All Commentary
Tuesday, January 1, 1974

Liberty vs. Coercion: The Burden of Proof


Whenever I become aware of some new means by which some of my fellow citizens aim to encroach upon other people’s liberty, I tend to oppose such measures. Some time ago a local television editorial advocated the establishment of a new Federal agency to protect the interest of consumers.

Later I discussed this with some acquaintances. When they heard my protests, they immediately raised their eyebrows: “Why not?” they asked. “Why should the government stay out of the business of protecting the consumer?”

I tried to explain, starting from the principle of caveat emptor and going on to the impossibility of protecting consumers against their would-be protectors. I even argued for some alternative system, such as an insurance program, whereby the consumer can protect himself without involving everyone in this mission.

None of this seemed to help my case. At each turn I was simply told, “Well, such an agency might still help; it might be able to do something to avoid difficulties with business firms that make shoddy products and cause all sorts of trouble for the consumer.” And in a way this is right; such an agency might very well do some good for somebody. But this seems hardly sufficient to justify its establishment.

Each time I emerge from such a discussion I make several resolutions. Most frequently I resolve that it does little good to talk about such matters in brief encounters — hardly anyone is prepared to investigate the issues carefully enough to learn anything. It seems inconceivable to most people that agencies of the Federal government should not get involved with such activities as consumer protection, that is, protecting people against their own carelessness. This, despite what Herbert Spencer discovered some time ago:

“The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.”

It becomes evident in these discussions that people nowadays rarely think in terms of principles. Who wants to apply an old-fashioned principle to a modern practice? Regulating business firms seems to many people to be light-years away from regulating the work of newspaper and television writers; consumer protection and censorship are thought to have nothing to do with each other. Finally, there is always a problem in protesting some new infringement on human liberty because so many exist already. What point is there in protesting at this juncture; after all, we live with so much coercion and force already! Thus, the matter is purely academic, or so these people seem to believe.

For a Better Way

How, then, does one combat this prevailing tendency to run to government to achieve every goal that seems desirable? “Why not?” “It might work despite the record of failures.” Let me share some of my thoughts on the matter.

When a program is advocated by someone, others are entitled to know his reason if the program involves them in some unavoidable manner. If I decided tomorrow that I will try, from now on, to help America’s consumers by writing letters to business executives, accompanying buyers on their trips to the store, publishing books about the quality and variety of products available, or the like, no one else need be worried about why I am doing this. I may be someone with altruistic motives, a guilt complex, or a plan to strike it rich through a consumer-protection business. Other people are free to ignore my efforts, or to join in them if they so choose. But they have no right to demand that I furnish them with a justification for my actions. (They could conclude, even rightly, that I am wasting my time, that I will go broke, or something of that sort — just as they could judge my plans to be very valuable. But they cannot justifiably demand that I account to them as to why I am embarking on my mission.)

The case is different when my plans must necessarily involve others. Take, for example, the editorial which urged a Federal consumer-protection agency. Others will be involved — including taxpayers, business employees who must comply with regulations, and so on. At this juncture, it seems reasonable to demand that proponents of such a scheme fully explain and justify why other persons should be involved and obliged to join in their mission.

But this is not as simple a demand as it seems. There are times that we believe, without the slightest doubt, that we are entitled to something; and when it is not delivered, we believe we may take measures to remedy the situation. There is no wide-scale agreement in such matters; people differ drastically as to what each believes to be his rights. One person believes that he is entitled to some help with his medical problems whenever he cannot handle them, whereas another may believe that he alone is responsible for such matters as his health, welfare and education. To the first person, it will seem self-evident that others ought to help with his troubles, whether or not they choose to do so; he would think it our natural duty, an obligation we have toward each other and whose performance must, at times, be enforced lest his needs be neglected.

The second person, however, would consider the duties we have toward each other to be an outgrowth of our own choices; even if some of us have natural obligations toward others, we ought not be forced to perform them. Indeed, if force were to be justified, it would be to see that we are left free to lead our own lives and to be charitable in our own way.

Needed is a philosophical justification of the limits we ought to draw around our actions to help identify what we are entitled to do, what range of actions we can perform without limiting the liberty of others. This in turn might help explain why we would demand justification before we would allow another to involve us in his schemes. The person who believes that his medical problems should be alleviated through help from others may so believe in all honesty and sincerity. If so, at least he may be invited to consider a philosophical system under which various claims might be justified. Perhaps then he will see that to get the help he wants, he must justify his claim that we should give it to him and also justify any force he would use toward that end.

But such a philosophical theory is not a simple matter to develop. Nor can it be communicated in discussion of such an isolated issue as the proposed Federal consumer-protection agency. Such discussion will get nowhere unless the parties have the sincerity of purpose, time, and knowledge to cover the entire range of related ideas back to the theory of liberty.

Some have sought to shorten the discussion, saying that each individual’s person or body sets the limit of other people’s authority. But clearly this will not suffice, for it does not cover such things as our house, books, automobile, or musical composition. The theory must relate all such properties to us in some way that will justify our keeping them for ourselves if we choose. Opponents of liberty notoriously complain that Americans have stolen their present land holdings from the Indians. And if this is so, do we have any defense against those who would steal from us in turn these lands and their fruits? Do thieves or recipients of stolen goods have any justifiable complaint if the goods are stolen again?

Even with a sound theory of property rights, the argument for liberty may be lost in the mists of democracy. How often we hear that living in a democracy involves giving up certain rights to privacy, property, and the like. And if that be so, may the individual logically claim anything at all that is not allowed by the majority — or its representatives? What, in short, justifies the view that the exercise of majority rule is limited by certain principles defining human liberty — certain inalienable, universal, and absolute human rights?

So what is one to do in the face of such widely entrenched coercion and political intervention? It seems that education in broad political principles and their philosophical justification must be the general approach. If there is a reasonable case for such coercive intervention, let the burden of proof be on those who are doing the attacking. Let them try to justify coercion, even in one or two isolated cases. Let them prove to our satisfaction why consumer protection justifies that millions of others will be deprived of their income without their consent. Let them try to demonstrate the virtue of coercion, for they are the ones who are embarking on the course of action that will necessarily involve the lives of others.

Without a demonstration of the validity of the explicit or implicit claim that others should be forced to comply with the aggressor’s plans — however noble these may be — we are entitled to treat his proposal as something entirely arbitrary, without support in truth and justice.

Nor is all this merely an academic exercise. When they are thus challenged, amazingly little attempted justification is forthcoming from most of those who insist that coercion is a valid means for solving human problems. They simply hadn’t thought about it that way. And such a provocative challenge may well be their first short lesson toward an education in the nature of human liberty.  


  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.