Coercion and Online Communties

Looking at yesterday’s reply to Dave’s post with today’s eyes, it occurs to me that coercion and enforcement are trigger words for me.

Why? Because coercion is portrayed as something to be avoided. It’s portrayed as a flaw of the educational system.

Coercion can be ugly, but consider this: In democratic capitalism, it’s democracy that is the coercive element, and it is capitalism that is the free-to-be-you-and-me networked decision making component. The fact that one of the most prominent distributed decision making networks is in fact the market economy ends up providing a basis for a more nuanced discussion of coercion and enforcement.

Market economies are good because they preserve information and individual choice. It stands in distinction to a bunch of other options that tend to force decisions one way or another and erase minority opinion. Democracies take away the option to do these things. A democracy might say, for instance, that all cars must be sold with seat belts. Then through coercion and enforcement, the non-seatbelt option is eliminated and we lose that minority option. In doing so we lose some information about what consumers truly prefer and how much they will pay for it. We also save the lives of many people.

With seatbelts, resorting to coercion seems to make sense. With airbags and anti-lock brakes it’s less clear. At one time there were people who argued that leaving sub-prime loans to the market would increase options and access. I think now we wish the federal government would have used coercion to prevent people from engaging in such contracts.

This is not a new discussion. The United States was founded on principles of freedom and equality and self-government. It’s like most communities in that it turned out in very short order that its core values were more or less in constant conflict. Former Supreme Court Justice David Souter, in a speech worth a thousand TED talks nailed it when he said:

The “notion that all of constitutional law lies there in the Constitution waiting for a judge to read it fairly” is not only “simplistic,” he said; it “diminishes us” by failing to acknowledge that the Constitution is not just a set of aphorisms for the country to live by but a “pantheon of values” inevitably in tension with one another. The Supreme Court may serve no higher function than to help society resolve the “conflict between the good and the good,” he suggested:

A choice may have to be made, not because language is vague, but because the Constitution embodies the desire of the American people, like most people, to have things both ways. We want order and security, and we want liberty. And we want not only liberty but equality as well. These paired desires of ours can clash, and when they do a court is forced to choose between them, between one constitutional good and another one. The court has to decide which of our approved desires has the better claim, right here, right now, and a court has to do more than read fairly when it makes this kind of choice.

In other words, the “right” on the other side of coercion — which is roughly “freedom” — is not a first principle we reason from to a conclusion. It’s never a case that “The more freedom, the better”, or “as much freedom as possible”– because an increase in freedom leads to a decrease in other things the community holds dear.

So when we repeat that the key to our communities is they lack coercion or enforcement, we are, in the words of Souter “diminished”, because we fail to respect the organic complexities of the communities we actually serve. We fail the first test as community leaders, which is to realize that all communities are founded not on aphorisms or first principles, but on a pantheon of competing goods, competing goods that we, as community leaders, must adjudicate between from time to time.

That’s messy stuff, but it’s at the heart of what we do in politics. And I think it’s at the heart of what teaching is as well.

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