The Left is Inherently Coercive (2018 Nov)

by Barry A. Liebling

Violence and threats of violence have always been part of the political landscape. But in the last two years coercive behavior has increased at an alarming rate. In colleges, outside speakers who express views contrary to the leftist agenda have been hounded off the stage by student activists. Government officials have been verbally attacked and chased out of restaurants, stage plays, and sports events when they are recognized as Republicans. Antifa mobs (leftists with the unintentionally ironic label anti-fascists) have physically attacked innocent bystanders and destroyed property. Politicians in the Democratic party have called on their constituents to “get in the face” of members of the opposition, to “kick them” and have proclaimed that civility is not possible until the Democrats regain power.

An outside observer might expect that the potentially-violent events would be symmetrical. For every instance of a Democrat harassing a Republican there should be a similar example of a Republican menacing members of the opposing party. But it turns out that nearly all of the coercive displays are coming from the left.

Why should this be? What is there about leftists that makes it so easy for them to resort to force? The answer is that humans decide how to act – at least partially – according to their world view. Philosophy – whether or not it is articulated – is a powerful influence on how a person thinks and acts.

Consider the two most pervasive world-views that inspire people on the left. Identity politics and government as panacea to all problems.

As I have written previously, identity politics is a modern variation of Marxism. The original version identified the proletariat and the capitalists as two groups that are permanently in conflict with one another. The outcome of the struggle – according to Marxist dogma – is inevitable. The oppressed proletarians will triumph over the oppressing capitalists. A good leftist “progressive” will take the side of the oppressed and do whatever is convenient to put down the oppressor. And anyone who is not on board with the leftist agenda is a “reactionary” – attempting to slow down the pre-ordained victory of the oppressed and on “the wrong side of history.”

In the late twentieth century the Marxist idea of oppressed and oppressing groups was extended. Not only class but ethnic identity, gender, and sexual orientation became categories where there is a good (oppressed) group that merits unconditional love and a bad (oppressor) group that deserves to lose. In general, the more oppressed memberships a person can claim, the better that person is according to identity politics. And conversely, if you belong to several oppressor groups you have at least two strikes against you. Straight, white, American males occupy the lowest and most despised rung.

Now consider where coercion fits into this picture. According to the Marxist way of “thinking” there is no way for the opposing groups to reach a compromise. Oppressors and oppressed each have a “class consciousness” that impels them to “engage in the struggle.” The oppressed will triumph by beating down and entirely subduing (or possibly eliminating) the oppressors. The initiation of threats and genuine violence is entirely justified in this warped way of looking at the world.

Note that this does not mean that all Marxists (or people inspired by Marxism) are violent. But it does identify a core attitude that makes coercion an acceptable and even preferred mode of behavior. People who buy into identity politics have a green light to get physical whenever they feel frustrated and do not get their way.

Of course, there are many on the left who do not buy into the Marxist narrative. They are not interested in classes or oppressed groups, but they see problems in society and yearn to see improvements. This faction regards government as the magic solution to make everything better. These leftists have definite preferences regarding how people should act. If there are obese people in society laws should be passed that specify what foods should be subsidized by the state, what comestibles should be forbidden, what portion sizes vendors are allowed to sell, and how much a citizen should weigh in order to avoid government penalties. Leftists agree that the government should decide exactly what a job in the private sector should pay. The state should take steps to assure that executives are not “over paid” and that hourly workers receive compensation that government bureaucrats find acceptable. And the prices of goods and services should not be entrusted to unsupervised private citizens. There has to be legislation to make certain that anything that is bought or sold has a price that is approved by “wise experts” who claim to have no self-interest but are working to improve “society as a whole.”

Again, how does this relate to coercion? When the government enacts a law it is not merely a suggestion. It is an order which is always backed up by force. Violate the law, and you will be warned, fined, and even imprisoned if you fail to obey. People who regard government action as an acceptable way to achieve their goals – whether they realize it or not – are endorsing the use of force as the default. By the way, that is the reason that the proper role of government should be limited to preventing the initiation of force and fraud among its citizens. Anything beyond that is a step towards tyranny.

While this partially explains why leftists are frequently coercive, it does not address why their adversaries are less likely to resort to force.

It turns out that people on “the right” and Republicans are more diverse, and less coordinated, than leftists. The largest faction of Republicans consists of people who are not philosophical at all. They simply do not like what the leftists are doing and answer by voting against them. A smaller group of “the right” are conservatives – who might oppose the left because of genuine disagreements over principles or may feel uncomfortable that leftists are seeking rapid “changes.”

Even less numerous than the conservatives are philosophical individualists. This minority – I include myself – understands that human actions should be judged entirely on the individual level. Each person is responsible for his or her own actions, and membership in any group is not a relevant consideration. Humans will always disagree about a host of issues, and from the individualist perspective the proper way to resolve conflicts is through reason and extended discussions. Resorting to coercion is a tacit admission that you cannot prevail in a civilized conversation. Individualists appreciate that force as the default is a marker for villains.

Philosophical individualists have successfully convinced many members of “the right” that initiating coercion is out of bounds. The more challenging task will be to persuade people on the left that reasoned discussion – not force – is the proper way to act.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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