkeeper went to the hospital for six weeks with multiple broken bones. Everyone knew why he was beaten, no one had to say anything directly.

So Pops explained to the officer that he found no good way out of the situation. In fact, it was when Muggsy told Pops to avoid telling the cops when he showed Pops his daughter’s picture. Besides, Pops was no dummy. He knew that the cops were in on Muggsy’s racket. Pops knew he had nowhere to turn, so it was best to just pay and shut up.

Pops now had a problem. The officer said that Pops was under arrest for aiding a known criminal enterprise. Pops was stunned, yet at the same time resigned to this. Both feelings were caused by the same irreconcilable conflict. He was coerced, and there was no good choice for him to make in this situation. Sure, he sometimes thought about moving to another town, but even if he could scrape together the capital to do it (hard to do when Muggsy was sure to take every excess earnings, thus disallowing savings), he also knew, from stories told by his cousins who lived elsewhere, that pretty much every city he went to offered the exact same condition – every town had a Muggsy. Pops knew nothing good would come from him fighting Muggsy, as he would likely end up leave his family helpless, as the family was in no condition to care for themselves…too young, too old, etc.

End of story.

Now, there isn’t one ounce of truth in the story I just told. Just using it for an example.

Choice (and therefore responsibility for choices made) ends where coercion begins. I do not say this is an absolute, one-zero event, as even in situations of complete coercion, we make judgments about how far we are willing to go, and how much we will protest (either actively or passively). Alternatively, in cases of relatively minor coercion, individuals are not automatically excused from any and all acts thereafter committed. Even major coercion does not relieve one from receiving justice for major crimes. “I was just following orders” may be valid for cleaning the latrine or guarding prisoners of war, but not for the uses that this statement has purportedly been used for in the past.

I consider this in today’s world. There is virtually nowhere to go in this world to avoid supporting one regime or another. Yes, there are relative differences in the regimes, but even these must be weighed by evidence and personal circumstance.

Therefore I find escape by jurisdiction is not a possibility (perhaps to degrees, but you don’t seem to leave room for degrees in your statements). What about escape within a jurisdiction, as you point out you have done to some (or some great) degree? I can imagine this, but not absolutely.

Certainly, one can decide to not provide service to another of his fellows. No income tax. I got that, perhaps with independent wealth (but where did this wealth come from? Was it not taxed at one point in time?). What about no gasoline tax, no property tax, no sales tax, etc? How are these avoided? I can envision a life of complete sustenance and solitude on a farm, never transacting business with anyone else. But how does one have a farm without paying property tax on it? Perhaps lease it from the owner? But then the owner is paying property tax on it, and the tenant is funding this. The circle has no end point. What about going to the market in town? Even doing it by horse and wagon still places you on roads paid for by the public purse. What about going to court for the inevitable fight? This certainly requires a trespass of some sort, whatever fully justifiable reasons one might have. Tax on the cable bill? Internet connection? (Wait, how does one get around that one and participate in this forum? :-))

Certainly, one can choose to provide useful services to another of his fellows and not declare the income or pay the tax. I have read of such people. Cash transactions and barter can be utilized, and are certainly difficult for authorities to track. (Wait, no cash transactions, as that is using fiat currency which inherently represents stolen wealth.) Living in the underground economy is a difficult decision for anyone to make, as the risks seem significant, even more so if one has to think about caring and feeding of a family. And still I find no answer to property taxes, sales taxes, using public roads, etc. or using cash….

So I come back to judgment and degrees. Yes, I can agree that to varying degrees, all residents of a geographical region are in some way responsible for the actions of those who claim governance over that region. Either in this world or the next, there may even be judgment. To be just, this judgment must recognize: the same point where coercion begins is also the same point marking the beginning of the end of choice. And without free choice in action, it is difficult to assign responsibility. It takes…judgment. And this isn't absolute.