Thoughts on the justification of state coercion

Over the years I’ve thought a bit about justifications for state violence. I think it’s useful for me to lay out my reasoning here.

States exist. States use violence and coercion all the time. If you refuse to give them money, they’ll fine you. If you refuse to pay the fine they’ll imprison you. If you resist imprisonment they’ll kill you. The same applies for refusing to abide by other laws, from attempting to murder another person to attempting to employ someone the state deems should not be allowed to work (illegal immigrants, people without the right occupational licensing, children, etc…)

By default coercing people is wrong. Hence by default we should assume state use of violence is wrong unless there’s another justification.

In some cases, that states use of violence is justified on the same grounds that an individuals use of violence would be justified: because the violence is done in order to stop a rights infringement. e.g: A terrorist wants to shoot up a school but police shoot him dead. A mugger attacks people and the state imprisons him to prevent further attacks.

This defence is convincing but it only applies to a very small subset of state activity, namely enforcing laws against violent or property crimes. The vast majority of state action, e.g: laws on minimum house sizes, product regulations, mandatory education, etc… are not covered by this. What then justifies those other acts?

One argument is that social contract argument, namely that people consent to being governed (meaning "living under the threat of violence if they disobey for their entire lives"). I don’t find this argument plausible for the reasons laid out in this article. The TLDR is people don’t actually ever agree to such a contract and various arguments suggesting that people "implicitly" or "hypothetically" agree are not persuasive.

Another argument is the "democracy" or voting argument. It says that since people vote for a government, the governments actions are justified. I don’t find this argument persuasive. I also don’t find this argument persuasive. Majority support for violence does not in itself justify violence. If I invite someone to my house, have a vote on whether I get to have their money and the vote goes in my favour, that doesn’t mean I can take their money or use violence on them if they refuse to give it to me. Similarly if in my workplace we agree that women shouldn’t show their bare skin, that fact that 51% or even 99.9% vote in favour it does not make it okay to do violence to women who won’t wear veils.

The final argument is the utility argument. The argument loosely goes: coercion is bad but so is living in Somalia, which is what the alternative to a state is. Essentially we trade off some rights violation in the form of coercion for a great deal of overall utility. This is the argument i’m most sympathetic to but with a few caveats:

  • I think violating rights to gain utility is only justified when the increase in utility is very large compared to the rights being traded away
  • I think this justification still only works for a small % of the coercion existing states engage in
  • I don’t think this justifies paternalistic coercion, which is what most of our coercion does.

The conclusion this leads me to is fairly simple. I think our states morally ought to coerce far less. Some coercion is justified by the large increases in net utility but much coercion is not justified. Banning the consumption of highly addictive drugs which are likely to turn people into addicts who then commit crimes: okay. Forcing people to put away X% of their salary in order to get government health insurance: not okay

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