Amazon and Coercive Force (2014 Nov)

by Barry A. Liebling

I am a long time customer of Amazon. When I want to buy something I habitually check its website for products and prices. Nearly always I comparison shop before I make my purchases. While Amazon often provides the best deal there are many occasions where I buy from other vendors. Since I always have multiple alternatives I do not regard Amazon as a monopoly.

If I were displeased with Amazon, if I had antipathy toward the company, there are plenty of moral actions I could take. Obviously, I could cease to be a customer. I could explain to others why I am annoyed with the company, and urge them to avoid doing business with it. I might publish open letters to Amazon management imploring them to change their ways.

But there are strict limits to what I would consider doing. I understand that in dealing with people, and with companies, I should use reason – as opposed to coercive force. I can talk and bargain, withdraw my support, participate in a boycott, and tell others where I think Amazon is going wrong. But it is utterly unacceptable to initiate force. Only a thug would physically interfere with Amazon’s operations, threaten to close them down if they do not comply with demands, or confiscate its property.

Furthermore, even as I understand that it would be wrong to initiate force against Amazon, I realize that it would be equally wrong to direct someone else to do the dirty work. Think of all the crime movies where the big boss never roughs up victims himself but instead has his hired goons commit crimes for him.

And I also grasp that inducing others to use force against those I do not like is wrong whether the others are ordinary people or are government officials. Unfortunately, there is a long history of people with ill will who have hijacked the government to abandon its proper function – protecting individual rights – and use its power to bully and abuse citizens.

The initiation of coercion is proscribed if you appreciate the essential importance of individual rights. But, in sharp contrast, to a progressive leftist the heavy hand of government force is the default solution to most “problems.” If business conditions do not conform to a leftist’s preferences, that is a sure sign that new laws and new penalties should be enforced by the state to “set things right.”

Recently Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic, one of the most influential progressive publications, wrote “Amazon Must Be Stopped” – an essay calling for the government to put the brakes on the company’s business practices. Mr Foer concedes that Amazon delivers a host of goods and services conveniently and inexpensively. But because customers are so pleased with Amazon they are insensitive to what Mr Foer considers the big problem – Amazon’s success at bargaining with its suppliers. Apparently, Amazon is so powerful that it can demand ever cheaper prices from the companies it buys from. The suppliers, according to Mr Foer, dare not resist Amazon management since to do so would risk not being given favored treatment on its site.

Note well that Mr Foer does not accuse Amazon of initiating force or committing fraud – crimes where it is appropriate for the government to intervene vigorously. Instead, he is dismayed that in the free market – where players deal by mutual consent – the results are different from what he would like to occur. He is confident that his personal preferences about what should happen to companies that deal with Amazon – probably shared by his progressive peers – trumps any considerations of personal freedom.

It is significant that Mr Foer, and his leftist peers, experience anxiety because Amazon has so much power and influence in the economy and the culture. Who knows what Amazon management might try to do by setting the terms of doing business with the company? At the same time, the progressive clique is not the least bit worried that a much larger, more powerful, heavily armed institution – the government – has the ability (but not the right) to strong arm every company and individual in America. Do leftists calculate that a robust intrusive government will generally do what leftists favor?

Critics of Mr Foer’s essay might be tempted to employ an oblique counter argument. They could point out that while Amazon is the largest institution in its niche it is not the only one. Vendors always have other ways of selling. A huge amount of goods and services are purchased at other sites that suppliers could use instead of Amazon. And, because internet commerce has few barriers to entry there is little to prevent new sites from popping up all the time – many being attractive alternatives from the vendors’ perspective.

This line of reasoning is self-defeating because it plays into the hands of the progressive meddler. It grants that there might be a case to use government intervention to “stop Amazon” but then asserts that action is not necessary (as of now) because vendors can get satisfactory terms elsewhere. The retort from the progressives will be that Amazon alternatives are not as attractive and vendors “have a right” to the best treatment from the biggest player – whether Amazon likes the arrangement or not.

The essential point that should be communicated to Mr Foer and his peers is that in a civilized society there is no place for the initiation of force. All business dealings – including those that relate to Amazon – must be by mutual consent. A key feature of taking freedom seriously is that outcomes in the business world may, or may not, conform to your personal preferences. When progressives come to appreciate this they will no longer be progressives.

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

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