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Coercion in Morality and Economics

Over at Public Discourse, Nathan Schlueter explains why he’s not a libertarian, providing concise conservative responses to 10 popular libertarian claims (HT). Given the recent back-and-forth between Acton Institute’s Joe Carter and Values & Capitalism’s Jacque Otto, it seems particularly timely for readers of this blog. As a semi-former semi-libertarian (convoluted enough?)—who still “crosses over” on occasion, by the way—each of Schlueter’s 10 claims is a point I have wrestled with quite aggressively. Yet as an “economics guy,” two of these have fought back more vigorously and more often than the rest. Here’s the first (or sixth?), followed by Schlueter’s response:
6. Virtue cannot be coerced, therefore government should not legislate morality. Coercive law cannot make people virtuous. But it can assist or thwart individuals in making themselves virtuous. Law is both coercive and expressive. Not only does it shape behavior by attaching to it penalties or rewards; it also helps shape attitudes, understandings, and character … The law, both by prohibition and by silence, is a powerful signal of acceptable behavior, and thus a powerful influence on character. When the behavior in question involves moral norms that are consequential for the rest of society, it is a proper object of law. This is not to say that the law must prohibit every vice or mandate every virtue, as libertarians often suggest. Aristotle, Aquinas, the Declaration itself all make clear that “prudence will dictate” whether the costs outweigh the benefits in concrete circumstances (e.g., difficulty of enforcement; more pressing needs with scarce resources; the danger of encouraging underground crime, etc.). But this is prudence in the service of principle, not mere pragmatism. (emphasis added)
“Coercion” covers politics broadly, not just economics, but in our discussions of the moral implications of our economic systems, the broad topic of “coerced” economic activity seems to be most prevalent. This is likely the case because it is the feature most widely ignored by progressives. In their constant claims of capitalism encouraging vice and/or diminishing our ability to serve others, progressives not only ignore that coercive redistribution is different from voluntary sacrifice, but go further, as I have said before, pursuing coercion as an ideal. This is an obvious mistake to both conservatives and libertarians, but for conservatives, as Schlueter notes, this need not mean that all coercion is naughty or unnecessary, even when it comes to economics. Yet when it comes to economics, some other key distinctions need to be made. I trust that many conservatives would hesitate to say that forcing some to pay for the necessities (or, nowadays, conveniences) of others “shapes behavior” or instills a proper sense of “duty” or “responsibility” in any positive, sustainable way. What sentiments of “generosity” or “responsibility” do you feel when viewing that cute little number the government sucks from your earnings statement? For the conservative, such coercion may be necessary or justified, but outside of instilling some basic willingness to contribute to general government, it does little in terms of personal or cultural moral development, and, indeed, may be seen as an inevitable slant toward moral regress that we need to counterbalance the best we can. Yet again, this does not mean that all coercion is unhelpful for moral development, and here, I think the conservative should mostly rely on the argument provided in Schlueter’s next response:
7. Government should not interfere in the free market. Because they oppose commerce in things that are intrinsically immoral and harmful, such as hard drugs, prostitution, or obscene materials, conservatives are accused by libertarians of opposing the free market. This is false. Conservatives value the free market as much as libertarians, as a means for mutually beneficial exchanges, as an occasion for the exercise of virtues such as creativity, cooperation, industry, honesty, and thrift, and as an indispensable source of information (through the pricing mechanism) for individuals on the best use of resources. But conservatives oppose the “total market,” in which all human associations, such as families and churches, are falsely remade in the image of ordinary contracts, and in which all voluntary (short of force or fraud) contracts between consenting adults are enforced by law. In the libertarian universe there are no citizens, only consumers. For conservatives, private property and the free market are important institutions for human flourishing, but their value and success critically depend upon non-market institutions such as the family and the political association, as well as a moral and cultural milieu favorable to honesty, trust, industry, and other important virtues. When the use of private property and market exchanges have spillover effects that adversely effect these other institutions and individuals, they are subject to reasonable limits by law. This is the understanding of law and morality that lies behind the common law, was embraced by the states after the American Revolution, and although under steady assault by modern liberals and libertarians, continues in America to this day. (emphasis added)
This hits at the deeper level of why conservatives think coercion in economics is sometimes necessary to preserve order. It is here, I believe, that conservatives find themselves fighting between two forms of utopianism: one which actively pursues coercion with little regard for real-life liberty, and one which actively pursues so-called liberty with little regard for real-life humans (or the real extent of certain real-life consequences). Schlueter points out this distinguisher in his #9 response, which I believe draws the clearest line between both orientations. Conservatism’s “true realism,” as Schlueter notes, is summed up aptly by James Madison, in a line from Federalist No. 57 containing plenty for both libertarians and progressives to detest:
The aim of every political constitution is first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.
For these, the conservative should fight—for individual virtue and a common good. Let us not run away from either.