STATE COERCION AND FORCE*
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 14 December 2011
State power is widely thought to be coercive. The view that governments must wield force or that their power is necessarily coercive is widespread in contemporary political thought. John Rawls is representative in claiming that (political power is always coercive power backed up by the government(s use of sanctions, for government alone has the authority to use force in upholding its laws.( This belief in the centrality of coercion and force plays an important but not well appreciated role in contemporary political thought. I wish to challenge this belief and the considerations that motivate it. States are not necessarily coercive or coercive (by definition.( Their claimed authority is prior to the force they wield. Legitimate states should need to resort to coercion and force much less than other states, and that fact seems unappreciated in contemporary political thought.
- Research Article
- Social Philosophy and Policy , Volume 29 , Issue 1 , January 2012 , pp. 28 - 49
- Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 2012
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21 Force can also be used to seize assets or close routes of escape. We are focusing on the uses of force directly against persons.
22 Persuasion normally presupposes that the persuader may not resort to coercion or force, lest his or her offers be those that cannot be refused. This point is important for the discussion at the end of this essay about the possibility that resorting to coercion or force is always available to states, even if rarely resorted to. I owe this point to James Taggart.
23 We may also trick, manipulate, or deceive others into doing as we wish.
24 A specialized physician offers to save a dying infant if its mother agrees to marry him. Is this a coercive proposal?
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29 I owe this point to Leslie Green.
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38 Of course, in common law systems there are principles for treating laws that have not been applied for a long time as no longer being in force. It should be noted that sanctions can function to signal that a rule is a genuine law. And they sometimes can also express the compulsory nature of the state and the status of the state, a point I owe to Alon Harel.
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41 Hart, Concept of Law, 198. (The following is a note for those familiar with elementary game theory.) Suppose that everyone in a political society has Assurance Game preferences (i.e., they prefer mutual cooperation to unilateral defection); then information about people's preferences will increase cooperation. Suppose that some people have Assurance Game preferences, but many others have Prisoners' Dilemma preferences (i.e., they prefer unilateral defection to mutual cooperation). Then coercion may be necessary to secure the cooperation of all.
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50 It is worth remembering that power-conferring laws lack sanctions and do not involve force; if one fails to comply with the legal conditions for valid contracts or wills, one's acts will lack the desired legal effect, but one will incur no sanction.
51 We may count these as coercive in certain respects depending on how we understand people's prior property rights. On some views, taxation is always coercive. But note that this would only be the case when taxation was unjust and thus a form of theft. If a state is justified or legitimate and has a (limited) right to tax, then imposing taxes would not itself be coercive, even if threatening noncompliers would be.
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56 It is, of course, an implication of the received theory of practical reason that all reasons for following a norm must be forward-looking. Even this need not, however, entail that sanctions are needed for reasons for obedience, as other forward-looking considerations could provide these.
57 He continues: “And yet we can imagine other rational beings who may be subject to law, who have, and who would acknowledge that they have, more than enough reasons to obey the law regardless of sanctions. Perhaps even human beings may be transformed to become such creatures.” Raz, Practical Reason and Norms, 158–59.
Some think that were humans such that they could do well with sanctionless political systems, then they would most likely not need much, if any, government in the first place. In such a world, “[s]tate interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things…. The state is not ‘abolished.’ It dies out.” Engels, Friedrich, “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific” , in The Marx-Engels Reader, Tucker, R. ed., 2d ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978), 713Google Scholar. This is mistaken as we presumably would need states—e.g., legislative, judicial, and administrative agencies—in order to make general principles determinate and specific and to apply them to new cases. This is an important point that I cannot pursue here.
58 “The state rests ultimately on force, of course….” Sartwell, Against the State, 18.
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60 See my Essay on the Modern State, chap. 7 and Raz, The Concept of a Legal System, 138–40.
61 As argued in my Essay on the Modern State, chap. 7.
62 Rational choice theory is a special case of the more general balance-of-reasons account.
63 It is not easy establishing that a consideration is decisive. Suppose one is deliberating buying a multi-attributive object, such as a car. One hesitates, and the salesperson throws in a great stereo. That is not evidence that the stereo is decisive. If something “tips the balance,” then removing many other things will tip it back. Are they also decisive?
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66 Here our understanding of legitimacy and the ways it is different from justification matter. Only the laws of states that meet certain standards will have the normative power relevant here, and I think the standards are those of legitimacy.
67 I did not see the significance of this point when Mahesh Ananth, Marvin Belzer, Wade Maki, and Sangeeta Sangha pressed it against the predecessor of this essay. Michael Pace more recently also suggested to me that the mere retention of this right could threaten (and, perhaps, could thus be coercive).
68 Grant Lamond argues in the essays cited earlier that the law's claim to authority includes the right to authorize coercion. I regret not having read these essays until recently.
69 See my Essay on the Modern State, 205–6, and the references in note 80 (on p. 205).
70 Hart's “rule of recognition,” central to his account of the constituting of a legal system, depends on agreement; see Hart, The Concept of Law. See also Hardin, Russell, “Why a Constitution?” in Grofman, Bernard and Wittman, Donald, eds., The Federalist Papers and the New Institutionalism (New York: Agathon Press, 1989)Google Scholar, and Liberalism, Constitutionalism, and Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), chap. 3Google Scholar; and Weingast, Barry, “The Political Foundations of Democracy and the Rule of Law,” American Political Science Review 91, no. 2 (1997): 245–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
71 See my Essay on the Modern State, especially chap. 2.
72 I bypass questions about the distinction between justification and legitimacy here. See my essay on legitimacy referred to above, as well as Simmons, “Justification and Legitimacy.”
73 See my Essay on the Modern State, as well as the works of Leslie Green, Joseph Raz, and John Simmons cited.