A Few Preliminary Definitions
by Sam Wells

In a social context what actions violate the individual's freedom to act with regard to his own person and property?  Or, put another way, what specifically violates a person's freedom and therefore should be prohibited to maximize freedom?  In his essay "On Liberty" J. S. Mill exhorts us to refrain from "doing harm" to others.  But what exactly constitutes "harm"?  Some would identify "harm" (or lack of it) with intent.  But there are many "liberals" (neofascists) who try to justify doing harm to some by saying they intend on doing good for others, when in fact they are harming those they claim to be helping ("Obamacare" being a prominent example).  Intent is subjective.  I take a different approach by getting away from using the term "harm" altogether.     

Such terms as "coercion," "violence," "voluntary relationship," and "freedom" are crucial to an understanding of the libertarian position and it is not inaccurate to say that one of the main characteristics that sets libertarians apart from the vast majority of non-libertarians is that libertarians in general hold a clear distinction in their minds between those human activities which they claim should be legally permissible and those which should be banned by law.  Unlike the vast majority of the non-libertarian population, libertarians generally know the difference between a voluntary relationship and a coercive or violent one, and they know the difference in fairly clear terms.  It is with these terms that I hope to deal in the following paragraphs.  Although I have used these formulations, particularly the definition of "coercion" or violence, since 1972 as a means of achieving more clarity in political discourse, others have expressed these same concepts in  different ways and terminology.  The definitions below do not necessarily coincide with the prevailing legal definitions of these terms.

 "Coercion" (or "violent force") is an act by a human or humans against the will or without the permission of another human being with respect to that which is his own (his own person or property).  It means for someone to take, use, meddle with or otherwise do something to the body or property of another adult human being without the permission or against the will of that other human being.  This includes fraud and embezzlement and other indirect uses of force as well as direct physical violence.
If someone does something to the body or property of someone else without their permission or against their will, that is what we mean by coercion, coercive force, or violence in this context. There are two kinds of coercion: initiatory coercion (the use of coercive force against someone who has not committed a coercive act against anyone) and retaliatory coercion (the use of coercive force in retaliation against someone who has initiated the use of coercion against someone).  It is the initiation of the use of coercion that all libertarians oppose on principle since it is the violation of the self-ownership or property rights of innocent human beings (those who have not initiated the use of violence against anyone). Most libertarians favor the proper and righteous use of coercive force, according to rules of due process, against criminals, those who have been convicted of violating the rights of someone by committing initiatory coercion.
A voluntary relationship is a human relationship in which the wills of all the participants coincide (agree) with respect to the terms of the relationship.  A voluntary relationship does not (necessarily) mean one in which a person "volunteers" in the sense of performing some work for no material compensation (such as donating ones time and energies to working for a charity or on civic activities).  It includes any mutually agreed-upon exchange (such as working as an employee for a company in exchange for a salary or wages.)  Libertarians oppose any coercive interference -- either by government or by criminals -- with such voluntary exchanges.  This is why libertarians oppose government controls on prices, wages, rents, and interest rates -- since such controls represent coercive interference with the terms of voluntary exchanges and relationships.
   These definitions imply 1) a social context, 2) a volitional context, and an 3) ownership context. The definitions assume that human beings have wills (desires, say-sos, wishes) over which they have at least some control and that there is more than one human living in the same area. (An individual human being living on an otherwise deserted island would be outside our context since he would not be able to coerce anyone or be coerced by anyone; nor would he be able to engage in any voluntary relationship since that would require at least one other person with whom to interact.)

   We say someone is (or theoretically would be) "free" or enjoys "civil liberty" if there is an absence of coercion in his life while living in a social context.  In other words, a man is free or "has freedom" to the extent that, in a social context, he retains exclusive right of control over that which belongs to him (his person and his legitimately acquired property).

 If I tie my shoes in a way that you do not like, I am meeting only the first two of the three criteria that is, I am a human being and I am doing something against someone else's will; however, I am not doing anything against someone else's will with respect to that which is their own (their person or property). Notice that I am performing the action on my own shoes, not someone else's.   If, however, I were to go over and tie your shoes against your will or without your permission, that would be an act of coercion.  This is a simple, and somewhat silly, hypothetical example to illustrate the point of distinction.

   Let us apply the three requirements to real-world examples to prove the practicality of this approach:

    In the ideological war being waged today, it is in the interests of those who oppose liberty and human rights to obfuscate and blur as much as they can the distinction in peoples' minds between coercive and non-coercive activities.

    It is in the interests of such statists to confuse the definition of individual rights and erect false notions of "rights" (such as "group rights") which conflict with true human rights.  Conversely, it is in the interests of libertarians to clarify these issues and to make clear distinctions between what is truly coercive of human rights and what is not.

Related Articles or Documents
The Three Categories of Human Activity and How They Relate to the Proper Role of Political Government -- or, Where Libertarians Would Draw the Line

Dr. Walter Williams on Violence & the Moral Limits of Political Action

Separation of Force and Whim -- The Laissez-Faire Republic vs. Whimarchy:  The Principle of Clearly Defined Individual Human Rights in a Limited Constitutional Republic versus the Tyranny of Unlimited Government by Whim

Constitutional Republic vs Democracy:  The Role of a Majority Vote in a Free Society Versus Unlimited Majority Rule in a Democracy Did the founders of the United States of America intend to establish a democracy? Is a republic merely a representative democracy?

Selected Historical Documents   List of Major Documents, Books, Essays, Pamphlets, & Tracts in the Historical Development of the American Constitutional Republic, and how this increasingly placed legal limitations on the prerogatives of political rulers (first the King and then the Parliament itself), thus effecting a separation of whim from the use of government force by the assertion of private rights.

An Outline of Political Systems, and Where the Laissez-Faire Republic Fits