Autonomy

by John Quiggin on January 17, 2005

Following a lead from Bill Gardner (and a tip from Henry) I’ve been reading The Status Syndrome : How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity by Michael Marmot[1]. The core of Marmot’s book, which is fascinating in itself is his empirical work showing that, as you move up any kind of hierarchy (Marmot looked at British civil servants) your health status improves. I’ve done a little bit of work myself relating to the links between health, education and life expectancy at the national level, and Marmot’s micro findings fit very neatly with mine.

What’s even more interesting though (to me and to Bill, I think) is the general idea of autonomy as a source of good health[2]. He debunks, for example, the long-discredited, but still widely-believed notion of executive stress and shows that the more control you have over your work environment and your life in general, the less likely you are to suffer the classic stress-related illnesses, such as heart disease.

It seems to me that autonomy, or something like it, is at the root of many of the concerns commonly seen as part of notions like freedom, security and democratic participation. I’m still struggling with this, but reading Marmot has crystallised some thoughts I’ve had for a long time. I’ve put some thoughts over the page – comments appreciated.

The points are clearest in relation to employment. Early on, Marmot debunks the Marxian notion of exploitation (capitalists taking surplus value from workers) and says that what matters in Marx is alienation[3]. He doesn’t develop this in detail, and the point is not new by any means, but he’s spot on here. It’s the fact that the boss is a boss, and not the fact that capitalists are extracting profit, that makes the employment relationship so troublesome. The more bossy the boss, the worse, as a rule is the job. This is why developments like managerialism, which celebrates the bossiness of bosses, have been met with such hostility.

So part of autonomy is not being bossed around. But like Berlin’s concept of ‘negative liberty’, this is only part of the story. Most of the time it’s better to be an employee with a boss than to sell your labour piecemeal on a market that fluctuates for reasons that are totally outside your control, understanding or prediction. This is where a concept of autonomy does better than liberty, negative or positive. To have autonomy, you must be operating in an environment that is reasonably predictable and amenable to your control.

Of course, the environment consists largely of other people. So one way of increasing your autonomy is by reducing that of other people, for example by moving up an existing hierarchy at their expense. But autonomy is not a zero-sum good. Some social structures give more people more autonomy than others.

In modern market societies, everyone but the very poor has quite a lot of autonomy in their role as consumers. There’s nothing much more autonomous than a supermarket where you can take a cart or trolley round shelves stocked with a vast variety of items, pick whatever you want and take it away, swiping a credit card on the way. On the other hand, Marx’s corresponding vision of a society where you might “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, write literary criticism after dinner just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic” seems as hopelessly utopian today as it did 100 years ago. This is partly because of some unavoidable technical realities – someone who did all these things would probably not be very good at any of them – but much more so because of the social structures required to manage work. These can be changed, though not easily.

As Robert Shiller pointed out very effectively, one of the roots of the dotcom bubble was the way the Internet gave new users an incredible feeling of mastery (which might more properly be parsed as autonomy). I don’t think this was entirely illusory and I continue to believe that the Internet has genuine potential to generate the kind of social transformation that will enhance autonomy for everyone.

I’ve got a lot more to say about this, but that’s enough for now. Go ahead and pull it to pieces. After that, I’ll try to put it back together in something like working order.

fn1. In the same order, I bought “The Working Poor : Invisible in America” (DAVID K. SHIPLER), also well worth reading/

fn2. Marmot also talks about social participation and makes a lot of sense, but that’s a topic for another day.

fn3. This is, I think, reflected in the old joke. “Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man. Communism is exactly the reverse”.

{ 46 comments }

1

dsquared 01.17.05 at 8:46 am

I think this looks very sensible; I’ll try and add a copy of Marmot to the pile, though I won’t post anything until I can get over the childish urge to make jokes about his name.

btw, the old joke about capitalism and communism is, like 90% of anything funny ever written about economics, one of Galbraith’s.

2

Chris Bertram 01.17.05 at 9:07 am

John,

I don’t understand why you imply we have to chose between exploitation and alienation. The fact that alienation and loss of autonomy is worse for your health than being exploited doesn’t suffice to show that exploitation isn’t a proper matter for moral concern. A different argument would be needed to do that.

3

John Quiggin 01.17.05 at 10:04 am

I’ll think more about this Chris, but for the moment just point out that I’m using exploitation in the technical Marxian sense in which, say, Michael Jordan was exploited as a basketball player and an exploiter when he became a club owner, since surplus value flows from labour to capital. Marx didn’t, I believe, claim that this was a matter of moral concern, and I don’t think such a claim can be sustained.

Exploitation in the ordinary sense of the term (being badly used) is almost inherently a violation of autonomy and implies alienation.

4

bad Jim 01.17.05 at 10:08 am

It’s been noted elsewhere (if only in a column in the Guardian) that the countries boasting the greatest longevity are also those presenting the least social inequality. Whether or not a flatter hierarchy or a leveled status ladder offers more autonomy, the countries in question also offer considerable greater economic security than their neighbors.

Security at work guarantees ample autonomy in one’s free time, without which a healthy lifestyle is generally out of reach. With security one can plan, anticipate, and take time for one’s self. This seems more directly relevant to health outcomes than subjective measures of stress due to status differences, although the quality and availablity of health care, the local environment and the rest of the public infrastructure might just have some effect as well.

But, yeah, it’s often the case that bosses have more fun at work, too.

5

Darren 01.17.05 at 10:10 am

I’ve recently found John R Boyd: here is a quote …

“In viewing the instinct for survival in this manner we imply that a basic aim or goal, as individuals, is to improve our capacity for independent action.”

from http://www.belisarius.com/modern_business_strategy/boyd/destruction/destruction_and_creation.htm

He was writing this in the ’70s which I think is of interest to your post.

6

Chris Bertram 01.17.05 at 10:27 am

I don’t want to get too far OT here, but just to respond re exploitation….

Of course you’re right about Marx’s own official attitude to exploitation in his sense. But we aren’t obliged to take that same attitude just because he did, and if Marxian exploitation is unjust then it is properly the object of moral concern.

But I’m inclined to reject Marx’s technical theory of exploitation to the extent to which it depends on his labour theory of value. However, since I think that the basic insight is reformulable without recourse to the LTV, I can still use the term in a semi-technical sense without going the whole hog and endorsing your much looser “being badly used” sense.

The charge that situation S is objectionable because unjust since person A is (unjustifiably) living off the work of person B is distinct from the charge that situation S is objectionable because of B’s loss of autonomy or alienation.

7

liberal japonicus 01.17.05 at 10:35 am

To have autonomy, you must be operating in an environment that is reasonably predictable and amenable to your control.

Your definition is interesting when examining life expectancies in countries, because Japan would be near the top of any life expectancy list, though “autonomy” is not a quality that one thinks of with the Japanese life style. The first condition of your definition is met, but I’m not sure if it is amenable to control. However, in Japan, the highest life expectancy is in Okinawa, which is relatively lower on a hierarchy of prestige. This may be wrapped up in Marmot’s “social participation” as well, so apologies if this is a meaningless observation.

This link discusses the WHO Disability Adjusted Life Expectancy (DALE) system, in which the years of ill-health are weighted according to severity and subtracted from the expected overall life expectancy to give the equivalent years of healthy life, and might provide some data (especially how they calculate ill-health) for comparison.

8

rd 01.17.05 at 11:12 am

Regarding Marmot’s evidence, why couldn’t causation run the other way: those who are healthy and vigorous are more likely to rise in hierarchies than those who aren’t. Rather than high status and autonomous working conditions causing better health, better health could be one of several factors leading to high status.

9

rd 01.17.05 at 11:16 am

On Marmot’s evidence, why couldn’t causation run the other way? Healthy and vigorous people would seem more likely to rise in almost any hierarchy than those who are relatively less healthy.
Rather than high status and autonomous working conditions leading to better health, better health could one of a number of factors leading to high status positions.

10

Enzo Rossi 01.17.05 at 11:33 am

This is where a concept of autonomy does better than liberty, negative or positive. To have autonomy, you must be operating in an environment that is reasonably predictable and amenable to your control.

Interesting. Perhaps this could be put in terms of a republican notion of freedom (which is in fact often used as a way of breaking the deadlock of the negative-positive liberty debate).

11

John Quiggin 01.17.05 at 11:43 am

rd, Marmot has a lengthy (and convincing) treatment of the causality issues.

12

Bill Gardner 01.17.05 at 12:05 pm

John,
This is very interesting, but perhaps because I am not a political theorist, I don’t quite grasp a distinction you made. “This is where a concept of autonomy does better than liberty, negative or positive. To have autonomy, you must be operating in an environment that is reasonably predictable and amenable to your control.” I understand ‘positive freedom’ as ‘being able to do things.’ So I would have thought that autonomy, in your sense, is captured by the notion of positive freedom. (Maybe my error is in not grasping the distinction between freedom and liberty?)

BTW, the Marmot discussion has now lasted, what, a month? Pretty much a geological epoch in Internet time.

13

rob 01.17.05 at 1:20 pm

I tend to agree with Bill about autonomy, in the sense of being an author of your own life and so on, being a form of positive freedom. Berlin counted Kant as an advocate of positive freedom, and what Kant is interested in is pretty much what we mean by autonomy. That said, I don’t think the positive-negative freedom distinction is particularly interesting at all, because both sides of the discussion, but especially advocates of negative freedom, tend to take it for granted that freedom is a moral good, while doing a conceptual analysis of what it means to be free. I am probably more free if I don’t have to pay any taxes, but that doesn’t obviously mean that that freedom is a moral good. This is because, I think, freedom is in part a descriptive property, and analysing it without thinking about the distinction between its descriptive and evaluative properties isn’t going to get at its moral core.

14

des von bladet 01.17.05 at 1:35 pm

Autonomy vs. Liberty, an example:

A beetle flipped on its back is at liberty to wiggle its beetly little legs; it nonetheless does not have locomotional autonomy.

The added ingredient in autonomy, selon moi, is that one’s actions should have a predictable impact on one’s destiny.

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Russell Arben Fox 01.17.05 at 2:11 pm

I am a political theorist, and I agree with both Bill and Rob; while one certainly can come up with definitions of “positive liberty” which are not centered upon autonomy, generally speaking I doubt the fine distinctions between “autonomy,” “empowerment,” and “positive liberty” hold very much normative weight.

16

Gabriel Rossman 01.17.05 at 2:17 pm

Chris,

The technical concept of exploitation basically holds that profit margins are objectionable. Thus a unionized auto-worker in Michigan who gets paid $60,000/year to build $120,000 worth of SUVs is being pretty harshly exploited. In contrast, a garment worker in Thailand who gets paid $1000/year to sew $1100 worth of t-shirts is far less exploited. Nonetheless, I would rather be an auto worker than a garment worker and I suspect so would everyone else. So in today’s economy compensation often has much more to do with productivity than with exploitation.

Now you can turn it around and say that the garment worker is not being exploited by the manufacturer but by the consumer or the market or globalization. While there is some sense to this it still ultimately relies on a labor theory of value since such an argument assumes that the consumer isn’t paying the full value (as compared to reservation price) of the shirt. If one has to twist the meaning of exploitation so severely to make it work, one might as well be rid of it and admit that the objection is not to exploitation per se but simply to poverty and inequality. I suspect that the real attraction of exploitation is that poverty is simply a state whereas “exploit” is a transitive verb so the term implies wrong-doing.

17

Darren 01.17.05 at 2:51 pm

The technical concept of exploitation basically holds that profit margins are objectionable.

Profit margins are an economic artifact. The price for the final product is set by the market; as is the price of the components that make up the cost of the product. Thus, the price of labour is an artifact of the labour market. In this case either there is a profit or there isn’t a profit and if there is a profit it is either large or small. The size of the profit isn’t under the control of some exploiter.

It looks like someone is multiplying beyond necessity.

18

Chris Bertram 01.17.05 at 3:32 pm

“The technical concept of exploitation basically holds that profit margins are objectionable.”

No, for the reasons John stated, the _technical_ concept of exploitation says nothing whatsoever about _anything_ being objectionable. But I feel we’re diverting John’s thread here. If you want a better idea where I’m coming from on this, read G.A. Cohen’s “The Labour Theory of Value and the Concept of Exploitation”.

19

Tom 01.17.05 at 5:02 pm

This seems very similar to Joel Spolsky’s remarks about computer user interface design:

Years later, when I got to college, I learned about an important theory of psychology called Learned Helplessness, developed by Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman. This theory, backed up by years of research, is that a great deal of depression grows out of a feeling of helplessness: the feeling that you cannot control your environment.

The more you feel that you can control your environment, and that the things you do are actually working, the happier you are. When you find yourself frustrated, angry, and upset, it’s probably because of something that happened that you could not control: even something small. The space bar on your keyboard is not working well. When you type, some of the words are stuck together. This gets frustrating, because you are pressing the space bar and nothing is happening. The key to your front door doesn’t work very well. When you try to turn it, it sticks. Another tiny frustration. These things add up; these are the things that make us unhappy on a day-to-day basis. Even though they seem too petty to dwell on (I mean, there are people starving in Africa, for heaven’s sake, I can’t get upset about space bars), nonetheless they change our moods. 

The Spolsky article is very well written, and a joy to read!

20

Donald Johnson 01.17.05 at 5:55 pm

What follows from this? Or to quote someone or other What Is to Be Done?

I mentioned Marmot’s research to Michael Albert once at the ZNET site–Albert is one of the two inventors of a utopian scheme they call participatory economics, which is about how you could construct a worker’s state sort of economy, but without the existence of a bunch of commie apparatchiks telling people what to do. In Albert’s view, the big problem with capitalism and communism is the existence of bosses, who in capitalist societies can be either the owners or the managers. Albert and his colleague Hahnel agree that the labor theory of value is garbage. So the two have devised their own version of socialism to eliminate the existence of bosses, only they don’t call it socialism because they think all other socialist variants have gone wrong by continuing to have an elite class of people who get to be the big bosses. In their version everything is decided democratically.

I have no idea if their idea would work, but obviously Marmot’s research would be a moral point in favor of drastically changing how our economy functions. Is there a way to give everyone more autonomy in the workplace in a capitalist system?

21

Sebastian Holsclaw 01.17.05 at 6:31 pm

“Is there a way to give everyone more autonomy in the workplace in a capitalist system?”

I can’t speak for the whole world, but in California there seems to be an uptick in trained consultants that float from company to company as a need arises. These people have much greater autonomy (as I think you are using the word) than is normally found in a corporation.

22

Giles 01.17.05 at 6:38 pm

Why this focus on Bosses? In life society its self restricts autonomy far more than bosses. And even in the workplace, it’s often the case that colleagues restrict autonomy far more than you boss.

The real problem with managerialism is when it’s imposed on the wrong structure e.g. Universities. When imposed on the rights structures, e.g. factories it is often liberating.

So isnt Albert just describing “forming a partnership” – which is a good idea if running a law firm but would really reduce workers autonomy in a factory.

23

mc 01.17.05 at 6:52 pm

So doing well at work turns out to be good for your health. I must admit to not having read the book, so I may be missing the point here, but: why should it be a surprise, to anyone who believes that a certain thing X generally contributes to having a successful/flourishing life – and indeed is widely believed to do so – that not having X turns out to have bad effects on health more narrowly construed?

X here could include not just ‘being successful at work’ but also ‘having autonomy’, ‘having a job’, ‘not being poor’, ‘being in a stable and loving relationship’, etc.

Maybe I’m benefiting from hindsight here in not finding this particular claim surprising, but I don’t think so.

Strikes me that the more interesting aspect is at the aggregate level – that less hierarchical societies have not just less health inequality but better levels of health overall – i.e., that this is not a fixed sum game – as a few other commenters have picked up on.

Also, I don’t agree with John when he says:

“There’s nothing much more autonomous than a supermarket where you can take a cart or trolley round shelves stocked with a vast variety of items, pick whatever you want and take it away, swiping a credit card on the way”

I have mixed feelings about consumerism myself but surely its critics would reply that it substititutes a trivial kind of variety (eg the choice between different kinds of yoghurt) for real variety (eg the choice between a consumerist or other kinds of lifestyle); and that it dishonestly presents itself as being justified by its ability to satisfy people’s choices, which it implies are independent, when in fact it itself creates those choices. Both of these would undermine its claim to be especially supportive of autonomy.

Sebastian: you are right that consultants who move from company to company have more autonomy – but they also have less security/predictability (and indeed the ones who are properly self-employed, rather than working for a firm of consultants, have the most autonomy but also the least security/predictability) – which judging both from some of the comments above and from personal experience is also correlated with wellbeing.

24

Micha Ghertner 01.17.05 at 6:58 pm

Donald Johnson,

At the risk of repeating Giles’ comment above, it seems that democracy is just as much of a threat to autonomy as capitalist or socialist bosses. In fact, it may be a much greater threat, for at least one can try to reason with one’s boss and hope to one day convince her of the error of her ways. The average individual cannot hope to reason with a large enough portion of the voting public to change the outcome of an election. Perhaps you are all using a unique definition of “autonomy”, but the dictionary defines it as the right of self-government. Unless we equate the will of the majority (or plurality) with the concept of “self”, I hardly see how democracy promotes autonomous self-government.

25

Micha Ghertner 01.17.05 at 7:24 pm

MC,

You say that a market society “substititutes a trivial kind of variety [consumerism]…for real variety.” What do you mean by substitutes? Market societies offer choices: you can buy your yogurt from the capitalist supermarket, you can make your own yogurt, or you can join together with other like-minded fellows and form a yogurt co-op or yogurt-making commune. The market does not deprive you of these non-consumerist choices, unlike state socialism which does deprive people of consumerist choices.

You go on to say that the market “dishonestly presents itself as being justified by its ability to satisfy people’s choices, which it implies are independent, when in fact it itself creates those choices.” Hayek debunked this nonsense decades ago. Apart from a few basic biological needs like food, sex, clothing and shelter, all preferences are socially constructed and created by the society in which we live. The market is no more dishonest in this regard than any other socioeconomic system. As the Marxist Otto Neurath put it, “We are like sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to reconstruct it there out of the best materials.”

As for the security/predictability concerns, the free market allows people to choose their preferred level of risk , whereas Rawlsian welfare statism enforces a single, one-size-fits-all level of risk avoidance. It is clear which system allows for greater autonomy.

26

rob 01.17.05 at 7:45 pm

Micha,

I think your point is better put as all government is a threat to autonomy, since, after all, you’ve got just as little chance of persuading aristocrats, priests or whoever else might be ruling you of changing their minds as you have of changing the minds of fellow citizens. Once you acknowledge this though, democracy becomes much less problematic, because it has the advantage over all the other systems that you have an admittedly marginal say in the laws that you live under. Not only has this feature of democracy been used to argue for it since at least the Ancient Greeks, but it can be connected to autonomy by talking about self-direction as making one’s own laws. Especially if you are prepared to conceptualize democracy more widely than just voting – a sphere of civil rights and so on – then this does not seem excessively anti-autonomy.

27

rob 01.17.05 at 7:50 pm

Micha,

I think your point is better put as all government is a threat to autonomy, since, after all, you’ve got just as little chance of persuading aristocrats, priests or whoever else might be ruling you of changing their minds as you have of changing the minds of fellow citizens. Once you acknowledge this though, democracy becomes much less problematic, because it has the advantage over all the other systems that you have an admittedly marginal say in the laws that you live under. Not only has this feature of democracy been used to argue for it since at least the Ancient Greeks, but it can be connected to autonomy by talking about self-direction as making one’s own laws. Especially if you are prepared to conceptualize democracy more widely than just voting – a sphere of civil rights and so on – then this does not seem excessively anti-autonomy.

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rob 01.17.05 at 8:04 pm

Sorry about the repeat post: I got a server problem message.

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Micha Ghertner 01.17.05 at 8:04 pm

Once you acknowledge this though, democracy becomes much less problematic, because it has the advantage over all the other systems that you have an admittedly marginal say in the laws that you live under.

No. Democracy does not have an advantage in terms of autonomy over anarchy, since under anarchy, no one lives under a law to which they do not consent. Of course, this raises the pragmatic question of whether a stable and peaceful anarchic order can exist. But it is certainly a logical possibility, so even if you believe that democracy produces more autonomy than other forms of government, that is not an argument for democracy until you can first exclude anarchy from the available options. Further, there is the question of how much democracy. Which set of choices should be made by the majority (or plurality) and which should be restricted by a constitution or some other constraint? Pure democracy suggests that all choices can properly be made by the winning coalition – from who we can marry to what we can eat to what time we must go to bed at night. In this light, it is clear that democracy is a huge threat to autonomy, even if it is less of a threat than other forms of government. If you are the kind of person who doesn’t think anarchy is an favorable option, then you should still conclude that the breadth of democratic decision making should be minimized as much as possible if you want to maximize autonomy. A necessary evil, perhaps, but an evil nonetheless.

30

Sebastian Holsclaw 01.17.05 at 8:18 pm

“you are right that consultants who move from company to company have more autonomy – but they also have less security/predictability (and indeed the ones who are properly self-employed, rather than working for a firm of consultants, have the most autonomy but also the least security/predictability)”

Don’t you think that autonomy and what you call “security/predictability” are almost logically opposed concepts? Or if not that they have strongly inverse relation? If you personally make all the choices, you can’t expect other people to offer all the security, right? That is one of the current problems in EU/US relations for instance.

31

Darren 01.17.05 at 8:46 pm

It could be argued that socialism restricts autonomy: if one accepts the definition of socialism as, the system that puts the welfare of the collective above that of the individual.

32

John Quiggin 01.17.05 at 8:54 pm

The fact that security and liberty are commonly conflicting goals, but both contribute to autonomy is part of what makes the idea interesting to me.

If there were an easy way of making more autonomy for everyone, presumably we would have found it by now. Or, if you prefer, all the easy ways have been found, and we’re now left with the hard ways and the trade-offs.

On democracy, it’s true that interference by a state in matters that individuals can decide for themselves violates autonomy. That’s a central point of liberalism in all its variants.

But lots of things can’t be decided in this way, and in such cases, having a voice in the necessary collective decision gives more autonomy than having the decision made for you by others. Democracy maximises autonomy in this sense.

33

Zarquon 01.17.05 at 9:17 pm

Sebastian wrote:
These people have much greater autonomy (as I think you are using the word) than is normally found in a corporation.

That would depend on how much choice they have in their assignments. You can say that they are perfectly free to accept or reject any particular offer, but there exists a window of time inside of which they must accept *some* offer, or starve (or more likely, evicted). The smaller the window, the less autonomy they have.

For that matter, a regular employee, who has access to severance pay and unemployment compensation, may well have a larger window of job selection available than an equivalent consultant. As you note later, of course, this comes at a price that those billed are becoming increasingly unwilling to pay, so the increased prominence of the consultant is certainly explicable.

34

Sebastian Holsclaw 01.17.05 at 9:55 pm

And a lot of it comes down to individual temperament or choices not likely to be captured in government rules. I know some people who would be great consultants, but temperamentally they prefer the stability of a corporate job. Others are merely good consultants, but they like the risks related rewards of living outside the corporate bubble. Some people have children, and want to skew toward security for that reason. Some people might dislike their wives and take consulting work to make it easier to stay away from home. That kind of stuff is pretty much beyond useful legislative capability.

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David Foster 01.17.05 at 10:46 pm

Somewhere I saw a study that analyzed stress against two axes: demand and control. A job with fairly high demand but very little control (say, working in a call center) might actually have less stress than a job with very high demand but also with considerable control (air traffic controller).

Don’t remember the source, though.

36

rob 01.17.05 at 11:36 pm

Micah,

I was going to say this in my earlier post, because I thought that you might be going on to say something like this, but anarchism is also a restriction of autonomy, particularly if you equate it with pure market relations, which it is a pretty weird thing to do anyway. Pure market relations would leave some people in a state of extreme poverty, and people in extreme poverty do not have autonomy, because they are dependent on others to provide them with the material resources to do anything. Thus they cannot be self-directing, because they must do what others want in order to get the resources to do anything, in some cases, even survive at all. The state’s coercive apparatus is not the only source of the loss of autonomy: poverty and indoctrination can also cause the loss of autonomy, because they prevent people from acting on their own reasons, rather than someone else’s. The Nozickean libertarian claim about freedom is a negative liberty type claim, and while there may be something to said for the view, equating that type of freedom with autonomy is quite misleading: autonomy implies some level of control, and negative freedom is not about control, but freedom from interference.

Speaking of indoctrination, this is the root of the worry about consumerism. The claim is not that people are not, in a negative liberty sense, free to not be consumers in the sense that worries the left and some conservatives, but that, at least for the left, they are indoctrinated into relentless consumption by a culture of
consumerism. If this claim is true, which I am not claiming it is, then consumerism is a loss of autonomy, because it is heteronomous: rather than being directed by your own reasons, you are being directed by the reasons of the capitalist economy.

You are right, though, to identify a conventional liberal ambivalence about democracy. Complete control of people’s lives by law, whether enacted by a democracy or some other system of government, would be severely autonomy restricting, and thus liberals tend to advocate either serious constitutional restrictions on democracy, or hold out the hope of increased participation removing the threat of the state interfering in the minutae of daily life.

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mc 01.17.05 at 11:54 pm

Sebastian – you ask: ‘don’t you think that autonomy and what you call “security/predictability” are almost logically opposed concepts? Or if not that they have strongly inverse relation?’

I take autonomy to be the ability to make choices based on reasons, from a set of worthwhile options. As such it is a precondition of a certain ideal of a good life – one where someone is able (both because of their capacities and their situation) to see their life as a story they help construct, a story whose evolving shape reflects, among other things, the good and bad choices they made along the way. But so too is some degree of predictability. Severe unpredictability limits (though does not remove) people’s ability to construct their lives through reasoned choices.

So both autonomy and predictability are preconditions of a certain ideal of a good life. Which I guess is why they had both already featured in this thread before my post – I was just trying to link them. If they also have a “strongly inverse relation” – well, I’m not sure they do – I think this may be superficial – but if so, then as John Q says, that just makes it more interesting.

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Micha Ghertner 01.18.05 at 12:54 am

Rob,

I don’t see much empirical evidence pro or con for the assertion that “pure market relations would leave some people in a state of extreme poverty.” Sure, people would no longer be forced to give to charity in the absence of state redistribution, but it does not follow that people would no longer give to charity voluntarily. Further, even if people donate smaller portions of their income to charity when they are not coerced, the total amount may be greater given the absence of taxation and larger growth rates.

But more importantly, when you say that dependency on the charity of others weakens autonomy, it is not clear to me what you mean by this. Under any system, those who cannot produce enough to sustain themselves through voluntary relations will necessarily depend on the charity of others, whether that charity is coerced or voluntary. If you consider welfare dependency a mark against autonomy, this is true under both pure capitalism and any mix of capitalism with socialism you can think of. However, under mixed economies, not only is the autonomy of the dependent weakened, but the autonomy of the coerced is weakened as well, for all coercion is a movement away from autonomy. Redistributing autonomy is a zero-sum (if not a negative-sum) game.

As for indoctrination, you didn’t address my argument that this criticism can be made of any socioeconomic system. Sure, capitalism indoctrinates people by influencing their preferences. And so does every other system. The advantage of capitalism, though, is four-fold: (1) people still have the option of choosing voluntary socialist arrangements under capitalism, whereas people do not have the option of choosing voluntary capitalist arrangements under socialism, (2) capitalism doesn’t monopolize the education system, as socialism (and our current system does), (3) capitalism doesn’t force people to pay for their own indoctrination and the indoctrination of others with ideas they strongly oppose, and (4) no matter how beautiful a celebrity spokeswoman may be, she isn’t going to make a bad-tasting cigarette a long-term market success. I’m sure I could think of many more ways capitalism is less indoctrinating than socialism if I sat here long enough.

I’m confused by your last sentence. It seems to me that increased political participation is much more likely to exacerbate rather than mollify the threat of the state interfering in the minutiae of daily life. When people mind their own business, avoid politics and instead focus their daily efforts solely on civil society, they have no reason to engage in the perpetual political bickering and nosey busybodying we witness so much of today on both the right and the left.

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sars 01.18.05 at 2:36 am

When you find yourself frustrated, angry, and upset, it’s probably because of something that happened that you could not control: even something small. The space bar on your keyboard is not working well. When you type, some of the words are stuck together. This gets frustrating, because you are pressing the space bar and nothing is happening. The key to your front door doesn’t work very well. When you try to turn it, it sticks. Another tiny frustration. These things add up; these are the things that make us unhappy on a day-to-day basis.

On a lighter note (in terms of genre, not emotion), I am flashing on that scene in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik where the generic loser and hero Joe Chip is trying to persuade his apartment door to open; it won’t open unless he pays it. Every single appliance is a pay-per-use commodity that talks back.

Dick, by the way, was very familiar with the poor end of the economic spectrum; he purchased autonomy by means of sleep deprivation, acquired via speed.

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John Emerson 01.18.05 at 3:35 am

The people I know who worked as consultants had very mixed feelings. Not only the lack of security, but also the need to hustle up work while still working. In some cases consulting is used simply to reduce labor costs (like “independent contracting” in janitorial) so there was no real advantage.

People who are doing very well in the consulting system might love the system, but that state of being is usually a fairly transient state of the labor market (diminishing margin of profit or whatever). When things go bad on them their ideologies change.

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abb1 01.18.05 at 8:53 am

With all due respect, I think the ‘autonomy’ thesis is crap. Personally I was feeling best (and significantly better than usual) in my life when working for a successful software start-up where:

1. I had a bunch of stock options. It gave me a (sorta pathetic) illusion that I am not being exploited. It also gave me an illusion that my wellbeing is correlated with my performance.

2. I was a respected member of the team; people were asking for my advice.

3. It was creative work. A guy at an assembly line may be very autonomous but he’ll hate it anyway.

4. The company was developing what seemed like a very innovating product, millions of people were waiting for it. I liked that.

5. No red-tape, very informal.

Incidentally, there was a lot of pressure from all directions and not much autonomy at all.

Unless you include all this (and probably more) into your definition of ‘autonomy’, you’re going to miss something.

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rob 01.18.05 at 12:03 pm

Abb1,

you’re taking the piss, right?

Micah,

you’re right to say that what I said about consumerism doesn’t properly address what you said: I didn’t express myself very well. Pointing out that capitalism tends to encourage people to consume things mindlessly is not a critique of capitalism if you think that all social systems encourage people to do something mindlessly. The question is whether all social system do in fact do this, and I should point out that I am not committing myself to this thesis, but merely noting its existence. Marxists, for example, have claimed that in the communist utopia to come, the rules of the social system will become transparent in a way which means that the social system is not guilty of creating its own rationalization to sustain, reinforce and extend itself any more. Noting that capitalism offers us some negative freedoms does not show that this thesis, about a positive freedom – to be able to act according to one’s proper nature as a social and productive animal – is false, which is the critique that lies at the heart of the Marxist critique of consumerism. I think there are probably other ways of making the critique, which aren’t dependent on such strong claims about the good life for human beings, but either way, the point remains that if you can conceive of a social system which offers you more positive freedoms than the current one, then, although all social system influence preferences, they do not influence preferences in the same way, and some ways are to be prefered to others.

For example, you say that people are free to set up communes and so on under a capitalist system, and they are, in a non-interference, largely descriptive sense, but what you have to do is show that that freedom is of some moral value. Sure, they have the choice in that no-one is forbidding them, but that’s not by itself the same thing as being free, in a morally relevant sense, to do it: I am free not to give my money to the highwayman who says ‘your money or your life’, but we don’t, rightly, think of that as a morally important freedom. It’s this kind of positive freedom claim that’s doing the work in most left-wing critiques of capitalism, and if you’re going to defend capitalism against such critiques, you need to address that, not just point to negative freedoms which require some argumentation to show that we should care about them. I’m not saying this is impossible, I’m just saying, do it.

It’s true that there has probably never been a pure market society, but there are a number of pieces of empirical and theoretical evidence we can draw on to substantiate the claim that some people would be extremely poor under such a society. Late Victorian society, at least in Britain, was fairly close to be a pure market society: rates of income tax were more or less neglible, the welfare safety net provided was so awful that people would take any job rather than fall into it, and there was little state support of industry. Yet people starved to death. Infant mortality rates were huge. When a genuinely philanthropic factory owner, Joseph Rowntree, did a survey of his workforce, he found that large proportions of them lived in abject poverty. We can also draw on the experience of more and less laissez faire states. Sweden has had consistently high economic growth rates and one of the lowest levels of poverty in the world since the nineteen thirties, when it became a virtual one-party, social democratic, state. Although the US has had very high economic growth rates, it still has a comparatively high level of poverty in for an industrialized Western nation. As for the theoretical evidence, I’m not an economist, but what I remember of market theory says a perfect market will clear at the intersection of marginal cost and marginal revenue, that is, for labour, where the marginal utility of income meets the marginal utility of leisure. If the alternative to income is starvation, its utility is going to be vast proportionally to that of leisure, meaning that people will take very low paid jobs, so as to avoid starving. Thus, a perfect labour market may leave people extremely poor (I think). This is to say nothing of market failures, collective action problems and so on, the theoretical literature on which is quite large, I understand.

I also think you are misusing the term charity: charity is by definition voluntary, so you can’t have coerced charity. This is part of a general libertarian misconception: the welfare system isn’t about charity, it’s about rights. Coercive intervention to uphold rights is justified, so libertarians can’t complain about it unless they can show that they aren’t really rights. By all means, try and show that people don’t have a right to some minimal level of income so that they can have some control over their lives, but don’t just wave attempts to instantiate that right as charity.

You say redistributing autonomy is a zero-sum game: this might be definitionally true. That, however, has no direct relation to redistributing income and wealth. Redistributing income and wealth is, in autonomy terms, a positive sum game if, which seems plausible, the rate at which income and wealth are converted into autonomy is subject to diminishing marginal returns (for example, I am not autonomous if I have to beg to survive, while if I have an income of ten thousand pounds a year, I’m probably not fully autonomous, but I am substanially more autonomous than a beggar; on the other hand, the difference between an income of ten million a year and nine million a year does not make any obviously substanial difference to my ability to direct my life as I please). Of course, if you equate autonomy with property rights, redistributing income and wealth does become a zero-sum game in terms of autonomy. But that’s begging the question, because the libertarian position is that freedom is property rights.

The libertarian animosity to politics has always seemed a little odd to me, because, surely, if they think they’re right, they must think that they can show others that they’re right. A more open democratic system would provide them with more opportunities to show they’re right.

I’m sorry about the length of the post. I got a bit carried away.

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Bill Gardner 01.18.05 at 1:56 pm

MC commented last night…

“I may be missing the point here, but: why should it be a surprise, to anyone who believes that a certain thing X generally contributes to having a successful/flourishing life – and indeed is widely believed to do so – that not having X turns out to have bad effects on health more narrowly construed?…” Part of what is surprising is how large the effects that Marmot finds appear to be. The book isn’t in front of me, but I believe the effect of the social gradient (Marmot’s term) on life expectancy is comparable to that of cardiovascular disease.

“Strikes me that the more interesting aspect is at the aggregate level – that less hierarchical societies have not just less health inequality but better levels of health overall – i.e., that this is not a fixed sum game.”

I think so too. One keeps hearing from the Right that reducing inequality would have unacceptable costs in overall well-being. That’s not so clear…

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David Foster 01.18.05 at 2:10 pm

Re Marx’s comment about a society in which a person could: “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, write literary criticism after dinner..”…..I wonder if Marx himself had any interest in hunting, fishing, and cattle-herding?

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Piers Young 01.19.05 at 3:35 pm

Interesting stuff. I’m not sure I agree with the “To have autonomy, you must be operating in an environment that is reasonably predictable and amenable to your control” bit.

Autonomy, I thought, meant self-rule – in any environment, predictable, malleable, both and neither. As such, rather than control, I thought the big thing about individual autonomy is being able to choose your own actions, even though they may amount to nothing and even though you might just be kidding yourself (in a determinist’ eyes).

On a group level, presumably this being able to choose has more or less to do with social participation and engagement – feeling as though you (as part of the group) are impacting on the choice.

That said, I’d probably spin it, in that (the perceived) lack of choice probably does more damage than (the perceived) ability to choose. And you can choose your hierarchy can’t you?

All – eek – of that said, I haven’t read the book so apologies if it’s way off base. Thanks again for the thoughts though!

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Piers Young 01.19.05 at 3:44 pm

Interesting stuff. I’m not sure I agree with the “To have autonomy, you must be operating in an environment that is reasonably predictable and amenable to your control” bit.

Autonomy, I thought, meant self-rule – in any environment, predictable, malleable, both and neither. As such, rather than control, I thought the big thing about individual autonomy is being able to choose your own actions, even though they may amount to nothing and even though you might just be kidding yourself (in a determinist’ eyes).

On a group level, presumably this being able to choose has more or less to do with social participation and engagement – feeling as though you (as part of the group) are impacting on the choice.

That said, I’d probably spin it, in that (the perceived) lack of choice probably does more damage than (the perceived) ability to choose. And you can choose your hierarchy can’t you?

All – eek – of that said, I haven’t read the book so apologies if it’s way off base. Thanks again for the thoughts though!

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