When can we coerce others?

If you’re familiar with the debate over immigration, you’ll notice it is mostly an attempt to answer the question, “Is immigration good or bad for America?” Some people say yes, and use statistics showing the productivity gains from immigration. Others say no, and focus on ways in which immigrants are a drag on the economy.

The major problem with this debate is that both sides are trying to answer the wrong question. Whether restricting immigration is right or wrong does not turn on immigrants’ productivity, but on the circumstances under which we can control someone’s movement.

Let’s consider a few ways in which people harm me and my loved ones, and whether I would be justified in coercing them in that particular circumstance.


I am employed as a news editor. My wages, just like the wages of all employees in the market, are a function of supply and demand. A high demand for labor tends to increase wages, but a large supply of that same labor tends to push them down. A flood of news editors entering the market would tend to depress the wages of existing news editors, because the new entrants would bid down the wages in an effort to secure employment. I might be forced between accepting a lower wage or being replaced.

Given that other news editors hurt me in this way, what can I do to them? I can’t use force against them, like blocking the door to the office when they come for an interview. The reason for this is that, even when other people bid down my wages or threaten to take my job, I have to respect their rights. They’re still humans and they still count.


Another thing I do besides working at the newspaper is pay taxes. The taxes go toward the salaries of government employees, infrastructure projects and programs like Social Security and Medicare, among others. If someone goes on welfare, the other taxpayers and I have to pick up the tab.

Imagine I oppose subsidized housing on the grounds that my tax money is being spent on a project that does not benefit me. What am I allowed to do to the people who live there? Can I bar the door to prevent them from moving in, since it would increase my taxes? I think not. Even if subsidized housing unjustly coerces me, it does not follow I can stop people from inhabiting it, since doing so requires even more intrusive coercion than the coercion I’m trying to prevent.

Special responsibilities

I have more responsibilities to some people than I do to others. For instance, I owe things to my parents and sisters that I don’t owe to other people, like helping them with chores around the house, buying them Christmas presents and calling them on their birthday. I don’t owe any of those things to complete strangers.

Perhaps I have special responsibilities to other people in my country. This is often argued by people who oppose immigration on the grounds that we have special obligations to fellow citizens that we do not have to foreigners.

Imagine that my responsibilities to my fellow citizens are so strong that I must treat each one as if they were my own child. What would that allow me to do to foreigners, to whom I have no special responsibilities?

If I had a son in a karate competition where I was one of the judges, would it be permissible to favor him in the judging, given I have a special duty to him? I don’t think so. Would it be permissible to prevent other children from competing to ensure my son wins? Definitely not. Even though I have special obligations to my son, I can’t cheat on his behalf, and I most certainly cannot coerce strangers on his behalf. Therefore, even if I should treat fellow citizens as my own children, I cannot coerce foreigners on their behalf.


Imagine I find out my neighbor has a dangerous communicable disease. The disease is spread through the air and those exposed to it die slow and painful deaths. Even though he knows the disease has these effects, he continues to interact with the public and make people sick.

Would I be justified in forcibly quarantining my neighbor, perhaps by preventing him from leaving his house? Yes, I think so. Even though I am harming him by not letting him lead the life he wants, the great misery I am preventing outweighs his right to move freely. Similarly, immigrants with communicable disease can rightly be prevented from moving if their movement would cause massive suffering.

What these thought experiments show is that controlling where someone lives and where they go is normally wrong. It can only be justified in order to prevent something very bad from happening and not simply to avoid minor nuisances, even to those to whom we have special obligations.

(This essay originally appeared in The Fairfield Ledger)

The image featured at the top of this page depicts people reaching over a wall barring them from migrating, and was created by the European Commission.

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Andy Hallman is the news editor of The Fairfield Ledger in Fairfield, Iowa. He also maintains a personal blog at http://andyhallman.wordpress.com

2 thoughts on “When can we coerce others?”

  1. The real question is; do you believe in the ‘Nation State’. If you do, then that state will decide how many and which types of immigrants are to be allowed to enter. The US has laws which elected officials have chosen to ignore. We cannot fix all other nations ills. Nations had geographical boundaries for a reason. That reason is language and culture. Some of those, like S. Arabia, have no problem with restricting other cultures. Yet, EU and other western nations somehow feel compelled to dilute their national identity for others who have already shown they will not assimilate. Some of those are from countries that have a commitment to change “our” culture.

    1. Hi Glenn. Thanks for the comment.

      Whether I believe in the nation state is a separate question to whether it’s wrong to prevent someone from moving as a way of increasing my wages, lowering my welfare payments, etc. I could believe government is justified and still believe immigration restrictions are wrong.

      “If you do, then that state will decide how many and which types of immigrants are to be allowed to enter.”

      So believing in the nation state means the government should control movement? I don’t see how that follows. Consider a similar question, can we have private property and the nation state? Maybe I want to grow corn on my land. But what if the nation state wants me to grow soybeans instead? Doesn’t the nation state have a right to decide which crops are grown in the country? I would say no, it does not have the right to decide those things, and it does not have the right to control movement (except in extraordinary circumstances, one of which I outlined in the essay).

      “The US has laws which elected officials have chosen to ignore.”

      I don’t think immigration laws are being ignored. If they were, millions of people would not have been deported in the past few years. To the extent immigration laws are ignored, I think that is a good thing since they are bad laws. I don’t think the government has a right to exert its will on others, nor do we have a moral obligation to follow its commands.

      “Nations had geographical boundaries for a reason. That reason is language and culture.”

      Language and culture are part of what goes into borders but far from the only things. I’d say that nations have boundaries because those were the lines other governments were willing to respect. Sometimes, not everyone recognizes the lines you want to draw on the map, such as India and Pakistan fighting over Kashmir. Lines move based in part on the relative strength of the governments involved and what each one wants to accomplish. Sometimes governments want to unite people of a single language or culture under one rule, such as the when the Nazis told Poland to return the ethnically German city of Danzig to Germany or face invasion. Not sure what all this has to do with whether coercion is permissible.

      “Yet, EU and other western nations somehow feel compelled to dilute their national identity for others who have already shown they will not assimilate. Some of those are from countries that have a commitment to change “our” culture.”

      Assimilation is usually preferable but should not be a prerequisite for recognizing someone’s rights. For instance, if I found out that an outsider was going to move to my town but would refuse to learn the local language, I don’t see that as grounds for keeping them out.

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