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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Cooperation vs Coercion

I am sure most people would agree that cooperation is better than coercion. But what I think is an interesting question is to ask "why"? I suspect if I was to ask this question the most common objection to coercion that people would say is that coercion, unlike cooperation, happens against the will of the other party, so we are doing harm to someone else if the other party does not comply and this is immoral. Coercion is also often done with violence or the threat of doing violence against an innocent party, which, hopefully, people will agree is immoral. Cooperation does not have this problem with it. Coercion has a moral objection to it.

Besides for this problem coercion has another problem with it. When two parties cooperate they are both better off. They come together and work towards some goal because each benefits from the mutual cooperation. This is the nice feature behind cooperation, both people are better off. Coercion is different. Coercion benefits one party at the expense of another. Suppose Adolf is a dictator of Germany and he hates Poland. If he threatens Poland to do as he says then he is benefiting himself at the expense of Poland. This is another inherent problem with coercive methods. One can perhaps call this a second moral objection. Namely, one party benefits itself by doing damage to another.

These two objections taken together form a good refutation against coercive methods. Most nice loving people who want the world to be a better place would immediately realize these inherent problems that are present with coercion. They would object to this method because they see it as immoral. What is very interesting is that we can ignore these two moral objections to coercion and come up with completely different objections that are from the point of view of Adolf. Adolf, the dictator, is clearly not a nice guy, so does not care that what he is doing is evil, he wants more for himself. Thus, the two above objections would not concern Adolf. The above arguments we can refer to "objections from morality", but there is also "objections from efficiency". Coercion is just so highly inefficient in attaining its goals that Adolf, even though is not a nice guy, should seek to strive to a cooperative system to improve his own efficiency.

Cooperation induces trust and dependency between two parties who trade with one another. Two businessmen can work together their entire lives. They come together because each one is unable to do the other's work, so they depend upon each other. It is also unlikely that these two businessmen think about how he is benefiting his partner. Rather each businessman thinks about himself first, his primary motive is his self-interest which he best satisfies through his partner. Likewise his partner feels the same way about his business partner. There will probably be a certain level of benevolence between them after working together, that is part of human nature, but their benevolence will not be sufficient to satisfy each other. It is rather their self-interest that keeps their business going. Coercion is not so. With coercion there is no trust and there can be no dependency. A thief who steals money must always find new people to steal from. While an entrepreneur can have a stable career his entire life. The reason is very simple. If one party steals from another through the use of coercion then the other party has no incentive to produce. If Adolf requires all citizens from Poland to hand over their cars then Poland will stop producing cars. Poland will have no desire to produce what it cannot keep. Thus, Adolf will not be able to depend on cars from Poland because of his coercive methods. It is not a surprise, therefore, why the richest and most successful people in history were all cooperative. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Andrew Carnegie, Julius Vanderbilt, John Rockefeller did not get wealthy by stealing, but by producing for the masses, they attained their wealth with cooperation methods. (Bernie Madoff is an exception to this rule but we must remember that he got caught eventually). The thieves simply have no dependency to make their coercive methods efficient.

Cooperation also generally induces peace with those who trade for a very simple reason. If two businessman work together they are unlikely to kill one another. Even if they hate each other. Because each businessman realizes that his own wealth is promoted by the existence of his partner businessman. If he kills his partner then he will ruin his wealth. Thus, motivated by their own self-interest, the businessmen have an incentive not to kill one another even if they can get away with it entirely. By the same manner two countries that trade with one another are unlikely to go to war with each other. If the US trades fast food to Canada for maple syrup then both have an incentive not to fight one another. If US attacks Canada they fail to get their maple syrup. If Canada attacks US they fail to get their fast food. Thus, both parties are worse off. Trade between countries is what makes them a lot more peaceful with one another. Perhaps, this is the idea behind Thomas Jefferson's statement, "Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none.". Friedrich Bastiat, the philosopher and economist of France, is well-known for stating his famous principle, "if trade does not pass between borders then armies will". It seems that the inverse of this statement, which does not logically follow, but in this case it happens to be true, "if trade passes between borders then armies will not". Put simply cooperation helps maintain peace. Coercion is not so. Coercion makes the violated party angry at those who violated them. Coercion leads to war and conflict.

Therefore, Adolf, entirely for his own self-interest, should seek to move to a more cooperative system. Because coercion is just so highly inefficient for the reasons just explained. Coercive methods vs cooperative methods apply on all sorts of levels. Individuals between individuals, groups between individuals, and groups between groups. In all of these instances coercive methods ultimately fail on all of the accounts just explained. This is the other side of why we need to avoid coercive methods. Coercion is not a way to solve problems but to create new ones.


  1. However, one could look at the difference between cooperation and coercion from a power and consequences perspective. To use your example, the US and Canada cooperate over maple syrup and fast food. What if suddenly the US needed a LOT more Canadian maple syrup, so much that giving it to them meant Canada would have none left for itself? In such a case, the job of the each government is to protect the well-being of its citizens. The American president can't demand less than all of Canada's maple syrup. The Canadian prime minister can't agree to the Yank's terms. In such a case, can there be cooperation?
    Or think of it in other terms. The US decides that for reasons of national security it can't trust its supply of maple syrup to be controlled by a potentially hostile Canadian government. US military power has the ability to conquer Canada within a day and, as long as we get our hockey games on a regular basis, we're pretty docile and probably won't rise up or go all jihad against our American occupiers. In the absence of a credible chance of losing an invasion and little risk with a continued occupation, why isn't coercision - give us all your maple syrup or we invade - the better option?

  2. "To use your example, the US and Canada cooperate over maple syrup and fast food. What if suddenly the US needed a LOT more Canadian maple syrup, so much that giving it to them meant Canada would have none left for itself? In such a case, the job of the each government is to protect the well-being of its citizens. The American president can't demand less than all of Canada's maple syrup. The Canadian prime minister can't agree to the Yank's terms. In such a case, can there be cooperation?":

    I am not exactly sure what your question is.

    US trades with Canada because US has an excess of fast food and Canada has an excess of maple syrup. They both trade to benefit each other more. Canada is not going to trade away all of its maple syrup and have none left for itself. The situation you describe cannot happen. The US can one day decide it needs a lot of maple syrup but if the Canadadians are not willing to give that much then the US will never recieve that much. That is what trade means. If the US says "we demand 100 billion tons of syrup" then that is no longer trade that is a demand imposed on Canada.

    I think the other problem with what you write is that you commit the common fallacy of "we are the government". At least that is what it seems to me. You are confusing the US with the people living in the US. And you are confusing Canada with the people living in Canada. When I said "US and Canada trade with one another" I was talking about that individuals from Canada and US trade with one another. Not the governments themselves. So I am confused to what your question is. Trade between Canada and US all means that individuals from the two countries are trading with one another. It is not the case that the two governments negotiate demands on its people, that is no longer trade. If you think of it as governments making demands then your question does make sense. You ask what if the US government demands too much syrup and the Canadian government realizes it is too much and denies them that request. If you think of it as governments "trading" then your question is applicable. But what I am talking your question does not really make sense. So I am not sure what the president and prime minister have anything to do with this discussion.

  3. My examples were hypothetical but let's change them. Let's say that the US suddenly faces a massive OPEC embargo and that its available supply of oil and gasoline drops precipitously. Across the border, Canada has enough to supply the US with what it needs but then there will be none left for its own citizens.
    Cooperating is not an option. Cooperating means the US won't get all it needs and that Canada will have a severe shortage of its own as much of its gas gets sent to the US. What US president, worried about his country's wellbeing, wouldn't resort to some form of coercion?

  4. Let us change this example because I am not comfortable talking about OPEC. I do not know how it works. I am not comfortable talking about something I know nothing about. I will basically respond to your question by creating a different example something I know more about. I am not doing this to dodge questions but only so that I am knowledge in the topic I am talking about. The same exact issue you bring up will be described in my example.

    Let us say that Iraq decided to create an embargo against the US and now the US cannot get supply its need for oil. There is an oil shortage in the US. Your question is would it be a good idea to coerce Iraq into ending their embargo?

    I first want to say that this example only demonstrates Bastiat's principle, "if trade does not get past through borders then armies will". What you brought forward is a problem caused by restriction in trade, not trade itself. The Iraqi people would not have a problem trading with US citizens. The restriction is imposed by the Iraqi state which coerces its own citizens not to trade with the US. So the problem is not trade, but rather the lack of trade, obviously.

    Should the US coerce Iraq? To answer this question it all depends on what you mean by "coerce". If by coerce you mean to say that the US will scare Iraq into ending its embargo then I guess that is fine. But what if Iraq does not negotiate with the threat? What must the US do now? Go to war with them?

    I would have two problems with such a war. First, I hold the position that war can only be fought in the case of self-defense. Some country is trying to invade or is attacking you. Defense is the only just means of war. Second, I seriously doubt that the war will make the situation better. If the US has a shortage of oil then by going to war it will incur a larger shortage of oil. That would only create a bigger problem. Furthermore the cost that will come from war will be too much. Therefore, war will most likely hurt the US and its economy a lot more than what the embargo is currently doing.

    I agree that the Iraqi embargo is a serious problem. However, war will be a larger problem. There are other methods that the US can do to get more oil. It can trade with other countries which get oil from Iraq but do not themselves suffer an embargo from Iraq. The market in the US might also start to develop different alternatives to oil. Of course it would be the best if the embargo would not be in place but these are more preferable than going into war.

    I also think an important question to ask is why would Iraq impose an embargo on the US. Note that embargoes do not just hurt the US but it also hurts Iraq which limits its trade from the US. Thus, something must be driving Iraq to hurt itself by creating embargoes in the US. If I had to guess here, this is just a guess, I might be wrong, that the forgein policy of how US "negotiates" with Iraq has something to do with Iraq taking its action to impose an embargo. If the US had a better forgein policy than it had now the embargoes against it would be so much less.

    Thus, the best method, is still trade nonetheless.