John Locke Update / Research Newsletter

Coercion Is Progressivism’s Unifying Theme

posted on in Law & Regulation

What do the $15.00/hr. minimum wage, Obamacare, and new gun control laws all have in common?  Of course we could say, uncontroversially, that they are all policies supported by progressives and at least in part form the backbone of modern day progressivism’s policy agenda. But this answer would be question begging. What is it about them that makes them “progressive” rather than, for example, conservative or libertarian? In other words, what unites them other than the word “progressive”?

This is something that is rarely identified, at least explicitly. I believe that the central organizing theme and distinguishing characteristic of progressivism in its approach to problem solving is not what those policies are attempting to achieve. At least if we take stated goals as actual, it can be argued that progressives and conservatives are typically trying to achieve the same outcomes—better health care, fewer murders, higher incomes, etc. Instead it relates to how they perceive the nature of those problems. What are the lenses through which progressives view social ills and the approach to solving them more generally? It can be reasonably argued that the most consistent theme running through the progressive approach to public policy is its reliance on the use of force or at least the threat of force to achieve its goals.

In light of this assessment, let’s reexamine the question that I pose at the opening of this article. What do the minimum wage, gun control laws, and Obamacare have in common? While seemingly very little, at least in terms of the particular social problems they attempt to address, what coheres them in terms of public policy is that they all use the threat of force and, at the limit, violence as the primary means of achieving their objectives.

Supporters of more than doubling the current minimum wage to $15/hour tend to argue that wages for people at the bottom of the wage scale are too low—that the the current minimum of $7.25/hr. is not “a living wage.” The stated goal is to insure that what people are paid remedies this problem. The answer is simply to force employers to pay more or be faced with fines, and much worse if the fines are not paid. It should be noted that, while the force is used directly against the employer, the law has the effect of using coercion against the worker. While it is theoretically legal for an employee who may not be able to be hired at an hourly wage of $15.00 (because his skill level will not justify it) to offer his services for less than the minimum, the threat of force facing the employer prevents him from accepting it. So the explicit coercion facing the employer becomes implicit, in terms of its effect, for the potential employee. Of course there are non-coercive ways to raise wages of low paid workers. These would include finding ways to improve job skills and education, encouraging or at least not hindering apprenticeships, or even exempting social security taxes for low skill workers, which would increase take home pay, but the progressive approach is to take the most coercive, and as it turns out probably the least effective, route: pay more or face aggressive action from the state.

The Affordable Care Act is another good example of this approach. In large part it was meant to address “the problem of the uninsured.” The argument when it was passed was that there were too many people without health insurance. Many of those people were part of low risk groups, especially younger people in their 20s and early 30s, who were simply choosing not to purchase health insurance or not accept it from their employers in exchange for a higher wage. For the progressive the solution was simple—just force people to buy health insurance or be fined. Under Obamacare, all employers of a certain size are forced to provide health insurance to all employees, whether or not the employee would prefer more cash instead, and those who are self employed or work for employers who are too small to come under the employer mandate, must purchase health insurance. For those who do not comply, there are stiff fines and businesses could ultimately be forced to shut down. Again, like the minimum wage, coercion is not the only route to solving the problem of uninsured citizens. There have been many proposals to expand the number of insured by lowering the cost of both health care and health insurance. Most of them involve reducing coercion through eliminating insurance mandates and expanding competition in both the health care and insurance sectors. Progressives have taken almost no interest in these approaches, opting once again for the coercive approach.

The most recent excuse for additional gun control laws, or more accurately, controls on people who want to purchase guns, is to help prevent domestic terrorism or other forms of mass murder.  The coercive nature of gun control laws is obvious. But presumably it is coercion used to prevent coercion and may be different from my other examples. It is somehow more justified on its own terms.  But in fact, and like my other examples, it is not state coercion being used against private aggressors or even obviously potential private aggressors, but state coercion used against those who, all evidence may suggest, are acting and intend to continue to act peacefully. Clearly there are solutions that do not focus on preventing violent behavior by punishing the non-violent, but for all but a few progressives, these solutions are rejected out of hand in favor the more coercive policies. My argument is that the primary reason why the less coercive means tend to be rejected out of hand is not that they are less effective. If progressive ideology was strictly defined in terms of ends and not means, given reasonable disagreement one would expect to find progressives on both sides of the issue. But in fact if a progressive were to embrace the non-coercive approaches, as is occasionally the case, it is likely that his position would be described as conservative by fellow progressives. In other words, the use of coercion is inextricably tied to what it means to be a progressive.

One would be hard pressed to find any public policy area where, given two possible approaches, one focusing on free choice and voluntary action and the other on the use of government force, the approach offered by progressives doesn’t shun the former and embrace the latter. My argument is that the use of coercion as a policy tool is part and parcel of what it means to be a progressive. In most cases, to the extent that a particular progressive policy maker or pundit might embrace a non-coercive approach to solving questions of public policy, he or she is likely to be described as taking a non-progressive or conservative stance.

In conclusion, it should be noted that libertarians and most conservatives are no less dogmatic in their approach, which typically seeks to find solutions that rely on freedom and free markets. The main difference is that this stance is worn on their sleeves. The fact that conservatives and libertarians prefer policy solutions that expand liberty is no secret and is typically held out as a point of pride. The debate between left and right would be a much more honest one if progressives would acknowledge what appears to be easily discerned once it is considered, namely that coercion as a public policy tool is a philosophical principle that is inherent in what they believe. Only then could the merits of freedom vs. compulsion as an approach to policy be openly debated.

Roy Cordato is Senior Economist and Resident Scholar at the John Locke Foundation. From January 2001 to March 2017, he held the position of Vice President for Research at the Locke Foundation. He is also an adjunct faculty member in… ...

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