Free SpeechThe difference between coercion and persuasion goes to the heart of human liberty and the Anglo-Saxon legal tradition starting with the Magna Carta. Coercion, on the one hand, is the method of despotism of all stripes since time immemorial. The powerful get things done by putting the screws to you.

When we talk about the difference between coercion and persuasion, we need to also discuss the concept of free speech. It is impossible to have a society based on persuasion without free speech. This only leaves coercion as the means for accomplishing political and social ends.

We (as a society) have to be committed to defending free speech however impolitic, or unpopular, or even wrong because defending that is the only barrier to violence. That’s because the only way we can influence one another short of physical violence is thru speech, thru communicating ideas. The moment you say certain ideas can’t be communicated you create a circumstance where people have no alternative but to go hands on you.

Sam Harris, Making Sense with Sam Harris, #67 – Meaning and Chaos

It’s not a mistake that societies that value persuasion over coercion are, in the main, not just more free in general, but also more prosperous in general. When we consider the countries of the world with the highest standard of living (places like Denmark, Switzerland and Finland) are far more on the side of persuasion than they are coercion.

By contrast, the countries with the lowest standard of living (Niger, Central African Republic, South Sudan) are hardly known for their culture of open discussion, debate, and persuasion.

This relationship works both ways: The three freest nations for the press according to Reporters Without Borders (Norway, Finland, and Sweden) are also prosperous nations, while the three least free nations (Eritrea, North Korea, and Turkmenistan) are also impoverished nations.

Which causes the other cannot be definitively said, but there is a clear relationship between persuasion societies and prosperity — and vice versa.

What Is Coercion?

We must always define the terms that we speak about to ensure that we are all on the same page. So what is “coercion?”

It’s a difficult concept to define precisely, because it’s easy to expand the definition beyond any kind of reasonable application. Take, for example, the Marxist position that the free market is a form of “coercive persuasion” because it requires labor to be sold in order to live. This sounds reasonable until one considers the alternatives — slavery to the state under the guise of “equality.”

So what we mean when we say “coercion” is leveraging targeted institutional power against one’s adversaries to achieve a desired effect. This institutional power need not be the power of the state. Big Tech and Big Finance have both worked together to silence conservative, libertarian, and even centrist voices online. And while some would argue that they are “private corporations who can do whatever they want,” this argument does not hold water for a variety of reasons.

I believe that political correctness can be a form of linguistic fascism, and it sends shivers down the spine of my generation who went to war against fascism.

P.D. James

There is very little daylight between the state and these corporations in tech and banking targeting heterodox viewpoints. Indeed, the corporate sector, the press, academia, and the state are increasingly merged. The proper word for this is “fascism.” But more to the point, few would argue that the electric company can shut your power off because you said a naughty word on Twitter.

But, like pornography, perhaps coercion is best defined by example. You’ll know it when you see it.

Examples of Coercion

Some examples of how coercion works in our world today include:

  • Regulations and legislation: Perhaps the most obvious example of government coercion is regulations and legislation. We are told that we do not actually own our property or indeed even our own person. The state prevents us from doing what we will with ourselves and our property even when it harms no one else and arguments for broader social consequences are thin and tenuous.
  • Taxation: Taxation is used to coerce people into paying for behaviors and programs that they do not approve of. Property taxes mean that you are forced to pay rent on your own home and the proceeds of such go to benefit causes you might not care for.
  • Tech deplatforming: Some would scoff at the notion that deplatforming on social media is a form of coercion. But Big Tech is self-consciously in a war against the free expression of ideas. They have defined a very narrow band of acceptable opinion and anything that falls outside of it means deplatforming. This impacts not only public discourse, but people’s livelihoods and is used as a means to strong arm people into falling into line.
  • Financial blacklisting: Big Tech isn’t the only one policing free speech. Banks are also shuttering accounts of conservatives and libertarians, with General Michael Flynn being perhaps the most prominent example. The financially blacklisted aren’t losing financial services because of anything they’ve done to the institution or breaking any law, but simply for wrongthink.
  • Propaganda and brainwashing: This is the “discussion” that exists when all other views are eliminated. Public institutions such as the mass media or the schools decide on a single perspective at the exclusion of others. Outright deception is often involved in this intellectual and psychological coercion.

What Is Persuasion?

Persuasion is, put simply, how free and civilized people get their way. It can take a variety of forms, but it ultimately boils down to one thing: Seeing the power of cooperation over the power of force.

As stated above, persuasion is the norm in prosperous countries, but material wealth is not the only argument in favor of persuasion. Rather, the fruits of persuasion are the basis for greater prosperity. So what are the fruits of persuasion?

The short version is great ideas or, at the very least, better ones. This is because persuasion necessarily involves open discussion and debate. Discussion and debate necessarily involves the nuancing of any given position, give and take, further input and other factors that contribute to more complete and nuanced approaches to problems. This, in turn leads to greater prosperity and wealth for all.

Examples of Persuasion

Persuasion is somewhat easier to define than coercion, because unlike coercion it has not been subject to a century-plus campaign to redefine it in the service of those who actually want more coercion — namely Marxists, neo-Marxists, Cultural Marxists, Critical Theorists,Open Society proponents, Postmodernists, and other intellectual bullies.

But examples always serve to shed more light on a topic. So here are some examples of persuasion in action:

  • Alaska Permanent Fund
    All Alaskan residents receive a yearly dividend payment taken from a fund of the proceeds made by the state from oil and natural gas producers.

    Financial compensation: When one says “persuasion” financial compensation isn’t what immediately springs to mind. But money is persuasive and non-coercive. There are a good many people out there doing things they would never do for free simply because someone paid them. We are including this both because we think it’s true, but also because we believe it necessary to single out in the light of the Marxist view that money is coercion.

  • Interpersonal discussion: It doesn’t matter if the discussion is online, in person, or through the mail. Discussing issues, debating ideas, and arguing are ways that people persuade others without coercion.
  • Public discourse: Debate and discussion taking place in a public forum are qualitatively different than discussions taking place between individuals. This is public discourse, the debates and discussions that we have in public that move large numbers of people from one point of view to another.

What Is The Difference Between Persuasion and Coercion?

The difference between persuasion and coercion is the difference between hot and cold, night and day, wet and dry. The two could not possibly be more diametrically opposed to one another, not simply in terms of what they are but in terms of the type of society that they produce.

It is essential that we build a society based on open discussion and debate. The only alternative is a society based on the rule of force, not the rule of law.