Daniel Klein at CATO has a wonderful article on coercion (HT to Arnold Kling). Klein has two main points: first, that the distinction between coercive interaction and non-coercive interaction is a useful one to make, and second, that the presumption that more liberty (less coercion) is good, should be a maxim, not an axiom, and should be used as a principle for analysis not automatic condemnation of coercion.
I like his idea of using the presumption of liberty as a maxim, but I think he overemphasizes the coercive nature of government action. Most government actions are indisputably coercive (if we accept private property ethics, at least) because they are enforced by the threat of force; in general, if one doesn’t comply with a government rule, government will ultimately use executive force to ensure compliance. Furthermore, many individuals would ignore certain individual government orders, for example to pay their taxes, without that threat of force. The government as a whole, however, is much less coercive. While the threat of force is used to require participation in the government as a whole (the civil war made that clear), most individuals would choose to participate in the government if they could only choose between total participation, including taxes etc., and no participation, losing all protections and benefits the government provides. The government as a whole is technically coercive, but the moral harm caused by the coercion is fairly small because most individuals would choose to participate in most western governments anyway. Furthermore, I can easily imagine a government which lets its citizens make that choice, eliminating coercion even for individual government actions.
I don’t think we need to discard Klein’s maxim as a tool for analysis because government power need not be coercive, but it needs to be modified a little bit. I have not found a good way to articulate how I think it needs to be modified, so I will talk about that in another post.
I should note that Klein’s view of coercion presumes individual private property as its ethics, which I am not ready to wholly accept, but I will leave that discussion for another day.