What is a coercive offer?

My father told me this joke when I was a kid.

I don’t know why it’s a Jewish joke. I figure that’s just the way dad heard it.

A Jewish beggar learns that there is wealthy Jew in the city who takes care of his own. So the beggar knocks on the front door, introduces himself to the butler as a righteous Jew, and asks if the master of the house can offer any support during these hard times.

The butler asks the beggar to go around the house and come to the kitchen door in back. They meet at the back door, and the butler gives the beggar something to eat, something to drink, and a few coins to get him through the week. He also tells the beggar that the master of the house is happy to help out in the future. If the beggar comes to the back door each week, there will be a little something for him. The beggar praises the master, the butler, the household, says thank-you thank-you, and leaves

The next week, the beggar shows up and there are a few more coins in addition to his meal. He is amazed by the generosity. Thank-you, thank-you.

This continues week after week, over years, with the number of coins slowly growing as the fortunes of the master of the house increase.

Then, one week, the beggar comes to the back door and there are fewer coins than usual. "What happened?" he asks.

The butler explains that the master’s only daughter is getting married that week, and so there were some unexpected expenses.

The beggar replies: "Tell him to spend his own money!"

I liked the joke, because it showed, accurately to my mind, how gratitude can turn into expectation, expectation into entitlement. I also recognized, still being a kid, that the joke may have been describing me and my peers. I don’t know if my father meant it as a gentle lesson, or a political allegory, or just a good joke.

But I was remembering it on Monday, when Wikipedia’s featured article was on the term throffer. I’ll put the critical section in bold:

A_throffer_--_kill_this_person_and_get_7_dollars_or_I'll_kill_youIn political philosophy, a throffer is a proposal that mixes an offer with a threat which will be carried out if the offer is not accepted.The term was first used in print by political philosopher Hillel Steiner, and while other writers followed, it has not been universally adopted. An example (pictured) is "Kill this man and I’ll pay you — fail to kill him and I’ll kill you instead." Steiner differentiated offers, threats and throffers based on the preferability of compliance and non-compliance for the subject compared to the normal course of events that would have come about were no intervention made, although this approach has been criticised. Throffers form part of the wider moral and political considerations of coercion, and form part of the question of the possibility of coercive offers. The theoretical concerns surrounding throffers have been practically applied concerning workfare programmes, where individuals receiving social welfare have their aid decreased if they refuse the offer of work or education. Several writers have also observed that throffers presented to people convicted of crimes, particularly sex offenders, can result in more lenient sentences if they accept medical treatment.

Read more: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Throffer>

I think the passage I set in bold could act as a kind of litmus test for political philosophy. No libertarian could have described the threat to decrease welfare payments as coercive. Coercion is a violation of someone’s rights, and a coercive threat is the threat to violate someone’s rights. The only way you can describe the workfare scenario as a "coercive offer" is if you consider welfare a right.

Let’s ignore, for the moment, the question of where the welfare dollars come from and whether or not their acquisition has already violated someone’s rights. Let’s pretend for a moment that welfare payments are a form of charity, voluntary on both ends. Now we’re back to the joke my father told. The beggar may feel like his own funds have been pilfered, but the reason the joke works, presumably, is that the people hearing the joke continue to see the wealthy man’s money as his own, whether or not he has developed a habit of generosity.

boycott_workfare_frontYou can’t talk about coercion without dealing with the question of rights, at least implicitly. Libertarians make their rights theory explicit, but mainstream political talk — and even academic political theory, if Wikipedia’s entry on the "throffer" is at all indicative — leaves the rights theory implicit, if not incoherent.

I’m sure many would dismiss this issue as "just semantics" — libertarians changing the subject, as always, so that we can talk about property. But I see the question here is potentially relevant for the academics and scholars, too.

To assume away our objection to the term coercion in the welfare/workfare context is to presuppose that the distinction plays no role in the incentives being studied.

Does a welfare recipient really see the withdrawal of payments as a threat equivalent to having his possessions confiscated?

I suspect the distinction between what we want or expect or even depend on, on the one hand, and what we rightly and truly own is a distinction most people feel and act on, even if they rarely talk about it — even if their words, in fact, are devoted to obscuring that distinction.

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One Response to What is a coercive offer?

  1. Scott Lahti says:

    It occurs to me that, in the lists of entitled behavior, the post “censorship schmensorship”, to whose comment thread I have just appended a link to an essay in the sort of soft-headed mush therein to which hardened, or softened, listeners to public radio will have long since become accustomed, provides much raw material. Have you contributed to a newspaper, school or otherwise, without, so to speak, issue until today, only to find your latest bid for inclusion among the yellowed immortals of the fourth estate rejected by the editors? Why, the nerve of those “censorious” blackguards! Are you a Very Important “Progressive” Children’s Author, hot to make of the world of lunchbox letters the vanguard of the More Abundant Future For All, one of whose books has been dropped from the curriculum or the school library of a local district, an unimaginably hideous fate shared, in any given school library in the land, by 98% of living authors with books presently in print? How dare they deprive you of your sacred and inviolable birthleft!

    Mugger: Give me all your money.
    Me: No.
    Mugger: Gosh, you’re so “selfish”!

    Me: (*sotto voce*: Ow!) Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am, but I think you’re standing on my feet.
    She: Do you MIND? You’ll WAKE THE BABY!!!

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