TCS and Coercion


“Dagny, it’s not that I don’t suffer, it’s that I know the unimportance of suffering, I know that pain is to be fought and thrown aside, not to be accepted as part of one’s soul and as a permanent scar across one’s view of existence. Don’t feel sorry for me. It was gone right then.”


“I want you to know. What you’re thinking is much worse than the truth. I don’t believe it matters to me—that they’re going to destroy it. Maybe it hurts so much that I don’t even know I’m hurt. But I don’t think so. If you want to carry it for my sake, don’t carry more than I do. I’m not capable of suffering completely. I never have. It goes only down to a certain point and then it stops. As long as there is that untouched point, it’s not really pain. You mustn’t look like that.”


I don’t think that’s actually how most people see it though – they don’t think their life is a disaster, they never get what they want, etc. Instead they just thing their life is fine, things are normal, and you just aren’t supposed to get everything you want all the time. That’s just what life is, and you just have to learn to accept it.


I don’t think TCS ever had a good answer for this.

Reading through old TCS stuff, I think they severely underestimated how common coercion was and how often it happened to people. They weren’t focussing on all the coercion going on in virtually all adult’s lives. They were narrowly focussing only on parents coercing children.

They basically said that coercing children damages their rationality and thinking around the area that you coerce them in, and any time you coerce your kid you are creating some kind of long term damage.


I think that typical people get upset over lots of different things, and this isn’t actually a reasonable standard for people to try to achieve right now.

For example, I think typical people in our society actually feel coerced by their jobs. So if you regularly go around doing things that cause people to have to do extra work at their jobs, in the short term many of them will find that coercive. E.g., if you go to a Subway restaurant, and it currently has no customers, the person working there might find it coercive to have to stop what they are doing and make your sandwich. Or, if you go to a clothing store, and you try on some clothes, the employee might find it coercive to have to refold and put away the clothes you don’t buy. If you go to a Starbucks, and you order a drink with modifications, the baristas might find it coercive to take down and make your order. If you go to a restaurant, and they bring you the wrong foods, the server might find it coercive to bring the food back and tell the kitchen it was wrong, and to cook might find it coercive to fix the mistake. (Really, in the short term, a lot of people in the service industry find a lot of customer presence at least mildly coercive because they would rather customers just not come in at all.)

Should you try to avoid doing things that might cause people extra work at jobs they probably dislike because typical people in our society are often coerced by these things? I would guess your answer to this is no. But this is the kind of thing I think TCS ignored.

This is actually interesting. I initially said “all” then edited to “a lot of”, but I think the issue I was having is that a lot of people in customer service find the customers coercive, but they also find not getting enough customers coercive. If no one comes in at all, they will be bored and won’t like that. But if it is too busy, or the customers are making orders that they don’t like or asking for things that are too hard or coming at inconvenient times, they will find that coercive too.

So you can’t avoid coercing them by just never going to these places. (That also would not work well in the long term, since they would all lose their jobs, and then they would find that coercive.)

You could try to always be a “model” customers, and not do anything that would be annoying or extra work (beyond normal). And many people do that. On purpose. Like, many people will never add customizations to their order, never send things back even if they are wrong, and do a lot of things to try not to get in the way or be a hassle. But, even if you put in a lot of effort to do this, you still aren’t going to get it right because people’s preferences are idiosyncratic and hard to predict. So even if you try really hard, you still won’t be able to manage to avoid coercing all the people you come into contact with.

lmf was specifically talking about a typical person though. I don’t think that the typical person actually does not care at all about wether or not they get fired.

I also don’t think it’s very common to not care if you get fired or not. Some people actively want to get fired (they want to lose their job without actually quitting). And I think most people don’t want to get fired. I don’t think actually being totally neutral about it is common. And it’s definitely not typical.

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I tried for longer than I should have and I still don’t understand what you mean by this, sorry.

Yeah I’ve realized recently how bad most of the Twitter stuff is. Unfortunately, there are a lot of ideas I’ve seen on Twitter that I just passively read and absorbed, and for most such things I can’t seem to remember where I saw them.

Here’s one though. A topic where I can actually point to a specific reference is the opposition to schools. I’ll summarize the article and then explain what bothers me about it afterwards.

My summary of the article is this: Getting the attention of kids is an arbitrarily hard problem. There are non-school institutions like movie theaters and toy companies which have strong monetary incentives to be interesting to kids, and yet even they can only manage to capture a small fraction of an average kid’s time—nothing like the 8 hours per day that an average kid is required to be at school. Therefore it’s basically impossible to make a school that’s actually a place where an average kid wants to be for 8 hours per day, it can only be achieved through coercion.

Deutsch doesn’t say this, but the implicit conclusion—since coercion is bad—is that schools are bad. Furthermore, nothing about DD’s argument is specific to schools for young people: universities are subject to the exact same argument in the article. Universities make students do a lot of things that they don’t really want to do (if they didn’t then they couldn’t compete with all the other fun things out there), so they are coercive too. Universities are better than elementary schools because e.g. the students are allowed to leave, but they are still coercive.

This conclusion is also reflected in DD’s personal choices: in that interview I linked he says (italics my own)

During our interview, Deutsch confessed even though he loved being in a university environment, he had a core dislike of the administrative and bureaucratic side of living in the university system. He especially disliked being a lecturer because he hated the idea of giving a talk to people who aren’t there because they want to understand, but rather because they had another purpose (such as meeting a requirement or passing an exam).

It then goes on to describe how he arranged a setup with the university such that he doesn’t need to teach. My read on this is that DD doesn’t want to partake in the “coercion” of students.

I’m also really cynical about universities, I think they have a lot of terrible problems. But I’m not convinced that this is one of them. I don’t think that universities are inherently any more “coercive” towards their students than other organized human endeavors that aim to accomplish hard goals (e.g. a business that makes its employees do things they don’t want to do, or a rowing club that makes its members meet 3x per week at 5:30am).

Am I wrong?

And if I’m not wrong, i.e. if it’s just a fact of life that schools are not inherently more coercive than society’s best institutions, then this seems to undermine the point of DD’s article. Like, DD’s point is to say that schools are bad and you shouldn’t send (or even encourage?) your kid to go to school—even if it’s a “non-coercive” school.

Sorry for the disorganized post btw.

DD said that if a child wants to go to school a parent should support his decision and help him:

I don’t think DD would encourage a child to go to school if the child didn’t already have that preference.

I have experience with DD encouraging pre-university school for a child. The situation was not the child wanting it first and then DD supporting that decision.

DD has also encouraged many people to go university and participate in academia (like getting journal articles published), including me. I argued with him about academia a lot. I also tried to understand his point and why/how he thought it would work. I’ve long found it bizarre how pro-school and pro-academia he is sometimes, given his TCS writings, including:

DD denied that there were or could be non-coercive schools. See the links above.

Here’s an answer TCS might have given, without my opinion:

Schools are worse because of compulsory attendance, truancy laws, child labor laws (taking away alternatives from children), etc. They’re full of children who lack control over their lives and lack real alternatives.

On top of that, and more fundamentally, schools are worse because they try to educate. Most people’s theories about how to do education are coercive. Educators coerce on purpose. Coercion is intertwined with education.

A useful model is Popper’s bucket theory of mind explanation. Popper said people incorrectly see minds like buckets (or sponges) and learning like water being poured into the bucket (from educators and from the senses). When educators try to pour knowledge into the minds of students, they coerce, because they’re telling students what to think instead of respecting the students’ existence as independent entities that must think and judge for themselves. Teachers pour in ideas that conflict with the students’ existing ideas and with each other.

Teachers focus on their own agenda of trying to shape the student (like clay) instead of on a helper role to support the student’s own learning process. Teachers handle dissent and disagreement badly because they see their goal as to create a specific result: a student who has certain ideas that are in the curriculum. This is similar to parents coercing their children because the parents have agendas for their children’s lives.

When you try to control others, there will always be clashes between what you want and what they want. If you have a lot of control, coercion is ~inevitable. The goal of education inspires people to be more controlling of others, and to see them more like passive objects (buckets) which the educator should do something to, rather than seeing them as human beings with free will and their own motor (to use Atlas Shrugged’s analogy).

We live in a society where many people even think that punishments are educational.

The proper concept of education is more like joint truth-seeking that follows people’s interests, not being pressured to learn a bundle of pre-determined ideas (inevitably the student disagrees with some and isn’t interested in others).

A reason pressure by teachers is so common is that you can’t pour ideas into someone’s bucket-head. That does not work. So what can teachers do? Encourage or pressure the students to do the learning themselves, then take credit. Encouragement alone rarely works because if the student was willing and able to learn the stuff himself, what would he need the teacher for? He could just go learn it independently.

Encouragement only makes much difference when the student is second-handed enough to really want praise. That inevitably ends up being coercive overall (withheld praise can be a punishment; and there’s just no way to avoid all coercive conflicts when you’re trying to live by other people’s ideas a lot). And that usually doesn’t work well enough, so a big role of teachers is to pressure students to learn things they don’t want to learn, wouldn’t learn on their own, don’t know how to learn (to which the teacher says: “Figure it out, or else!”), etc.

Yeah I talked with DD about this years ago, including his unwillingness to lecture when there might be a student in the room who was coerced into attending.

But he gave TED talks. People have coercively attended or watched those.

He tweets. People are coerced about using social media, “wasting their lives on Twitter”, etc. People do have coercive conflicts when reading his tweets, about reading his tweets, etc.

This relates to @formerTCSer’s point:

Their narrow focus also included teachers coercing students, so it applied to lectures at schools. But it didn’t apply to tweets and TED talks.

DD might be horrified if a school assigned BoI as required reading. But what if an adult book club chooses BoI? Some people will have a coercive conflict because they don’t want to read it and don’t want to skip a month and lose status in the social group. Even with no bookclub, there are social groups that pressure people – explicitly or implicitly – to read DD’s books. That’s just what people are like. Social groups prefer people who are familiar with certain TV shows, movies, books, etc., and who have the rights hobbies, interests, etc. There are incentives and pressures. You can say “just find social groups that fit you perfectly” but there are none. So, not wanting to be alone, people compromise and try to find some groups that fit them decently, and then they pressure themselves to make it work since they think it’s their best option.

Yeah, you’re right, it’s more complicated.

I mostly meant that the concept of “coercion” doesn’t provide special insight about how to treat people in general. You can just try to avoid upsetting people, or doing stuff they hate, or whatever, in normal ways. And, as you say, limits and caveats are needed for that, because lots of people routinely feel bad.

Also, TCS’s idea of coercion is confusing because it’s binary (coerced or not coerced), but conventional thinking views stuff like feeling bad or being upset as a matter of degree. All the coercion definitions are binary at Fallible Ideas – Coercion

So sometimes TCS coercion seems like it means ultimate suffering and nothing less, since nothing can be worse than it. But other times it seems to mean smaller things like they talked about frowning at your kids being coercive. If you go to Subway and the employee doesn’t feel like making your sandwich, but does anyway, that seems like a more minor thing, like the frowning. The same person would be much more upset by various other things, like a divorce.

I don’t recall TCS having any awareness of this issue and I don’t think it’s been worked out. I do think binary things are important in general, and that the coercion definition is a worthwhile concept to exist, so there ought to be some way to reconcile/connect/integrate the binary coercion distinction with the degrees of negative emotion distinction.

Related to coercion-as-ultimate-suffering, another question I don’t think was asked is how does coercion stop? If coercion is this failure to solve a problem, and giving up, and having no way forward that you are OK with, then how do you get out of that state, even once? What gets you out of the coerced state? If you knew a way to do that yourself, why would you be coerced temporarily instead of using that solution right away? Do you create a solution while coerced? That doesn’t make sense. Coercion is when it’s too late and you gave up and failed and now you’re suffering. You’re much better able to create a solution before that when you feel better and are still trying.

This is also connected to the duality between 1. coercion as emotion/psychology 2. coercion as epistemological concept.

I don’t think TCS dealt with this because they were focussed on coercion that was caused by another person. They weren’t focussed on internal coercion or self-coercion. They talked very little about self-coercion, and when they did it was mostly about self-sacrifice, which they saw as a person purposely coercing themselves (e.g., it was something parents did when they couldn’t figure out a common preference with their child).

TCS didn’t seem aware that someone could be in a state of coercion without someone purposely causing the coercion. (Usually a parent causing the coercion of a child. Sometimes a parent causing their own coercion in order to self-sacrifice for their child.)

So, from their perspective, I think coercion stopped if/when the person causing the coercion stopped being coercive.

Actually, I think TCS would say the coercion still might not stop at that point. If you coerce your child just once, and then stop, your child might continue being coerced because he now knows that you are willing to coerce him in that way, about that topic. So his coercion could continue, and happen every single time the topic comes up. E.g., if you take away his iPad, he will be coerced until you give it back. Then once you give it back to him, he might still be coerced because now he is worried that you are going to take it away again, and is trying to take steps to prevent that from happening or protect himself from it.

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A friend of mine said – I think correctly – that it’s broadly unrealistic to expect to deal with others non-coercively unless you first know how to deal with yourself non-coercively.

TCS didn’t understand this and thought non-coercing others was pretty easy/simple.

Also, related, TCS changed over time. By “TCS” above I mean DD/SFC’s version. As I became the leader I changed it in some ways as I integrated it with philosophy better and made it more consistent. As a result, some things, like self-coercion, became more natural to think about or understand.

A specific change was that I noticed TCS implies that you shouldn’t have multiple children, which is something DD and SFC did not ever seem to realize. I also noticed a conflict between TCS and having more than one parent, which DD and SFC hadn’t recognized.

I also developed an actual method for avoiding coercion. Fallible Ideas – Avoiding Coercion

I also clearly opposed parental self-sacrifice, which DD and SFC had advocated in some cases and then tried to walk back some.

My earlier changes came from trying to understand stuff well, integrate it, and having high standards, not from trying to change it on purpose. I saw myself more as learning TCS than critiquing it. DD encouraged this by avoiding saying things like “Oh I didn’t know that”. He kept letting me think that he already knew stuff that I figured out, but I’m now convinced that, in some cases, he didn’t.

If he did already know the things you figured out, and just neglected to ever publish them or tell TCS parents about it, that would have been really irresponsible of him.

They (DD & SFC) presented TCS as a worked out philosophy that could be implemented today. They routinely mocked and/or demonized parents for not properly implementing TCS philosophy, and implied that was a failure of the parents themselves, rather than a failure of TCS philosophy. But they never actually gave enough information to understand and implement TCS well.

When I figured this out, my assumption was just that they themselves didn’t have that knowledge. I still think that’s what happened. An alternative explanation would be that they did have that knowledge, but just failed to ever share it with the TCS community. I don’t think that’s what happened, but if it is, I think that’s even worse than my current assumptions.


Setting aside adoption (which has a somewhat different set of problems), TCS seemed at odds with how people actually become parents in reality.

Sure, it’s better to have lots of knowledge before becoming a parent. And it’s better to have lots of resources before becoming a parent. And it’s better to only parent one child at a time. And (maybe) it’s even better to be able to do it all as a single parent rather than a couple. I’m not convinced that last one is right, but I’m not convinced it’s wrong either.

Learning takes time. Accumulating resources takes time. And raising a child takes time (~18 years). But biology currently puts time restrictions on a person’s ability to become a parent.

I think convention recognizes there’s a balance to strike about when to have kid(s). Having a bunch of kids while you’re super young (and healthy and fertile, but also probably relatively ignorant and poor) is well known to be bad. But waiting until an age where it’s practical for most people to have developed a lot of high quality knowledge and have accumulated a bunch of resources before having a single kid is also well known as a recipe for having a probable lifetime maximum of 0-1 kids, increased medical risks both to the mother and child, and a high risk of regret.

I think that’s mainly driven by biology. It’s possible we’ll be able to address the biological time problems in the future with technology, but we haven’t done much about it yet and I think convention deals with that situation ~correctly. Whereas I don’t remember TCS dealing with it well or at all.

Tons of people become parents by some degree of accident, and I’m not excusing that nor expecting TCS to have solved that. I’m talking about people trying to responsibly plan when to become parents and how many kids to have based on the knowledge available to them.

TCS seemed like a recipe for biological extinction if taken seriously by people carefully planning to become parents. When do you know enough and have enough resources to be a good parent according to TCS? There was no clear answer, but it seemed like for most people it’d only be when they were too old to have kids anymore, if ever.

I think it’d be more reasonable in this regard if TCS sold itself as a coherent system currently suitable for aspiring parents with the backing of a billionaire who were also willing to undergo a rigorous pre-parenting study period.

Instead, TCS appealed mainly people of ordinary means who were already parents. I think the right message for that audience would’ve been focused on reasonable incremental improvements parents could make within a conventional framework and relatively limited resources.

For example, maybe it’d be better for parents raising multiple kids to wait 5 years between siblings rather than the conventional average of 2-3 years. Or not; I don’t know but it is at least feasible for lots of parents wanting to raise multiple children. I think it’s the sort of thing TCS could’ve discovered that would’ve been valuable to more actual parents than the idea of raising only one kid at a time.

I think TCS was just at odds with parenting in reality, at all.

To be clear, I don’t think TCS actually said this. And I don’t think Elliot is saying this now - I think he’s just pointing out that it is one of the conclusions you can reach if you actually take TCS seriously and try to figure out how to do it well.

I think there are lots of things that TCS never actually stated or advocated, but which would be the result if you took TCS seriously and really tried in good faith to understand and follow it. And I think a lot of those are actually bad.

I don’t think there’s enough knowledge in TCS for even that to work. That’s actually a thing I thought about while I was trying to do TCS: would being really rich make my problems go away, would it make TCS work well? And I do not think it would have.

In the same way that being a billionaire doesn’t solve people’s other problems with relationships & ongoing coercion in their live, it also wouldn’t solve the problems people had implementing TCS. Billionaires still have bad marriages, bad relationships, coercion in their lives, mental health issues, etc. So they still wouldn’t be able to TCS properly – they can’t even live their own lives non-coercively, so they wouldn’t be able to figure out how to raise a child non-coercively. Money doesn’t solve that.

And, also, TCS did not want to sell itself as just for billionaires, or just for rich people, or even just for middle class and above people. They implied (and maybe even explicitly stated) that TCS was possible in all situations, and that any parent should be able to do it. They were very hostile to people saying anything about some coercion being inevitable in certain situations.

That would have been the right message for any audience. That is part of what is wrong with TCS. They were advocating something revolutionary, instead of reasonable incremental improvements, without admitting it

Elliot has been writing recently about some of the problems with TCS, and I think this is one of his points. That you shouldn’t be trying new, hard things that go against convention without having a really good understanding of what the convention is and what you are doing.

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Time is generally not the bottleneck for that.

TCS is not that kind of system. It was never intended or developed to be like that. Your comments are rationalistic and disconnected from reality.

You seem to be taking the single parenting thing and jumping to needing huge amounts of money. But you’d just need enough money that you could spend a lot of time parenting your kid instead of working a regular job. And getting an extra person involved, who cares about the outcome, is contrary to the goal of sole control.

You’re taking an error and then trying to address it by jumping to wild new ideas. But you’re just introducing new errors.

DD and SFC didn’t even advocate single parenting, which you don’t quite seem to be acknowledging. They simply didn’t understand how sharing control and responsibility for a project is problematic when you really, really care. If you have the sort of perfectionist attitudes towards parenting and non-coercion that TCS advocated, then you shouldn’t want to risk your kid being coerced because you pick a flawed co-parent. Even if you think you can live up to perfectionist standards, you can’t trust others to.

Scaring (or praising or anything else) parents into a perfectionist attitude towards non-coercion is bad. Perfectionism doesn’t help. Embracing perfectionism by trying to back it up with the resources of a billionaire(!) and a “rigorous pre-parenting study period” is going in the wrong direction. You’ll never achieve perfection even with that stuff, and they bring their own huge new problems.

You also write like you have significant familiarity with TCS (you don’t) instead of trying to learn to understand it. You came late and didn’t want to talk about TCS much.