Two Syllogisms about Government Action

This post began with an idea of a simple syllogism (A) and possible objections to that syllogism. Ultimately, I came to see that the objections (likely) succeed but that made me realize my core idea was really my standard anti-paternalist view.

(A) The syllogism

1. Government actions entail coercion.

2. Coercion entails that someone is made worse off.

3. A move is Pareto optimal if someone is made better off and no one is made worse off.

4. Government actions cannot be Pareto optimal.

(B) Discussion

I wanted the argument in (A) to be sound. I think it’s not, because premise 2 is (likely) false. Someone might be coerced and yet be better off. How might someone be coerced and yet better off? The intuition behind premise 2 is, after all, straightforward: if you have to coerce me to X its because I didn’t want to X, so when I do X, I am worse off. (I don’t think this entails a completely subjective conception of the good; more on that below.) Put another way, X is against my interests. We might add that most of us have an interest in choosing on our own regardless of what we choose and that interest itself is set back when we are coerced. Nonetheless, it’s a common idea amongst political theorists that one can be coerced and better off.

One standard reason it is suggested that people can be coerced and yet better off is that we (at least some of us) actually want to be coerced, via taxation, to pay to help others and so when we are coerced it is really only superficially coercion. In fact, though, it’s really consensual (or something we would consent to if we thought about it). Those that make such claims add that most of us want to be charitable, but realize that we may fail to be if left to our own devices, so we should be coerced into giving “charity.” (Scare quotes as this is unlike genuine charity, which entails that one gives of one’s own accord to help another.) Typically, the claim is not that we merely want to be coerced individually, but that we want everyone (or everyone who can afford it) to be coerced in the specified way, so as to solve a collective action problem—we want ourselves and others to contribute to the solution to that problem but worry we won’t when given the option. Whether that addition is included or not, the point is that then when we are coerced to provide aid to others, we actually get what we want and so are better off, not worse off. We are better off because we want to live in a world where people are taken care of—where people do not starve, die of easily treated illnesses, are educated, treated justly, etc. I don’t find this persuasive. It would only hold, I assume, for those that have a particular psychological makeup.

A second possibility is that one can be better off even though coerced if compensated. The idea here is that while one is made worse off by the coercion—at least because one is prevented from doing what one would choose (our interest in doing what we wish is thwarted)—but is somehow compensated for the worsening enough to make one better off. There are two general ways this can happen. First, though being taxed would set back one’s interests, the government could provide you a direct benefit that (more than) compensates for the loss. This seems unlikely since the direct benefit provided would require further resources, meaning the government would have to coerce still more people in order to provide the benefit. The problem would thus simply be pushed back a step—are the people coerced to pay for the new benefit also better off even though coerced?

A final (third) possibility is that we can be better off even though coerced, because of (a) the objective component of well-being and (b) indirect benefits. This is plausible: one might be better off because although one was not allowed to choose how to spend one’s money, one received membership in a better, more educated and more just society than one would have otherwise been in. The indirect benefit here is not, at least initially, monetary. There is simply great satisfaction in living in a more educated and just society and though such benefits are not easily quantified, they surely matter. And, we can add, it is likely that a more educated and more just society would be more economically advanced, so the indirect material benefit—measurable—might be quite significant. (Those advocating the first idea above might treat these as things rational agents know and accept, so consent to.) Indeed, we should recognize that people often have subjective interests in things that are bad for them and it’s not unreasonable to think that there are objective interests that matter more. I don’t allow my child to eat only ice cream and cookies even though that may well be what he prefers, for example. Letting him indulge his subjective interests would leave him leading a worse life than he could—as an objective matter.

I tend to think an adequate account of the good must have an objective component like that just roughly articulated. That there is an objective element of well-being and that such an element may be better achieved with coercion than without, however, does not settle the issue. At least, it doesn’t for anyone that rejects paternalism. The core issue, after all, is not whether it is permissible to coerce children (to eat well, rest, attend to their hygiene, do their school work, etc). We are concerned about government coercion of rational adults.

As frequent readers likely realize, I reject paternalism. For a great recent work explaining that rejection, see William Glod’s excellent book Why Its OK To Make Bad Choices. Rejecting paternalism does not entail rejecting the claim that there are objective facts about what makes people better off. It entails only rejecting the use of such facts as a reason to coerce people. Put this to the side.

Given that there is an objective component of well-being and that it is at least possible that government can know what will make people better off (not a small assumption), we should admit that premise 2 is false—coercion can make people better off. This is both because their subjective desires may, if satisfied, make them worse off regardless of anything else and because of indirect benefits that result from the coercion (especially if it solves collective action problems).

Where are we left? Premise 2 is likely false. The syllogism is unsound. Nonetheless, I oppose government paternalism. So…

(C) Another syllogism

1. Government actions entail coercion.

2. If coercion makes the coerced better off, it is permissible

3. Government coercion makes the coerced better off.

4. Government action is permissible.

(D) Discussion

Here, I think, we need to explicitly recognize that one may be better off in one way while being worse off in another—and whether one is better or worse off overall would then be an open question. (This is implicit in both the second and third paths discussed in (C) above.)

When government uses coercion to improve society in the way that the third path in (B) assumes, those coerced are treated disrespectfully. I think that weighs extremely heavily in the final calculus determining permissibility.

The situation is analogous to a parent offering a child a delicious chocolate shake to which they surreptitiously added a vegetable (or medicine) the child hates. If successful, this may well make the child better off, but it does so by treating the child as… a child. This is, we assume, ok when dealing with children, but is not OK—or at least may not be—when dealing with an adult. Not letting an adult make the choice to eat (or not) the vegetable is disrespectful. It treats the adult as a child. In that regard—which I take to be of significant importance—the adult is made worse off.

In a fashion similar to that of tricking the adult to take their medicine, coercing adults to pay for things they do not want to, is disrespectful to the coerced. That the coercion would be in the service of making the world better for them, as well as those directly aided, does not change that. That disrespect weighs so heavy that I am doubtful we can say those coerced are overall better off. We might say that some of them are—presumably those who upon learning of how they and others benefit are comfortable with having been coerced (to whom the first justification in (B) above would appeal). I suspect, however, that some will not be so sanguine. They may well be worse off overall. Government coercion would be impermissible on these grounds.

The second syllogism (C) is, it seems, as unsound (because premise 3 is at least sometimes false) as the first (A). A government action may be Pareto optimal; it may also be unacceptably paternalist and impermissible for that reason.

(E) A final note

Nothing said here, of course, entails a claim that we shouldn’t try to solve collection action problems or try to make people better off. Probably we should. But we should do so by trying to persuade them, rationally, to make choices that will lead them to be better off and, where appropriate, solve the collection action problems that contribute to that.

50 thoughts on “Two Syllogisms about Government Action”

  1. I think there is a very important error in the reasoning here: the claim that there is an objective component to well-being (or perhaps the term “well-being” is circular as a metric).

    There is objectivity in facts, but there is no objectivity in people’s preferences and values. Whatever a person’s “well-being” is intended to mean, it cannot reasonably be divorced from that person’s values.

    And this is why choice is so important. It is literally the only way to actually gauge a person’s values and therefore also their “well-being” if we’re going to use that term in a way that is meaningful to libertarians.

    Therefore, coercion must always make a person worse off. If the person desires the coercive policy then it is not coercion. I have a friend who likes the fact that his paycheck includes mandatory tax withholding because it forces him to engage in a desired savings process that he otherwise would not undertake. As silly as I think that is, if given the choice by the IRS to receive the money or have it withheld, I genuinely believe he would choose to have the money withheld. But then it is not coercion because he would choose that process.

    But the IRS cannot possibly know that as to everyone (see Hayek’s knowledge problem), and therefore the process is coercive for most people and necessarily makes those people worse off.

    The original syllogism is correct.


    1. Much as I want to agree that the original syllogism works, I can’t. You say there “there is no objectivity in people’s preferences and values.” Of course, there is an objective answer about what any particular individual prefers or values–and I am committed to accepting that their answer should be accepted by others. Still–and perhaps more importantly–it seems clear that someone may have an objectively bad preference or value. Someone that values causing pain in others has a bad value, for example. Someone who thinks Bud Light is the best beer in the world or that the chocolate in M&Ms is the best chocolate in the world, for different examples, is simply mistaken. We can assume they are right about their own preferences, of course. But because their preferences are for things that are not objectively the best, they aren’t likely to do as well as they could. My own view, of course, is that that is fine; they should be allowed to live the life they think is best for them. But I don’t see any reason to think we have to say they are right about this.


  2. Dan, I agree with your conclusion but not for the reason you give. There _is_ an objective component to our well-being, but _nevertheless_ we should reject coercion (of adults by the state), because one of the objective components of our well-being is freedom to act on our choices and values (even when these are wrong) provided that those actions don’t violate another’s rights. Hayek on p. 134 of CofL has a good explanation of this; also p. 90 of Rasmussen and Den Uyl’s NoL.


    1. Aeon-We agree, but I don’t think we agree with Dan. That freedom is an objective component of well being is why we reject paternalism (and the syllogism in C) but it doesn’t make the first syllogism (A) sound. Or am I missing something?


  3. The 2nd premise in (A) trades on an ambiguity – the coerced could better off in some narrow sense but the objection to coercion is that it’s harmful in some other sense. E.g., being coerced to wear a seat belt does make you safer if there’s an accident, but that doesn’t mean it’s not bad to be coerced. So (A) is sound in one way. But the reason someone might want to save (A) is based on that ambiguity.


  4. You may be making this too hard. Consider the classic Prisoners’ Dilemma: if a third party (the mob boss) coerces both of them into cooperating with each other, they are both better off than they would have been without the coercion. This is the standard example of a collective action problem: at the margin one may be better off to take action A if others are free to do as they please; but being forced to take action B – along with all the others – may yield an even better outcome.


    1. T Boyle, you’re mistaken.

      Marginal analysis is helpful here.

      In a prisoner’s dilemma the highest payoff to A comes from A defecting and B not defecting. Cooperation results in the highest _joint_ payoff not the highest payoff to A.

      Coercion from the mob boss can come in three different forms:

      1) Boss coerces A and B.
      2) Boss coerces only A.
      3) Boss coerces only B.

      A’s highest payoff arises from 3, not 1. Therefore at the margin A is not better off by being coerced. A is better off by only B being coerced (and of course B is worse off and therefore the coercion is not a Pareto move).


      1. A side discussion with Aeon leads me to post a follow up.

        The payoff matrix for a prisoner’s dilemma is such that A’s payoff is always made worse at the margin by being coerced. A only benefits when B is coerced.

        Therefore, A’s situation can only be improved by the coercion of B – never by the coercion of A.


  5. But Andrew, here’s where I am with Dan – your examples about objectively good beer or chocolate don’t work; those really are completely subjective, and that’s the sort of thing that pro-coercion types run with. If there’s objectively better chocolate, then we get a slippery slope about all sorts of things the state knows better than we do.


    1. Oh, I find it pretty much unfathomable that there isn’t objectively better chocolate. And I simply see no way to argue that there aren’t objectively better ways to lead a life. A rich kid might be able to lead his entire life getting stoned everyday without causing any problems for anyone else. (Enough of a trust fund to last until he dies of old age and to pay a butler the entire time.) I am inclined to think he should not be interfered with (friends and family should try to persuade him to do better), but it seems clear to me that he would be leading an objectively worse life than he could.


      1. Andrew, I’m not 100% sure whether your chocolate comment is serious, but I’ll assume it is because it illustrates a very important concept.

        There is no such thing as objectively better chocolate. All taste is subjective. The most one could say is something along the lines of:

        1) Most people prefer Lindt to M&Ms.
        2) 100% of professional pastry chefs prefer Lindt to M&Ms.
        3) I prefer Lindt to M&Ms.
        4) Everyone human who ever tasted chocolate, but you, prefers Lindt to M&Ms.

        That’s pretty much it – some form of one of those three statements. None of those turns taste into an objective thing like 1+1=2.

        This is the same for all values. Value is always subjective, and choices are always based on a combination of facts with values.

        So, a prospective coercer can determine facts but cannot know what a person’s subjective values are (again, see Hayek). The only way to learn what a person’s values are is to ask him his preferences (and that doesn’t always get you the truth either), but if his preference aligns with the prospective coercer’s intention then you have consent, not coercion.


      2. There are 2 possible responses: (1) it doesn’t matter if it’s fully objectively true, it’s intersubjectively true or something like that. (2) no, it really is objectively true. I accept #2. I’m not really sure about chocolate, but I am sure about values. Freedom, autonomy, and toleration, for examples are all objectively valuable. That doesn’t mean, I admit, that the presence in every life makes that life better—because there may be other factors that prevent this. Something can be objectively valuable and nonetheless be worse for someone in a particular situation. (That too would be objective.). Importantly, that there are objective values does not mean everyone will accept those values as values. It also does not exclude there being subjective values. Free trade works because we subjectively value the things we trade. But we shouldn’t go from that to the idea that there is only subjective value.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Andrew, I like this: “Free trade works because we subjectively value the things we trade. But we shouldn’t go from that to the idea that there is only subjective value.” Another way to put that is, it’s _because_ values of the sort you’re talking about are subjective, that freedom is objectively valuable. I think I made that point in my IHS video on subjective and objective freedom.


      4. Yes. So you agree there are objective values. Why not go the extra step and say there are (or at least can be) objective facts about whether a life is (or, given certain choices, would be) better or worse?


      5. “Freedom, autonomy, and toleration, for examples are all objectively valuable.”

        Well, no, none of those things are/were valuable to Hitler, Mao, Castro, Stalin, Xi, Lee Kwan , or Krotus.

        They are valuable to you and me.

        They are valuable to people who can reap the benefits of them, but they are not valuable to people who benefit most from committing murder, torture, enslavement, and other atrocities.

        Some people are, themselves, better off as brutal dictators than living among free people.

        Freedom, autonomy, and toleration are valuable to most people but not to everyone.


      6. They weren’t valuable to those horrible leaders. And they were in the wrong. That is part of why we all agree they were horrible! (Btw, they probably would value those things for themselves!)


      7. Dan, I agree that Stalin and Krotus didn’t value freedom, but that’s not the same thing as saying that freedom is valuable. People can be wrong. It’s objectively valuable for human society to have freedom, and subjectivity about valuation doesn’t negate that. Think about protein. Protein is objectively valuable for human nutrition, so if someone said “eww, no protein for me,” that person would simply be mistaken about the non-individuating conditions of human well-being. TL;DR:
        I can value things I shouldn’t value, and I can fail to value things I should.

        Liked by 1 person

      8. Andrew, you said “So you agree there are objective values. Why not go the extra step and say there are (or at least can be) objective facts about whether a life is (or, given certain choices, would be) better or worse?” I don’t disagree about that.

        Liked by 1 person

      9. “Dan, I agree that Stalin and Krotus didn’t value freedom, but that’s not the same thing as saying that freedom is valuable. People can be wrong.”

        But they weren’t wrong, Aeon. People like Hitler and Maltuvis were almost certainly better off as dictators than if they had lived in a free society.

        If you ask Xi if would he prefer living in a free China and he says “no” in what sense would he be wrong? He’s clearly better off under the current system.

        “It’s objectively valuable for human society to have freedom,”

        Societies don’t have values. Individuals have values. It is valuable to the vast majority of humans to both have freedom and for other to also have freedom, but that’s not true for every human.


  6. Your stance on chocolate is a little too Platonic for me. People like what they like. But I perceive you’re using that as some kind of parable for the fact that people could be living better lives than they are, like the wastrel in your example. I agree about that, and also that we shouldn’t coerce those people. So I guess the only bone of contention is whether it’s as problematic as you think to accept syllogism A’s 2nd premise.


  7. “Typically, the claim is not that we merely want to be coerced individually, but that we want everyone (or everyone who can afford it) to be coerced in the specified way, so as to solve a collective action problem—we want ourselves and others to contribute to the solution to that problem but worry we won’t when given the option.”

    My comments about the prisoner’s dilemma, above, actually generalize more broadly to collective action problems as a whole.

    Collective action problems are not solved by you being coerced. Collective action problems are solved by everyone else being coerced.

    When we view it at the margin it becomes apparent. If you think a valuable goal can be achieved through taxation, it’s not taxing _you_ that matters. It’s taxing everyone _else_ that matters. _You_ can always choose to contribute to the project. The collective action problem arises because, even though you choose to contribute to the project, you cannot control what others do.

    At the margin, there is no benefit to you from coercing you. You’ve already decided to pay for the project. The benefit to you arises from coercing others, not you.


    1. You might not have decided to pay! You might be like the person who wants to want to pay but knows they won’t if they aren’t coerced. You might also realize that it would be unfair to coerce others but not you.


      1. “You might not have decided to pay!”

        With the collective action problem it doesn’t matter if you pay. What matters is that everyone else is forced to pay. The project still happens, and you are better off. Coercing _you_ does not make your situation better.

        “You might be like the person who wants to want to pay but knows they won’t if they aren’t coerced.”

        That’s not coercion. That’s consent.

        “You might also realize that it would be unfair to coerce others but not you.”

        Again, that not coercion. That’s consent.


      2. Disagree. If you think this is consent, you can accept the first path laid out in (B) of the post. If I want to want X but do not want X, my wanting to want it does not make your action non-coercive and it does not mean I consent.


  8. Your assumption is that government, right or wrong, at least tries to make everyone better off. In fact, government is influenced by special interest groups, and therefore acts in their interest. In the result, most of us become worse off.


  9. Reconsider the initial proposition. Take “Government actions entail coercion” and substitute the word ‘Employer’; is the proposition still correct? If not, why not?


    1. It would be incorrect as employees can quit. If they really can’t quit, they are slaves, not employees. If they “can’t” quit because there are no other jobs available and they need the pay, there may be coercion, but not by the employer; call it “situational coercion.” In that last case, it is likely that something should be done to improve the situation, but the employer is nonetheless in a different position than is government when it issues commands.


      1. 1. Citizens can move or emigrate.
        2. It is common for employees to have no real option to quit.
        3. If an employer takes advantage of “situational coercion”, then that employer **certainly** is coercive. All coercion exploits a vulnerability.
        4. The ” different positions” of “government” vs “employer” only means that coercion comes in different forms, not that one is better than the other.


      2. 1. Not without government approval.
        2. Please explain.
        3. I disagree. Imagine I have a used X (whatever that might be). I like the X and am happy to have it. You really want the X and I am the only one that has one. You offer me $50. I decline. You offer me $100. I decline. We go all the way to $1000. I accept. I suppose I have taken advantage of the situation, but I have not coerced you. You could have refrained from buying the X. Similarly, the fact that employees have to earn money and there is (assume) only one employer (perhaps dependent on what you mean in your #2) does not render that employer a coercer.
        4. Situational coercion and agential coercion seem to me very different. Both may be bad, but only in the latter is there a coercer to be blamed.


  10. 1. In my entire life I’ve moved numerous times, and never needed to get governmental approval.
    2. The “marketplace” that sets wages and benefits consists of employers. Employee-employer bargaining on those is rare. Quitting often means losing healthcare, and risks ones family’s welfare. Wage slavery is common.
    3a. If X is a job, the bargaining you describe is a fantasy.
    3b. If the employee has no choices about employers, and the employer lowballs, then the employer is DEFINITELY coercive.
    3c. If 3b is incorrect, then putting a gun in your face and saying “your money or your life” would not be a robbery; it’s an offer.
    4. “Agential coercion” cannot exist without situational coercion. If you don’t want to be mugged (“agential”) then you should have avoided the situation. if you could not have avoided the situation, the mugging is still blameworthy. When an agent exploits a coercive situation, blame attaches.


    1. 1. You cannot leave the US without permission of the IS gov. You can move from state to state, of course. I assumed we were talking federal. Much the same is true in most countries.
      2. Good thing would be to separate health insurance from jobs. The rest is mostly false. There’s always some negotiation; of course most of us don’t manage to negotiate up 20x.
      3a. Agreed, but not relevant to my point which was just about presence or absence of coercion.
      3b. Maybe there is situational coercion.
      3c. I don’t see how that follows. Seems like a pretty big difference to me.
      4. I think this takes situational coercion to be something broader than I intended. It’s pretty clear that whether or not you could avoid the dark alley, if you are mugged there the mugger is the agent to be blamed. By contrast, if an employer offers you a job, it’s a big stretch to say they are blameworthily coercing you. More broadly, there are threats, offers, and throffers, and even though throffers are worse than offers, they aren’t the same as threats.


      1. “You cannot leave the US without permission of the IS gov. “

        Wait, that’s plainly not true. Since when does exiting the U.S. require permission?


      2. You don’t need a passport to leave. You need a passport to get back in. Leaving requires no permission from anyone.


      3. 1. Receiving a passport is a formality. They can only be denied because of legal entanglements; seeking work abroad is not a basis for a denial.
        2a. Regarding healthcare, we agree. But since business interests oppose severing healthcare from employment, you’ll need to convince them.
        2b. Whatever negotiation occurs is marginal, for the most vulnerable the “negotiation” consists of “Want the job or not?” See also 3a.
        3a. I wrote that “If X is a job, the bargaining you describe is a fantasy” to which you replied “Agreed, but not relevant to my point which was just about presence or absence of coercion.”. Your reply to #2 contradicts your reply to #3a. I leave that to you to straighten out.
        3b. There is situational coercion.
        3c. Theft is theft is theft.
        4a. If you are mugged, it’s pretty clear that the mugger exploited the situation against you in some way. That’s just how coercion works. ALL coercion.
        4b. If an employer offers you a job with with undesireable compensation or work conditions, and the situation compels you to accept, then the employer–like the mugger–has exploited the situation against you. That is blame worthy agential coercion.


      4. 1. That they can be denied is all that matters. It means you are at the mercy of the government.
        2a. I don’t think all businesses oppose it.
        2b/3a. I don’t see the contradiction. Can you make it clear for me?
        4a/b. Over complicating it. The mugger pretty clearly acts in a way the employer does not.


      5. “Try getting a flight somewhere.“

        Right. That’s because you need a passport when you land in France. No one is going to let you board a commercial flight to France if you cannot legally get of the plane.

        But it has nothing to do with leaving the U.S. if you are flying a private plane you don’t need a passport to fly out of U.S. airspace. You just can’t land in a foreign country without one.


  11. “1. Citizens can move or emigrate.”

    Requiring a person to leave their property if they don’t like the conditions is coercive. The Gov’t doesn’t own the entire country. People own property, and they have a right to use that property without coercion by Gov’t.

    “2. It is common for employees to have no real option to quit.”

    We all face choices. Some are more consequential than others. As long as the employer did not create the conditions that an employee faces through a rights violation then there’s nothing coercive about the employee having the make difficult choices.

    “3. If an employer takes advantage of “situational coercion”, then that employer **certainly** is coercive. All coercion exploits a vulnerability.”

    This is just not a meaningful use of the word “coercion.” If “coercion” simply means that a person must make choices in the context of the contraints in which they live then literally everything is coercion. Literally every choice we make is in the context of the limitations we live under — limitations that involve no wrongdoing by anyone.

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    1. People (which includes workers) own property which includes the fruit of their labor, and they have a right to use that property without coercion by employers.

      Requiring workers to give up the fruit of their labor (property) to keep minimal employment is not justifiable. If leaving is the recourse given to dissatisfied workers, then it’s fair to give that to dissatisfied employers too. Bye bye!

      Whether or not an agent created the conditions they exploit is irrelevant; what is blameworthy is their exploitation of those conditions to deprive others of their rights or properties.

      We all face choices. Some are more consequential than others. Coercing someone to make a bad, consequential choice so you can profit from their dilemma is not justifiable. Whether that “choice” is their money or their life; or to endure wage slavery or starve; the forced choice is wrongful.

      “If ‘coercion’ simply means that a person must make choices in the context of the contraints in which they live then literally everything is coercion.”

      Does this mean you think a mugging is just “another choice”? Your confusion on this point seems odd.

      Liked by 1 person

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