Coercion and persuasion

Or, as I like to call the alternatives, tyranny and liberty.   I have just finished reading Kevin D. Williamson's very interesting book, "The End Is New and It's Going to Be Awesome."  Though I'm not entirely persuaded of one of his central premises, which is that politics' flaw is its inability to learn from mistakes (more on that later), he's got a very appealing thought experiment in the Epilogue about an alternative to coercion in dealing with the inevitable bad actors among us:
Short of your Hitlers and psychopathic killers, there are some very good alternatives to coercion.  In a world of instantaneous information exchanges and complex social relationships, reputation is extraordinarily important.  We should be looking at ways to use technology to build on that -- something a little more sophisticated than Yelp reviews.
Williamson describes a hypothetical car purchase. You hand the salesman your card, only to see his face fall when he runs it.
YOU:  "My card has been declined?"   SALESMAN:  "No, your card has . . . declined us."  A second later your iPhone buzzes with a text message.
You have signed up for an account alert from BeCool Card Services, which warns you when you are about to conduct a business transaction with a company that has violated one of the principles you hold dear.   Perhaps your car is offered for sale by a company that mistreats workers on Liberian rubber plantations.  Shortly thereafter, the car company's head of marketing gets a similar text message.   Does the company immediately mend its ways in Liberia?  Probably not, but what does the board think when the VP of marketing reports 100 or 1,000 such messages in a single year?

It's an essentially democratic approach, but without the need for a uniform decision binding on any minority.  It's not winner-take-all uniformity.  The winning political party doesn't get to say how the car company treats Liberian workers and ignore what the losing party thinks.  But then, there are very, very few social dilemmas that require a uniform approach, and those arguably are limited to circumstances of outright theft and violence.  Other disputes over who should marry whom, how long the workweek should be, and whether the workplace is hospitable enough to someone of your gender, age, race, or religion might be better handled by the kind of ongoing collective decision-making process that's often called "voting with your feet" or ostracization.   In fact, Williamson argues that the "right of exit" is essential to any form of ordered liberty.  Nothing but the power of another person to say "that won't suit me; I won't combine with you in this enterprise" can ever really keep well-meaning nanny-bullies in check.

Williamson's example is deliberately commercial and impersonal.  We already have traditional social mechanisms for policing behavior by damage to reputation in more intimate settings.  And it's still possible to rely on the police for help with crime -- without dragging them into disputes over gay marriage or the minimum wage.

This "crowd-sourcing" of approval and disapproval certainly has its downside.  Social ostracism can be very costly, and there's no guarantee that what society collectively decides will not marginalize people we think should be heroes.  But that danger is hardly unique to free crowd-sourcing.  At present, a more and more intrusive government takes a vote and then cheerfully imposes the majority view on everyone -- and the government has more than a tarnishing of reputation in its arsenal to enforce the universally binding result.

How will everyone know how to judge all the myriad social evils out there that we now rely on Congress to regulate?  Well, how do they know how to vote at present?  And how to Congressmen know?  They mostly don't.  In practice, they'll vote on the issues they know and care most about and keep their noses out of the rest.

It's not an all-purpose system, obviously.  Williamson approves of voluntary arrangements under which people locked in close proximity with each other agree to adopt community standards for matters that would be unworkable otherwise.  In a city, for instance, the local garbage pickup and potable water systems are likely to be mandatory; if you don't like it, don't live there.  Out where I live, we're free to arrange for our own water and garbage services:  rainwater, wellwater, truck the water in, or support the development of a local MUD; burn your garbage, bury it, or pay for a weekly or monthly pickup of one, two, or three large containers by a private company.  But even in a city, close-huddled citizens probably can figure out a way to address the staggering problem of sugary drinks in oversize containers without calling in the awesome power of the state and demanding a unanimity of practice.


Grim said...

...ongoing collective decision-making process that's often called "voting with your feet" or ostracization. In fact, Williamson argues that the "right of exit" is essential to any form of ordered liberty.

So, he's pro-Confederacy? I assume not, but that's the key principle on which the Confederate secession was based.

In fact, it's the main reason to wish the secession had succeeded -- not a desire for slavery, but a desire to limit government by imposing this very principle on its growth. It's the "indivisible" addition to the pledge of allegiance that is problematic.

douglas said...

I love that idea about your card rejecting them. It mitigates the loud mouthed, but relatively few in number 'activists' and busy-bodies that achieve results beyond their weight class.

Grim said...

"Yeah, your card says your principles are against buying these clothes. What? Shut up? But I thought you believed in this stuff?"

Cass said...

It would also require people to actually experience considerable personal inconvenience in defense of their principles (as would Williamson's plan for people to band together to replace no-effort conveniences with considerable-effort substitutes).

It hasn't been my experience that most people are willing to sacrifice all that much for their principles, though. I can't see it working, large-scale. So it becomes a question of whether enough people will act similarly on the margins to have any real effect?

Let's face it - people can already do all of this. So why aren't they?

Grim said...

To some degree information is the problem, which people are learning to work around. But I suspect that the truth is as you say: the kind of people who can afford to do this probably mostly won't, and they're a small enough segment that they won't make any difference. They're the sort of folks who ostentatiously buy cruelty-free eggs from free-range chickens, which is nice, but most families are on a tight enough budget that they really just need the eggs.

Texan99 said...

I think it's probably simpler than that. People can but don't because they can force other people instead. All a libertarian is likely to be able to do at this point is describe why force isn't necessary. He can't make people prefer persuasion. He does have to confront the fact that, in a society where most people will opt for force whenever they can, the ones who prefer persuasion have to deal with that.

It comes down to figuring out what awful things will happen if some people opt in but not very many. Boycotts are effective even though they never enlist the consistent actions of most people. Would boycotts become more or less effective if people couldn't think, "Oh, I'll let the Department of Whatever take care of that"? If the answer is, "The block will burn down," that's going to be a prime candidate for mandatory participation. Many other cases won't be so clear.

And isn't that the problem we have with voters already? A majority don't vote or pay the least attention. So they achieve a mandatory, uniform result on all kinds of issues, but it never expresses the informed views of more than a sliver of the population--the most motivated and informed sliver.