What’s worse than coercion?

Desperation is coercive, or so it is said. The analogy between having a gun to your head and starvation at your door is a good one, as far as decision making is concerned.

So why do we always state this just before doing the last thing we would do to someone with a gun to their head? 
Our reasoning goes: 
  1. She’s only working for nothing/selling her kidneys/poisoning her water supply because she has no other option.
  2. Therefore she’s effectively being coerced.
  3. That’s terrible. 
  4. We won’t allow it. We won’t buy her t-shirts or her kidneys.
  5. Now she can’t be coerced. Hoorah!
So we take away the ‘not getting shot in the head’ option. 
This would be fine if we also gave another choice. However if we did that that the person would no longer be desperate, and thus no longer ‘coerced’ anyway (and so there would be no need to interfere). There should never be a need to prevent coercion by taking away choices.
In our analogy, there is a difference between preventing coercion by forcing someone to be shot and by giving them a safe exit. 

9 responses to “What’s worse than coercion?

  1. That’s a pithy summary of the reasoning pattern. :-)I suppose that people reason like this because they imagine there are better long-run options, which people forgo when there’s a desperate but short-run option.This might, in fact, be true in the case of selling kidneys – I recall reading about research which showed that people who sell them (for $500 a pop or so) end up no better in the long run than people who in similar situations did not sell an organ.They just have one kidney less, or possibly they’re dead due to complications.

  2. When assessing this from a utilitarian perspective, though, you need to also count the benefit of the kidney recipient who might have otherwise not lived to receive a kidney.

  3. I’m in agony because several years ago I saw a beautiful cartoon illustrating (literally) this point.It showed a starving third-worlder and an American activist gloating that his group managed to shut-down the local sweatshops so the fellow wouldn’t be “exploited” any more.My agony comes from the fact that I lost the bookmark for the website, and so I can’t post it on my office door (when I get an office).

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  5. Your analysis is good, as far as it goes. I agree we should not hinder poor people from gaining what they can in the marketplace. But we can also, at the same time, work for a better world in which markets are not imposed on people.

    • Matthew Fallshaw

      “markets are not imposed”? Can you say that without the word “markets”? Opportunity for voluntary exchange of goods and services is not imposed?

    • What does someone who doesn’t have a market imposed on them look like in an economic sense? Are you talking about subsistence farmers here?

  6. Forgive the late reply here, just trawling for HIC. It occurs to me that the counterargument is a game of chicken on someone else’s behalf happening here. The reasoning would probably go something like this:

    1) Society is more likely to help poor people when they’re obviously otherwise doomed.
    2) People with an option of not being shot are not obviously doomed.
    (therefore – 3) Society is more likely to help people who don’t have an option of not being shot.
    4) If society helps poor people, it will lead to better outcomes than if they’re left to the gun-to-their-head scenario.
    (therefore – by semi-valid induction – 5) Taking away people’s option of not being shot will be more likely to lead to better outcomes.

    I don’t know if I agree with it, but this doesn’t seem like an obviously unreasonable argument to me. Given that the optimal strategy in chicken (if you believe the other person has any willingness to surrender) is to visibly rip out your steering wheel, not buying T-shirts/kidneys seems like a close approximation here – except that it’s someone else’s steering wheel.

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