Debt Limits, Union Strike Threats, and Talk of “Extortion” and “Hostage-Taking”

Some have faulted conservatives who demanded various spending cuts as a condition of raising the debt limit for engaging in “extortion” or “hostage-taking.” One could likewise fault liberals who threatened to block a conservative-backed debt-limit-increase-plus-spending-cut bill: They too were threatening to cause a government default if their changes or replacement for the bill weren’t enacted. (I use “conservative” and “liberal” here just as convenient labels for the general groups involved; I agree that neither all conservatives nor all liberals were on one side of this.) Let me briefly explain why I think this isn’t a helpful form of argument, even taking into account the usual levels of political hyperbole.

Traditional extortion and hostage-taking, of course, generally involves the threat of violence or at least the threat of illegal destruction of property. But I think there’s also another important factor here: What we want from the would-be extortionist or hostage-taker is just that he leave us alone. We’re leading our own lives, and you shouldn’t be coercing us into doing something that we don’t want to do.

Yet those who opposed the conservative demands for spending cuts as a condition of raising the debt limit obviously didn’t just want to be left alone. They wanted the conservative legislators to cast their votes to authorize a debt limit increase. They wanted taxpayers to be on the hook for repaying an increased national debt. They wanted people’s cooperation, and were then complaining about the conditions that the people imposed for such cooperation.

In some respects, this is like a businessman who complains about “extortion” when union members threaten a legal strike (carried out through legal means). One can certainly understand the businessman’s feeling put upon: He may be threatened with financial ruin, much as he is threatened with financial ruin if an extortionist threatens to burn down his property (or if a corrupt politician threatens to shut down the business if a bribe isn’t paid).

But the businessman doesn’t just want the supposed “extortionists” to stay out of his life. He wants their cooperation: He wants them to keep working for him (or he may want their sympathizers to keep buying his products, for instance when he’s objecting to a union-organized consumer boycott). The union members are saying: If you want us to keep spending our time and effort on working for you, you need to give us enough to make us agree to work for you.

To be sure, the union members may be in a position where the businessman must accede, because he needs them to cooperate. But since they have no legal obligation to cooperate, he needs to get them to agree. And to label this threat of noncooperation in order to get something valuable in return “extortion” or “hostage-taking” isn’t just normal rhetorical license — it would fundamentally miss the key moral distinctions.

Now let’s return from the union analogy to the political process. The political process is fundamentally about getting people to do things that they don’t particularly want to do. Often it takes the form of the majority dictating to a minority what the minority must do (e.g., pay more taxes) on pain of prison or seizure of property. That is actually closer to “extortion,” in that does involve a threat of violence or property loss if someone refuses to do something, where the target may really just want to be let alone; though even there, it seems to me that the necessity of majoritarian decisionmaking as to many matters may make such government actions morally permissible in a way that nondemocratic uses of violence are not permissible.

But sometimes a minority, or a partial majority (e.g., a majority in one body but not in others) can accomplish its result in the political process by the threat of noncooperation — by simply saying that if you want us to give you something (our vote) you must give us something in return. Obviously this tactic is going to be much more successful if the consequences of noncooperation are dire for the other side, or even for both sides. (A strike threat may often work when a strike would be crippling for the business, even if crippling the business would ultimately hurt the union members as well.) But again I think that someone can’t rightly say, “You extortionist!” when what he really seeks is the other person’s vote and money, and is unhappy about what he needs to do to get that cooperation, rather than just seeking to be let alone.

To be sure, when we design institutions we might want to constrain some groups’ ability to get what they want by threatening to withhold their cooperation. Some might argue, for instance, that unions shouldn’t have various legal rights that make it easier for them to threaten strikes, and that employers should be freer to refuse to employ union members. Some might argue that various supermajority rules — whether the Senate filibuster, or even the possibility of divided government that stems from the separation of the executive and the legislative — give too many groups the ability to get too many concessions through threatening to withhold their cooperation. (Others might think that there should be more such supermajority rules.)

But when people are exercising whatever existing legal and constitutional rights they have to withhold their cooperation, and to threaten to withhold their cooperation, I don’t think that labeling them “extortionists” or “hostage-takers” is a useful analogy. If you want people to work with you, to give you their votes, or to promise to pay for more debts, you may have to make concessions that you shouldn’t have to make when all you want is for people to leave you and your property alone.

(Note: I realize that there’s a complication here in the context of informational blackmail — the infamous blackmail paradox, which is one situation in which people are indeed condemned as criminals for threatening to do something that they would normally have every right to do. The informational blackmail problem is famously thorny, and I don’t think we need to solve it here, because I think that “if you want my vote and if you want to borrow money that I will have to help pay back, you need to promise to do X” is rather far from “if you want my silence about your crime or your affair, you need to promise to do X” and rather closer to the other examples I gave above, even when the consequence of refusing the deal is very bad for the other party. Still, if people want to try to argue that the behavior either of would-be strikers or the conservatives in the debt limit debate is analogous to informational blackmail, I’d be happy to see what that argument would look like.)