A while back on this blog I got into an argument with a commenter over whether or not a store owner could refuse entry or refuse coffee to people based on their race. Putting aside the morality of the act, I explained that because the baker owns the property he has the right to do with it as he sees fit (this is assuming he also owns the land and the actual building his store is in).
The commenters argument took a leap in logic worthy of an Olympic medal; that if the store owner could deny him coffee, he could deny him employment and other things, therefore his right to a livelihood. Since people need a livelihood to survive, this would be aggressing against him.
Another argument that was made earlier on the blog by another commenter was that if a man encounters another man in the desert and is dying of dehydration yet he refuses to provide him with water, he is aggressing against him. (I love the random, hypothetical situations that have nothing to do with the actual policies and political stances they go on to justify).
The problem with both these examples is that they assume because people need things in order to survive, for others to deny them it is an act of coercion or aggression.
At Mises.org, Julian Adorney picks apart these arguments by pointing out that just because we are required to do something to live does not make it coercion when others either negotiate the terms or hold the right of refusal anymore than we are when we refuse to work for them.
Many leftists, such as left-libertarian Susan Webber at Naked Capitalism, argue that we must work in order to live, and that therefore work is coercive. If you must do X to live, then surely whoever controls your ability to do X is coercing you. The problem with this argument is that the state of nature is not a Rousseauian paradise, but a brutal place where most die. The state of nature involves poverty and endless drudgery to catch, kill, and cook whatever food one can to stay alive. The workday is every waking moment, and the pay is little more than an occasional meal.
There’s nothing stopping people from living this way in the modern world — say, off the grid — but the beauty of capitalism is that it offers us a way out of this wretched existence. When a company offers a man a job, they are not saying, “work or die!” the way a slaver does; they are promising him that, if he helps them to succeed, they will give him money to improve his life.
Adorney also explains how this lack of coercion is what differentiates the private sector from the state.
The issue of coercion is important to understand because it’s the central difference between government and the private sector. If you don’t do X, government can punish you: it can take away your savings, throw you in jail, even shoot you. That’s true coercion. By contrast, if an employer asks you to do X, she can’t threaten you; all she can do if you say no is refuse to keep giving you money.
This difference highlights the essential freedom of the market. In any market-based relationship, one party can leave and the other party can do them no harm. This is a freedom that is noticeably lacking in our interactions with government.
This is, of course, putting aside the state-intervention that often puts people at a disadvantage and/or coerces them. For example, one area I do believe there is a legitimate grievance is the way regulations and government-run healthcare have made it very difficult to be self-employed or run a small business. Having the state removed advantages to working for yourself, and putting you in a vulnerable position when negotiating with a prospective employer, is coercion, but it is not the employer coercing you, but the state.
I would add that we have a state-run education system that teaches students to be worker drones or worker bees, not entrepreneurs or inventors or innovators. No wonder Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and a whole host of other people were college dropouts; they realized what they needed to learn wasn’t being taught in school. So kids graduate with no practical knowledge that would make them self-reliant in the workforce, so they are vulnerable to manipulation by already established employers.
Still, the fact remains that no one owes you anything other than what you rightfully own. This means you don’t have a “right” to a living which requires someone else to give you something of theirs.