Let It Bleed: Libertarianism and the Workplace

by Chris Bertram on July 1, 2012

[This post was co-written by Chris Bertram, Corey Robin and Alex Gourevitch ]

“In the general course of human nature, a power over a man’s subsistence amounts to a power over his will.” —Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 79

Libertarianism is a philosophy of individual freedom. Or so its adherents claim. But with their single-minded defense of the rights of property and contract, libertarians cannot come to grips with the systemic denial of freedom in private regimes of power, particularly the workplace. When they do try to address that unfreedom, as a group of academic libertarians calling themselves “Bleeding Heart Libertarians” have done in recent months, they wind up traveling down one of two paths: Either they give up their exclusive focus on the state and become something like garden-variety liberals or they reveal that they are not the defenders of freedom they claim to be.

That is what we are about to argue, but it is based on months of discussion with the Bleeding Hearts. The conversation was kicked off by the critique one of us—Corey Robin—offered of libertarian Julian Sanchez’s presignation letter to Cato, in which Sanchez inadvertently revealed the reality of workplace coercion. Jessica Flanigan, a Bleeding Heart, responded twice to Robin. Then one of us—Chris Bertram—responded to Flanigan. Since then, the Bleeding Hearts have offered a series of responses to Chris and Corey.



Life at Work

To understand the limitations of these Bleeding Hearts, we have to understand how little freedom workers enjoy at work. Unfreedom in the workplace can be broken down into three categories.

1. Abridgments of freedom inside the workplace
On pain of being fired, workers in most parts of the United States can be commanded to pee or forbidden to pee. They can be watched on camera by their boss while they pee. They can be forbidden to wear what they want, say what they want (and at what decibel), and associate with whom they want. They can be punished for doing or not doing any of these things—punished legally or illegally (as many as 1 in 17 workers who try to join a union is illegally fired or suspended). But what’s remarkable is just how many of these punishments are legal, and even when they’re illegal, how toothless the law can be. Outside the usual protections (against race and gender discrimination, for example), employees can be fired for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason at all. They can be fired for donating a kidney to their boss (fired by the same boss, that is), refusing to have their person and effects searched, calling the boss a “cheapskate” in a personal letter, and more. They have few rights on the job—certainly none of the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendment liberties that constitute the bare minimum of a free society; thus, no free speech or assembly, no due process, no right to a fair hearing before a panel of their peers—and what rights they do have employers will fight tooth and nail to make sure aren’t made known to them or will simply require them to waive as a condition of employment. Outside the prison or the military—which actually provide, at least on paper, some guarantee of due process—it’s difficult to conceive of a less free institution for adults than the average workplace.

2. Abridgements of freedom outside the workplace
In addition to abridging freedoms on the job, employers abridge their employees’ freedoms off the job. Employers invade employees’ privacy, demanding that they hand over passwords to their Facebook accounts, and fire them for resisting such invasions. Employers secretly film their employees at home. Workers are fired for supporting the wrong political candidates (“work for John Kerry or work for me”), failing to donate to employer-approved candidates, challenging government officials, writing critiques of religion on their personal blogs (IBM instructs employees to “show proper consideration…for topics that may be considered objectionable or inflammatory—such as politics and religion”), carrying on extramarital affairs, participating in group sex at home, cross-dressing, and more. Workers are punished for smoking or drinking in the privacy of their own homes. (How many nanny states have tried that?) They can be fired for merely thinking about having an abortion, for reporting information that might have averted the Challenger disaster, for being raped by an estranged husband. Again, this is all legal in many states, and in the states where it is illegal, the laws are often weak.

3. Use of sanctions inside the workplace as a supplement to—or substitute for—political repression by the state
While employers often abridge workers’ liberty off the job, at certain moments, those abridgments assume a larger function for the state. Particularly in a liberal state constrained by constitutional protections such as the First Amendment, the instruments of coercion can be outsourced to—or shared with—the private sector. During the McCarthy period, for example, fewer than 200 men and women went to jail for their political beliefs, but as many as 40% of American workers—in both the public and private sectors—were investigated (and a smaller percentage punished) for their beliefs.

In his magisterial history of Reconstruction, W.E.B. DuBois noted that “the decisive influence” in suppressing the political agency of ex-slaves after the Civil War “was the systematic and overwhelming economic pressure” to which they were subjected. Though mindful of the tremendous violence, public and private, visited upon African Americans, DuBois also saw that much of the repression occurred in and through the workplace.

Negroes who wanted work must not dabble in politics. Negroes who wanted to increase their income must not agitate the Negro problem. Positions of influence were only open to those Negroes who were certified as being “safe and sane,” and their careers were closely scrutinized and passed upon. From 1880 onward, in order to earn a living, the American Negro was compelled to give up his political power.

What makes the private sector, especially the workplace, such an attractive instrument of repression is precisely that it can administer punishments without being subject to the constraints of the Bill of Rights. It is an archipelago of private governments, in which employers are free to do precisely what the state is forbidden to do: punish without process. Far from providing a check against the state, the private sector can easily become an adjutant of the state. Not through some process of liberal corporatism but simply because employers often share the goals of state officials and are better positioned to act upon them.

All of these examples come from the United States, where “at will” employment—defended by virtually all libertarians, including the Bleeding Hearts—is the legal norm. Yet conservatives elsewhere campaign for similar laws. For example, in the United Kingdom, where workers enjoy some statutory protections for unfair dismissal, a venture-capitalist, Adam Beecroft, recently produced a report for the Conservative Party arguing for a US-style firing regime. Should the Conservatives be able to govern on their own, we can expect at-will to pass into law. The UK has already moved much further in this direction than comparable European countries, with predictable results in the workplace, as the journalist Owen Jones has recently documented. What’s next? Forcing reporters to dress up as Harry Potter at a news conference? Oops. Too late.

Libertarians at Work

Despite this systemic abridgment and denial of freedom in the workplace, libertarians have a difficult time coming to terms with it. Which is ironic given that Robert Nozick cited the following example in his classic article “Coercion”—on page 2 no less—as so obvious an instance of coercion as to scarcely require explanation or elaboration: “You threaten to get me fired from my job if I do A, and I refrain from doing A because of this threat….I was coerced into not doing A.” (In fact, the workplace proved to be an abiding theme in Nozick’s treatment of coercion: almost the entirety of his discussion of the distinction between threats and warnings is focused on the example of a plant owner claiming that a yes vote in a union election would result in the factory shutting down.)

It’s also ironic given libertarians’ understanding of their project. Libertarians claim that freedom is their core value and that it’s maximized when the state refrains from interfering in the private choices of individuals. They also believe, however—as every sensible person should—that individual freedom can be curtailed by private action. In fact, the idea that private action can diminish individual freedom is central to their justification for the state, which is that some state coercion is required to stop people from dominating, enslaving, and generally harming others. We all do better on the metric of freedom, libertarians agree, if the state makes and enforces “traffic rules” for private persons.

Given this awareness that freedom can be diminished by private action, one might think libertarians would reject a state of affairs in which large portions of the population endure daily subjection to the commands of others. Especially when those issuing orders give their subjects detailed instructions on how to live their lives and are in a position to threaten them with severe negative consequences should they disobey. But one would be wrong.

In his response to Flanigan, Chris raised the question of sexual harassment—“What’s wrong with an employer saying to an employee (who needs the job, has bills to pay and kids to feed): ‘If you want to keep your job, you’d better let me fuck you?’”—because he assumed it to be a paradigmatic case of wrongful coercion, the wrongness of which was not in dispute. As it turned out, for some libertarians it was in dispute. The Bleeding Hearts, to their credit, did not dispute its wrongness. But that defenders of so obvious an instance of coercion emerged from the woodwork is illustrative of the fact that libertarianism has some difficulties in this area.

But some of the Bleeding Hearts even have their doubts about whether sexual harassment—and, more important, the larger structure of workplace command and control, obedience and submission, of which it is a part—constitute coercion. Jason Brennan says, “There’s an interesting debate to be had about whether [‘Fuck me or you’re fired’] counts as coercive, and I’ve seen libertarians go either way.” As he proceeds, it becomes clear which way Brennan goes: the wrongness of sexual harassment lies not in its coerciveness (Brennan suggests it’s not coercive) but, well, elsewhere.

Matt Zwolinski acknowledges that employer power is ripe for abuse (though he’s not sure he’d call it coercion) and says that he thinks Chris and Corey are right that libertarianism tends to be indifferent to (if not apologetic toward) private modes of power. But he also insists that “employment relationships are not the best way to illustrate” that lacuna in libertarianism.

And it’s clear why. For starters, Zwolinski believes that “in most cases, employers don’t actually wield as much power over their employees as they might seem to.” (What theory of power, we wonder, does Zwolinksi hold if it’s possible for employers simultaneously not to have much of it and yet be “in a position to threaten their employees with negative (sometimes severely negative) consequences unless they do what they’re told?” And why, if what Zwolinski says is true, did 2/3 of government inspectors charged with overseeing the health and safety of America’s workers report “observing worker fear of disciplinary action for reporting an injury or illness?” Not to mention all the other instances of employer power cited above?)

More important, Zwolinski’s not much inclined to impose any limits on the power of employers to tell their employees what to do and to threaten employees with punishment for not doing it. Not just because he thinks the state is not particularly adept at imposing such restrictions in an intelligent or effective way but also because

it’s important for employers to have a certain range of freedom to set terms of employment as they wish. Sometimes, they use this freedom in ways that we think are admirable—designing innovative and effective compensation programs for their workers, or hiring employees from traditionally underrepresented groups. Other times they use it in ways we find objectionable— telling their workers to put out or be fired. In between lies a vast gray area. Is it a good use of their liberty for employers to institute a dress code at work? A speech code? To only hire Catholics, or large breasted women? Libertarians believe that such questions are generally not ones that government has the competency or authority to decide, and that they should be left to individual employers to decide as they see fit.

And while Flanigan acknowledges that these workplace exercises of power, backed up by the threat of firing, are coercive, she concludes that unless such exercises of power “radically change a person’s job description” they are not “impermissibly coercive.”

On the flip side, libertarians often have little problem in finding the activities of unions to be coercive. Take a picket line. According to Jacob Levy:

Unions—their leadership, their membership, their supporters—are capable of significant bullying that easily spills into immoral coercion against outsiders, nonmembers, and dissenters; the charge of “scab” is often an accusation of punishable treason against a cause that the accused never signed up for.

(In fairness to Levy—and to his credit—he also writes this: “Unions have been and continue to be absolutely indispensable for the mitigation of workplace power imbalances between managers and employees; they provide due process protections, protection against favoritism and nepotism and retaliation and harassment sexual and otherwise, protection against unjust dismissal and against the countless ways that managers can use the threat of dismissal to gain personal advantage.” And this: “I think the general commitment to human freedom that motivates libertarianism should also motivate concern for these kinds of issues [coercion of workers].” Needless to say, his statements in favor of unions are the outlier in this discussion. None of his more orthodox libertarian critics, moreover, takes issue with his formulation of the “immoral coercion” that is entailed by the use of the word “scab.”)

But Levy is hardly alone in finding the emotional blackmail of a picket line to be coercive. Hayek, for example, wrote that “even so-called ‘peaceful’ picketing in numbers is severely coercive.” Indeed, Hayek thought this mode of blackmail to be the “chief factor” or instrument of union coercion, more powerful and potent than legislation sanctioning the existence of unions in the first place. (This, despite his skepticism of any account of coercion that depends upon people’s internal states of mind.) More generally, Hayek was quite liberal in his use of the word “coercion” and “coercive” in the context of unions. And though the inconsistencies of his account of coercion are legendary, driving even some of his libertarian admirers to distraction, none that we know of has questioned his application of the term to the intimidation of a picket line.

But if running the gauntlet of shouting workers as a condition of employment is coercive—because of the emotional distress (Hayek calls it “organized pressure upon individuals”) it inflicts—how is having to put up with any number of humiliations and indignities in the workplace as a condition of employment not equally coercive? After all, on any libertarian mode of reasoning, no one is forcing the non-striking worker to work, and certainly not at this particular workplace; presumably she can take her labor elsewhere.

In any event, whether or not libertarians are consistent in their understanding of workplace coercion, there is little doubt that they are confused about or indifferent to its presence and reality. Indeed, the ease with which Zwolinski, like Murray Rothbard before him, subsumes “the power” employers “have over their workers” under the category of “the freedom of employers”—a move with a long lineage in the history of both wage and bonded labor—suggests how far we have to go before the Bleeding Hearts establish that theirs is not simply the same old black heart of libertarianism we all know.

Contract, Coercion, and Consent

Bleeding Hearts believe that workplace coercion is not coercion (or at least not impermissible coercion) for two reasons.

First, workers freely consent to work for their employer. Though many libertarians take any voluntary contract, no matter how desperate the circumstances of the worker, as a proxy for consent, most Bleeding Hearts believe that as long as workers have a reasonable alternative to not working—in the form of a universal basic income (UBI)—it cannot be said that their agreement to take a job is coerced. (Though Bleeding Hearts usually defend the UBI as a requirement of justice rather than liberty, they also defend it as a hedge against employer coercion. More recently, John Tomasi has conceded that when economic conditions are such that “workers effectively have no choice but to keep their current job, no matter how nasty” they will be “vulnerable to coercive abuses” of their employers—which is merely an amplified version of Hayek’s position.) Given the presence of a reasonable alternative, workers performing whatever tasks their employer demands are freely consenting to do those tasks. Of the Bleeding Hearts, only Flanigan adds the proviso that those tasks must fall within the boundaries of what she calls the “implicit understanding” of the job description initially consented to.

Second, workers are free to quit any job not to their liking—again, say the Bleeding Hearts, provided they are not bound to keep their job for lack of a reasonable alternative. Assuming, presumably, some kind of tacit consent theory, the Bleeding Hearts conclude that any worker who performs a specific action at the behest of her boss—peeing in a cup, say, while the boss stands outside the stall, or peeing in her pants because she’s not allowed to go to the bathroom—is acting freely.

Let’s assume, for the moment, that the UBI provides a reasonable alternative to not working, making the worker’s decision to work—and stay at work—truly free. What, we might ask, does the worker agree to when she signs a contract? With the exception of Flanigan, the Bleeding Hearts have been silent on this issue, and for good reason.

Outside a unionized workplace or the public sector, what most workers are agreeing to when they sign an employment contract is the alienation of many of their basic rights (speech, privacy, association, and so on) in exchange for pay and benefits. They may think they’re only agreeing to do a specific job, but what they are actually agreeing to do is to obey the commands and orders of their boss. It’s close to a version of Hobbesian contract theory—“The end of obedience is protection”—in which the worker gets money, benefits, and perhaps security in exchange for a radical alienation of her will.

At least the Hobbesian contract specifies this alienation of the will. Few employment contracts do. If they specify anything, it is the performance of labor—and often indeterminate labor at that—in return for a wage. What they don’t specify is the rules of bathroom access, employer prerogatives over speech onsite and offsite, dress codes, and more. That is why many workers are surprised to learn, for example, that they have no freedom of speech or right to privacy on the job: no one—least of all their employer—ever told them. It may also be why, according to the most systematic meta-study of this issue, most Americans believe that “employers should have good reasons [i.e., just cause] for discharging their employees.” Again, no one told them otherwise.

The problem with most employment contracts, then, is twofold: On the one hand, they are highly and necessarily indeterminate. As economic and legal theorists regularly tell us, all contracts are incomplete, but inside the workplace they are especially so. Where Staples’s contract with an insurance company to provide twenty reams of paper on July 2 means only that Staples has to supply that insurance company with twenty reams of paper on July 2, a secretary’s contract with that same insurance company is a sheet of blank paper that gets filled in by her boss only with and over time.

And what does it get filled in with? The secretary learns that she must file papers (but how many per hour? for how many people? according to what system?), answer phones (but what can she say? what can’t she say? how long must each conversation be? can she chew gum while she talks?), greet visitors (wearing what? smiling?), type memos (how fast? on what paper?), keep her desk clean (how many times a week does she dust it? does she keep family photos? what if she’s married to a woman? what if her children are unsightly?), get her boss his coffee (with milk? from Starbuck’s? in a reusable cup that she must wash and dry every night before she goes home?), help her boss do his job (does she buy his presents for his wife and kids? his mistress? does she make sure his shirts get laundered when he’s on a business trip?), and make the office run smoothly (does she plan the holiday party? does she hire strippers? does she make sure there are pretty pictures on the wall?) And once she’s figured all that out, she must then find out whether she can (or must) wear perfume, eyeglasses, miniskirts, earrings, a wedding ring. Whether she can (or must) wear a bra or her hair in a bun, tell (or not tell) her co-workers her salary, address her boss by his first or last name, tell (or not tell) him how she wishes to be addressed, use email after work, and on and on.

The promised performance of any job means that every movement and moment, gesture and statement, of the performer’s day (and increasingly night) is up for grabs. The terms of the contract are inevitably indeterminate—especially in a dynamic economy, where technological innovation means that work routines are revolutionized all the time. Itemizing all these ins and outs in advance would partake of the prolixity of a legal code, to borrow a phrase.

Flanigan’s response to this conundrum is that “where contracts are incomplete, there is usually an implicit or explicit understanding about the nature of a job.” We’re not clear how she knows this to be the case. The evidence of most labor history and labor sociology points in the opposite direction: workers and bosses constantly disagree about the nature of a job. Labor violence in the US, from the 1840s to the 1970s—surpassing Europe in scale and wantonness—is hard to account for without some recognition of these disagreements. But even if it were the case that there’s a shared understanding of work requirements, who decides, on any given issue, whether a specific edict of the boss violates the job description? For the Bleeding Hearts, it’s clear: the boss decides. And if the contract is unclear or doesn’t specify, says Flanigan, and “an employee is surprised to find that her job requires things she did not anticipate”—like fucking the boss—“then of course she should be free to leave the job.”

Thus, the flip side of the indeterminate contract is a rather specific contract: if you want to get paid, obey the boss. Do what you’re told, don’t talk back, and in the event of a disagreement, cede to his will. Though again, that’s almost never stipulated in advance.

Enter, Exit

But what of the freedom to enter and exit the workplace? Unlike most libertarians, many of the Bleeding Hearts accept—again, mostly as a requirement of justice, but also as an antidote to coercion—that for a contract to be freely entered into, and for exit to be a genuine option, workers must have a reasonable alternative to working. Usually, this is framed as providing everyone with a basic income. Any UBI, on this account, would have to be high enough to ensure that no one is forced to take or keep a job.

Let’s say we decided that our freedom threshold would be met by ensuring that someone who didn’t work wouldn’t fall into poverty. The current, rather miserly, poverty line for a single person in the United States is $11,170. Providing a UBI of $11,170 would require taxing roughly 40 percent of current GDP. Tax revenues now consume 20% of GDP, so tax rates would have to double—or we could simply expropriate the top 1%, who command roughly 20% of national income. A UBI guaranteeing the equivalent of the annual minimum wage—$15,080—would require taxing roughly 50% of current GDP.

On either measure—and we should be clear that neither measure in our opinion comes close to providing a reasonable alternative to work—a UBI that provided anything approaching a minimally “reasonable alternative” would require, by American standards, high levels of taxation.

It may be that the Bleeding Hearts disagree with the common libertarian claim that taxation is slavery, but most libertarians do not—certainly not enough to entertain such high levels of taxation. So the Bleeding Hearts should come clean. It’s not good enough to gesture vaguely in the direction of a UBI as a “get out of jail free card” when issues of freedom and consent are raised, without facing up to the question of whether a large enough UBI to make entry and exit genuinely voluntary could be financed with whatever taxes they consider to be just.

But say the Bleeding Hearts were willing to raise taxes for the sake of creating a reasonable alternative to selling one’s labor. Would a UBI, on its own, really constitute that alternative? There’s no doubt that a far heftier UBI—one that allowed a single person to live more than an impoverished existence—would offer a reasonable alternative at the moment of contract. It’s not at all clear, however, that even a robust UBI would constitute a reasonable alternative at the moment of exit, when an employee must consider all the costs (financial and otherwise) of leaving her job and all the sunk costs she’ll never recover. Certainly not enough of an alternative to warrant the claim that staying at a job is a genuinely free decision.

Anyone who has been in a job for a while, who has committed to a mortgage, has children in school and shares her life with a partner, knows that just walking out, with an income stream committed months or years ahead, is a very bad idea unless they have something definite lined up. Indeed, when libertarian Julian Sanchez offered his presignation letter to Cato, he acknowledged that one of the reasons he could even contemplate quitting was that he was “relatively young, and unencumbered by responsibility for a mortgage or kids” and had “fine options”—i.e., comparable and credible work alternatives.

The costs of walking out extend far beyond simple finances. Men and women who have worked in a place for years may be embedded in a network of relations—with co-workers, clients, suppliers, and so on—that constitute a major part of their world. They live in communities where their children attend schools, their partners work, and they have built lives. They may be in a career where entry opportunities are easier when young and have devoted themselves to a profession they will be lucky to get back into if they walk out. Academics, of all people, should be aware of this; employers certainly are.

Simply having the economic means to leave a job, or at least being able survive for a while without a job, cannot address the loss of these goods. It is absurd to think that $11,170/year can compensate for these other costs of leaving a job.

Moreover, there are many smaller coercions and harassments against which a UBI—or any alternative requiring the worker’s exit—would be powerless. If a boss decides to restrict breaks to thirteen minutes instead of fifteen, install cameras outside the bathroom to monitor usage, or make everyone stay three minutes later each day to perform extra paperwork but without extra pay, the threat to leave would be too great to leverage against the grievance. This is why employers often change job expectations and requirements in small increments. In the face of such changes, protest—much less quitting—can seem unreasonable and irrational. The threat of exit would be empty because it could so easily be called as a bluff. Since leaving is a kind of nuclear option, exit is not a universal deterrent. It is too crude an instrument to guarantee that workers can avoid being coerced precisely because it does not, in fact, provide a reasonable alternative in these situations. More fine-grained instruments – like having control over the job itself – are required to resist these petty harassments and mini-coercions.

The larger problem lies in the simplistic notion that the ability to freely enter or exit the workplace disposes of the problem of freedom inside the workplace. On the front end, most libertarians believe that contracts are freedom-preserving: so long as they aren’t coerced or fraudulent, there are no freedom-related objections to be made. But this is a mistake. If someone contracted to be the slave to another person for a year, with no possibility of exit, surely that initial moment of consent does not preserve the slave’s freedom for the remaining 364 days of the year. Even libertarians—at least the sane ones—believe that there are some things you cannot consent to, like slavery, and still retain your freedom. (Up until the 1980s, it was legal in most states in the US for a husband to rape his wife on the grounds that her decision to marry him entailed an agreement to provide him sexual access for the duration of their marriage. That was thought to be a consent, in the famous words of Matthew Hale, that “she [could not] retract,” at least not while she remained in the contract.) In those cases, the contract is freedom canceling, not freedom preserving. And it’s not the desperate conditions—which give rise to the contract—that make it freedom canceling; it’s the contract itself.

On the back end, the limitations of exit as an instrument of freedom can be illustrated by a simple analogy. Suppose Canada were a dictatorship, but the United States welcomed anyone who wished to leave, paid for her ticket and promised her a job. Would that mean that anyone who stayed behind was free? Or think about the implicit contract at the heart of ethnic cleansing: exit and live; stay and die. Now it’s undoubtedly true that exit is better than no exit—ethnic cleansing being better than genocide—in that it limits the reach of coercion. But it’s not true that exit lessens coercion and increases freedom among those who stay. Surely we don’t want to claim that those Jews who refused to flee the pogroms of tsarist Russia were somehow free. To be clear: the point is not that the workplace is as unfree as a dictatorship or the shtetl but that just because an employee can leave doesn’t mean she is free at work.

Law and Voice

Where these thoughts lead is exactly in the opposite direction of libertarianism, including the Bleeding Heart variety: state interference—that is, law and regulation—and economic democracy—that is, more voice—on the job can be liberating.

One way the state can protect workers from coercion and thereby defend their freedom is to interfere with freedom of contract, by making some contracts altogether impossible and by insisting on fair contractual terms for others. This notion, that the preservation of freedom sometimes requires the restriction of freedom, may induce incomprehension or apoplexy in the libertarian—but it should not. After all, libertarians are themselves committed to such a thought in their basic justification for the state: the coercion of the state frees people from the “wild” coercion of lawless individuals. When the law makes me unfree to do a thing that has the happy consequence that nobody can coerce me to do that thing. Nor can I be bargained or negotiated into a position where I have to. In this way the state preserves my freedom when it forbids me from making a contract to enslave myself. Similarly, when states insist, as they do in many jurisdictions outside the United States (Montana is the only the state in America that has such a provision), that employers must show just cause for firing people, it thereby protects them against the kind of encroachments on their freedom that employers are tempted to make.

Another way to protect workers’ freedom is to give them more voice on the job. If entry and exit are emblems of freedom because they express the voluntary will of the individual, why limit those expressions to two moments: when she steps inside the workplace and when she leaves? Would the worker not have more freedom if she had more opportunities to express and act upon her will inside the workplace? Not just more occasions but also more ways to express her will? To say something beyond “I’m staying” or “I’m going”? Imagine if she were free to say, without fear of punishment, “I think you should change your policy of not allowing women to wear skirts?” Or “I’m going to the bathroom” (or, better yet, if she didn’t have to say that at all)? Or “I think you should consider voting for the Green Party”? Would not those greater opportunities for expression (greater in variety and occasion) increase freedom rather than diminish it? It’s true that these expressions of worker freedom require limitations on the employer’s freedom to fire workers. But that, it seems to us, is at the heart of any notion of equal freedom in society: your right to swing your arms always ends just where my nose begins.

These are just some of the considerations that lie at the heart of any defense of unions, regulation of contract and the workplace, and workplace democracy. Whether we call that defense egalitarian liberal, social democratic or democratic socialist, libertarians reject it as an abridgment of economic freedom and, more particularly, the freedom of owners to do what they wish with their property. But the defense of freedom requires such interventions. Private power, left as unrestricted as the Bleeding Hearts would leave it, simply gives too much scope to private empires of tyranny and domination. Taking freedom seriously means confronting the unfreedoms that ordinary people are subject to in their ordinary lives: the Bleeding Hearts, with their fetish of private property and contract, just can’t do that.

[Update from CB: I accidentally forgot the Tony Bennett video when I originally posted, but it was an agreed part of the post.]

{ 273 comments }

1

Junius Ponds 07.01.12 at 8:24 pm

This looks pretty impressive. None of the Google Books links work for me, though. They just link to the same front-page of a book cover and some blurbs. Maybe old-fashioned citations are necessary.

2

david 07.01.12 at 8:42 pm

Corey Robin mentioned sexual harassment to invoke an indefensible idea that turned out to have defenders; I fear this essay does the same. The BHLs are conflicted about far simpler questions like “can you contract yourself into slavery?”, so the answer to “what manner of rights do they believe are inalienable by contract?” is “very, very close to nothing”. Certainly not including the right to pee during work.

As I read it the Zwolinski et al position is about celebrating the notion that it is a Good Thing if employees are permitted to pee during work, but obliging employers to permit this is an unconscionable restriction of the employee‘s right to contract this freedom away. Which I suppose is intended to impress labour market forces into granting these freedoms anyway…?

It’s a hell lot better than Rothbardian love-notes to angry cultural reactionaries, but I can’t help but feel the entire BHL project was ever, and only, an emotional reaction to the cesspool of culturally reactionary libertarianism: “this can’t be it, can it? These right-wingers aren’t actually right that The Holy Property Right obliges me to endorse this outlook on history, on culture, on society?” And the blog was more about groping for plausible responses, but instead it’s descended into Libertarian Intellectual Blog #51451, fleeing to capital-anarchist utopia whenever a particularly strident right-wing libertarian seizes the microphone. They can talk about “social justice” but cannot – and, I daresay, will not – ever elaborate on any particular property rights forms that this social justice entails. Particularly not any forms perceived to be left-wing of the status quo.

As Joshua Cohen remarked, during the 2009 liberaltarianism dust-up: “[they] will always celebrate these gains when the fight is over: always at the after party, inconspicuous at the main event, and never on the planning committee.”

3

David Ellerman 07.01.12 at 8:47 pm

Unfortunately, this posting illustrates the tendency of much of the left to validate the liberal misframing of consent-versus-coercion, and then to endlessly argue the nuances of just what is “coercion”–all as if the whole institution of renting people would be permissible if only employers would not be “coercive” or “abusive” by some specific definition of those rather elastic terms. For those who approach the issue from the view point of political theory, the real question is the difference between contracts to alienate one’s rights of self-governance (as in the link to Hobbes and as in today’s employment contract in the workplace) and contracts to secure those rights by only delegating any power to delegates or representatives. There is an inalienable rights tradition that descends from the Reformation and Enlightenment, and that was developed by the abolitionist and democratic movements into a per se critique of the voluntary slavery contract and the undemocratic constitution of the pactum subjectionis. That critique has nothing to do with pee breaks.
There is also an analysis of the person rental institution from the view point of property rights, but that is conceptually more demanding (e.g., some knowledge of economic theory is helpful). In any case, that analysis shows that libertarianism, bleeding heart or otherwise, is based on an abuse of “the principle on which property is supposed to rest” (getting the fruits of one’s labor) and on “validating” a contract that pretends to alienate that which is in fact inalienable (responsibility for the results of one’s actions). The problem is not in making a “fetish of private property and contract” but in violating the principles on which property and contract are supposed to rest.
Thus by ignoring the whole analysis based on property rights and by accepting the misframing of consent-versus-coercion, much of the left is making a great gift to libertarianism–the latter being always willing to take another ineffectual spin around the hamster-wheel of arguing about what is “really” coercive or “really” consensual. For the details of this per se critique of libertarianism, see this five part review of John Tomasi’s recent book, Free Market Fairness , a book that gives a good restatement of the views of the bleeding heart libertarians and that was the subject of a recent symposium on that blog.

4

david 07.01.12 at 9:01 pm

@David Ellerman

I don’t know, I thought the point that such-and-such rights aren’t really supposed to be alienated by employment came through quite clearly in the post.

5

Anon. 07.01.12 at 9:21 pm

As long as Western workers keep using immigration laws to further impoverish workers in poorer countries, and restrict labor competition by shutting them out of the market, I think they shouldn’t be allowed to complain about anything. These laws are evil, and the people that support them (and benefit from them) are wholly immoral as well. So, fuck them.

You don’t get pee breaks? Boo fucking hoo. The laws you support mean that hundreds of millions of people will never even get the opportunity to complain about something like that.

6

Steven Tran-Creque 07.01.12 at 9:37 pm

This looks pretty good, although I only have time to skim it at the moment. I do want to reproduce part of an essay David Graeber wrote on capitalism and slavery that I think is particularly relevant and doesn’t seem to have made it into the discussion so far. From Turning Modes of Production Inside Out (published in Critique of Anthropology in 2006, but you can find it at Libcom):

We can observe the following traits shared by slavery and capitalism:
(1) Both rely on a separation of the place of social (re)production of the labor force, and the place where that labor-power is realized in production – in the case of slavery, this is effected by transporting laborers bought or stolen from one society into another one; in capitalism, by separating the domestic sphere (the sphere of social production) from the workplace. In other words, what is effected by physical distance in one is effected by the anonymity of the market in the other.
(2) The transfer is effected through exchanging human powers for money: either by selling workers, or hiring them (essentially, allowing them to rent themselves).
(3) One effect of that transfer is ‘social death’, in the sense that the community ties, kinship relations and so forth that shaped the worker are, in principle, supposed to have no relevance in the workplace. This is true in capitalism too, at least in principle: a worker’s ethnic identity, social networks, kin ties and the rest should not have any effect on hiring or how one is treated in the office or shop floor, though of course in reality this isn’t true.
(4) Most critically, the financial transaction in both cases produces abstract labor,
which is pure creative potential. This is created by the effects of command. Abstract labor is the sheer power of creation, to do anything at all. Everyone might be said to control abstract labor in their own person, but in order to extend it further, one has to place others in a position where they will be effectively an extension of one’s will, completely at one’s orders. Slavery, military service and various forms of corvée are the main forms in which this has manifested itself historically. Obviously, this too is something of an unrealized ideal: this is in fact precisely the area of most labor struggle. But it’s worthy of note that feudalism (or manorialism if you prefer) tends towards exactly the opposite principle: the duties owed by liege to lord were very specific and intricately mapped out.
(5) A constant ideological accompaniment of this sort of arrangement is an ideology of freedom. As Moses Finley first pointed out (1980), most societies take it for granted that no human is completely free or completely dependent, rather, all have different degrees of rights and obligations. The modern ideal of political liberty, in fact, has historically tended to emerge from societies with extreme forms of chattel slavery (Pericles’ Athens, Jefferson’s Virgina), essentially as a point of contrast. Medieval jurists, for example, assumed every right was someone else’s obligation and vice versa; the modern doctrine of liberty as a property of humans one could possess was developed precisely in Lisbon and Antwerp, the cities that were at the center of the slave trade at the time; and the most common objection to this new notion of liberty at the time was that if one owns one’s freedom, it should then also be possible to sell it (Tuck, 1979). Hence the doctrine of personal liberty – outside the workplace – or even the notion of freedom of contract, that one so often encounters in societies dominated by wage labor, does not really mean we are dealing with a fundamentally different sort of system. It means we are dealing with a transformation. We are dealing with the same terms, differently arranged, so that rather than one class of people being able to imagine themselves as absolutely ‘free’ because others are absolutely unfree, we have the same individuals moving back and forth between these two positions over the course of the week and working day.

So, in effect, a transfer effected just once, by sale, under a regime of slavery is transformed into one that is repeated over and over again under capitalism.
Now, it might seem a bit impertinent to compare the morning commute to the Middle Passage, but structurally they do seem to play exactly the same role. What is accomplished once, and violently and catastrophically, in one variant, is repeated with endless mind-numbing drudgery in the other.

I’m reminded of Eddis Miller at Left Forum this year (actually, on a panel with Graeber and Felix Ensslin, which was pretty much the best thing I saw there) talking about Rick Santorum boasting about his grandfather being a coal miner who worked his whole life in the mines to provide for his family: “If this is freedom, I’m not very interested.”

I’ll leave off with the parting, unexplored thesis from Graeber’s article, because I think it opens up a different avenue for thinking about the fundamentally transparent bullshit of libertarianism’s concern for freedom:

Thesis 5: Capitalism’s unlimited demand for growth and profit is related to the transcendent abstraction of the corporate form. In any society, the dominant forms are considered transcendent from reality in much the way value forms tend to be and when these transcendent forms encounter ‘material’ reality, their demands are absolute

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Curmudgeon 07.01.12 at 9:39 pm

I think arguments of this sort would be much more effective if they were framed against Republicans (for a US audience), Conservatives (for a UK or Canadian audience), or conservatives (for a broader audience) rather than against nebulous Libertarians. Libertarians, by and large, do little more than annoy people on the Internet. Republicans (etc), have actual power and do their best to a) increase human suffering and b) make sure the rights of the rich to exploit the poor are never challenged. Targeting them unambiguously is more productive.

I now await the inevitable complaints that I am tone trolling.

8

bob mcmanus 07.01.12 at 9:44 pm

6: “Abstract Labour” instead of “Labour Power” Oh well, to be expected.

But otherwise the Graeber is very good. Thank you.

The original post is also excellent for what it is, an argument between progressives and libertarians.

9

Martin 07.01.12 at 9:53 pm

Very interesting post; from a law and economics perspective I am thinking that this problem should be possible to solve through mandatory rules or default rules – probably mandatory rules – in contracts that impose restrictions on employers for the benefit of both employee and employers.

The argument could be trivially simple:

I. Some employers impose costs on other employers through higher costs because of their behavior. The reasons for these higher costs is that it increases the expected dis-utility of labor, ergo ex ante higher wages are demanded. Restricting this behavior can therefore slightly lower wages.

II. Employers simply can’t help themselves when it comes to exploiting their workers after the contract has been signed; employers therefore would voluntarily agree to restrictions in contract as it would lower costs for the same reasons as above.

If I & II are very difficult or impossible to formulate specifically the only recourse is that employers can only dismiss their workers at a substantial cost as a second best.

If morality is contractual, then these solutions would not violate that morality. I then don’t really see the problem of intervention in contracts: it’s what parties would prefer.
Then again some people might call me a statist or paternalist and argue that the state cannot possibly know more than individuals do…the alternative would then be anarchy or to carefully formulate conditions under which we know the state would know more than individuals.

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Steven Tran-Creque 07.01.12 at 10:33 pm

Now that I’ve had a chance to read it, I have to admit Chris’ post does go out on a kind of tepidly liberal, ‘they should be able to take bathroom breaks’ note. But I’m not sure it’s fair to characterize the entire post that way given the fairly savage critique that comes earlier, even if it sails closer to liberalism/progressivism than my own heart.

On that note, Curmudgeon, I think you get it pretty wrong in wanting to tie this to Republicans and Conservatives. Wage labor and right to contract yourself into slavery are hardly exclusively conservative positions; Democrats and New Labour just think the conditions under which you enslave yourself should be a (very) little more hospitable.

I want to focus on Chris’ phrase, though: “private empires of tyranny and domination.” It reminded me of a post Julian Assange made years ago (before he was Julian Assange) on his blog on iq.org. Lines up rather well with Graeber, I think:

It has been frequently noted that many corporations exceed nation states in GDP. It has been less frequently noted that some also exceed them in population (employees).
But it is odd that the comparison hasn’t been taken further. Since so many live in the state of the corporation, let us take the comparison seriously and ask the following question. What kind of states are giant corporations?
In comparing countries, after the easy observations of population size and GDP, it is usual to compare the system of government, the major power groupings and the civic freedoms available to their populations.
The corporation as a nation state has the following properties:
•Suffrage (the right to vote) does not exist except for land holders (“share holders”) and even there voting power is in proportion to land ownership.
•All executive power flows from a central committee. Female representation is almost unknown.
•There is no division of powers. There is no fourth estate. There are no juries and innocence is not presumed.
•Failure to submit to any order can result in instant exile.
•There is no freedom of speech. There is no right of association. Love is forbidden without state approval.
•The economy is centrally planned.
•There is pervasive surveillance of movement and electronic communication.
•The society is heavily regulated and this regulation is enforced, to the degree many employees are told when, where and how many times a day they can goto the toilet.
•There is almost no transparency and something like the FOIA is unimaginable.
•The state has one party. Opposition groups (unions) are banned, surveilled or marginalized whenever and wherever possible.
These large multinationals, despite having a GDP and population comparable to Belgium, Denmark or New Zealand have nothing like their quality of civic freedoms. Internally they mirror the most pernicious aspects of the 1960s Soviet. This even more striking when the civilising laws of region the company operates in are weak (e.g West Pupua or South Korea). There one can see the behavior of these new states clearly, unobscured by their surroundings.
If small business and non-profits are eliminated from the US, then what’s left? Some kind of federation of Communist states.
A United Soviet of America.

Whenever I hear libertarians talk about freedom, all I can think of is Anatole France’s crack about the magnificent equality of the law forbidding rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges and stealing bread. Or in another sense, along the lines of Brecht’s Interrogation of the Good, freedom to do what?

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Chris Bertram 07.01.12 at 10:34 pm

_Chris’ phrase, … : “private empires of tyranny and domination.”_

As it happens, I think that was my phrase. But for better or worse, the post was jointly written by the three of us, so please give credit (or blame) to all of us.

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John Quiggin 07.01.12 at 10:36 pm

I really enjoyed this, but I think the cost estimates for UBI are greatly overstated. US income per person is about 40 000 per person, so the poverty line is about 25 per cent of that, and the minimum wage is about 40 per cent, which is fairly comparable to what you’ve calculated. But most people are already receiving more than the minimum wage, either from market income* or from Social Security, which is above poverty line for most retirees. Shifting to a UBI would entail raising all existing benefits to the UBI level and making access unconditional, which would lead some people to leave work for the UBI (the availability of this option is the whole point, after all), and would mean that some people who currently have no income get the UBI. Assuming that the proportion of people who choose to leave work for the UBI is reasonably small, the total cost is a small fraction of that calculated above.

* Obviously, you can get a big number if you make a UBI payment to people with market incomes above the UBI, financed by taxes on the same people. But this can easily be netted out – there’s no need to collect and disburse the money.

13

Jonathan H. Adler 07.01.12 at 10:43 pm

I look forward to the BHL response, in the meantime, here’s one little factual quibble:

A quick point that I also made in response to Chris Bertram in one of the BHL threads. The claim that the U.S., in actual practice, is far more of an “at will” jurisdiction than European states is overstated. Compare, for instance, the ILO’s description of Denmark
http://www.ilo.org/dyn/eplex/termmain.showCountry?p_lang=en&p_country_id=185
Prohibited grounds (for dismissal in Denmark) marital status;
pregnancy; maternity leave; filing a complaint against the employer;
temporary work injury or illness; race; colour; sex; sexual orientation;
religion; political opinion; social origin; nationality; age; trade
union membership and activities; disabilities; parental leave; ethnic
origin

With the ILO’s description of the U.S.:
http://www.ilo.org/dyn/eplex/termmain.showCountry?p_lang=en&p_country_id=164
Prohibited grounds: pregnancy; maternity leave; filing a complaint against the employer; race; sex; religion; age; trade union membership and activities; disabilities; parental leave; whistle blowing; adoption leave; raising occupational health and security concerns; performing jury service; genetic information

And note also that the description of the US does not account for the existence of more stringent rules in some some states and local jurisdictions, or the fact that even most of those states purporting to be “at-will” jurisdictions recognize numerous exceptions beyond the list above created by federal law. It is simply not the case that throughout the US employees can be fired for any reason whatsoever or that, in practice, “at will” really means “at will.”

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Leinad 07.01.12 at 11:10 pm

Sorry guys, but to my mind the letters ‘BHL’ will forever be synonymous coiffed, open-shirted fatuity. Maybe rename?

15

Lawyer 07.01.12 at 11:24 pm

Yeah, as Adler says the description of American law here is highly misleading. The cases cited do not entail the actual positive law that most Americans face. Just to take one of your first examples, there is a famous AZ Supreme court case ruling in favor of a nurse who was fired for not engaging in public urination “games” during a hospital camping trip.

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CK MacLeod 07.01.12 at 11:47 pm

I had already written a longer comment on the rather highly dubious UBI calculation, but, instead of posting it, I’ll just second John Quiggin’s comment above. The authors needs to explain their assumptions. If they’re referring to someone else’s work, they ought to link to it.

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banned troll 07.01.12 at 11:50 pm

They traveled 2nd class in the train and Ethel was longing to go first but thought perhaps least said soonest mended. Mr Salteena got very excited in the train about his visit. Ethel was calm but she felt excited inside. Bernard has a big house said Mr. S. gazing at Ethel he is inclined to be rich.

Oh indeed said Ethel looking at some cows flashing past the window. Mr. S. felt rarther disheartened so he read the paper till the train stopped and the porters shouted Rickamere station. We had better collect our traps said Mr Salteena and just then a very exalted footman in a cocked hat and olive green uniform put his head in at [Pg 30] the window. Are you for Rickamere Hall he said in impressive tones.

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Hob 07.02.12 at 12:03 am

I recently observed a conversation between two co-workers where one was trying to persuade the other that state regulations against coercive/exploitative work conditions were a good idea. After waffling a bit, the second guy stated that although he didn’t think they were the worst thing ever, they were really unnecessary, because if his employer tried to impose anything intolerable on him– “I could just start my own company.”

He’s in his early 30s, with his first kid on the way, and he’s a computer programmer. I’ve never heard anyone in regular life– by which I mean, not on the Internet and not in a political campaign– say anything like that, except for computer programmers. I’m familiar with the mentality, and the relative health of the industry in this area makes it sound less insane than it would in any other field, but I’m still dumbfounded every time I hear it.

Still, I think Curmudgeon’s complaint about the niche nature of libertarianism is misplaced. Self-described libertarians are a relatively powerless fringe– but because they don’t have to worry about running anything, they’re the most articulate proponents of the philosophy this post is talking about; their ideas are identical to those of Republicans whenever the latter are trying to sound intellectual and principled; and they provide the only halfway plausible framework for getting people like my co-worker (that is, fairly smart and scrupulous, but dismissive of politics) to think of their interests as identical with those of employers. If, per Glenn Beck’s fever dreams, Democrats had a similar relationship to socialism– that is, if a sizable fraction of the party constantly talked about how they were really socialists at heart, and if citing prominent socialist figures was uncontroversial and even expected– then it would be reasonable for Republicans to conflate socialists and Democrats in the same way for the purposes of political debate.

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temp 07.02.12 at 1:55 am

I think you understate the effect it would have to increase the ability of workers to leave their jobs by making the alternatives more attractive. You say that quitting is a “nuclear option” and therefore ineffective against many small harassment. However, in a scarce labor market replacing a workers is also expensive for the employer so both parties have incentive to make the relationship work. In practice, it seems that workers with more power do actually have more workplace freedom. It may be expensive for academics to leave their job, yet academics are not generally restricted in pee privileges. Nor are bankers or surgeons.

I also think the UBI calculation misses the most important factor: good macroeconomic policy. Good macroeconomic policy is negative cost; putting unemployed/underemployed people to work makes society richer and raises tax revenues while also increasing worker power.

20

Omega Centauri 07.02.12 at 2:00 am

I guess I’m a bit like Hob’s programmer -not that I agree with his point of view, but that in my 30plus years as an employee, I’ve never witnessed anything I thought was unduly coercive. I suspect the odds of being coerced is anticorrelated with status/income. Sure there are anecdotal stories of the sorts of abuses reported here, but how typical are they?

Maybe more to another aspect, how common are situations where say taking a bathroom break would be unduly disruptive? I can imagine a situation on an assembly line, where one person abandoning his/her post would force stoppage of the entire line, and some sort of arrangement needs to be made to minimize workplace disruption. It also seems sensible, that those employees who (and when) they interact with customers and clients, have a duty to make a favorable impression on the clients/customers. How, often do the demands become unreasonable or get applied to parts of the job where no customer interaction occurs.

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Roderick T. Long 07.02.12 at 2:38 am

You might mention that two of us on BHL (Gary on myself) favour radical worker empowerment.

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Roderick T. Long 07.02.12 at 2:39 am

I mean Gary and myself….

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Michael E Sullivan 07.02.12 at 2:44 am

Let me first say that I am *NOT* suggesting that the libertarian position here is fully defensible, but I disagree strongly that a UBI would require as much taxation as you suggest. A grant of 11,000 or 15,000 to every single man woman and child in the US would require as much taxation relative to GDP as you describe, but presumably this would be completely unnecessary. 30-35% of the population is outside normal working age, either 65 who are not eligible for Social Security). Next, rather than implenting this as a pure cash transfer, it would be both more fair and less costly to implement it as a sliding scale that gave a full grant only to those persons 18-65 who are unemployed and not/no-longer covered by unemployment insurance. I would suggest a linear phase out at an effective 33% rate of income earned, so that if you earn 3 times the UBI, you get nothing, if you earn 2x the UBI, you would get 1/3, if you earn to the UBI, you would get 2/3 of it, etc. This keeps the marginal effective tax rate low enough to encourage people to work rather than live off UBI. Since the median working age worker would recieve something like 3x a poverty level UBI, on average, you expect about 50% of the working population to receive some benefit, about 100 million people, and on average they will get something around 1/2 of the full benefit, so that’s about 600 billion dollars or about 5% of GDP. Given that in a realm of UBI, some benefits currently being paid by the government can be reduced or eliminated (EITC, some kinds of welfare), I would expect such a plan using poverty level as a benefit to raise taxes by no more than 5% of GDP.

My point here is only to suggest that such a plan is not impossible on the economic merits — in fact, it is quite feasible and would be an excellent liberal idea. The problem with this suggestion from libertarians is that it is a bait and switch. In practice, very few libertarians would actually support such a plan, even if it came with a roll back of all the existing welfare state transfer that it would duplicate. In any universe in which such a plan was politically possible, (even a plan as outlined here by me which is essentially the Milton Friedman negative income tax plan), most of them would be denouncing it as an unprecedented, budget busting, incentive destroying and dangerous expansion of the welfare state guaranteed to tank the economy.

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mtraven 07.02.12 at 3:20 am

Those Bleeding Hearts are a very wimpy breed of libertarian. The typical net.libertarian would not entertain for an instant something so socialistic as a UBI or similar welfare scheme, since that would require taxation and coercion and violating the sacred property rights.

So, their answer to the problem of lack of freedom in the workplace would be some mixture of exit (because the faith ensures that there will always be a plethora of choices and the costs of switching are zero) and “tough shit”.

The people I am talking about are not that numerous but they provide an ideological core for large swathes of the Republican coalition, which makes them important. The BHLs seem to be a purely academic movement with little appeal to anyone, and they can’t seem to avoid tripping over their own contradictions. I’m not sure how much they matter.

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Michael E Sullivan 07.02.12 at 3:33 am

As someone who is an employer, temp is absolutely correct.

Even in today’s environment it is hardly costless to fire employees, or have them quit. Turnover is a huge pain in the ass and costs a lot of management time, and money. Too much turnover too fast can even put your business under.

The more workers have necessary skills, and the harder it is to find workers with those skills, the more true this is.

Having an economy wide labor shortage, or at least full employment, does wonders for workers bargaining power, and for all kinds of basic workplace rights. In the mid to late 90s, it was almost impossible to keep competent people at a reasonable wage rate without giving them a really good work environment. Today, I know I could get away with an asshole, but I never saw the value in treating people like monkeys or machines. And even in this economy, losing someone who is skilled and experienced costs. Yes, I can replace with somebody quickly. But if they are good, I cannot replace all of their production quickly unless I get very lucky.

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Dan Kervick 07.02.12 at 3:39 am

Reading the Bleeding Heart Libertarians has certainly cemented and even intensified my dislike for libertarianism. But it has also tended to stimulate in me a greater disapproval of the whole Lockean tradition of classical liberalism as well, and reinforced my preference for broadly consequentialist political thinking in a Humean, conventionalist framework. The disputes between the libertarians and liberals seem to be only over what is or is not liberation or liberty, and which forms of restriction on liberty are worse or better, as though those were the only goods worth pursuing in this world. They also rely too much on what to my sensibilities is a somewhat absolutist, rationalistic moralism based on a fideistic secular theology of rights.

Coercion is painful, and of course it is good to minimize pain and dissatisfaction and promote pleasure and satisfaction. But it is conceding too much to make the decision on whether “the state” is justified in pursuing some coercive measure depend on whether the goods it produces through its coercive means are themselves forms of liberation. Liberation from painful coercion is a prima facie good that might be justified if the coercion produces no greater good, but coercion is a fact of life in the political communities forged by inherently social animals like human beings.

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chris 07.02.12 at 3:48 am

As he proceeds, it becomes clear which way Brennan goes: the wrongness of sexual harassment lies not in its coerciveness (Brennan suggests it’s not coercive) but, well, elsewhere.

I don’t want to reopen that whole thread, but ISTM that it must lie elsewhere: “Take out the garbage or you’re fired” is equally coercive, but not equally illegitimate–for some jobs it may be radically outside the job description, but even then it’s not *as* radically outside the job description as sex with the boss, and clearly even the most dyed-in-the-wool liberals, or actual socialists, believe there are *some* jobs where taking out the garbage is a completely legitimate term of employment.

Drug tests and coordinating bathroom breaks with coworkers/supervisors arguably fall somewhere in between. After all, there are some jobs where you literally can’t leave your job responsibilities unattended even briefly without *someone* else taking them over, which means coordinating with coworkers even for bathroom breaks is a legitimate term of the job, bizarre as that prospect may seem to white-collar academics.

This is just part of the larger question that seems to be the core of this post: what is off limits as a term of employment? Just as the design of a society’s justice system should probably take into account that any criminal penalty the system has will occasionally be imposed on an innocent person, it’s probably also worth keeping in mind that anything that it’s legal to make a term of an employment contract will probably be forced coercively on at least some employees. Apparently even terms that have no business benefit to the employer, like agreeing with his politics or religion. Because some employers will be pointlessly petty if they’re allowed to be.

P.S. From the post title I expected more discussion of risking injury or death in the workplace, which as I dare say you know is also coercively forced on employees. (Taking the “blood” part more literally than you may have intended.) This is one area where employees may be even worse off than slaves — after all, you have to pay serious capital for a new slave, but a new employee costs no more per hour (and possibly even less) than the one you just used up.

And yet, if you couldn’t risk death as a term of your employment, where would the military or fire departments be? There has to be some concept of the unnecessariness of the risk — firefighting is ok, gladiatorial combat is not (then whither football and its now-apparent high risk of brain damage?) — or of attempts to mitigate it — working in buildings that might burn down is ok, practically everyone has to do that, but chaining the doors shut to prevent unauthorized breaks, or even just having the wrong kind of doors that won’t open when a panicked crowd is pressed against them, is not.

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walter block 07.02.12 at 5:40 am

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Peter T 07.02.12 at 5:51 am

I don’t see libertarian philosophy as much more than a rationalisation of an attitude or, more precisely, a fantasy. Just as those who dream of running the country do not include parliaments, courts, parties or other limitations on real power in their dream, so those who dream of being lords do not include the rights of serfs. It would ruin the pleasure. And who dreams of being a serf? It’s no accident that libertarians write really bad fantasy novels.

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Watson Ladd 07.02.12 at 6:20 am

I’m unconvinced by this argument. The condition of doily makers in 19th century England as described in Das Kapital were very bad, even though they were doing piecework at home and not subject to instruction from an employer. My work during the summer is quite enjoyable and tolerable, even though it is ill-defined and essentially responding to the dictates of an employer. The loss of liberty is common to all employment, or really all human endeavors. To become an Olympic athlete entails sacrifice, which must be done. Has a runner deciding to run in a marathon lost his liberty in a meaningful sense by compelling himself to run each day?

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Chris Bertram 07.02.12 at 6:58 am

Thanks to @JohnQuiggin above for the correction re the cost of a UBI.

An important issue for me (possibly for Corey and Alex, though I’m not in a position to consult right now) is that the BHLs need to demonstrate that setting UBI _at the level_ where it would allow easy exit from bad employment conditions is compatible with levels and types of taxation they consider just. (Remembering, of course, that it might well be that setting UBI at that high level might also be incompatible with the endogenous enforcement of labour contracts: see various papers by Bowles & Gintis.) Our concern in the post was with the tendency of the BHLs to wave in the direction of UBI as an easy answer to the problem of exit, without confronting the questions of affordability and implementation consistent with their other principles. As we argue in the post, the purely financial implications of exit comprise only one of the issues.

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Foppe 07.02.12 at 7:02 am

Michael Sullivan: but would you say that this is a consideration for large corporations as well, where worker performance is generally invisible at the management level where those decisions are taken and company-wide hiring/firing policies are set?

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Actio 07.02.12 at 7:44 am

Watson Ladd: the difference between the person training to beat the clock at marathon and the wage labor employee is that the latter lives under a system of domination. Other humans has strong power to at a whim decide crucial outcomes for the employee and the employee has, under the primitive state of most labor law legislations, very little power to do anything about that. In contrast the runner is most centrally up against nature and his own body and mind. Freedom in the sense lack of domination is a morally relevant difference between the cases.

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david 07.02.12 at 9:55 am

Signalling Corey Robin…

Kevin Vallier, yesterday:

“As most of you know, from the late 19th century until 1937, commerce clause jurisprudence protected an extensive regime of economic liberty. But things took a sharply statist turn thereafter. Since then, the Supreme Court has basically abandoned the protection of economic liberty. In other words, things suck for economic freedom from a constitutional perspective.”

I think some basic correction of historical perspective is a per-requisite here.

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John Quiggin 07.02.12 at 9:58 am

@Chris. As with so much else, I’m planning a big post on this Real Soon Now.

As I see it, the crucial point here is that the more equality you have given by the basic rules of the system, the less the need for intrusive regulation of individual relationships, including employment relationships. So, given full employment and easy access to income support, the power of bosses to coerce workers is greatly reduced. It follows, I think, that, in such circumstances, you can presume that the terms of an employment agreement are mutually agreeable in most cases.

The BHL position seems to me to involve at least partial recognition of this, combined with some wishful thinking about the trade-off, in the sense that they hope that relatively minimal steps in the direction of egalitarianism will solve the problem of coercion. But, as compared to the logic-chopping typical of propertarians, they are at least framing the problem in the right way.

36

Katherine 07.02.12 at 10:11 am

there are some jobs where you literally can’t leave your job responsibilities unattended even briefly without someone else taking them over, which means coordinating with coworkers even for bathroom breaks is a legitimate term of the job, bizarre as that prospect may seem to white-collar academics

Unfortunately, those are not the only situations in which employers are controlling their employees’ toilet breaks. Extract from the Independent piece linked to:

Take the plight of many call centre workers. More than a million people now work in them, which is about as many as worked down the pits at the peak of mining. This week, a survey by the trade union Unison revealed that a quarter had their access to a toilet restricted. Losing control of when you can empty your bladder is a humiliating loss of autonomy for an adult. Eight out of 10 reported suffering from stress; for nearly a quarter, it had reached the extent that it was damaging their home and personal life.

On Monday, I was inundated with tweets from call centre workers sharing their experiences. One had a four-minute per day toilet allowance; another had their use of toilet facilities monitored. One worker faced disciplinary action for taking too many toilet breaks during a kidney infection. Bear in mind that the average salary for a call centre worker is just £14,500…

37

Katherine 07.02.12 at 10:12 am

That last paragraph is part of the same quote from The Independent.

38

Belle Waring 07.02.12 at 10:48 am

I guess I’m a bit like Hob’s programmer -not that I agree with his point of view, but that in my 30plus years as an employee, I’ve never witnessed anything I thought was unduly coercive. I suspect the odds of being coerced is anticorrelated with status/income. Sure there are anecdotal stories of the sorts of abuses reported here, but how typical are they?
OMG you guys privileged white guy is privileged1!11! Omega Centauri, these abuses are very very typical, common, and unpleasant. Call centers are infamous for this particular torture, so much so that women working for them often wear adult diapers and sit in their own pooling urine as they plead with their quota of hostile phone respondents. Additionally, when that one woman at that place you worked at was sexually harassed so badly that one time, the dude didn’t do it in front of you. He took great care not to do it in front of you, for reasons that will become obvious if you attempt for a nanosecond to employ imaginative empathy. Don’t strain anything on our account though. That’s also why she left for that other job/retired early to take care of her kids while her husband worked/just quit and no one knew why, and nobody ever said anything about it to you. Do you know what’s sad? They assumed you were on his side already.

39

Katherine 07.02.12 at 10:56 am

The point, lovers of theoretical discussions, is that for lots of people this is actually real life. Sure, there’s an important place for theory, but the Real World and Real People need to be considered too, especially when discussing actual real world situations.

Libertarians, Bleeding Heart or not, are gobsmackingly incapable of translating their theory to the Real World and working out what that would mean for actual people. To steal Belle’s phrase – Imaginative Empathy Fail.

40

temp 07.02.12 at 11:02 am

I think John Quiggin @ 36 is exactly right.

The opening post suggests that most of the power employers exert on employees comes from the heavy transaction costs involved in switching jobs. If this were true, then a regulatory approach would make sense. But I think it is false.

Most of the coercion involved in employment does not arise from the particular employee-employer relationship, but rather from employers as a class on employees as a class. Owners have power over our subsistence not because they can fire us tomorrow, but because collectively they control the wealth. Working for pay under contract is already coercive; the owners seize up all the wealth and then make us work back for it, under their terms. The real problem with quitting and moving isn’t that it’s hard to do, but that the other job usually isn’t any better.

This is implied by the W.E.B. DuBois quote in the OP. The problem isn’t any particular abusive employer that threatened to fire politically active blacks; it’s employers as a class. Similarly, the reason I restrict what I say under my name isn’t that I’m concerned about my boss, but about my career. Who knows when political activity will come back to hurt you? It would be a much weaker infringement on my speech if my only concern was my current job.

And how are regulations going to fix this? You can say employers aren’t allowed to look at political speech in hiring decisions, but how can you enforce it? And even if you get the regulation, and enforce it effectively, there will still be all sorts of ways employers can be coercive in the context of normal employment: setting hours and days, telling you what to do and when and how to do it, etc.

You give workers freedom by giving them power, and the only real power of labor is the power to quit; i.e. to stop offering service as laborers. This is where the power of unions resides. Redistributing wealth gives people the power to quit. It does so not only in a direct way, by making quitting for the purpose of changing jobs easier on the workers, but also by increasing labor scarcity and thereby increasing labor value. I’m sure the BHLs aren’t sufficiently extreme in their commitment to empowering workers, but I think they are closer to correct than trying to solve the problem by regulating interactions without changing any of the underlying power relations that govern these interactions.

41

Chris Bertram 07.02.12 at 11:22 am

temp: the OP by no means aims to deny what you affirm, but is focused on a specific set of arguments rather than being a comprehensive account of all the issues.

Asking that regulations “fix this”, as you do, is an impossibly demanding test. The right question to ask is whether they can improve matters wrt to arbitrary use of employer power. That question is best answered not by a priori handwaving, but by looking at whether they make a difference in jurisdictions that have them. In the UK, for example, many people have successfully brought cases alleging that that they were unfairly discriminated against in the hiring process, and many others that they were unfairly dismissed. Hence the constant agitation of employers to have these “burdensome” regulations removed.

It isn’t our view that one approach is a panacea, whether that be UBI, stronger unions, or regulations against unfair dismissal and hiring practices, rather all of these can make a difference. In different jurisdictions, different coalitions would be possible in support of different mixes of these methods.

42

Earwig 07.02.12 at 11:50 am

Debating Satan’s little buddies? Again? You’ll never get the hours back.

Of course, Libertarianism is definitively *not* a project of human freedom. Precisely the opposite.

You have been suckered from the moment you engage it, for you will never find an argument that refutes it for those committed to it. The commitment is not an intellectual one.

43

Nick 07.02.12 at 11:51 am

“In the UK, for example, many people have successfully brought cases alleging that that they were unfairly discriminated against in the hiring process, and many others that they were unfairly dismissed. Hence the constant agitation of employers to have these “burdensome” regulations removed.”

But that, in itself, is not a sign of their effectiveness; the fact that some employers have been sanctioned. For anti-discrimination law to be effective at their goal, it would have to expand overall available good and dignified employment opportunities for the disadvantaged. It seems far from clear that this is the case in the UK.

44

Chris Bertram 07.02.12 at 11:57 am

Nick: if UK employers could, without fear of sanction, fire pregnant women or withdraw job offers from women who revealed themselves to be pregnant post-offer, they would do these things more than they actually do. For example.

45

mw 07.02.12 at 12:07 pm

Having an economy wide labor shortage, or at least full employment, does wonders for workers bargaining power, and for all kinds of basic workplace rights.

And the other thing that has done wonders for worker bargaining power is that western societies have become wealthy enough that nobody’s children starve if a parent loses their job. The best thing for workers is dynamic, open, labor-market in a wealthy society with a solid safety net. And these things are not independent. You can’t have the safety net until you create the wealth, and you never create the wealth without the dynamic economy.

The danger comes once the wealth has been created. A increasingly dense thicket of workplace regulations works against dynamism and further wealth creation (and even the preservation of existing levels of societal wealth). It creates higher permanent levels of unemployment. It makes employers risk-averse in hiring, which worsens the bargaining position of employees (and especially of unemployed, prospective employees). This weakened position then generates demands for ever more stringent workplace regulations (particularly regulations not against piss breaks bans but against ‘précarité’ — which ‘anti-gravity’ regulations predictably generate further economic calcification).

Consider, too, that one of the most common problems workers face is simply being ‘stuck’ in a job they hate — that they hate not because of anything that would ever be actionable under workplace regulations, but because of sheer boredom or their coworkers are backstabbing jerks or because they’ve been doing the same thing for 20 years and find themselves just going through the motions. A tightly regulated labor market where you can’t be fired for any reason short of employer bankruptcy is also a labor market where you’re much less likely to be able to strike off in a new direction at age 40.

The potential coerciveness of a workplace is inversely proportional to the workers’ other options (both because employers treat workers better and because employees can afford to tell bosses to go fuck themselves), and stringent regulations act to reduce those options. The libertarian view of progressive workplace regulation is that, however well intended, in the long term they are ‘fatal remedies’ that exacerbate the very problems they are intended to address.

46

Nick 07.02.12 at 12:19 pm

“Nick: if UK employers could, without fear of sanction, fire pregnant women or withdraw job offers from women who revealed themselves to be pregnant post-offer, they would do these things more than they actually do. For example.”

Certainly some employers will do precisely that. Others, however, will stop offering any jobs to anyone. I.e. they will become self-employed and pay for contractors to do work they cannot do themselves. How big these differing effects are will decide whether the regulation is, in fact, a net positive for the group the regulation in intended to help.

And there will be short-run and long-run effects too. Its much easier to never become an employer than to cease to be an employer, for example.

47

Chris Bertram 07.02.12 at 12:26 pm

(Commenters who simply wish to indicate their agreement with the libertarian dogma that all regulations aimed at protecting workers end up making them worse off [cf, also, minimum wage, health and safety law] are advised that your point has already been made, and that you do not advance the argument by repeating it. We know that’s what you think.)

48

Data Tutashkhia 07.02.12 at 12:33 pm

I think another problem with the regulatory approach (compared to the Scandinavian model: unions, workers’ representation on the boards of directors) is that it’s applied strictly on the level of individual, and thus, it seems to me, highly inflexible, and, perhaps, even counterproductive. Economy is a collective game.

Sure, you can make all kinds of laws protecting employees, and possibly even enforce them, but then companies will just move to another jurisdiction.

The goal has to be to protect employees without sacrificing too much productivity. To achieve that, employees need to be given incentives to perform. Incentives, other than fear. If you know that all your employees are concerned about is how to manage to work as little as possible, then you need to monitor their bathroom breaks. But if you know that they are motivated, all you need is to help them.

49

noiselull 07.02.12 at 12:39 pm

Walter Block sets out the libertarian position in his Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: A Property Rights Perspective

50

Nick 07.02.12 at 12:43 pm

47: If that is aimed at me, I am not saying that specific regulations can never be beneficial, and I indicated my agreement with some of them in a previous thread on this subject. I am saying they are far from always beneficial, and the fact that employers don’t like a set of regulations doesn’t show that they must be good for workers. They could be bad for both.

51

Jacob T. Levy 07.02.12 at 12:44 pm

I appreciate your quotation of the whole “scab” passage. But I note that this:

‘the “immoral coercion” that is entailed by the use of the word “scab.”’

is neither what I meant nor what I said– it’s not an accurate or fair paraphrase.

I said that

‘Unions—their leadership, their membership, their supporters—are capable of significant bullying that easily spills into immoral coercion against outsiders, nonmembers, and dissenters; the charge of “scab” is often an accusation of punishable treason against a cause that the accused never signed up for.’

That doesn’t define the use of a word as coercion. Rather, I take it that the attitude expressed by the abuse of the charge is part of the explanation for the bullying– only a subset of which is coercive. (I also didn’t say or mean that picket lines as such are coercive– though they can be, tactics depending.) I do think there can often be something aggressive, obnoxious, and bullying about telling people they’re traitors to a cause they never endorsed. But aggressive and obnoxious words are still just words, and so are bullying words if there’s no threat behind them.

52

Pete 07.02.12 at 12:50 pm

“then companies will just move to another jurisdiction”

You can’t move a Wal-Mart offshore – what then, do you expect all your customers to arrive by boat? Are you going to move your farms out of the jurisdiction? Mines?

“Incentives, other than fear”

You have this paragraph backwards: employers are lazy – if they are allowed and able to use fear as an incentive, they will use it, because it’s pretty effective. They are much more likely to develop positive motivators if the negative ones are banned.

53

Data Tutashkhia 07.02.12 at 12:57 pm

I do think there can often be something aggressive, obnoxious, and bullying about telling people they’re traitors to a cause they never endorsed.

Well, I think the context here is that they are traitors not to a cause, but to their class.

54

mw 07.02.12 at 12:57 pm

We know that’s what you think.

I’m sorry, but the entire post does not seem to give any sign that of such understanding — focusing entirely on claims of what might be called charges of ‘liberty and property-rights absolutism’ rather than arguments about effectiveness, ‘fatal remedies’, and ‘the seen and the unseen’.

Against such efficiency arguments, some progressives might see the value in dynamism (either because of wealth generation or expanding worker choices) and respond that, yes, we need to strike a balance between market dynamism and workplace regulation — using the lightest touch possible and addressing only the most egregious concerns. Other progressives might argue, instead, that market dynamism itself is a bad thing and if workplace regulations destroy it, all the better. Exploring that would be interesting. An argument why libertarians are really cartoon villains — not so much.

55

John 07.02.12 at 1:16 pm

Foppe @32 – I’ve worked extensively at the executive level in large (western European) corporations, and I can say that they also on the whole are somewhat concerned about the happiness and welfare of employees, at the aggregate level. Managers are to some extent (typically 10-20% of their targets) tasked to improve that happiness, as measured by the rate at which they are leaving, but also job satisfaction surveys, absenteeism, incidence of stress-related illness and the like. This is done for the practical reason that happy workers work harder, and also because senior eecutives, despite reports to the contrary, are human and all other things being equal would rather not make people miserable.

However, equally the experience taught me that employee wellbeing is taken as only one of a number of things a typical company works on, and made me sympathetic to the notion that a legal system that enforces fair dismissal laws and a healthy union presence are needed for a balanced workplace. In particular, unions are one of the few affordable avenues by which individuals can deal with intolerable conditions – most of the corporate systems I’ve seen were more or less deaf to the needs and cries of individual employees.

56

chris 07.02.12 at 1:27 pm

The libertarian view of progressive workplace regulation is that, however well intended, in the long term they are ‘fatal remedies’ that exacerbate the very problems they are intended to address.

Anyone who thinks this should google “Triangle Shirtwaist” and then contemplate precisely how useful the freedom to contract is to someone after they have burned alive in their workplace.

Of course, by standard libertarian models, this could never have happened in the first place, since nobody would voluntarily agree to work in a deathtrap. Except they did, because employment isn’t necessarily all that voluntary, and standard libertarian models are inadequate to describe events that occur in the real world.

Unfortunately, those are not the only situations in which employers are controlling their employees’ toilet breaks.

True, which shows a need for individualized, fact-based inquiries into when a condition is a legitimate part of the job and when it is just employers being petty jerks or trying to wring the last 0.1% of work time out of the workday. If the employer won’t necessarily be reasonable on his own, there has to be some authority that can make him be reasonable, and the employee must have a right (protected from employer interference, including waiver as a condition of employment because permitting that would undermine all the other protections) to invoke that authority — and around this point you have to give up your libertarian club membership because you are now a liberal.

P.S. “Dynamism” is a neat buzzword, but there is zero evidence that any of the wealth of the modern age results from gratuitous denial of bathroom breaks to employees rather than, y’know, technological progress.

57

The Raven 07.02.12 at 1:36 pm

Just wanted to say thanks to the three of you for pulling this together. It’s a response that’s been wanting for a long time.

As to the various people responding, “No, it’s not,” that’s a child’s argument. You want the room down the hall.

58

Foppe 07.02.12 at 1:39 pm

48:
The “they’ll just move to a different jurisdiction” argument is lovely, however:
1. many places do not have the infrastructure, both concrete and social, (and regulatory environment) required for certain types of work
2. western countries *could* — if their politicians wanted to, which I am well aware they don’t — institute rules that forbid importing of products produced under (de facto) slave-like working conditions, thus making ‘moving to another jurisdiction’ — say, the Mexican special economic zones created by NAFTA — unattractive.
3. More here:

First is that Rattner is implicitly arguing that the world is frictionless. But that is misleading. The US is a big market, and there are advantages in being close to the customer, in terms of rapid response, carrying smaller inventories (and thus having smaller losses when you get it wrong), lower shipping and financing costs. IKEA, which is in a low end manufacturing business, has its manufacturing for the US located in the US.

55: It heartens me to hear that this matters somewhat at the corporate level in WE still; however, I (in light of the current discussion) am more interested in US conditions. And in that light, as a kind of response to you, I would offer this:Ikea seems to be treating its American workers at a furniture plant in Danville, Virginia a good deal worse than it does its Swedish workers back at home. The workers are trying to unionize; in response Ikea has hired the famous union-busting-specializing law firm Jackson-Lewis. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary for American labor relations in the 21st century, but in Sweden, eyebrows are being raised.

Laborers in Swedwood plants in Sweden produce bookcases and tables similar to those manufactured in Danville. The big difference is that the Europeans enjoy a minimum wage of about $19 an hour and a government-mandated five weeks of paid vacation. Full-time employees in Danville start at $8 an hour with 12 vacation days — eight of them on dates determined by the company.

What’s more, as many as one-third of the workers at the Danville plant have been drawn from local temporary-staffing agencies. These workers receive even lower wages and no benefits, employees said.
Swedwood’s Steen said the company is reducing the number of temps, but she acknowledged the pay gap between factories in Europe and the U.S. “That is related to the standard of living and general conditions in the different countries,” Steen said.

59

Douglas D. Edwards 07.02.12 at 1:52 pm

Where to begin? There are a host of problems, only a few of which I can address in even a lengthy comment. I applaud the willingness of the authors of this post to engage with left-libertarians. Too few liberals and pro-state leftists even acknowledge their existence. But this is only a beginning, and not a particularly auspicious one, particularly in view of its foregrounding of doubts about the good will of left-libertarians toward workers. (If the references to “cold” and “black” hearts aren’t supposed to mean that, what justification can there be for using such imagery at all?)

As Roderick T. Long indicates above, the “bleeding heart libertarian” position as represented in this post, however well it may represent the authors’ experience to date, is hardly the ultimate in left-libertarianism, and may not even represent the left extreme of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians website. Corey Robin in particular, with his declared view that “libertarianism is a variation on feudalism”, may find the following particularly noteworthy:

Carson, Kevin A. Contract feudalism. Individual. 2006 Feb; 43:2–9. Available from: http://www.individualist.org.uk/pdf/2006febindiv_em.pdf [entire journal issue]. Reprinted by the Libertarian Alliance as a standalone monograph, Economic Notes No. 105: http://www.libertarian.co.uk/lapubs/econn/econn105.pdf.

The “market anarchism” of the Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS) may also be instructive; Carson is a fellow of the Society and a major participant there. In view of the ad hominem implications of the authors’ reference to BHL as “academic libertarians”, Carson’s working-class status and IWW union membership are worth noting. His article would be a good next stop on your exploration of left-libertarianism.

Next, it staggers me that the authors of this post make the leap from arguments about the effectiveness of UBI as a safeguard against employer abuse, to questioning the good will of left-libertarians toward workers. This leap of logic is especially egregious given that UBI is given a central role even by non-libertarian leftists such as Peter Frase — and myself. I’m not a left-libertarian or an anarchist, although I’m so critical of the state as a present historical reality that I often sound like one (the cuneiform amargi in my avatar stands for debt jubilee — its original historical meaning — not for libertarianism). And I share at least some of the authors’ skepticism about the ultimate feasibility of protecting the rights of people (workers or not) adequately without using at least some state power. But rightly or wrongly, these left-libertarians evidently believe that UBI will give workers enough bargaining power that the demeaning scenarios explored here (and at greater length in Robin’s Fear: the history of a political idea) will become, well, academic. They may be wrong, even (in your eyes) foolishly wrong, but it doesn’t make them cold-hearted. Giving employers extensive rights on paper is not a sign of a cold heart when it’s done by those who think (even wrongly!) that they’ve made sure it won’t matter.

Instead of Tony Bennett, try Ronnie Dunn’s perspective:

60

Data Tutashkhia 07.02.12 at 1:59 pm

Well, Walmart was mentioned as a business that can’t be relocated, which is true, however: most of everything sold by Walmart is produced in China. So, what does that prove?

Of course the union-busting laws in the US need to be repealed and reversed, so that it can be more like Sweden, but that’s not the kind of laws we’re talking about here.

61

Chris Bertram 07.02.12 at 2:07 pm

Douglas D. Edwards: speaking only for myself (so not wishing to speak for my co-authors), I’d say that I did *not* take myself to be engaging here with “left libertarians” (people such as Steiner, Otsuka etc), nor with people who are from the anarchist tradition, but with the most frequent posters on the BHL site and, specifically, those who had engaged with us. There’s nothing “left” about John Tomasi, Jessica Flanigan, Matt Zwolinski imho. They are, however, distinct from the Rothbard/Nozick part of the libertarian spectrum because of the role they envisage for a social minimum.

As for UBI, I’m in favour. But I’m not in favour of it being used as a handwavy “solution” to all objections concerning freedom, choice, coercion etc.

62

Cranky Observer 07.02.12 at 2:45 pm

This “UBI” thing sounds great. How do we get it? Even in the purple state where I currently live there would be overwhelming demand to impeach any Representative or President who introduced such a bill. Or is this another one of those things that libertarians claim would make their system work but can’t actually be implemented?

Cranky

63

JJ 07.02.12 at 2:47 pm

There’s no such thing as a bleeding-heart libertarian. You’ve got your bleeding-heart liberals and your hemorrhoidal conservatives. The nature of the engineering varies but the engineers continue to clear-cut the forest, and blame each other for the tragic loss of human habitation.

64

Chris Bertram 07.02.12 at 2:50 pm

Actually Cranky, they have a UBI in Republican Alaska iirc.

65

Douglas D. Edwards 07.02.12 at 3:01 pm

Chris Bertram @ 61: Do you think of “left libertarians” (including the self-described “market anarchists” of C4SS) as so fundamentally different from “libertarians” that they don’t even belong on the same spectrum? If so, I’d advise even more strongly that you read some Carson. As I understand him, he differs from right-libertarians not primarily in fundamental values or principles (at least not those acknowledged openly and officially as part of libertarian theory!), but in the application of facts and logic to those principles, and especially in his greater sensitivity to historical fact. (Hidden authoritarian agendas among right-libertarians are another matter.) For example, see his essayThe subsidy of history (2008). Also:

Carson, Kevin. One-sided contracts. Center for a Stateless Society. 2012 Jun 20. Available from: http://c4ss.org/content/10713.

Note my comments (numbers 9,10,16) to “One-sided contracts”, in which I imply that only the most extreme forms of left-libertarianism are true to libertarian principles. I take that to be Carson’s perspective also.

66

Marahall 07.02.12 at 3:24 pm

@Data #60: I think it is, rather. Considering the varying requirements of all possible employment situations, blanket regulations are not going to cover the problem and the question of enforcement “regulatory capture” remains. The essential problem is the power differential of the individual facing the corporation; or better the population of atomized individuals facing the focused mass of the corporate system. The only possible solution is to restore balance by aggregating employee power. The union Grievance Committee is in a position to force an examination of the particulars of the case with respect to qualities such as Justice/Mercy/Grace in the face of Law. I just don’t see uniformitarianism as the solution to any of the significant problems of the day; restoring Local Community is the thing.

67

Sandy 07.02.12 at 3:34 pm

The pee break example and the tie in of unions at the end was hilarious to me, as the only time I’ve had an employer make me request permission to pee was as a temp with no benefits working in the benefits department of the American Federation of Teachers.

68

No longer using real name 07.02.12 at 4:08 pm

“Who knows when political activity will come back to hurt you? It would be a much weaker infringement on my speech if my only concern was my current job.”

I’ve generally used my full name on blogs (though not always), but given the economy and long term worries about my own job, I sometimes worry about this.

“The loss of liberty is common to all employment, or really all human endeavors. To become an Olympic athlete entails sacrifice, which must be done. Has a runner deciding to run in a marathon lost his liberty in a meaningful sense by compelling himself to run each day?”–Watson Ladd

Hard to believe anyone could type that with a straight face.

69

Katherine 07.02.12 at 4:08 pm

As for UBI, I’m in favour

Really? It sounds like a terrible idea to me. The worst kind of universal benefit – everyone gets it, even the people that don’t need it, to the detriment of people who need more of it, except it’ll cost huge amounts more than, say, Child Benefit or the Winter Fuel Allowance [1].

Now, if it were attached to some radical controls on wage disparity/inequality, and the conversion of all corporations to cooperatives, then I could see it being part of a revolutionary new way to order society (not saying I’ve thought that one through, just for the record), but I rather suspect that’s not the (right) libertarian intention.

Also, it’s a terrible terrible choice for libertarians to present as the reasonable alternative to employment. By definition, if everyone gets it, then people earning a wage get more than that, thus leaving their job would leave them with less. Regardless of how large or small the UBI is, people won’t suddenly not spend (and borrow) based on what they earn. The UBI won’t pay the mortgage that you took out on the basis of the money you earn over the UBI, unless banks are banned from lending more than would be covered by the UBI (another policy I can’t imagine libertarians getting behind).

[1] UK policy alert. These are UK universal benefits that are already being, or in danger of being, cut.

70

Aeon J. Skoble 07.02.12 at 4:14 pm

The reason libertarians focus on state coercion is that state coercion is the only kind for which there’s no legal remedy. Private coercion can be redressed via tort action, not just through competition (quitting your job). But when the state is coercive you’re SOL. State coercion has the unique and disturbing property of being presumptively right. When you come up with examples like “take your pants off or you’re fired,” pretty much no one thinks that’s ok. When the state says take “take your pants off or we’ll lock you up and get you fired,” that’s fine, because it’s for national security/the children/Bushwasworse. Libertarianism doesn’t need to exhaust all of moral philosophy. It’s a position about the nature of government, its justification and scope, and its relation to the individual. When you say that libertarianism can’t come to grips with private coercion, that misses the point in a fundamental way. Libertarianism is about the relationship between the individual and the state, not about all relationships. Are there boss-worker relationships that are morally bad? Sure. Is the heavy hand of the state the best way to insure that no boss is ever mean to an employee? Doubtful. For one thing, we don’t live in libertopia – extant cases of mean bossses are all features of a world with reams of state and federal regs. So how exactly is it going to eliminate mean bosses to have six more regs, or 600?

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geo 07.02.12 at 4:38 pm

Aeon @69: The reason libertarians focus on state coercion is that state coercion is the only kind for which there’s no legal remedy

And the reason libertarians are wrong to do so is that state policy in the capitalist democracies is constrained — severely, decisively, and in every sphere — by the power of business. The fact that libertarians don’t see/won’t acknowledge this elementary fact is why it’s hard to accept their claim to moral seriousness. (Though I’m glad the authors of this post did, at least for the purposes of producing their excellent essay.)

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Katherine 07.02.12 at 4:41 pm

Was that satire?

73

UnlearningEcon 07.02.12 at 4:55 pm

I find it amusing watching libertarians try to apply their cookie cutter ‘if power were really so bad, competition would reduce it or something’ answers to this case. Unfortunately, the very definition of power is something individual decision making cannot remedy, as power compels people to make decisions against their will.

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Data Tutashkhia 07.02.12 at 4:56 pm

And the reason libertarians are wrong to do so is that state policy in the capitalist democracies is constrained—severely, decisively, and in every sphere— by the power of business.

I don’t think this refutes their argument. Suppose we accept, for the sake of argument, that regulatory capture is absolutely inevitable in 100% of cases. If that’s true, then surely you should be advocating a ‘smaller’, less powerful government; you’d be a libertarian. And the assumption here doesn’t seem to be too farfetched.

It doesn’t mean that all is lost, it just means that the government is not the savior.

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Chris Bertram 07.02.12 at 5:09 pm

_The reason libertarians focus on state coercion is that state coercion is the only kind for which there’s no legal remedy. Private coercion can be redressed via tort action, …. When you come up with examples like “take your pants off or you’re fired,” pretty much no one thinks that’s ok. _

Whether or not pretty much no-one thinks that’s ok, it is false to say that there is a legal remedy for it, therefore it is false to say (as you did) that state coercion is the only kind of coercion for which there’s no legal remedy. Contradicting yourself so directly in your first three sentences is not impressive.

(In fact, for many cases of state coercion, there is, legal remedy, as many police, politicians and state officials have discovered over the years. Even where the state coercion is a matter of an application of the law, it can be trumped by charters of rights, such as the European convention.)

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Aeon J. Skoble 07.02.12 at 5:22 pm

@geo: “And the reason libertarians are wrong to do so is that state policy in the capitalist democracies is constrained—severely, decisively, and in every sphere— by the power of business.” Which libertarians argue _against_ at every opportunity.

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Chris Bertram 07.02.12 at 5:25 pm

_Which libertarians argue against at every opportunity._

Including the Koch brothers and those on their payroll? Or did you just mean that there are some libertarians who do this?

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TallDave 07.02.12 at 5:27 pm

Like most complaints about libertarian ideas, this is just a failure of logic. Workers cannot be commanded to do anything, they can only be asked as a term of their employment. Any increase in their “freedom” is a decrease in the “freedom” of their employers in how they choose to employ.

The sexual harassment question isn’t even interesting. Can a registered prostitute be fired for refusing to have sex? Of course. If you’re not a registered prostitute, then your employer is asking you to do something you didn’t contract for, like a secretary being asked to place high-explosive demolition charges, which violates all sorts of laws as well as leaving the employer open to all sorts of legal liability — besides being a pretty stupid fucking way to run a business. There’s a place for common-sense regulation in most libertarian worldviews even for acts the market is going to punish anyway. (And this question has two sides — what if an employee says to a supervisor “Hey, I’ll give you the best blowjob of your life for a raise!” Terrible moral dilemma? Agency conflicts just aren’t that interesting.)

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Dan 07.02.12 at 5:31 pm

As I see it, the crucial point here is that the more equality you have given by the basic rules of the system, the less the need for intrusive regulation of individual relationships, including employment relationships. So, given full employment and easy access to income support, the power of bosses to coerce workers is greatly reduced. It follows, I think, that, in such circumstances, you can presume that the terms of an employment agreement are mutually agreeable in most cases.

What does equality have to do with it? The attractions (such as they are) of the UBI in mitigating the supposedly coercive elements of employment contracts derive from sufficiency, not equality. There’s a big difference.

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Aeon J. Skoble 07.02.12 at 5:31 pm

@Chris- “Whether or not pretty much no-one thinks that’s ok, it is false to say that there is a legal remedy for it, therefore it is false to say (as you did) that state coercion is the only kind of coercion for which there’s no legal remedy. Contradicting yourself so directly in your first three sentences is not impressive.” Pretending that there’s no legal remedy for sexual harrassment is similarly unimpressive. Also, I don’t see what you think is the legal remedy for state coercion. It’s like the old George Carlin observation that the acupuncturist isn’t going be much help if your complaint is that you have lots of tiny needle holes all over your body. If I think it’s bad that the TSA wants to grope small children, tort law won’t help at all. If my boss were groping small children, there are legal remedies already in place.

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Steve LaBonne 07.02.12 at 5:32 pm

Like most complaints about libertarian ideas, this is just a failure of logic.

Like most complaints about complaints about libertarian ideas, this is comprehensively beside the point. Like the neoclassical economics on which it leans, libertarianism is a (sometimes) logically consistent set of deductions from laughably unrealistic premises. As such it is mental masturbation with nothing interesting to say about the real world. (You go on to illustrate this point in the rest of your comment.)

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Pete 07.02.12 at 5:36 pm

Why is “enforcing court judgements” not “state coercion”?

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Josh G. 07.02.12 at 5:38 pm

Katherine @ 68: “It sounds like a terrible idea to me. The worst kind of universal benefit – everyone gets it, even the people that don’t need it, to the detriment of people who need more of it, except it’ll cost huge amounts more than, say, Child Benefit or the Winter Fuel Allowance.

Universal benefits are far more politically sustainable than means-tested benefits. Consider the different fates of Social Security and AFDC. One still considered the third rail of American politics, the other eviscerated by bipartisan consensus.
In America, the middle class flatly refuses to pay for benefits that they think go only to the poor (and, reading between the lines, to people “Not Like Us”). Maybe it’s different in Europe, but I don’t think so – Europe’s most advanced social democracies have housing benefits, childcare benefits, healthcare benefits, etc., that apply across the board, not just to the very poor.

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Chris Bertram 07.02.12 at 5:39 pm

Mr Skoble :

You claimed that state acts of coercion are the only acts of coercion for which there is no legal remedy.

I’ve demonstrated that is false in two ways.

First, by showing that there are some private acts of coercion for which there are no legal remedies: doesn’t have to be sexual harrassment, there are plenty of examples in the OP.

Second, by showing that there are many acts of state coercion for which there is a legal remedy. Perhaps you believe that no public official has ever been held to account for coercive acts? Perhaps you believe that no-one has ever been compensated for such coercive acts?

Just admit defeat and slink away please: this isn’t even close to being a difficult dispute to resolve.

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Pete 07.02.12 at 5:40 pm

“Any increase in their “freedom” is a decrease in the “freedom” of their employers in how they choose to employ.”

Well, yes. This results in a society where a small number of people have almost all the freedom. That’s what we’re objecting to.

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JohnR 07.02.12 at 5:40 pm

@69: Impressive application of theory in a vacuum. Someday you must join us here on Earth – it would do you good, I suspect.
This is a lovely exercise in high-minded debate, but doesn’t it ultimately boil down to power? The employers have the vast bulk of the power, just as the state has the vast bulk of the power. At least until the serfs get fed up and rise in revolt. My philosophy would be very simple – anything that reduces the power of the powerful over the relatively powerless is a Good Thing, and should be encouraged. Note that even at their strongest, the hated Unions never actually had more power than the employers. All they had was the ability to make the lot of the serfs less intolerable, while reducing the profit margin of the employers from Unconscionably Obscene to merely Grossly Obscene. Unions are a Good Thing, even when they’re sponsoring political parties, coercing members and encouraging featherbedding and other such imoral practices. In the world in which we live, the most powerful unions in the US were far from being even approximately equal in power to the employers, despite the wild shrieks and arm-waving by those employers. For God’s sake – Libertarians are blinkered idiots, just as Marxists, Tea-partiers, Golden-Age capitalists, Maoists, and all the other Ideological Purists are. There is no One-size-fits-all Utopia. Only a fool thinks otherwise. Adjust the rules to fit the situation – that’s something that humans actually are pretty good at when they’re not marching in blind lockstep to some Procrustean philosophical Ideal. Sure, State power can be a problem – but it can equally be a solution. Depends on the circumstances, and the fact that Libertarians lock themselves into an untenable position by their rigid Ideology tells you all you need to know about their sense. A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

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TallDave 07.02.12 at 5:41 pm

Thanks to Steve for an excellent illustration of my point.

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TallDave 07.02.12 at 5:44 pm

Pete — why is your freedom more important than your employer’s?

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b9n10nt 07.02.12 at 6:02 pm

@ 88

Because, in the current situation, the freedom to coerce and the freedom to be free of coercion are not equally conducive to human liberty.

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Data Tutashkhia 07.02.12 at 6:03 pm

It’s not about any ‘freedom’; as others said, it’s all about power. Employer, by definition, already has more power than an employee, so he has to be taken down a peg. Or two. As much as possible, in fact.

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Steve LaBonne 07.02.12 at 6:06 pm

Because, in the current situation, the freedom to coerce and the freedom to be free of coercion are not equally conducive to human liberty.

Libertarians’ tender concern for the freedom of the powerful remind me of the religious believers who complain of being of being oppressed when anyone else fails to genuflect to their particular idols.

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djw 07.02.12 at 6:15 pm

The reason libertarians focus on state coercion is that state coercion is the only kind for which there’s no legal remedy. Private coercion can be redressed via tort action, not just through competition (quitting your job). But when the state is coercive you’re SOL.

Aeon,

I have a friend who makes his living as a disability attorney. When people are denied benefits they are legally entitled to via in insurance scheme they are legally forced to participate in by The State, they hire my friend. If their case seems provably legitimate, he then sues The State on behalf of his clients. Often enough, he wins, and they receive the benefits they were legally due after all.

Reading your claim above, it would seem you must believe one of two things:

1. Denial of benefits due under the rules of an insurance program one has participated in is not ‘coercion’.

2. My friend simply doesn’t exist.

The folly of the tendency to treat “the state” as a single-minded unitary entity has never been demonstrated quite as clearly and efficiently as your comment here does. (None of this is to deny that there are some forms of state coercion that leave you SOL, just as there are some forms of non-state coercion that leave you SOL. But to get the uniqueness your theory needs, you need to abstract away far too much about “the state” in its advanced democratic capitalist manifestation).

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TallDave 07.02.12 at 6:18 pm

b9n10nt — The employer-employee relationship is this: your employer (for whatever reason) has some money. You want his money. Could you live without his money? Yes (in this country, a thousand times yes). But you want it, because with your employer’s money you can buy stuff that makes life more fun. And so you form some contract under which you do some stuff for the employer (possibly including peeing when he wants you to and not being a Communist), and in exchange he gives you some money. In no way is any of this forced on you.

Is money power? Of course it is. Should power be equally distributed? Of course it shouldn’t. The private economy exists largely to determine what things people want done and reward people (like, say, Jeff Bezos) for doing them by giving them more money (power).

Contrast this with your relationship with the gov’t, which can not only make you pee on command, but may lock you up if it doesn’t like what it finds in your pee — none of which you agreed to, and for which it does not give you any money. In fact, you have to pay them taxes, again whether you like it or not, or you will be seized and imprisoned and fined. That’s coercion — you didn’t agree to any of it, it’s all imposed on you. Private entities cannot tax, imprison, or take life (the primary purpose of gov’t is to prevent anyone but gov’t from doing so) which is why employees don’t need a Bill of Rights that says they can tell their bosses they suck or bring guns to work.

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Chris Bertram 07.02.12 at 6:25 pm

TallDave: actually, where money is unequally distributed, so is freedom, as G.A.Cohen so elegantly demonstrated.

But I’m already getting a sense of you a nuisance commenter. So stay on topic or go away.

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piglet 07.02.12 at 6:39 pm

“The reason libertarians focus on state coercion is that state coercion is the only kind for which there’s no legal remedy.”

It’s interesting to note in that context that the US Bill of Rights (contrary to some other declarations of human rights) is written specifically and exclusively to protect individual rights against government infringement, not against infringement by private non-government parties. You can assert the right to free speech against the state but NOT against an employer. That completely refutes the Libertarian argument that state power needs to be checked more than private power. The obvious answer is that both state power and corporate power are in need to be checked and Libertarians focusing exclusively on one of them are de facto apologists for some of the worst infringements of basic freedom.

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Sam 07.02.12 at 6:40 pm

This is a good post. But what exactly does it show? It seems to show:

(1) Some employers are objectionably coercive and some employees lack acceptable exit options.

Did any of the BHLS ever deny (1)? It don’t think so. I also don’t recall anyone ever saying that no workplace regulations are justified. The main thing that BHLS appear to claim is that economic liberty is a valuable thing and that we have significant pro tanto reasons to refrain from interfering with liberty of contract. They also claim that, if feasible, we should prefer policies that protect economic liberty and enhance the voluntariness of employment over policies that curtail economic liberty (the UBI is just one illustration). Maybe we should believe that no such policies are feasible. I seriously doubt that you’ve shown otherwise here (the calculations of the costs of a UBI seem suspect).

Also, it seems to me anyway that this post does very little to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree that more unions and workplace democracy are the solutions to workplace domination. Workplace democracy might just as easily result in other kinds of injustice both with respect to insiders and outsiders–much like political democracy often results in injustice to citizens and non-citizens. At least, we need much more empirical evidence to settle this one way or the other.

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TallDave 07.02.12 at 6:44 pm

Chris — Cohen’s argument would work beautifully in a world that didn’t respond to incentives. In this one, it’s been amply demonstrated as nonsense by the last 50 years.

I see your deep love of freedom of speech doesn’t extend to the comments on your site, which I’m getting the sense is a nuisance blog. Enjoy your fallacies unchallenged, I will bother you no longer.

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piglet 07.02.12 at 6:44 pm

And (I hasten to add) nobody in the left liberal camp is naive about the need for checking state power. We don’t need libertarians to remind us of state power abuse.

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GiT 07.02.12 at 6:46 pm

“The reason libertarians focus on state coercion is that state coercion is the only kind for which there’s no legal remedy”

In the US case…

The US court system as a whole provides a robust regime of appeals and lower and higher courts, at both the state and Federal level, capable of checking the authority exercised by the judiciary at any given level up until the Supremes, who can themselves be checked by both Executive and, potentially, Legislative pardon.
Officials are liable as individuals for actions they take as officials.
There is a court expressly for the purpose of filing tort claims against the government. (The Court of Federal Claims)
There are numerous administrative courts (Article 1 courts), which can be appealed into the normal court system when they fail to produce remedies.

And if all this fails, elected officials can also be impeached, or defeated in an election.

But no, there is no way to hold the state to account for its actions, and there are no legal remedies against ‘state coercion.’

Well, maybe if you scream “quis custodiet ipsos custodes” really loudly and repeatedly, that will become true.

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E/S 07.02.12 at 6:56 pm

Is it necessary for coercion to occur first before stating that an employee’s liberty is violated? I find some plausibility in the neo-Roman argument that for an agent to enter a state in which she is subject to the arbitrary will of another [i.e. the employer's] is already to forfeit her personal liberty.

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UnlearningEcon 07.02.12 at 7:24 pm

“I see your deep love of freedom of speech doesn’t extend to the comments on your site, which I’m getting the sense is a nuisance blog. Enjoy your fallacies unchallenged, I will bother you no longer.”

But this is a private forum. Your freedom hasn’t been affected at all because you chose to come here.

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b9n10nt 07.02.12 at 7:26 pm

TallDave @93:

You have stipulated an employee-employer relationship (employer gives his money, employee consents to any deed requested of her) but can not show that this relationship is somehow a natural, essential, reality. You’re not saying something equivalent to “oxygen has 8 protons”. You’re saying “let’s have it be this way”. The OP is an argument as to why “this way” is detrimental towards the freedoms of many people:

1-actually-existing employment contracts are indeterminant

2-the ability to quit is not an equal freedom (as experienced in this world, not abstractly) to the ability to withhold payment.

You address 2 by saying that this unequal power relationship is for the good. Yes, it makes sense to say that We allocate economic power as an incentive that some risk and invest their time and effort toward designing, organizing, and beginning enterprises that can benefit Us. But this does not require that the incentive include limiting employees freedoms beyond those necessary for the enterprise that We want.

Employers can gain wealth and prestige all while supporting everyone’s dignity in the process. We can have a “dynamic economy” and create Our wealth and afford, in the process, employee protections against coercion that aren’t absolutely required for the undertaking of enterprise. That is my/our stipulation.

You would need to argue, I think, clear instances in which employee protections reduced the collective wealth of the polity subscribing to them. That’s where the engagement must be. Retreating to abstractions of the employee-employer relationship will just keep us going in circles.

A

1) If, by gaining the employee’s money, I thereby lose rights to speech, assembly, etc…

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Consumatopia 07.02.12 at 7:28 pm

But rightly or wrongly, these left-libertarians evidently believe that UBI will give workers enough bargaining power that the demeaning scenarios explored here (and at greater length in Robin’s Fear: the history of a political idea) will become, well, academic. They may be wrong, even (in your eyes) foolishly wrong, but it doesn’t make them cold-hearted.

To avoid the charge of being cold-hearted, they would, at the very least, have to make their moral theory conditional on their descriptive belief that such scenarios would be rare if their policies took hold. When considering such hypothetical scenarios, they wouldn’t dig down further into abstract theory to prove that we must permit them, they would say “I believe the UBI would prevent such scenarios from actually occurring, but if I’m wrong then I will abandon the libertarian position on worker protections.”

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asdf 07.02.12 at 7:37 pm

You cite public employment and unions as forces for freedom, but I was never more dehumanized then my stint as a public employee in a public union. My private employer gave me respect and freedom. The civil service saw me as a number.

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kharris 07.02.12 at 7:52 pm

“A UBI guaranteeing the equivalent of the annual minimum wage—$15,080—would require taxing roughly 50% of current GDP. “

Uh, how’s that? Doesn’t the conclusion that we’d have to tax roughly 50% of current GDP depend on having to pay everybody UBI, rather than paying only those who find themselves in need of it? Labor compensation runs a little shy of 70% of GDI right now, and most labor compensation is at above minimum wage, so I’m guessing your calculation involves paying everybody UBI. If so, then it would mostly be a vastly annoying exchange of money, in which we all pay in order for all to receive, a sum of money with the letters “UBI” attached.

The actual payment of UBI would be far lower than 50% of GDP. Way, way far lower. If UBI really is aimed at providing a minimum level of income for subsistance, UBI would relieve the need to pay for a number of other, alternative programs, such as food stamps. I don’t think your math means what you suggest it means. UBI at 50% of GDP seems to strongly suggest not just universal coverage, but universal payment.

By the way, I note that your final comment button is labeled “submit”. In light of this conversation, do you think that’s well considered?

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Purple Platypus 07.02.12 at 7:57 pm

Consumatopia, just FYI, various BHLers have been asked questions of the same type you raise – “Is your commitment to libertarian ideas conditional on their actually having a progressive upshot? If they were proven not to, would you abandon or at least modify your libertarianism?”

Most responses that I recall have been evasive. The only thing (of direct, immediate relevance to this question) that they seem to agree on is that they doubt evidence of this will actually surface (notwithstanding that it’s all around us!).

Some seem to say they would stick to libertarianism for other reasons even if this were true, because freedom. (Whose freedom? To do what? This camp seem to have thought those questions through only slightly more than the typical right-libertarian.) Others appear to imply that they would change their minds in the (in their opinion, extremely unlikely – in mine, dead certain) event they found that they lived in such a world. But it’s hard to be sure because, as I say, most just do their best to dodge the question.

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L2P 07.02.12 at 8:21 pm

“The reason libertarians focus on state coercion is that state coercion is the only kind for which there’s no legal remedy. “

Maybe you missed it, but the United States waived almost all sovereign immunity about 200 years ago. We fought a revolution about the divine right of kings and apparently kind of meant it.

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Isaiah 07.02.12 at 8:33 pm

@Consumatopia #59

To be fair, left-liberals would also have to make their moral theory “conditional” on the improved welfare of the oppressed alongside their interlocutors. There is a long history of well-intended legislation having unintended and perverse effects on the poor.

@Chris Bertram et al

As a classical liberal, I had no problem reading and engaging with your arguments presented here in great depth. It is apparent that there is a great deal of “coercion” in the world, or as I would say it, there are many forms of power inequality (in money, politics, relationships, etc.). You highlighted these that occur in workplace relationships.

If I could outline your argument, it seems to be:

1) Libertarians, if they’re to be genuine, should care about maximizing freedom.
2) The increased freedom of employers and unfettered contracts of the workplace inflicts coercion on workers.
3) Libertarians should oppose free employers and unfettered contracts.

I abhor the coercion of the workplace, exemplified by your examples above. I also abhor the many other kinds of social pressures and coercions and power inequalities that have diminished human flourishing for all of history. The missing argument from you, I believe, is

2b) There is an alternative system, sacrificing “employer freedom” and empowering workers, that society can design/legislate/regulate/create that will increase aggregate freedom relative to the status quo.

I am not convinced of 2b, largely because of my background in economics, but I appreciate your continued thoughts on the matter.

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dollared 07.02.12 at 8:44 pm

A wonderful post, and some great comments. Two real-world comments:

1. The libertarians who do not understand why this is important should visit the Facebook page “We are Firing all Employees Who Signed the Walker Recall Petition.” If that does not suffice, perhaps read the accounts from all the media companies that disciplined their employees in Wisconsin (journalistic or not) who signed the recall petitions, while not disciplining any employees that campaigned on behalf of Walker.
2. I would argue that anyone who does not understand why the scope of employment discussion is important, does not have daughters.

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Jerry Vinokurov 07.02.12 at 8:47 pm

I am not convinced of 2b, largely because of my background in economics, but I appreciate your continued thoughts on the matter.

What exactly is it about your economics background that tells you that

there is [no] alternative system, sacrificing “employer freedom” and empowering workers, that society can design/legislate/regulate/create that will increase aggregate freedom relative to the status quo.

?

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Antoni Jaume 07.02.12 at 9:02 pm

asdf 07.02.12 at 7:37 pm
«The civil service saw me as a number.»

I see you as an asdf. Being that you lack any verifiable identity, it is probable that you lack truth.

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Marshall 07.02.12 at 9:31 pm

#108:

Yes, what “background in economics” is it that leads you to conclude there can be no increase in aggregate freedom? We’ve done it several times before–or perhaps you think the Emancipation Proclamation was an intolerable, freedom-destroying state intrusion.

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novakant 07.02.12 at 9:40 pm

And (I hasten to add) nobody in the left liberal camp is naive about the need for checking state power. We don’t need libertarians to remind us of state power abuse.

I don’t know how you define the boundaries of the left liberal camp, but unless you’re talking about the tiny slice of the political spectrum to the left of the mainstream parties, I would argue that the left liberal camp needs quite a bit of reminding in this regard (maybe not by libertarians, but that’s another matter).

We fought a revolution about the divine right of kings and apparently kind of meant it.

In times of indefinite detention without trial, drone strikes and presidential kill lists, I don’t think your case is as strong as you think it is.

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Isaiah 07.02.12 at 10:38 pm

@110 Jerry

For example, let’s look at labor market regulation regimes in the United States versus a country such as France. Here we have a set of policies in France that makes it very hard to fire someone; arguably constraining employer freedom while enhancing worker freedom. Yet you have costs, namely that the natural rate of unemployment will be higher in France, as employers are more reticent to take a chance on an employee they can’t remove if things go sour. So the expansion of freedom for one incumbent employee comes at the price of other non-incumbent workers who face diminished employment prospects. Another example would be a hypothetical minimum wage of $30 an hour; while some people’s lives would undoubtedly be improved by this new wage, many poor and less productive people would find themselves unemployable at that rate and severely harmed. I feel my background in economics has equipped me to see that interference in market-equilibria has costs, benefits, and deadweight losses.

@Marshall #112

Rest assured I am a full supporter of the Emancipation Proclamation. I would distinguish between federal government action that promotes voluntary choice, free exchange, competition, and personal freedom and government action that does the opposite. For example, I see the current US intellectual property rights regime as limiting choice, competition, and personal freedom; this is not a defensible policy of a liberal government, despite its being shrouded in the language of “property rights.”

Ending the enslavement of blacks is very different in this regard than the infringement upon employer/employee negotiations. There are some unquestionably “low-hanging fruit” when it comes to boosting aggregate freedom. Ending slavery and allowing women to enter the workforce en masse are obvious examples.

Yet even these have costs, such as declining teacher quality since high performing women left the profession in the past few decades (these costs are of course far outweighed by their benefits). I am not so convinced of the unquestionable benefits of state interference in labor markets, namely that the costs outweigh the benefits.

As a classical liberal, I am not foolish enough to think that we can operate as a society without State that employs some coercion. I have to pay my taxes, you have to stop at red lights, that kind of thing. Yet I am naturally skeptical of ANY abridgment of individual freedom and I believe the State must have overwhelming justification and evidence for any intrusion.

And so I think that the natural conclusion of Bertram’s argument is that we must look to labor economists and ask, “How can we evaluate different labor regimes and their impact on employment, wages, and employee freedom?”. It is not enough to hand wave about the evils of employer freedom without critically evaluating its alternatives as well. Lacking a background in labor economics, I would be very interested in peer-reviewed research in this area, and whether there are any “low-hanging fruit” at our disposal.

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RobW 07.02.12 at 10:39 pm

Forgive me if this has come up elsewhere in the comments; a quick skimming of them did not yield a similar question. It would seem to me that this entire post rests on a rather questionable assumption: that gross abuses of employee rights are actually good for business. Is the possibility anywhere considered that firms would only engage in such behavior to the extent that it benefited the bottom line? And moreover, if one attempts to argue that this is indeed exactly why firms attempt such behavior, why don’t all employers systematically and deliberately violate worker rights? Is it only large employers, certain sectors, …? What explains a firms decision to “leave money on the table” as it were by not violating rights when doing so is directly benefiting competitors?

Do some firms engage in such practices? Clearly. Do all firms? Clearly not. To jump to the conclusion that firms that do so are obvious examples of why state intervention is necessary seems to miss the alternative that such practices will, over time, directly harm the prosperity of the business and thereby cause it to either alter its behavior or cease to exist. Thus, does not market discipline achieve the same result without the arbitrary exercise of state power?

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Consumatopia 07.02.12 at 10:41 pm

To be fair, left-liberals would also have to make their moral theory “conditional” on the improved welfare of the oppressed alongside their interlocutors. There is a long history of well-intended legislation having unintended and perverse effects on the poor.

The left-liberal case for prohibiting some of these demeaning scenarios need not depend on improving any class’s welfare in the aggregate. For example, even if it could somehow be shown that allowing sexual harassment would drop unemployment by 2% or raise wages by 10%, it is unethical to make any individual employee face that for the sake of their class.

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Douglas D. Edwards 07.02.12 at 11:04 pm

Consumatopia @103; Purple Platypus @106; Chris Bertram, original post and @61:

Political and economic theories in general — not just libertarianism — are designed to give morally acceptable results in the real world, not in every possible world. Like other forms of engineering, social engineering can legitimately have so-called “don’t-care conditions”: so-called because they are ruled out as impossible, not because their hypothetical descriptions are deemed morally insignificant. Libertarians who refuse to address purely hypothetical scenarios are not being “evasive” at all; they are acting in a principled manner. Nor is such refusal (in and of itself) of any value whatsoever as evidence against their goodness of heart. As Isaiah @108 points out, it is far from clear that non-libertarian leftist political theories could pass such a test.

Maybe, as Chris Bertram’s reference @61 to abuse of UBI as hand-waving suggests, the fundamental ethical charge being made against libertarians is not that their theories give the wrong answer in scenarios they honestly believe to be purely hypothetical, but that their picture of reality is intellectually dishonest in ways that reveal an evil hidden agenda; they dismiss real problems cavalierly because they don’t want to face the moral consequences of admitting those problems to exist.

I believe this is actually true of most mainstream right-libertarians; in particular, their “propertarian” belief in the fairness and legitimacy of the present distribution of private property is impossible to reconcile with even an honest glance at history (and is demolished in detail by left-libertarian Kevin Carson in “The subsidy of history”). (While “fairness and legitimacy” are value judgments, it’s not the ethical status of any scenario that is at issue, but the historical account of what actually happened; propertarianism can only be justified via reckless disregard of historical truth.)

But it is not at all clear that the Bleeding Hearts’ reliance on UBI goes as far wrong as the authors claim, let alone that it goes so far wrong as to provide evidence of basely motivated intellectual dishonesty, in the way that right-libertarian propertarianism does. As implied by temp @19 and Michael E Sullivan @25, the relevant issue for the effectiveness of UBI (even in isolation) is not the absolute cost to the employee of leaving a job, but the cost relative to that of the employer who must replace an employee. In any negotiating situation, power is determined by what Fisher and Ury (Getting to Yes) call the BATNA: the “Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement”. UBI does not need to lower the cost of leaving a job to anywhere near zero in order to shift the balance of power to employees; it need only lower it enough to make the worker’s BATNA superior to the employer’s. Carson discusses the issue of relative bargaining power in some detail in “Contract feudalism”, although he does not use the term “BATNA” and does not focus exclusively on UBI; he also explores the ways that a change in relative bargaining power would pervasively affect other aspects of working conditions.

Even if the Bleeding Hearts are wrong in thinking UBI to be enough by itself (and I do think they’re wrong; I emphasize that UBI is necessary, without claiming it to be adequate), I just don’t see this particular error as evidence of any coldness of heart, nor of the reckless disregard of the truth that I see in right-wing propertarianism.

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b9n10nt 07.02.12 at 11:19 pm

Isaiah @ 114
Yet I am naturally skeptical of ANY abridgment of individual freedom and I believe the State must have overwhelming justification and evidence for any intrusion.

Intrusion. The state provides the legal, physical, monetary, and regulatory infrastructure for capitalism to flourish. This is an intrusion. Conducive to wealth creation. Not democratic. Never founded upon overwhelming justification and evidence. And yet, as a capitalist, you would argue things turned out “OK” with the limited liabilities and the bankruptcy law and the immortal corporate charter and the paved roads and schools and printing and regulation of money and the intellectual property rights etc… The intrusions helped.

No, it probably isn’t the intrusions that are the issue. Nor can it be a realistic expectation that intrusions will come with overwhelming justification and evidence. I notice that terms such as “intrusion” “freedom” are used, in a pro-libertarian context, as if they were principles. But they simply can’t be unless were listening to a radical anarchist. No, “intrusion” in this case must have a very technical, precise meaning.

Isaiah, capitalism has been, continues to be, and must necessarily involve an apparatus of intrusiveness, no? Maybe you balk at “must necessarily involve”, but can’t you see that?

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Consumatopia 07.02.12 at 11:43 pm

Political and economic theories in general — not just libertarianism — are designed to give morally acceptable results in the real world, not in every possible world. Like other forms of engineering, social engineering can legitimately have so-called “don’t-care conditions”: so-called because they are ruled out as impossible, not because their hypothetical descriptions are deemed morally insignificant. Libertarians who refuse to address purely hypothetical scenarios are not being “evasive” at all; they are acting in a principled manner.

But some of them did address such hypotheticals, and reached the conclusion that even if the employer’s behavior was wrong, the state ought not to forbid it. Ruling out the situation as impossible would be an admission that, if the impossible occurred, the theory must be abandoned.

Not to mention that there’s a difference between failing to address something in a possible world, and failing to address something that happens in our current world that you believe your hypothetical policy would eliminate.

As Isaiah @108 points out, it is far from clear that non-libertarian leftist political theories could pass such a test.

Could you offer a specific example? What exactly are left-liberals ruling out as impossible? I would not rule it out as impossible that further workplace regulation could increase unemployment–but we have other policies available to address that.

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djw 07.02.12 at 11:51 pm

It would seem to me that this entire post rests on a rather questionable assumption: that gross abuses of employee rights are actually good for business.

No, it doesn’t. It rests on the empirical, demonstrable claim that they can and do occur. Presumably, some managers do it because they think it’s good for business (correctly or incorrectly); others do it because they, like many of their fellow humans, are not good people and abuse power accordingly. But this post doesn’t speculate to their motives, or whether it’s “good for business” or not. I expect that some of this behavior may well be good for business in the short term, and much of it is neutral to moderately counterproductive. Your faith in a perfectly efficient market ridding the world of the slightly inefficient cruelties of petty middle managers is touching yet unpersuasive.

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Der Einzige 07.03.12 at 12:12 am

This completely leaves out left-libertarians such as Roderick Long who are at BHL and would completely agree with blogpost, though I know Prof. Long would argue that businesses get their coercion via a privileged market and that in a “free market” absent of state privilege workplaces would be more horizontal and free.

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Bruce Baugh 07.03.12 at 12:35 am

Love this post, but I have a lingering question.

I like the idea of a UBI. (Like some others, I don’t think it would be sufficient for all the stuff its BHL advocates want, but it’s still a great idea.) But I know that it’s not going to happen, at least in the US, any time soon, barring a truly catastrophic collapse of the US’s entire right wing, which seems unlikely.

Is it then serving as just another boring old perfect enemy of the good? One of those “we won’t budge a finger to help you right now, and will do our best to sabotage any effort at relief this year, because of this miracle cure that might happen sometime” deals? It’s certainly sounding that way – that anything useful for employees in the here and now that might make bosses uncomfortable or unhappy must be condemned, but it’ll be okay in heaven once the UBI comes to pass.

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tomslee 07.03.12 at 12:50 am

I find the Nash bargaining solution provides a useful way to think about coercion and choice. The outcome depends on each actor’s “disagreement point” – the ease with which they can walk away from the situation. The actor who can walk away most easily is in the stronger bargaining position and gets most of the spoils, while the weaker gets the scraps. There is no dichotomy between choice and coercion, just a continuum from being able to walk away easily to nearly impossible.

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tomslee 07.03.12 at 12:51 am

Meant to say, I am with most other commenters in admiring this post.

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Isaiah 07.03.12 at 1:33 am

@Consumatopia 116

The left-liberal case for prohibiting these behaviors depends on improving the aggregate freedom of the class in question (I used “welfare” in this context). This seems uncontroversial to me, as the basis for this article is that libertarians lack principled remedies to the unjust, private coercion of “economically free” workplaces, and that leftist alternatives would conversely increase aggregate freedom. How to measure that, I do not know; what do social scientists use as a proxy for aggregate freedom?

@b9n #118

Man is a social being. The alternative to individual autarky is society and trade, which means there will always be some level of “intrusion” in any human society. You have to play the game with everyone by the rules, whatever they are. Assume that the State writes the “rules” in this case (obviously in the real world there are non-state societal actors that do as well). I would argue that one can easily differentiate between “worst case” and “best case” State rules with regards to individual freedom, prosperity, competition, choice, etc. Some rules tend to produce oppression (slavery, marriage, immigration, etc.) while others tend to produce more freedom (property, contract, universal suffrage, public infrastructure, basic safety net, etc.).

An example: we wrote bankruptcy laws so that people can have a new start in life, incentivizing risk-taking, even if it means that borrowers face marginally higher interest rates (raising the chance of default and barriers to credit access, especially for poorer/high-risk borrowers). There are tradeoffs everywhere. But it is clear that some political “intrusions” in both theory and practice can produce greater freedom, prosperity, choice, and competition. That spirit guides my belief in effective, limited government.

All societies (capitalist, socialist, forager, farmer) will have their own unique forms of intrusiveness in order for people to coordinate with one another. So I acknowledge your point that even a libertarian ideal of a “free person” in my ideal society would face a number of ugly intrusions and constraints. I would counter that the nature of those constraints and intrusions will be more conducive to “increased aggregate freedom”.

@djw #120

I agree with you that the “perfectly efficient market” is not guaranteed to eradicate petty middle managers. Racism is a bad thing, and I think markets have done a great deal to stamp it out, but there are obvious ways in which micro models of perfect competition fail to address issues such as this.

Yet I do not see petty middle managers as “features” of a free system. I see them as features of humanity. We are about power, status, and greed. So yes, there is empirical proof that there is great coercion and oppression in some American workplaces. Where is the empirical basis for limiting employer freedom as a remedy?

I don’t think any libertarians are disputing that private power inequalities are bad, or harmful. They dispute that there’s a better way of addressing them than the following:

1) Give employees valid exit options (UBI)
2) Respect and uphold contracts
3) Give employers freedom to contract/pay/hire/fire.

And that is the empirical question: is there an alternative that will produce more aggregate freedom than this? I can think of alternatives that would certainly benefit current employees, but that’s not enough.

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Isaiah 07.03.12 at 1:35 am

Apologies as I tried to italicize one phrase and failed with the HTML, producing an entirely italicized comment.

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Douglas D. Edwards 07.03.12 at 1:47 am

Bruce Baugh @121:

UBI is not a pipe-dream at all. It actually exists in Alaska (as Chris Bertram @64 notes), and has had too many influential backers among right-libertarians (including even Hayek and Friedman) for it to be so easy for the Right to dismiss. Although I’m not sufficiently familiar yet with left-libertarianism to be sure, my impression has been that support for UBI is close to 100% among left-libertarians. For a non-libertarian left-wing case for UBI as a “non-reformist reform” that can ease workers’ present plight while simultaneously helping to bring about more fundamental and pervasive change, see for example Peter Frase, “Do they owe us a living?” As Frase emphasizes, there has been considerable support for UBI among the (non-libertarian) far Left, especially Marxists.

Frankly, I believe it has been so-called liberal progressives and some elements of the non-libertarian Left who have dropped the ball on UBI — and this post has been a prime example of that, as have many of the comments on it above. It’s not enough to support UBI in principle as one goal among a thousand others; it needs to be foregrounded. The ability of UBI to increase the relative bargaining power of workers is of fundamental significance, and that is as clear to Frase (and to me!) as to any left-libertarian. It serves a purpose analogous to that of a union’s strike fund, improving the individual’s BATNA (see @117 above) as a strike fund improves a union’s BATNA. As Frase points out, such a universal entitlement, once in place, would be very difficult to undo, especially once workers got a taste of the improvement in their bargaining position. Unions could also leverage UBI as, in effect, a supplement to their strike funds, allowing longer strikes with a smaller strike fund. We can see UBI to be necessary for worker empowerment, without buying into the BHL viewpoint that it is sufficient.

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Darius Jedburgh 07.03.12 at 1:49 am

Couldn’t agree more. Apart from anything else, workplace bullying causes serious psychological harm and should on no account be trivialised

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Douglas D. Edwards 07.03.12 at 1:50 am

The unwanted italics appear to have propagated into other comments, including my @126! I’m including a gratuitious close-italic to try to halt propagation. Moderator: please supply a more permanent fix.

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Bruce Baugh 07.03.12 at 2:03 am

I’m aware that something in the nature of an UBI exists in Alaska. I also know that it took circumstances that don’t exist elsewhere, and I see just how fierce the fight is against all forms of aid to people in need even in states where there’s wide popular support for protection from a lot of kinds of caprice.

It’s certainly the case that we won’t get a national UBI this year, or next. What, in the BHL view, is permissible to do right now for workers being exploited and ground down by bad bosses? That’s really what I’m more interested.

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Jamie O'Keefe 07.03.12 at 2:05 am

Thanks! I drop in here periodically when someone sends me a link, but I think I will need to do so more often. Your piece reminds me of the Bob Black essay The Libertarian as Conservative. Black’s target is ultimately work, but he goes after libertarians’ limited definition of liberty with aplomb:

“They [Libertarians] don’t denounce what the state does, they just object to who’s doing it. This is why the people most victimized by the state display the least interest in libertarianism. Those on the receiving end of coercion don’t quibble over their coercers’ credentials. If you can’t pay or don’t want to, you don’t much care if your deprivation is called larceny or taxation or restitution or rent. If you like to control your own time, you distinguish employment from enslavement only in degree and duration.

The adults often assemble in families too, but the place where they pass the most time and submit to the closest control is at work. Thus, without even entering into the question of the world economy’s ultimate dictation within narrow limits of everybody’s productive activity, it’s apparent that the source of the greatest direct duress experienced by the ordinary adult is not the state but rather the business that employs him. Your foreman or supervisor gives you more or-else orders in a week than the police do in a decade.

Some people giving orders and others obeying them: this is the essence of servitude. Of course, as Hospers smugly observes, “one can at least change jobs,” but you can’t avoid having a job — just as under statism one can at least change nationalities but you can’t avoid subjection to one nation-state or another. But freedom means more than the right to change masters.

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Henry 07.03.12 at 2:24 am

fixed

133

bryan willman 07.03.12 at 2:28 am

This whole line of discussion, “employment” in general, misses some huge “coercions” which seem impossible to overcome.
1. One must somehow get money not just to live, but to thrive and have any status, to succeed in society. The legal and practical ability to live a subsistence life based on the resources of nature is long destroyed, not only by law, but by physical reality. (Simple numbers of people and the finite amount of arable land being one example.)
2. The getting of money means being at the whim of somebody or something. Bosses, customers, the general market, the behavoirs of government, the biases of a church or union.
The only real “freedom” for the modern world with its huge population is a world wide labor shortage, such that anybody who will execute on any work task will be well compensated. I do not expect to see such a thing.
————-
There’s a lot of focus on “threat to shut the factory down” and not enough on “and in the years that followed, no new factories were ever built in that town”. The tendency to view business (as opposed to say sexual harassement) behavoirs as being “rooted” in “the boss” is naive – the boss who doesn’t raise productivity and lower costs is not asnwering to the demands of the market. Eventually, there will be an accounting for this.
Several societies that have gone to great lengths to protect employees have in the relatively recent past, or at the present moment, face serious crises. For example, not only is Italy in deep trouble, but not so long ago so was Germany.
So as a fundamental reality, a social welfare state can deliver only so much before its own burdens crush it. (And by contrast, a “state” free of government is also a generally miserable place – see Somalia.)

134

piglet 07.03.12 at 2:31 am

126: “UBI is not a pipe-dream at all. It actually exists in Alaska (as Chris Bertram @64 notes), and has had too many influential backers among right-libertarians (including even Hayek and Friedman) for it to be so easy for the Right to dismiss.”

This is absurd. You (as of 117) claim to have a philosophy for the real world, not a hypothetical one, and yet your entire argument rests on the hypothetical possibility of a welfare mechanism that is in actuality 100% inconceivable to be enacted in the near future, and very unlikely in the mid- or long term. Btw Milton Friedman also supported a 100% inheritance tax yet those in the political spectrum who claim to be his followers have no difficulty at all to militate for the abolition of any estate tax. Oh, and the infamous insurance mandate was a conservative concept first proposed by the Heritage Foundation. As soon as it became a political reality, they turned against it. Enough said.

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Cranky Observer 07.03.12 at 2:34 am

= = = Douglas D. Edwards 07.03.12 at 1:47 am
UBI is not a pipe-dream at all. It actually exists in Alaska (as Chris Bertram @64 notes)
= = =

Surely it has not escaped your attention (nor Chris’, though I suspect he was being a bit sarcastic) that Alaska bases its universal welfare payment on trillions of dollars of unearned oil wealth/bounty? If the basis of libertarianism requires the acquisition at zero cost of an excludable, valuable, scarce resource and the extraction of rents from the rest of the world based on the disposition of that resource then I fear there won’t be too many libertarian paradises.

Cranky

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piglet 07.03.12 at 2:37 am

novakant 113: Can you give us a single credible example of state power abuse that left-liberals failed to prominently denounce? Can you give us a single example of right-libertarians or conservatives beating left liberals in their opposition to state power abuse? I remember once somebody (maybe you?) claiming that drug prohibition, for example, was supported by the left and opposed by the right. I hope you won’t bore us with equally absurd claims.

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polarscribe 07.03.12 at 2:53 am

There is no such thing as a UBI in Alaska – unless the sum of approximately $1,000 is considered enough to constitute a basic annual income.

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chris 07.03.12 at 3:16 am

To jump to the conclusion that firms that do so are obvious examples of why state intervention is necessary seems to miss the alternative that such practices will, over time, directly harm the prosperity of the business and thereby cause it to either alter its behavior or cease to exist. Thus, does not market discipline achieve the same result without the arbitrary exercise of state power?

If it hasn’t yet, why believe that it will in the future? The very prevalence of such irrational practices (assuming that they *are* irrational from an enlightened-self-interest perspective, which some may not be) shows that the market’s ability to force them out is too weak, or even nonexistent, in practice.

Obviously denying your employees restroom breaks may have an economic benefit to the employer — you can staff your call center with 98 employees rather than 100 because you know they’ll be on the phone and not in the bathroom, that kind of thing. If that’s what’s going on, market forces will force more employers to *adopt* that kind of coercion, not abandon it. The same way market forces would force employers to discard all nonmandatory safety procedures that cost a nontrivial amount in order to improve their competitive edge. (See, I acknowledge the power of market forces. I just don’t believe that they always and everywhere produce good results. Reality is more complicated than “market good, government bad”.)

But even when that’s not the case (firing everyone who opposes your politics seems unlikely to have a positive productivity impact while obviously causing both turnover and demoralization), the market notoriously can take decades to eliminate such behaviors, when it does so at all.

BTW, if a democratic state responds to a societywide problem by passing laws or regulations according to its constitution, and you call that the “arbitrary” exercise of state power, exactly what would qualify as non-arbitrary? Or does “arbitrary” just mean “use of power in a way I personally disagree with”?

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Purple Platypus 07.03.12 at 3:21 am

If it hasn’t yet, why believe that it will in the future?

A question libertarians, as a group, really need to ask themselves more often. The other classic case is the whole “charity will fix it!” hand-wave with which they typically respond to social issues like homelessness.

140

John David Galt 07.03.12 at 3:51 am

I agree with David Ellerman: a substantial number of the rights employers infringe ought to be designated unalienable so they can’t. Starting with freedom of association, sexual behavior, and other matters of taste while not on the job. Property rights do not justify powers over other people’s lives that don’t reasonably affect the security of that property; and I would characterize anyone who actually wants employers (or for that matter, landlords) to continue to have these powers as a tyrant.

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John David Galt 07.03.12 at 3:57 am

Oh, and @Purple Platypus: To the extent it’s not a direct result of edicts of law such as limits on where registered sex-offenders can live, homelessness exists *because* of charity; if people stopped giving money to bums holding cardboard signs, you’d better believe even they would find something more productive to do with their time.

The best solution, of course, is to privatize as many public places as possible so that they can be made to go elsewhere without it being a civil rights violation. Or equivalently (by Coase’s Theorem) nearby businesses might pay them to stay away, if the police were willing to enforce such a bargain.

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bryan willman 07.03.12 at 4:05 am

A real problem with any variant of UBI or assured income or any other such scheme is the reality of production versus “freeriding”.
One can easily imagine a world in which all of us have lots of money that can buy lots of goods and services at low prices, but none of us have to work.
That’s clearly not the universe we live in, let alone the planet we live on.

The fact is that for society as a whole to function, some pretty high percentage of the members must be doing something productive. (Raising children and other not-paid but still important tasks count.) [1]

So any “assured base income” or “UBI” can only be high enough that it DOESN’T raise the “free riding” percentage above some tolerable threshhold.

Put another way – in our world, society as a whole *must* “coerce” or “compel” most people into doing something “productive”. Just as it compels most people to speak the main language.

Given the way human beings (mostly) behave, there must be rewards for doing anything more than the minimum.

So supporters of anything like UBI need to make a case that there is a level of UBI that will generally avoid starvation, exposure, and so on, yet NOT cause excessive “free riding” that will put too much drag on society. That any level high enough to support people in not-horrid lives will not raise the free-rider or “just gave up” percentage to a level that society cannot live with over the long term. (That is NOT to say that there are no free riders of various sorts today, or that they are immoral, or that very many people wouldn’t just use UBI to raise their standards of living. It is to say that one global for-society-as-a-whole issue must be dealt with.)

[1] And we haven’t open the can of coercive worms around reproduction – the pressures of sex and to reproduce, the complex deals that are made in marriages, the whole host of decisions that children can only live with. Marriage and divorce laws can only deal with the very gross aspects of these issues.

P.S. I think of myself as libertarian leaning, but please understand that’s a word no more precise than ‘left leaning’ – and claims like “charity will solve …” are basically BS. BS on a huge level – rather than have government compel you to give money to support people, your concious or society or social standing or desire to avoid disorder will compel you to do so. The problem and burden don’t go away. Private resolution of such issues might well be more efficient and effective and humane than large government forces – but the issue remains and its burden must be deal with one way or another.

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Michael E Sullivan 07.03.12 at 4:08 am

Foppe@32, I would say the costs are the costs whether the company is large or not.

I do think that it is possible to arrange an organization to handle high turnover more gracefully — this makes the cost of firing people less. But it also decreases overall productivity versus an organization set up to optimize results from non-alienated workers. Which arrangement will result in more production per wage dollar will depend on the job and the market for that labor skill.

My experience suggests that the jobs where organizing for high turnover beats organizing for autonomous work-capable employees, are jobs where organizing most of the job away through automation also beats organizing for high turnover, at least in economies where the labor market clears.

On the one hand that means that anyone incapable of autonomous work doesn’t get a job in my company. On the other hand, it means that all the employees of my company make some kind of living wage, even if the work they are doing is normally considered low skill. Also, despite the work being relatively low-status, I treat every employee the same way I have been treated when I had good IT jobs. I don’t put any constraints on their work unrelated to safety or the production schedule. So they can’t take random 1/2 hr breaks under production deadlines, or wear sandals in the machine shop, and they need to work on what I or their leads say is what they should work on, but nobody cares when they go to the bathroom or make a personal phone call as long as the work gets done on time, let alone anybody caring a whit what they do when they are clocked out.

In any case, I would suggest that while the costs of turnover may be invisible to some suit who has barely set foot in the plant/office s/he is making rules for, they very much still exist, and are borne by some combination of the managers forced to enforce those rules, coworkers forced to cover for absent/new employees, shareholders forced to pay overtime or higher pay to those managers and coworkers, and customers getting reduced service levels.

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RobW 07.03.12 at 4:29 am

@djw 120

You seem to confuse the issue. Identifying that something does occur is not the same as offering an explanation (involving motives or other factors) for why it occurs. Absent knowledge of the latter, how can one formulate a policy response that does more than address the symptoms of the former rather than its root causes? Now, you cite “empirical” evidence of effect but offer nothing on cause. Your proposed solution, such that you provide one, bemoans my “faith” in markets but itself invokes nothing more than your own “faith” in the powers of the state. If there truly were pervasive market incentives to engage in rights abuses, their existence should be more widespread. That they are not, is again suggestive that perhaps there is an alternative to state intervention, which the original post fails to acknowledge in favor of an unjustified conclusion that such intervention is the only remedy. Thus any business that fails to engage in rights abuses when they are profitable will over time be naturally disciplined and vice versa. Thus either one has to identify the conditions under which abuse will be profitable and acknowledge that abuse absent profitability is unsustainable. Where this requires the state is far from clear.

@Purple Platypus 139
How could one reasonably expect a system of private charity to be able to compete against taxpayer-subsidized, state-administered aid? When aid markers are so distorted by the state’s influence, your challenge is impossible to meet and thus does not provide an effective counter as private charity much overcome far higher barriers to entry than would exist absent state intervention.

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djw 07.03.12 at 5:03 am

Absent knowledge of the latter, how can one formulate a policy response that does more than address the symptoms of the former rather than its root causes?

Sometimes, but not necessarily.

Firms in category A routinely abuses employees in a particular manner because they believe it will enhance their profitability. Firms in category B routinely abuses employees in the same manner because they’re utterly indifferent. C, same thing, because they hire petty and malicious managers.

Let’s say that in response to this behavior, a democratically elected legislature passes a law is passed banning this particular form of workplace abuse on the grounds that it violates the basic rights and dignity of employees, and contains effective enforcement mechanisms and meaningful penalties. Now: the law may be a bad idea, too intrusive, have unfortunate unintended consequences, etc. But it’s not at all obvious to me that the effectiveness of the law necessarily depends on the quantity of firms in categories A, B and C.

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Brett Stevens 07.03.12 at 5:17 am

We may have to face the fact that no “system” is perfect or free from coercion and other forms of abuse. In fact, the thought that we can implement some rules and then stop worrying is not rational at all. There is no replacement for a strong cultural values system, a population of limited size, and leaders of sensitivity and foresight.

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Dollared 07.03.12 at 5:24 am

@RobW 142 Actually, everyone here.

First of all, I repeat that it appears that none of you have sisters or daughters. Might I point out that most empirical evidence indicates that short term sexual abuses have little correlation with microeconomic motivators? Perhaps UBI enables a woman to avoid the abuse via departure, but given the high statistical incidence of various forms of sexual harassment and abuse, in a world “free” of legal constraints on employers, women in the aggregate will have lower income and less advancement.

Second, I have read nearly the entire thread, and I have yet to see the word “Foxconn”.” We can discuss many potential, theoretical outcomes, but these theortical discussion ignore that we have a widely publicized, clearly described endpoint for the lower 70% in a society with a “free” employer regime. 72 hour workweeks, subsistence labor, callup on one hour’s notice, dormitories, cafeterias, company stores and employee debt to employers. And we haven’t even gotten to child labor and classic indentured servitude, which affects millions of workers in the US supply chain. We came from Dickens and to Dickens we shall return.

And this group can pretend that these abundant existence proofs are far away, but in the last 10 years we have seen persistent calls by Republicans to eliminate payment for overtime, to reinstate child labor, and to weaken safety regulations. And in several states, Republicans have successfully eliminated compensation for discrimination lawsuits by women, eliminating the protection while cynically preserving the right to sue – for nothing. The aim is to level the playing field – with China.

I have not seen the collapse of Denmark, with those horrible impositions on our noble employers. In fact, it seems quite prosperous and productive. Compared to China, or Texas, I know which society has greater aggregate freedom.

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Data Tutashkhia 07.03.12 at 6:18 am

@144: Denmark is not a good example for “legal constraints on employers”. There is no government-mandated minimum wage in Denmark, for example. What’s different in Denmark is that it’s 72% unionized.

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Both Sides Do It 07.03.12 at 7:23 am

There’s also a legal obligation to negotiate with unions which is over a hundred years old, as well as 40% employment by the public sector. Denmark has the highest minimum wage in the world, but the broad hand of state authority does a great deal to prop it up even without mandating it outright.

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Data Tutashkhia 07.03.12 at 8:16 am

@146, it doesn’t sound like it’s exactly a “legal obligation”. According to this pdf link: https://www.pwc.dk/da/human-ressource/assets/pwc-brochure-labour-law-web.pdf :

Historically, the labour market parties, i.e. the trade unions and the
employers’ associations, have played a very active and significant role
in the development of the labour market. In 1899, the employers’ associations
formally acknowledged the workers’ right to organise in trade
unions, and, in return, the trade unions acknowledged the employers’
right of management. This is referred to as the September Compromise.
The September Compromise is still considered the foundation of the
labour market today where the vast majority of employment terms and
working conditions are determined by agreement between the labour
market parties as opposed to statutory regulations. As a consequence,
there are relatively few statutory labour and employment rules in
Denmark, and the statutory rules that do exist are often the result of EU
legislation.

which is, in a sense, exactly the opposite of “legal constraints on employers”. Someone above wanted an empirical case, so here it is.

151

John Holbo 07.03.12 at 10:05 am

Great post, Chris and Corey. Thanks. I’m curious what the BHL will say in response. One point in support. You write: “The larger problem lies in the simplistic notion that the ability to freely enter or exit the workplace disposes of the problem of freedom inside the workplace. On the front end, most libertarians believe that contracts are freedom-preserving: so long as they aren’t coerced or fraudulent, there are no freedom-related objections to be made. But this is a mistake. If someone contracted to be the slave to another person for a year, with no possibility of exit, surely that initial moment of consent does not preserve the slave’s freedom for the remaining 364 days of the year.”

It’s worth noting that Hayek agrees with this quite explicitly in “Constitution of Freedom”:

“It would also be absurd to argue that young people who are just entering into active life are free because they have given their consent to the social order into which they were born: a social order to which they probably know no alternative and which even a whole generation who thought differently from their parents could alter only after they had reached mature age. But this does not, or need not, make them unfree. The connection which is often sought between such consent to the political order and individual liberty is one of the sources of the current confusion about its meaning. Anyone is, of course, entitled to “identify liberty . . . with the process of active participation in public power and public law making.” Only it should be made clear that, if he does so, he is talking about a state other than that with which we are here concerned, and that the common use of the same word to describe these different conditions does not mean that the one is in any sense an equivalent or substitute for the other. The danger of confusion here is that this use tends to obscure the fact that a person may vote or contract himself into slavery and thus consent to give up freedom in the original sense. It would be difficult to maintain that a man who voluntarily but irrevocably had sold his services for a long period of years to a military organization such as the Foreign Legion remained free thereafter in our sense; or that a Jesuit who lives up to the ideals of the founder of his order and regards himself “as a corpse which has neither intelligence nor will” could be so described. Perhaps the fact that we have seen millions voting themselves into complete dependence on a tyrant has made our generation understand that to choose one’s government is not necessarily to secure freedom. Moreover, it would seem that discussing the value of freedom would be pointless if any regime of which people approved was, by definition, a regime of freedom.”

Hayek wants to weild this as an argument against necessity of having participatory political power, as a condition of freedom. But it works just as a well as an argument against the sufficiency of contracting power, as a guarantee of freedom.

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Anarcho 07.03.12 at 10:21 am

“Libertarianism is a philosophy of individual freedom. Or so its adherents claim. “

Libertarian was used by anti-state socialists (anarchists) long before “Libertarianism” was invented… they are better called propertarians, then all the apparent contradictions disappear.

“These are just some of the considerations that lie at the heart of any defense of unions, regulation of contract and the workplace, and workplace democracy. Whether we call that defense egalitarian liberal, social democratic or democratic socialist, libertarians reject it as an abridgment of economic freedom and, more particularly, the freedom of owners to do what they wish with their property. “

Given that anarchists since Proudhon have advocated workplace democracy, we can call that defence its correct name — libertarian!

Stop allowing the right to misappropriate the term libertarian from the left — call their ideology a better name, propertarianism!

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Purple Platypus 07.03.12 at 10:43 am

@RobW; I’m *really* curious what “barriers to entry” you have in mind. What obstacles, on your view, does the state put in the way of private charity? For what purpose? Having worked in that area, your assumption that there’s any analogy at all between that situation and competing businesses is downright risible. I can only assume that, like far too many libertarians, you’re basing your arguments on some sort of supposed a priori economic theory. Whatever that response to me is based on, it sure as hell isn’t observation of the real world.

Charities don’t work like other businesses, and the LAST thing either charities or the government have any interest in doing is competing with one another. The state, or at least the one I live in, works hand in hand with private groups and if anything wishes there were more of them. It’s well understood in government circles that all else being equal non-government, or government-funded but not government-run, groups are preferable. It’s not that they necessarily produce better results, it’s just that such arrangements aren’t as taxing (no pun intended) on the resources of government, which far from resembling the picture libertarians paint, are very much finite.

If you think you have an a priori proof that none of this is true, or even possible, you are simply mistaken. All the logic-chopping in the world won’t produce anything useful if it starts from wrong assumptions. Another thing more libertarians need to acquaint themselves with is the computer programmers’ expression “garbage in, garbage out”.

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Chris Bertram 07.03.12 at 12:15 pm

Cranky … Well yes and no. The Alaska fund is based on an excludable resource, but the idea of taxing land or natural resources as the unearned bounty of the entire human race seems a possible way to go …. and some left-libertarians, notably Hillel Steiner, advocate just such a Georgist way of financing a UBI.

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understudy 07.03.12 at 12:41 pm

“Compared to China, or Texas, I know which society has greater aggregate freedom.”

Ah, but Denmark, and much of the rest of the EU’s “freedoms” are supported by massive government restrictions on immigration. Which is why your poor Foxconn slaves are working in China and not for some high minimum wage community organizing job in the Hague.

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asdf 07.03.12 at 12:54 pm

Most of these abuses seem to take place in low end prole workplaces. From my experience with low end prole workplaces. Low end proles workplaces need these rules because proles are terrible terrible workers. They have to be constantly supervised and ordered around to get any kind of useful work out of them.

In workplaces with self motivated professionals nearly all of these rules are relaxed or extinguished. People are left to do as they please for the most part. The one and only time I was in a union those rights were largely taken away. In private I came and went from my job as I pleased. In public I had set hours and had to clock in. Etc, etc.

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Foppe 07.03.12 at 1:13 pm

asdf: I suspect this question will offend you, but who decides that productivity should be the only societal goal, and that abuse is allowed so long as it results in increased surplus value realization?

Anyway, as to your “people are left to do as they please”, consider this interview with an ex-M&A banker, and please tell me why you think this admirable rather than sad:

“I learnt a new word: wiping. It’s what my BlackBerry announced it was doing yesterday at midnight, when my contract with the bank formally ended. It wiped out all my data.
“There was a round of redundancies recently, but I didn’t get laid off. Too bad, you could argue, because then I might have gotten a very nice severance package.
“In the first year I would work from 9.30 am till 3am, every day. You keep telling yourself, this is going to get better. But it doesn’t, not really.
“Compared with my years in university I have learned so much more in the past two years, so much more. Then again, given my 18-hour work days, these were actually four years. Basically M&A teaches you to truly understand a company; to analyse it the way a doctor would with a human body. You build models of how the company operates, where it might improve in the future, and how. It’s genuinely stimulating work.

“At the same time there is this ‘push down’ culture in M&A. At the top of the pyramid sits the managing director who deals with clients directly. Now imagine he is negotiating a £7bn acquisition for that client. Anything that the client requests, the MD will say: ‘Sure. A huge chunk of research done by tomorrow, 10am? Consider it done.’ MDs like to overpromise to clients. What’s more, the MD is not going to do that work himself, he instructs his director, who kicks it down to his vice president, on to the associates, until it lands with the analysts, that is us.

“Analysts frequently hear expressions like ‘I want to review’ and then ‘I give you comments’. So you make an analysis, say, about how a company’s competitors have organised or structured their debts. You print it, send it to your superior who sends it back ‘marked up’ with comments. You process these, and so it travels up the ladder. It is not unlike the way memos move up a ministry. There is this constant friction between the analysts who do all the work, and the ‘officers’ in higher positions who take all the credit. Having said this, it is a real kick to see your presentation in its final form, printed on very expensive paper and wire bound.
“As a young banker in M&A, you have no social life, I mean, none. A work week has seven days. There’s no time for friends, and when you have a few hours off, you try to maximise it. Drink really hard, party wild, and you get confronted with drugs – which seems to be a taboo although many do it. You need to feel in those few moments that you’re still alive. On Sundays, following one of these binges, I would wake up feeling so rotten, so empty.

“I used to be the kind of person who enjoys life, who gets up in the morning eager for another day. The past two years I found myself changing. I lost my interest in politics, in sports … I began to wonder: what’s happening to me?

“My flatmate is in finance too. I’ve seen him coming home crying, from exhaustion, from something that happened to him. Why are we doing this to ourselves? My sense is that the majority of the people in finance have an urge to prove themselves. And banks offer a platform where they can do so. I feel there’s a particular kind of insecurity to many bankers, a form of neediness and a deep desire to compensate. Love?

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Corey Robin 07.03.12 at 1:35 pm

asdf (#153): I assume we can include the headquarters of Intel among your non-”low end prole workplaces” where “self-motivated professionals” are “left to do as they please for the most part.” Here’s what Intel CEO Andrew Grove had to say — in his book *Only the Paranoid Survive* — about how he inspired his “self-motivated professionals” at Intel: “The most important role of managers is to create an environment in which people are passionately dedicated to winning in the marketplace. Fear plays a major role in creating and maintaining such passion. Fear of competition, fear of bankruptcy, fear of being wrong, and fear of losing can all be powerful motivators.”

Before you extrapolate any further from your “experience,” you might want to check out Jill Andresky Fraser’s *White Collar Sweatshop* (http://www.amazon.com/White-Collar-Sweatshop-Deterioration-Corporate/dp/039332320X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1341321890&sr=8-1&keywords=%22white+collar+sweatshop%22).

I reviewed Fraser’s book here: http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=924

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Foppe 07.03.12 at 1:43 pm

(Apologies for the missing blockquote tags, I’m not used to the comment system here. If someone could indent the rest of the paragraphs, that would be appreciated.)

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Phil 07.03.12 at 1:57 pm

I think we know why Lenin coined the phrase “wage slave” now, don’t we…

“All official and liberal science defends wage-slavery, whereas Marxism has declared relentless war on that slavery.”

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Maggie 07.03.12 at 2:11 pm

asdf, if proles are work-shy, it’s because the only work offered to them is deskilled, repetitive, boring, dreary, and often demeaning or dangerous. You wouldn’t perform such work with enthusiasm, either, especially if you knew it was all you ever had to look forward to. In such a condition work-avoidance is an eminently understandable strategy for protecting one’s personality and energy from the long-term effects of being used as a human machine, more often than not with less compensation than is actually necessary to sustain one’s functioning as such in the long run.. (Most egregiously, the lack of health benefits.) And they are confined to such work not because of any inherent inferiority on their part, but because they have been the object of a very deliberate, centuries-long campaign to deprive them of alternatives by separating them from the means of subsistence and by stunting their children’s potential through inadequate schooling and the absence of remedy for hunger, health or behavioral issues, abuse, crime, and all the other stressors of “prole” life that detract from a child’s full human development. The proles’ inadequacy for more creative and autonomous forms of labor is a feature, not a bug, of the capitalist system. You and I could not afford as many comforts as we now do if if the proles who make our goods and provide our services were paid even a minimal living wage, let alone if they and their children were equipped to develop their full potentials and seek work on their own terms. Given that, to judge them for using one of the only viable strategies for surviving this long-term assault on their dignity and waste of their powers – gaming the system in small ways, “cheating” the capitalist of his full seven dollar’s worth per hour of back-breaking labor – is ugly. Just unbelievably ugly. Enjoy your share of our collective profit from their collective slavery if you must (it’s almost impossible not to, anyway) – but expecting them to be cheerful and diligent about it asks too much. Ugly.

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Consumatopia 07.03.12 at 2:27 pm

@Isiah

The left-liberal case for prohibiting these behaviors depends on improving the aggregate freedom of the class in question (I used “welfare” in this context). This seems uncontroversial to me, as the basis for this article is that libertarians lack principled remedies to the unjust, private coercion of “economically free” workplaces, and that leftist alternatives would conversely increase aggregate freedom.

Every one of these sentences is wrong. The left-liberal case for prohibiting things like sexual harassment need not have anything to do with aggregate welfare or aggregate freedom, or any aggregates at all. Although a left-liberal utilitarian could make such a case, other left-liberals, perhaps most, might find the very idea of such a calculation abhorrent regardless of outcome–like calculating whether prohibiting rape increases some desirable aggregate metric. We want to outlaw these behaviors because they, as individual instances, represent intolerable coercion to which the victims should have a right to redress (that the mechanism of coercion is private power does not imply that we make assumptions about how private power will be used in the aggregate).

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asdf 07.03.12 at 3:24 pm

Foppe,

I worked in IB for awhile. IB offers the chance to get rich and retire to the good life really early. The kids working in IB have the qualification to get a regular 9-5 low stress office job with upper middle class salary, but they CHOOSE IB because they want to make it big. This lifestyle is no secret, people with lots of good choices simply make that choice. If he survives till 35 and retires with his fuck you money the guy still drudging to the office 9-5 till 65 will look like the sucker.

As for people at the top adding nothing, believe me its not true. I’ve worked in places where the top people know what they are doing and where they don’t. A bad guy at the top destroys entire departments, I’ve lived through it. Having top people is important. The one time I saw an entity get cheap on a department head (civil service) it was disastorous.

Corey Robin,

My time at generic megacorp has been great. After about a year of automating my duties I was able to cut back to a 35 hour workweek. Two of those 7 hours got spent in the gym and at lunch. 3 of the remaining hours were spent socializing and reading stuff on the internet. A couple of hours I did actual work, usually with the support of helpful co-workers and managers while I was largely independent. I make more then 80-90% of people my age. When I was sick I was given full disability pay and my boss did all of my work for me.

By contrast being a civil servant, with all its “union protections”, was the most humiliating and depressing experience of my life.

Maggie,

I worked with a lot of proles when I was a cashier in High School. I grew up in a prole neighboorhood and my father was working class. I’m very familair with them.

“And they are confined to such work not because of any inherent inferiority on their part”

Sadly, this isn’t true. HBD and bell curves and all that. Proles have lower IQ, and many of the other negatives associated with low IQ (like low willpower, high time preference, etc). Proles really are unfit for most creative work. They can’t do much on their own, especially if we restrict to the sub 90 IQ bracket. For the most part all they can do is follow orders and repeat tasks they have already done hundreds of times before. That’s just how it is. In a world where a simply computer program can replicate that function, proles have no economic value. They can do nothing of any value for anyone. They can only be a drain on the lives of others.

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Nigel 07.03.12 at 3:37 pm

From 78 (but also noted elsewhere.)

Seriously, what the hell is up with responding to the issue of sexual harassment by turning to prostitution and the imaginary contract between a prostitute and a john or her pimp or whatever and using that as the basis for deciding on whether sexual harassment is wrong? Prostitution is mostly illegal, so it’s a notional example AT BEST and at worst elides the vast and horrible evil of sexual abuse and rape involved in prostitution AS IT OPERATES NOW TODAY ALL OVER THE WORLD, SHITHEADS. How this is supposed to be instructional in the case of sexual harassment in legal, contracted, everyday work environments I cannot fucking imagine. Leave your throbbing, creepy fantasy world where you can legally bind someone to a contract to have sex with you in your ‘secret’ file folder, please. ‘Sexual harassment is wrong because you’re not a prostitute.’ Fuck off.

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Nigel 07.03.12 at 3:38 pm

Sorry, I tried to quote this bit and failed:

Can a registered prostitute be fired for refusing to have sex? Of course. If you’re not a registered prostitute, then your employer is asking you to do something you didn’t contract for, like a secretary being asked to place high-explosive demolition charges, which violates all sorts of laws as well as leaving the employer open to all sorts of legal liability—besides being a pretty stupid fucking way to run a business.

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Roger 07.03.12 at 3:39 pm

I think we can all agree that employers can abuse employment power disparities to exploit workers.

I think libertarians would also offer up that regulations can have unintended consequences and that some of these may be opaque. It is entirely possible for us to solve every problem in the OP and make the world worse due to less employment mobility and dynamism or due to lower growth rates or prosperity.

What we have is a dilemma. Libertarians would tend to suggest we address the labor abuses via competition, transparency and voluntary means. For example, nothing is to prevent us from forming competing organizations such as the UL which lays out standards of employment fairness and which publicizes any firms which repeatedly violate them. The offenders can be listed on a web site for consumers, prospective employers and business partners to observe.

And yes, the absolutely worst abuses can be regulated against or rngorced in the courts, though the above voluntary transparency system would minimize the needs.

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Dollared 07.03.12 at 3:46 pm

Thanks Nigel. Could there be a better example of how libertarians 1) assume all unpleasantness will always happen to someone else (utter failure of empathy) and 2) assume goodwill on the part of all people of power (not in government)?

Not one person on this thread has answered the no-remedy-for-sexual-harassment question.

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Data Tutashkhia 07.03.12 at 4:12 pm

@163, I agree that creative work is different, but that is not what’s being discussed here; not creative work, a different subject.

As for “They can do nothing of any value for anyone”, that obviously is not true: there are, I’m guessing, close to half-billion factory workers just in China, and they certainly do something of value. Probably at least a billion worldwide, probably more than any time in history. I get it, you don’t care, but then there is no reason for you to comment here, is there?

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Maggie 07.03.12 at 4:14 pm

“…HBD and bell curves and all that…”

As I said: ugly. And even if true, would have no bearing on the questions of desert and human dignity. Even if someone’s disadvantages are irremediably, genetically intrinsic to them, there’s no way to jump from that to your right to enslave them without begging a lot of very serious questions.

Please also note that your argument is formally identical to those made about black capabilities and chattel slavery in antebellum America; indeed, if Murray and Herrnstein were right, and if you are right in your argument here, those arguments are and have always been sound. So here’s to shackles and Simon Legree.

In any case, emphatically describing the phenomena and your experience of them does nothing to answer the question of cause and effect. Yes, actually existing adult proles may be in fact irremediable as of now (though the number of prole women who have successfully bootstrapped into nursing, clerical work, etc. to compensate for the loss of their men’s industrial jobs suggests otherwise). But you can only test the thesis that they (or more precisely, their children) cannot be helped by actually helping them, which has not been seriously attempted, certainly not on a mass scale. The moral stakes here are really high, higher than you seem capable (though I won’t say *intrinsically* capable) of understanding. Refuse to experimentally fund the improvement of the underclass, and if you’re wrong you’ve made yourself complicit in a terrible crime of world-historical proportions; if you’re right, the costs of the experiment are no skin off your teeth, because you’ll remain as superior to them, and they as incapable of competing with you, as ever.

Unless, of course, you’re really depending on artificial maintenance of the historically contingent status quo to sustain your “intrinsic” advantages.

Anecdotally, my partner’s family went from literal cave-dwelling (Indians in Mexico) to top-flight IT work in three generations.

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asdf 07.03.12 at 4:15 pm

Data,

Chinese factory labor is price competitive, not productivity competitive (yes, I’m not using the best term). That is to say that at first world wage rates the companies incentive is to prefer capital over labor. If third world wage rates didn’t exist the result wouldn’t necessarily be first world jobs, but no jobs at all and a bunch of machines.

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geo 07.03.12 at 4:31 pm

asdf@163: proles have no economic value. They can do nothing of any value for anyone. They can only be a drain on the lives of others.

This may be one of the most bizarre and horrifying statements I’ve ever read on CT (or anywhere else).

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matt 07.03.12 at 4:41 pm

Employment is an agreement between two parties. Both parties should have the freedom to terminate that agreement.

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Neville Morley 07.03.12 at 4:52 pm

Has to be a troll; a true representative of our lizard overlords would be much more subtle and evasive.

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MPAVictoria 07.03.12 at 4:54 pm

asdf thank you for posting the most horrifying comment I have seen in months. Who the hell are you to call other people “proles”? What the hell is wrong with you?

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Data Tutashkhia 07.03.12 at 5:06 pm

If third world wage rates didn’t exist the result wouldn’t necessarily be first world jobs, but no jobs at all and a bunch of machines.

I think it’s probably a bit more complicated than that. I agree that uber mass production of uber cheap junk certainly could (and should) be much more automated than it is in China, but capitalism generally doesn’t like high capital/low margin business, so something would have to change for this to happen. And then someone would still have to build all those machines. And then more customized (and thus much more labor intensive) products could come in high demand.

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asdf 07.03.12 at 5:41 pm

Maggie,

Life is ugly. None of the work these people can do has economic value. They could exist on some type of UBI, doing nothing much all day, their daily bread being provided by their betters. The degree of the UBI being a result of fear of the masses versus how much of their own productivity the productive class pains to give up. Hence, the welfare state.

Proles have been given welfare, free public schooling, progressive taxation, medicaid and medicare, etc. In many cases these great society endeavors have only made their behaivor worse. Sorry hon, the low IQ are just intrinsically useless.

I would also caution against outliers. There will always be a diamond in the rough, but the rough is the rough. The fact that some proles succeed doesn’t make most useless. I came from a prole family and I succeeded, but most of my peers did not. My success doesn’t elevate them, and it doesn’t change the aggregate outcome of the group. In making public policy it is the aggregate that matters, individual outliers are unimportant.

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Jerry Vinokurov 07.03.12 at 5:44 pm

They can do nothing of any value for anyone. They can only be a drain on the lives of others.

Indeed, why should the proles imagine themselves entitled to any decency or legal protections from abuse? They are merely interchangeable parts at best, or freebooters at worst, not real human beings like asdf.

How this is supposed to be instructional in the case of sexual harassment in legal, contracted, everyday work environments I cannot fucking imagine.

Nigel, this is just another example of the libertarian “obfuscation via theorizing” mode of argument. Of course explicitly defending sexual harassment is horrible and most people won’t want to do so (if only because that gets you marked a sociopath) but at the same time they just really don’t care whether people get sexually harassed. So they invent complicated theories relying on unsubstantiated first principles and untenable slippery slopes (“but if we allow the government to ban sexual harassment in the workplace we’ll all be forced to eat broccoli!”), all intended to obfuscate the fact that actual people are actually suffering and that rectifying this suffering entails a relatively small sacrifice on the part of the powerful for a huge win in dignity and actual freedom (as opposed to the imagined libertarian version) for the employees.

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Jim Henley 07.03.12 at 5:45 pm

I don’t know of libertarians who think the transaction-cost part of Coase’s theory of the firm is wrong. It tells us a couple of things:

* some prices are very hard to discover
* some contracts are very hard to write to the required specificity

So it’s – strange! for Tyler Cowen to suggest this morning on his blog that we can and should start by figuring out the cash value to employees of different dimensions of workplace dignity – as if that must be straightforward, efficient and appropriate: that it couldn’t be one of those hard-to-discover prices. And it’s very strange for libertarians in this and prior threads to assert that a contract-based approach must surely suffice to handle this issue, or must have already handled it, since firms exist at all because contracts do not suffice to handle all issues.

You can, of course, extend both those principles beyond the issue of workplace dignity to the entire rest of social relations. Not everything can be priced, in practice. Not every obligation can be specified by contract.

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dollared 07.03.12 at 5:48 pm

ASDF, I would love to be your manager. Find out that you’re skipping out and going to the gym. I would be happy to find a hardworking new college grad with updated skills who will work 60 hours/week for me at 60% of your current pay. Best case, bring in an India Institute of Technology grad on an H-1. She (she’ll be cute, too – a side benefit) will not be able to work for any other company for three years, and so I’ll have total leverage to maximize her output.

Then you can rejoin your peers. If they’ll have you.

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Chris Bertram 07.03.12 at 5:49 pm

asdf:

I quote from our comments policy:

bq. We welcome comments from readers on posts, but you do so as guests in our private space. Concepts of ‘censorship’ are not applicable. If your comments are blatantly racist, sexist or homophobic we will delete them and ban you from the site. The same goes for comments which are personally defamatory or insulting or which seek to derail a thread through provocation of one kind or another. If your comments strike us as stupid or irrelevant we may also delete them in the interests of keeping the conversation at a reasonable level. Commenters who who routinely seek to make marginally relevant debating points may be barred to make room for those with a substantive contribution to the discussion. It is up to us.

Now fuck off, and don’t come back.

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Bernard Yomtov 07.03.12 at 5:53 pm

#178

Not every obligation can be specified by contract.

Indeed. I wonder what all this talk of contracts is about. Lots of workers, including I suppose most academics, do have contracts, but most, especially non-union workers, do not. The notion that every scretary and bookkeeper has a contract, or would even be hired if they asked for one, is ridiculous. And of course the idea that the contract they don’t have is open to negotiation around many of these issues is even more laughable.

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Maggie 07.03.12 at 5:55 pm

So, if they’re useless, what’s the use of enslaving them? Which is what you were originally defending – “They have to be constantly supervised and ordered around to get any kind of useful work out of them.” Can’t have it both ways. Even if what you mean is that they’re only very marginally useful, by your own implications rendering them productive is a counterproductively intensive investment, and they are better off left alone.

How many counterexamples does it take before an outlier is no longer an outlier? Have you ever actually studied statistics? And don’t the numbers of people who move in and out of the underclass tell against a genetically essentialist account of why there’s an underclass in the first place?

Oh, and I’m not your “hon.” (Nor is anyone, I feel rather confident in supposing.)

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Jim Henley 07.03.12 at 6:01 pm

@Bernard Yomtov: Hell, in every US job I’ve ever started, the employee handbook and associated apparatus always states “this document does not constitute a contract of employment.”

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Jerry Vinokurov 07.03.12 at 7:10 pm

What do to with the proles is a difficult question. Dealing with the reality of it straight is the only hope for answers that work in the real world.

If only there were some solution to this problem, preferable of a final nature…

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Jerry Vinokurov 07.03.12 at 7:16 pm

Apologies for feeding the troll. My comment looks dumb now.

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Cranky Observer 07.03.12 at 7:16 pm

Well, it IS difficult to keep libertarians from posting on a thread about libertarianism. And while asdf might be a troll I have certainly heard his thoughts and worse expressed in full sincerity by bog-standard libertarians and Republicans.

Of course, the “left-liberal libertarians” work very hard to weed these guys out…

Cranky

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Isaiah 07.03.12 at 7:17 pm

@Consumatopia 162

I am afraid I don’t follow, but I would defer to Bertram to clarify on this point. The problem here is coercion, i.e. the denial of freedom and dignity to employees, via their coercive employers. I agree that abuses are abuses, and I find them morally abhorrent. Yet when one moves away from individual determinations and into societal questions, the decision to prohibit either rape or sexual harassment in our code of laws should not be about signaling our virtue, but about actually stopping rape and sexual harassment. So the empirical burden rests on both liberals and libertarians. How can you make a moral claim to outlawing sexual harassment without confirming that the law would actually stop sexual harassment?

@Maggie and others regarding ASDF

I come from a rural prole community. I love many people in my community and believe that they have dignity and value as human beings, while acknowledging they aren’t as economically productive. ASDF no doubt rubs us the wrong way with his flippant treatment of “proles” but if you’ve spent significant time with, lived, and worked around “proles”, you will find relatively little to be controversial.

A final note that came to mind:

Life is by its nature coercive. The human body will starve without subsistence. So the cruelty of life is that Fate gives you the equivalent of “fuck me or you’re fired” with its insistence that you “Make a living or perish.” This doesn’t change whether we’re in the 21st century or in an ancient forager society. We cannot pretend that we can produce a society that won’t coerce SOMEBODY in some form or another. Coercion is ugly. So we must ask what forms of social organization will produce the minimum coercion necessary to produce harmony, respect dignity, and provide for human flourishing. Even for the proles that I know, that is broadly-writ freedom and classically liberal government.

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Jonathan 07.03.12 at 7:19 pm

In your answer to A. Skoble above, you (Chris Bertram) argue that:
“Whether or not pretty much no-one thinks that’s ok, it is false to say that there is a legal remedy for it, therefore it is false to say (as you did) that state coercion is the only kind of coercion for which there’s no legal remedy. Contradicting yourself so directly in your first three sentences is not impressive.”
But legal remedies are exactly a state structure. if there’s no legal remedy for a situation that the OP finds unconscionable, there are only two possibilties: (a) the legal system has come to a “correct” judgment (where “orrect” is a personal conclusion according to one’s own moral precepts) and we’re lacking the details to understand exactly why we were led astray by looking at only the result; (b) the legal system has come to an immoral conclusion (where again, it’s some outside view of morality which is making this judgment). But if it’s (b), why are we blaming the tortfeasor rather than a government monopoly over force which is enforcing an “immoral” outcome?
So far as I know, all libertarians of the non-anarchic variety give gov’t a monopoly over the rights to settle disputes according to a common law. If you have a problem with the common law methodology for adjudicating the haziness in employment contracts, that’s not a problem with the contracts — it’s a problem with — surprise — government.

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Henry 07.03.12 at 7:36 pm

Shorter Alex Tabarrok – you workers ought to be _really fucking grateful_ that you aren’t serfs any more, and that you aren’t kept behind barbed wire at gunpoint. Shorter Tyler Cowen … oh fuck it … why bother …

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Jim Henley 07.03.12 at 7:45 pm

I thought Tabarrok was really talking about Malcolm Gladwell’s point in Outliers that IQ has step-functions, but that past a certain threshold, incremental extra points of it don’t really help you.

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Sam 07.03.12 at 8:09 pm

As more people have entered into this debate, I get the sense that people are talking past each other. Where exactly is the disagreement? At first glance, it seems that the BHLs agree with the major claims in this post. Most of them seem to accept the following two claims:

(1) Some employers are abusive and some employees lack acceptable exit options.
(2) Some workplace regulations to prevent abuse are justified.

I suspect that one source of disagreement is about the content of (2)–BHLs and the authors here disagree about how many and what kind of regulations are justified. But this is a much narrower disagreement than Bertram and company imply. Some of BHLs also claim:

(3) We should implement a UBI in order to enhance the voluntariness of employment.

Bertram et. al suggest that (3) might be infeasible. Okay. So what? The authors endorse policies like workplace democracy and the revitalization of unions that are also infeasible. On this note, they suggest:

(4) Unions and workplace democracy would promote the freedom of workers.

It seems that the actual disagreement is about (4). But there is very little in this post about this disagreement or evidence in favor of (4). Most of the post and discussion is in defense of (1), which again most BHLs already accept. I think Jason Brennan basically got it right.

One small note: it would be nice if Bertram, Robin, and Gourevitch say what they mean by “freedom” at some point.

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Consumatopia 07.03.12 at 8:23 pm

@Isiah

How can you make a moral claim to outlawing sexual harassment without confirming that the law would actually stop sexual harassment?

You do follow, that’s why you just changed your position. You earlier said “The left-liberal case for prohibiting these behaviors depends on improving the aggregate freedom of the class in question”. There is a huge difference between insisting the state ignore sexual harassment because it would decrease some generic “aggregate freedom” (for example, because at will employment would supposedly increase GDP or decrease unemployment), and insisting that a policy intended to prevent sexual harassment actually reduce sexual harassment. The former would ask victims to go without justice for the sake of some nebulous economic improvement that could likely be achieved by other means.

If banning sexual harassment were to somehow, in some mysterious double bank shot way, increase sexual harassment (and we could rule out that this was due to increased reporting of incidents), the liberal does not say “oh, well, I guess sexual harassment is just the nature of life”. No, you would try to figure out why that is happening, and see what other policies you could change to fix it. Just as any decent person would if they discovered that banning murder or rape was mysteriously increasing murder or rape.

In short, while injustice is on going, I demand the same thing from both liberals and libertarians–change policies until the injustice is stopped. It’s not my fault that liberals have a great many potential policies to employ, while libertarians have only one policy–protection of property and enforcement of contracts. For a libertarian to change policy is to abandon libertarianism.

So the cruelty of life is that Fate gives you the equivalent of “fuck me or you’re fired” with its insistence that you “Make a living or perish.”

Even the BHL position (UBI) would succeed in eliminating the second insistence, so you’re just wrong.

Also, re:asdf, it doesn’t surprise me that you two would think alike.

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dollared 07.03.12 at 8:47 pm

@Consumatopia,

This thread lives on because 1) the subject is actually important to hundreds of millions of people, 2) modern employment (especially in the USA) is the perfect counterpoint to right liberalism’s belief that all private coercion is blessed and all state coercion is bad, and 3) it is constructed in such a way that any random, self-satisfied, 28 year old IT guy who pretends he understands libertarianism can troll it.

I agree with the notion of declaring victory and moving on to actual policy discussion. After all, being so bold might force Tyler Cowen to try harder to refute the initial post, or (heaven forbid) actually talk to a working person about what life is like the real world.

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Consumatopia 07.03.12 at 8:53 pm

@Jonathan

But legal remedies are exactly a state structure.

So what? State structures can provide remedies for state coercion.

But if it’s (b), why are we blaming the tortfeasor rather than a government monopoly over force which is enforcing an “immoral” outcome?

No, we wouldn’t blame “a government monopoly of force” in the abstract, we would blame the particular government that choose not to provide a remedy. If it’s a libertarian government, libertarianism is to blame. (As well as the original wrong doer–it is possible to blame both the murderer and the cop who fails to arrest the murderer).

So far as I know, all libertarians of the non-anarchic variety give gov’t a monopoly over the rights to settle disputes according to a common law.

Exactly. The libertarian claim that their system involves less government coercion is a lie–private coercion is backed by state force, private disputes are to be settled by a government monopoly. (And under anarchic libertarianism the distinction between state and private coercion is completely lost).

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Isaiah 07.03.12 at 9:53 pm

@192 Consumatopia

I apologize for framing my argument incorrectly regarding “aggregate freedom”, I meant it in the exact same way you mentioned. But in this case, the amalgamation of “sexual harassment” and “pee tyranny” and “political speech suppression” and other coercion ends up being what I would call “aggregate workplace freedom” and it’s important to note that a precursor to having any workplace freedom is to have the dignity of a job. So a policy’s disemployment is partly related to this argument. But fundamentally, we both want the same thing: more dignity and freedom for workers. If our policies don’t deliver that, the policies shouldn’t be what we want in a consequentialist sense.

To focus on the main point, I would like to address Dollared’s request that someone give a libertarian response to the problem of sexual harassment. To be honest, I feel like this is asking someone to give a libertarian response to the problem of adultery. It is ugly, immoral, hurtful, and frequently couched in power inequality. How would I seek to stop it? First of all, be damn sure I don’t do it and don’t tolerate it in my social circle or business. Educate my kids and publicly militate against it, perhaps. Publicly shame sexual harassers and companies that sexually harass and refuse to do business with them. Don’t associate with harassers. Don’t personally accept pay bonuses in order to tolerate it. And make sure that contracts are enforced and that when employers breaks a contract (treating their secretary like a prostitute) that the courts nail them. Is this an insufficient or disingenuous response?

Regarding the UBI position avoiding “make a living or perish” you’re absolutely right. My point is that just as libertarians have a blind spot for private power and coercion, leftists perhaps are blinded to just how much coercion we have escape(d) through individual freedom of contract and property.

@Sam 191

I would also enjoy more discussion of #4.

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Jonathan 07.03.12 at 9:58 pm

@Consumatopia: I don’t think we disagree at all. But I’m disagreeing with the notion that libertarians fail to recognize that there can be coercion in the workplace. of course there can be. I’m agreeing with A. Skoble’s point that there are remedies for this — namely common law. C.Bertram’s response that common law is unavailing (in some instances) is true, of course, but not a statement about unequal power relationships or liberarian disregard for coercion — it’s a statement about social constructs that tolerate coercion. I fail to see what if anything that has to do with libertarianism, which is just as disapproving of coercive relationships (if not more so) as the essay is here.

And to be honest a sop who refuses to arrest a murderer is, IMO, considerably worse than a murderer. I’m not paying the murderer to do what he does, but we’re paying the cop. That makes it worse.

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dollared 07.03.12 at 10:59 pm

@Jonathan, I wonder if you could describe for us the common law remedy for sexual harassment, or for termination for signing a political petition with which the manager disagrees, or for that matter for termination for failure to show up for unscheduled work on a Sunday morning on one hour’s notice. Please cite your theory of the case and why such a claim would be found to be valid by the court. Please also tell us which legal jurisdiction would recognize such claim. Case citation would be helpful as well, but you can dispense with it until you get through the first two parts of this request.

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MPAVictoria 07.03.12 at 11:03 pm

” ASDF no doubt rubs us the wrong way with his flippant treatment of “proles” but if you’ve spent significant time with, lived, and worked around “proles”, you will find relatively little to be controversial.”

Another asshole.

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Jonathan 07.03.12 at 11:21 pm

@Dollared: Sexual harassment is easy — See http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/sexual_harassment.cfm with statstics on cases filed here: http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/statistics/enforcement/sexual_harassment.cfm There we don’t even need common law; thus it is unsurprising that there are no statistics on common law suits.

As to the other cases, you misunderstand me. I personally see no reason why those cases represent coercion; but common law courts could certainly hear cases that the employment relationship treated the political petition or failure to show as violations of the patticular employment contract — say if the employer had explicitly allowed such things in the past or had communicated to employees that such things were allowed. In the absence of such evidence, the employer and the employee have simply come to a parting of the ways, as employers and employees do every day. This is the consequence of a contract which allows either party to terminate at will.

Some employer actions are obviously coercive and would easily be triable in common courts — suppose for example that employers demanded, say, the deeds to their employee’s houses. But your above examples are only coercive or not based on the specific facts of the case — that’s what common law is. I don’t find the simple statement of the result coercive if they were well understood by the parties. If you find these things coercive, then my point is that your complaint is not with the employer, it’s with government and the common law, for failing to recognize what to you is manifestly coercive.

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Consumatopia 07.03.12 at 11:37 pm

@195, Isiah, none of these aggregates or amalgamations are appropriate–I’m not going to assign coefficients to variables representing sexual harassment and political speech repression and decide how many instances of one I’m willing to tolerate in order to stop a given number of instances of the other. You can’t demand that a person sacrifice their sexual dignity for the sake of their class or any other aggregate.

Some laws, such as the law banning murder, are morally required regardless of consequences. Keep in mind that we cannot determine the consequences of a law in isolation–it might have bad effects when combined with one legal regime, but good effects when combined with another.

To focus on the main point, I would like to address Dollared’s request that someone give a libertarian response to the problem of sexual harassment. To be honest, I feel like this is asking someone to give a libertarian response to the problem of adultery.

No. Just no. Also, MPAVictoria is right.

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Consumatopia 07.03.12 at 11:47 pm

If you find these things coercive, then my point is that your complaint is not with the employer, it’s with government and the common law, for failing to recognize what to you is manifestly coercive.

No, the complaint is not “with government”, as an abstract concept. It is with a particular government that fails to do what is morally required. And also the people who have the aim of preventing the government from fulfilling it’s duty–specifically, libertarians. And also, with the employer, for performing the wrongful act in the first place. I don’t know why you insist on repeating the same idiocy.

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The Ultimate Philosopher 07.03.12 at 11:50 pm

Walmart Greeter (with 20+ years of service) gets fired after unruly customer pushes her and she instinctively tries to steady herself by touching the customers sweater, after which the customer storms out and management suspends and then terminates her employment

Walmart told her that touching a customer under any circumstances was against company policy. She was later declared ineligible for unemployment benefits because Walmart had fired her for “misconduct.” She’s now gone through her savings, is thousands of dollars in credit card debt, and has to sell her home.

Really nice, huh?

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js. 07.03.12 at 11:59 pm

If you find these things coercive, then my point is that your complaint is not with the employer, it’s with government and the common law

Coming late to the party, but yes, this, in a way, is the point. Which is why the solution is to change the legal/regulatory regimes so that employers can’t engage in the relevant forms of coercion, and can be held to account when they do.

Mostly, wanted to say: Great post, thanks. And also a big cheer for Nigel @164. That was awesome.

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Jonathan 07.04.12 at 12:04 am

@JS: “Which is why the solution is to change the legal/regulatory regimes so that employers can’t engage in the relevant forms of coercion, and can be held to account when they do.”

As long as you grant that your line on coercion might not agree with others. Suppose an employer bans his employees from wearing any red clothing. Silly? Sure. Coercive? I don’t see how.

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Jim Henley 07.04.12 at 12:15 am

As long as you grant that your line on coercion might not agree with others.

Ooh, that’s easy! Because, as Atrios never tires of saying, people disagree about stuff.

So I hereby grant that my line on coercion might not agree with others. Also my lines on the tuck rule (no biggie), Steve Earle (Washington Square Serenade sucked) and whether Peter Parker should have remained married (yes).

Suppose an employer bans his employees from wearing any red clothing. Silly? Sure. Coercive? I don’t see how.

Because people disagree about stuff!

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aka_Scoop 07.04.12 at 1:30 am

This is, um, weak.

You’ve basically lamented, at several thousand words, that when you sell your time and effort for money, the people who buy it will tell you what to do.

Even worse, people (your bosses) will choose to either to continue or end their relationships with you based upon how you act and that, in some documented cases, their choices will be arbitrary, unfair and sometimes nuts.

Seriously?

You haven’t even begun to demonstrate that any of the practices that would offend typical people are common. You haven’t even begun to demonstrate that workers treated unfairly at one job actually suffer rather than simply finding work at saner places. And, most importantly, you certainly haven’t even begun to demonstrate that there is any systematic set of rules for interaction between two parties that outperforms association at will.

Do you really think the logical inference from “we can find many seemingly non-optimal outcomes when we parse the results of billions of voluntary associations” is “so there should be laws, and threats of jail, to restrain certain categories of people (but not others, who are more legally favored) from avoiding relationships they want no part of or ending relationships they wish to end”?

If you honestly think “yes”, then you must think that this should extend way beyond the workplace. If you are going to forbid employers from firing employees for things seem to infringe on freedoms in ways that are not necessary to the job, then surely this should extend across life.

No employee should be able to quit a bank that decides to finance a landmine company. That’s not relevant to the work (assuming that employee doesn’t have to deal with the landmine company).

It’s no more unfair for a boss to fire me for a blogging an offensive position with no bearing on my work than it is for a friend to disavow me for blogging an offensive position that has no bearing on the conduct of our friendship.

It would be no more unfair (unless you subscribe to that silly religion stuff that many bosses use as an excuse for firing “immoral” employees) for my wife to divorce me for having an affair, provided that affair did not reduce the quality or quantity of time I spent with her (or send me home with an STD).

If you don’t think a boss should be able to fire workers for what they say out of work, then clearly you don’t think it should be legal for consumers to avoid Mel Gibson films just because of what he says and does off screen. It doesn’t affect the quality of his work and if consumers are allowed to let his comments/actions keep them away from his movies, then his freedom of speech is being taken from him.

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MPAVictoria 07.04.12 at 1:35 am

“Washington Square Serenade sucked”

Easy now! Lets not say anything we will regret in the morning.

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Jerry Vinokurov 07.04.12 at 2:27 am

People who disagree that sexual harassment and restrictions on bathroom usage represent coercion are lacking the basic empathy required to participate in this conversation in the first place. Which is why they do things like try and derail this into a conversation about red clothes or some such thing.

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js. 07.04.12 at 2:30 am

Which is why they do things like try and derail this into a conversation about red clothes or some such thing.

Though surely not an accident that red clothes are being banned! I call coercion.

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Isaiah 07.04.12 at 2:47 am

@Consumatopia 200

If you refuse to consider other remedies to sexual harassment, you’re refusing to even think about tradeoffs which are *inherent* to any action/inaction. I consider this to be unprincipled and shortsighted. Shall we commit infinite resources to stopping each and every instance of sexual harassment in order to avoid “demanding the sacrifice of sexual dignity”? By your logic, any marginal step away from your moral high ground is inconceivable. Had we outlawed dangerous, dirty, degrading, and exhausting work in 1900, my great-grandfather would have never made his start in the United States. I believe that a continually more educated, virtuous, and free society will make progress on these problems.

I disagree that any given law is morally required. Murder is always wrong, but that does not necessarily mean that it should be legislated against in the same way in every time and place. Like you said, you cannot evaluate it in isolation. You must consider how it interacts with surrounding laws. If murder law had some tragic interaction with bankruptcy law that somehow produced 100x the murders in the United States, I would repeal it in a heartbeat, and murder would still be wrong. Law is a tool, not a moral code. Frequently, law is a tool used by the powerful and well-connected to oppress the weak. And in the example of sexual harassment, we must examine how such workplace regulations might interact with existing regulations, cultural norms, etc. It is *conceivable* that the product of such examination would lead you to say, “This is complex as hell, we’re better off letting people make contracts and figuring this out for themselves.”

@MPAVictoria & others

This is my first visit to CT, and I have to admit that I’m not fond of the name-calling, or even Chris Bertram’s own profanity as he removes commenters. It seems unprofessional to me, but I want to address my comments earlier about “proles”. Let me provide an example of a good friend or two of mine who might be described as “proles” and severely harmed by one or more proposed leftist work regulations. I am originally from a lower-middle-class-blue-collar family in a white-rural-working class area of the United States.

One of my friends growing up was a guy named Dawson. He lived a few miles from me, we grew up going to school together, playing sports together, etc. We were close, but very different. I was bright and very academically oriented. From a very young age he loathed schoolwork, mathematics, and struggled with reading. His family was poorer than mine, but not by much. His mother was very harsh and overbearing, his father emotionally distant and frequently unemployed. Dawson continued coasting through middle school and high school with low effort and not much to show for his experience. He’d spend his after school hours either participating in school sports, or just cruising around with buddies and hanging out; he didn’t hold a job in high school. I worked during all times when I didn’t have sports. He started drinking Mountain Dew in middle school and he would drop more than 60 oz of it a day, to this day I still remember marveling at how much soda he drank and how he would berate his mother if she didn’t buy it for him. Out of high school, he didn’t have the grades for college but was semi-serious about going to technical college, he didn’t have much motivation or direction. He went to work for a local employer, and in this rural area there aren’t too many employers and it’s a small community so people talk. Around this time we began to grow apart as I was going to college and had a lot of desire to get away from home. He had begun to drink heavily on weekends and occasional weekdays, and I suspected he was in a crowd that was into drugs.

One day he fell asleep on the job, and nearly caused a serious accident that would have not only cost the employer financially, but also endangered another’s life. His mother begged the employer to give Dawson another chance and not fire him. He was at a very low point in his life. The employer relented, but cut his wage (to help pay back for his mistake), mandated drug testing, and demanded that Dawson report to him his location and tasks on a constant basis. Dawson could not afford to leave on bad terms with this employer if he wanted to stay and work in his home area, as no one would touch him as an employee given his reputation. Dawson worked like a dog and seemed to straighten his life out, eventually leaving a year later on better terms with the employer. He got involved with a high school girl, left town, she had a baby two years ago and they’re raising the child out of wedlock. He’s working at a Walmart in a bigger city 300 miles from home. His parents came by my house this summer and shared that he was struggling with alcohol and drugs. I care about him a lot and it saddens me deeply to see where his life has gone since we were kids. He will quite likely be a “prole” for the rest of his life.

Any employer that would would want to give Dawson a chance would be doing a very good thing for him. Any regulation that makes Dawson a more risky investment – because he can’t be fired, or because he has surprise lawsuits up his sleeve, or because his performance can’t be monitored, or because his work’s productivity is capped – will make Dawson less employable. And he desperately needs to get his life together and move out of Wal-Mart to a better job. So I am very sensitive to Dawson and many people like him that are close to my heart, because the proposed policies of “workplace democracy” could very well oppress him.

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GiT 07.04.12 at 3:00 am

@ Jonathan (199)

How is pointing to statute law supposed to defuse dollared’s point that common law isn’t a very good system for solving problems of sexual harassment? That we needed a statute to solve the problem suggests that the wonderful, spontaneously emergent order of the common law wasn’t so wonderful, insofar as what is wonderful is making sexual harassment justiciable.

The fact of the matter might be that sometimes ‘democratic government’ is much better at generating some legal principles than ‘common law,’ and vice versa.

(And, indeed, if common law suffers from path dependency because of the role of stare decisis, it might become increasingly unlikely and unable to solve certain problems over time. )

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Jerry Vinokurov 07.04.12 at 3:01 am

Shall we commit infinite resources to stopping each and every instance of sexual harassment in order to avoid “demanding the sacrifice of sexual dignity”? By your logic, any marginal step away from your moral high ground is inconceivable.

No, that’s idiotic and also not how these things work. What you do, if you’re a reasonable, thinking human being, is you define sexual harassment in law, declare it illegal, and specify appropriate redress. If a sexual harassment incident occurs, hopefully the victim will bring the case to court. It’s not like we’re spending infinity dollars on hall monitors that patrol office hallways with cameras.

But even in cases where we are, literally, paying people to do inspections (e.g. OSHA) it’s laughable and absurd to suggest that we’re spending infinite resources on workplace safety. OSHA is stretched incredibly thin and is routinely undermined politically.

Had we outlawed dangerous, dirty, degrading, and exhausting work in 1900, my great-grandfather would have never made his start in the United States.

What the hell is this, the libertarian equivalent of “if your mother had aborted you?”

I believe that a continually more educated, virtuous, and free society will make progress on these problems.

That’s what we’re trying to do, but people like you keep getting in the way.

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MPAVictoria 07.04.12 at 3:34 am

Isaiah I am going to say this very clearly. You are an asshole. Anyone who would use the term proles to describe members of the working class is by definition an asshole. Also you really need to rethink how valuable these people are to your everyday life. Without them your roads wouldn’t be paved, your grocery stores wouldn’t be stocked and your kids wouldn’t be cared for. These are hard working people doing difficult and necessary work. I would argue they are far more valuable to the real economy then some ad man or an investment banker moving around imaginary money. The guy who changes my oil never lost 6 billion dollars on risky stock bets. He also never bought a company, stripped the pension fund and fired all the workers.

The working class deserves a fair shake and they deserve to be treated with dignity. That includes the right to go to the washroom when needed and the right to be free of sexual harassment in the work place. These are not burdensome requirements and, forgive me for saying so, but what kind of moral monster are you for pretending they are? You need to reconsider your position. Go to your washroom and take a long, hard look at yourself in the mirror.

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Isaiah 07.04.12 at 4:49 am

@Jerry 211

I have stated before in comments I believe, I am happy to consider the legal remedy to sexual harassment as you describe. However, I believe that before the state acts in such a matter, there must be an intuitive or empirical connection between the policy concerned and the outcome desired, and a principled consideration of harmful secondary consequences. Consumatopia may be fine with damaging some other group of people in some aggregate measure (income, unemployment, economic freedom, etc.) in order to declare sexual harassment illegal in the workplace; I want to explicitly consider the tradeoffs before I vote to use state power in this manner.

Regarding my grandfather, I am not trying to be romantic or pedantic. I am suggesting that many idealized notions of worker protections would be fundamentally incompatible with some of the greatest multi-generational improvements in human prosperity that the world has known.

@MPAVictoria 212

I apologize for the use of the term, I didn’t mean it to be offensive. I assumed it was merely a reference to 1984, and the oppressed state of the masses in Orwell’s novel. I will use a different term from now on.

I am thankful for all the great people who work hard every day and make this country great. Please do not misinterpret my personal experience in leaving a working class community as disdain. “Fishtown” has a different set of virtues and vices, generally, than “Belmont” does. Neither better or worse, just different.

I desire dignity and freedom for the working class. I hope to open a small business someday so that I can make a difference in this regard personally. Forgive me for our different political philosophies on this matter, but it is not the burden on the employer I am “morally outraged” about; it is the way these actions intended to curb employer abuses can end up hurting the workers we are trying to help. Even small and seemingly insignificant burdens.

That is my sincere intellectual and philosophical motivation in supporting economic freedom for both workers and employers. I believe both of our energies would be best directed, not to producing some piece of legislation (do you really think Republicans and Democrats today could produce a genuinely simple and helpful and non-burdensome workplace freedom bill?) but to continue to educate consumers about companies that pay living wages or don’t, respect the environment or don’t, etc. Markets can be democratic too.

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Both Sides Do It 07.04.12 at 6:32 am

“What the hell is this, the libertarian equivalent of “if your mother had aborted you?” “

This almost makes up for reading asdf’s comments. Almost.

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Salient 07.04.12 at 6:37 am

read through the 200+ comments, and (other than dollared + Maggie + MPAVictoria kicking ass) this was the takeaway comment for me:

Pete—why is your freedom more important than your employer’s?

O_O

[Just in case it gets lost or mangled in typesetting--The reaction is two O's with an underscore in between / a "...words fail me" moment.]

CB et alia are careful and don’t make this mistake explicitly so far as I can tell, but the OP does switch back and forth between descriptions of heinous employer-employee relations and heinous boss-underling relations.

Am I wrong to think this is dangerous or at least ill-advised? I’ll try to make a case for it. I’m not sure I see how to address both under a unified comprehensive package. A state can (and should) pass law authorizing itself to imprison a rogue boss who secretly videotapes their employee’s restroom breaks, but how do you extend that to punish a company that has cameras installed in restrooms at all 4110 store locations? Punishing the workers assigned to go around install the cameras is obviously misplacing culpability, but so is punishing the board member who cast the deciding vote on the surveillance proposal that included the bathroom cameras. And to be honest, it seems like even punishing the person who was tasked with improving productivity and thought up the bathroom camera thing is… missing the point, I guess. I can imagine them saying: “Hey, it was just a suggestion, amirite?” And that’s even assuming we can trace all that; punishing individual actors is especially unsatisfactory as a model for deterrence because obtaining the proof of individual culpabilities is a hell of a lot harder than obtaining proof of institutional culpability.

And we want law governing an institution to be proactive. Criminal law is “if you do major bad thing X and we can prove it, you face consequence Y.” That’s a lousy model for a business’s responsibility. Even in its best and strongest form, it’s only–Person: incarceration. Institution: seize assets. (Not loss of money to fine or forfeiture, but literally loss of agency and property to partial nationalization and decapitalization.)

But preventing pollution (or invasive surveillance) by assigning even huge penalties doesn’t work. Insofar as criminal law actually has preventative value, it’s through fear: oh shit it would totally fuck up my life if I even got arrested, I’d miss work… Institutions can’t fear or emote. An institution might implement heinous and illegal policy without there being any point in its decision process where any individual or group of individuals had the intent of flouting the law.

So what needs to happen is something like: the state can and does look at what B is doing as B is doing it, and can and does step in to curb practices that are causing problems. All policy information and job description information given to a worker is available to the state.

The goal of nationalization would be to take control of those decision processes and fix them, but if a company misbehaved and the state took control of it, would shareholders even care? Or, if we do penalize shareholders, is the threat of wiping them out a coherent and reasonable deterrent that will reliably deter business malpractices? I have no idea what slivers of stock I have in the retirement account from my time as a teacher; I can’t be deterred. And even savvy investors don’t have direct access to completely transparent business practices in order to make an informed investment/divestment decision.

…and these are exactly the types of problems that obtain when you’re trying to design laws restricting the practices of (state) institutions.

Whereas quite a lot of law designed to punish a specific manager/boss’s mistreatment of underlings doesn’t even have to be business-specific–all the examples in the OP would be just as awful if they were enforced by a pastor on a bible study group participants. (Pre-emptvely: anyone who thinks of a church as much easier to exit than a job doesn’t live in a community that’s mostly structured around its churches…)

Or here’s another angle. We should write business law not only by specifying best practices and verifying they’re followed, but also to restrict away from the kinds of decision-making structures that allow something like 4110 surveilled bathrooms. We should basically tell employers not just “you can’t treat employers like this” but also “you can only hire people under these circumstances: you must demonstrate in advance that your hiring practices will not cause you to run afoul of these requirements over the long-tem, as a precondition for the right to hire people.”

It’s a whitelist vs. blacklist problem. Blacklisting is only effective for crimes committed by individuals, and whitelisting is a form of restriction that’s only acceptable for practices practiced by businesses and other institutions. Employers should basically have to get permission from the state in advance, with the understanding that any unapproved process or practice can be challenged and dismantled by state interference. Both employees and agents of the state itself would have the right and be given the means to petition against any ‘unreasonable’ unapproved practice (with reasonableness probably left to a jury or something? or replicate elements of a civil court system? if nothing else that seems like a way to meet Flanigan’s there is usually an implicit or explicit understanding about the nature of a job halfway). Anyway, the mechanisms for challenging a nonapproved business practice would have to be rather different from the mechanisms for punishing a criminal individual act.

tl;dr an ‘employer’ is not a ‘boss’ and conflating or confusing the two is bad

217

The Raven 07.04.12 at 8:02 am

UnlearningEcon, #101: LOL. Really.

Corey Robin, #158: Intel is a process company, extraordinary at making complicated things very precisely. That’s what they’re good at, that’s what they’re for. When they try to do anything else, they fail. Maybe, maybe, that much fear is required to be Intel, to get it right and keep it right, day after day, week after week, year after year. It is perhaps not all that different in the Chinese firms that mass-manufacture portable computing devices, like Foxconn or Asus.

Is this a new version of the old question of what moral price is acceptable?

218

Data Tutashkhia 07.04.12 at 8:12 am

@216 We should write business law…

If WE should write business law, then why not cut the middle man and say, simply, that WE should treat OUR employees decently? After all, you do own all those companies, in your retirement account. This romantic notion, on the liberal side, of state/government appears to be the mirror image of the romantic notion of business, on the libertarian side.

It’s a losing strategy: much easier to create a sympathetic romantic image of a risk-taking, straight-talking, no-nonsense businessman (I believe even Jack London had one), than that of a politician. And there is a reason for that: the businessman is the boss, the politician is his ass kisser.

219

Foppe 07.04.12 at 8:31 am

@217: post hoc ergo propter hoc excuse abuse much? Few too many weasel words in that post of yours.

220

Salient 07.04.12 at 9:30 am

@Sam

As more people have entered into this debate, I get the sense that people are talking past each other. Where exactly is the disagreement?

I am going to try to answer this question without actually answering it.

At first glance, it seems that the BHLs agree with the major claims in this post. Most of them seem to accept the following two claims:

(1) Some employers are abusive and some employees lack acceptable exit options.

…OK, I think I see the problem. That’s phrased in a way that dilutes the point down to homeopathy levels. Try sustaining the intensity:

Employers are abusive. Employees lack acceptable exit options. These are distressing, and distressingly pervasive, phenomena.

If your first, instinctual reaction to this is “NO WAIT SOME EMPLOYERS ARE TOTALLY GOOD AND STUFF” then you’re just operating on a different wavelength and there’s not much I can hope to do to help align you to what CB et al. are talking about. In the hope that that’s not the case, I’ll go on:

(2)

–but WAAAAAAIT You totally forgot the part where they point out that a lot of what might fall under ‘abuse of employees’ can function as an indirect form of state oppression. That was the best part of the article IMO. State oppression enacted by proxy through businesses’ treatment of employees, whether intentionally oppressive or not, is something that should especially unsettle libertarians. Certainly at least for businesses which sell to the state or buy from the state. Surely state oppression is not ok even if it’s performed entirely by private contractors…– ok anyway let’s move on

(2) Some workplace regulations to prevent abuse are justified.

Continuing from where I left off above, I’ll rewrite this part as: Therefore, extensive state intervention on behalf of employees is empirically justified and morally imperative.

The ‘morally imperative’ part might not have been said explicitly I can’t remember, but I’m pretty sure CB et al. wouldn’t consider it unreasonable.

(3) We should implement a UBI in order to enhance the voluntariness of employment.

Although “enhance the voluntariness of employment” has the catchy acronym EVE, I’m going to more thoroughly rewrite this part as: Libertarians do not approve of extensive state intervention, as a matter of a priori principle. They propose that implementing a universal basic income, and granting employees right-to-exit, is a reasonable, suitable and effective alternative to extensive state intervention.

[I'm not bothering to type a "bleeding heart" prefix because I think it sounds dumb & I'm lazy, so include it wherever you want.]

Bertram et. al suggest that (3) might be infeasible.

I’d summarize differently: Anyone who proposes that is totally full of shit.

Okay, okay, I owe you and/or CB et al. more detail than that. They are totally full of shit for several reasons, including but not limited to [and possibly out of order]: A. When you leave a job you’re leaving behind more than a salary, connections and friends and a whole social network, for example. UBI can’t compensate for that kind of loss. B. When you leave a job you’re effectively also leaving behind all the specialized experience-knowledge you developed working that particular job (e.g., who to go to when the copier breaks down). You’ll have to learn all of the specialized experience-knowledge from scratch at whatever job you take next, as if you’re just starting out. C. People adjust their standard of living to their income. Adjusting living downward is sort of feasible if you’re single without dependents, but plenty of people have dependents who need and deserve a stable standard of living. [Like, if I decided to have two kids figuring I could afford 'em on your current salary, then my terms of employment change or expand significantly, I can't exactly take my life decision back if I feel I need to exit the job and go on lower-paying UBI...] D. When you take a job, it’s often completely unclear to you what will be expected of you, but quite clear to the employer or supervisor what will be expected of you. An employment contract with that steep an information disparity is an alarming default. In fact, you can gather a wealth of empiric data showing how alarming this actually is in real life, just by skimming through a summary of the the worker’s rights movement. E. Even setting aside the information disparity, in an employment contract between boss and employee, we see empirically that the employee is implicitly giving up many of their basic rights, and the employer is giving up none of their basic rights. This is a priori alarming as a default state of affairs, if you value human rights much much more than business-entity rights. [This relationship of nearly superlative inequality is frankly suspiciously close to what someone is agreeing to if they consign themselves to slavery or indentured servitude -- even ignoring all the problems above, are we seriously conceptualizing employment as slavery with threat-of-exit tacked on, expecting threat-of-exit alone to protect against all of the evils of servitude? Your employer's management staff fondle you and claim it's part of your job to get fondled, and all you can do about it is quit the job? One moment of sexual abuse can cause pain and suffering for a lifetime. Your employer asserts the unexpected risk of getting your hands mangled by unexpectedly dangerous equipment is part of the job, and all you can do is quit and take UBI or look for jobs not requiring hands? One moment of bodily endangerment can cause pain and suffering for a lifetime.] F. Something about how quitting your job in response to less severe forms of abuse or ill treatment would feel stupid, so if all you’ve got is threat of exit then you’re probably gonna “consent” to all kinds of little shit that you shouldn’t have to put up with. Exiting the contract is too crude a mechanism (literally binary) for protecting your rights.

I think there’s more than that in the OP, but I’m trying to write all of this off the top of my head without scrolling upthread to reread.

Okay. So what?

Hopefully, after reading my lengthy revision of your previous statement, you’re ok with me just crossing out this part, since you probably wouldn’t concede “They’re totally full of shit. Okay.” or say “They’re totally full of shit. So what?” So, onward…

The authors endorse policies like workplace democracy and the revitalization of unions

I’d fix this up like so: The authors endorse enforcing the inviolability of human rights in the workplace, by protecting workers from getting fired for exercising their human rights. They also endorse coercing businesses to allow all employees to meaningfully contribute to decision-making processes about job duties and work responsibilities.

I guess ‘workplace democracy’ sweeps up that second sentence. Admittedly I don’t remember them saying what you’re saying they said about unions.

…that are also infeasible.

Sorry, I’m not sure what to make of this. Maybe you and I use the word ‘infeasible’ differently. We can leave that part as-is if you want.

On this note, they suggest: (4) Unions and workplace democracy would promote the freedom of workers.

I remember it differently, like–They said [what I resummarized above], and then mumbled something vague about unions and democracy at the end. Or I might have skimmed or skipped over the union and democracy parts. (?)

Hopefully, if nothing else, the resummary clarifies a little better the content that Libertarians would presumably dispute. Did my best.

@Isaiah

Markets can be democratic too.

You should take this up with Tom, who attended to this before you even said it, in another thread. (If somebody ‘schools’ someone pre-emptively, or previous to when that someone showed up, is that pre-schooling someone? Can I say Tom pre-schooled you? That would be awesome. Let’s go with that.)

221

Salient 07.04.12 at 9:52 am

If WE should write business law, then why not cut the middle man

…and nationalize the businesses? Now we’re talking. But we should probably do this in phases. I think the nationalization of transportation infrastructure, utilities, gas, and some segments of banking have to come firs–

–and say, simply, that WE should treat OUR employees decently?

oh for fuck’s sake I thought you were behaving like a decent human being for once why on earth did I think that

After all, you do own all those companies, in your retirement account.

own a nearly unmeasurably tiny fraction of != own

own != control

actually, I don’t even have access to info about which companies the fund thing invests in, it’s some kind of managed fund sliced and diced into all sorts of crap

even if I did, there’s no mechanism through which I can exert any influence (or it’s too obscure to find just by carefully reading the ‘prospectus’ thing they send me annually)

There’s no way you can conceivably recover from having said this, Data. Anyone who had even a sliver of trust or faith in you at this point can safely abandon it. There’s just literally no way to read “After all, you do own all those companies, in your retirement account” charitably. There’s no possible way you could believe this sentence is true. There’s no possible way you could be genuine about this. It’s provocation.

By the way, how do you sneak your sockpuppeting past the filters each time you’ve used up one name’s credibility and have to switch? Proxy routing or something to spoof your IP? Maybe once you’ve established Name/E-mail once through a new IP, the system lets you through no matter if your IP keeps switching? (That seems the most plausible; I never get caught in auto-moderation for posting from Panera or wherever.)
You might be getting close to that time where you have to pretend to be a new person again, and CT’s made some updates to policies and such that might imply new vigilance about this, so you’ll want to think your strategy through in advance.

k.thx.bai.

222

Neil 07.04.12 at 10:18 am

Salient – “You’ll have to learn all of the specialized experience-knowledge from scratch at whatever job you take next, as if you’re just starting out.”

Yes, that. Also remember most of us will only work for something like 50 years, maximum. Take out a year or so finding a new job, another two years learning the new job, and bang goes a considerable chunk of your working life.

The fact that Libertarians routinely ignore these transaction costs when it suits them doesn’t do them much credit.

223

faustusnotes 07.04.12 at 12:05 pm

This really shits me:

And he desperately needs to get his life together and move out of Wal-Mart to a better job.

Why can’t Walmart just pay him enough money, and set his working conditions such that he can continue to work at Walmart for the rest of his life? Why do we have to view such jobs as dead end failures?

You aren’t trying hard enough when you view things this way.

224

Jonathan 07.04.12 at 1:36 pm

@GiT (211): We’ll never know. Statutory law trumps common law in a way that makes it difficult to know what would have evolved in the common law. This results from some combination of impatience, grandstanding, and a bias-toward-action on the part of democratic legislators. We see it today in a host of bills to stop companies from requiring Facebook passwords from employees before a body of common law wisdom has the faintest chance of evolving. Good thing, bad thing… I don’t know… the counterfactuals are a little too hard to assess.

225

Shelley 07.04.12 at 2:42 pm

And if you’ve ever worked in the past under a monster, as I used to do, then you’ll find out that “friends” at work are no help.

You need a union.

226

Consumatopia 07.04.12 at 3:02 pm

@Isiah

Like you said, you cannot evaluate it in isolation. You must consider how it interacts with surrounding laws.

Thank you for admitting that it’s false that there are “tradeoffs which are inherent to any action/inaction”. They are not inherent to the action itself if they are dependent on the presence or absence of other laws (each of which would have finite cost, so, no, I absolutely did not say we should spend “infinite resources” on anything.)

If murder law had some tragic interaction with bankruptcy law that somehow produced 100x the murders in the United States, I would repeal it in a heartbeat, and murder would still be wrong

A heartbeat? You wouldn’t consider whether it was bankruptcy law that needed to be changed rather than homicide law? Or whether there could be some other possible law outside homicide and bankruptcy that could solve this problem?

You argue that making it harder to fire people at will would make it harder to find jobs. But we can create other policies to solve that problem. The UBI, of course, would mean some number of workers would leave the market. Fiscal and monetary policy can increase demand for labor. The government itself could provide retraining or even jobs for marginal workers.

But the one policy change I’m not going to consider is legalizing sexual harassment. Because we don’t have the right to ignore a claim of sexual harassment so that Dawson (or your great-grandfather) can find a job–or, more accurately, so that we can avoid paying the cost of other mechanisms for finding Dawson a job.

227

MPAVictoria 07.04.12 at 3:12 pm

“I desire dignity and freedom for the working class.”
Except apparently the dignity to choose when they urinate and freedom from sexual harassment in the workplace…

228

Watson Ladd 07.04.12 at 3:21 pm

Salient, the chances that preclearing employers doesn’t turn into existing ones forming a cartel is about zero percent. We’ve already conceded the point that industry runs the government. Absent increased political power of the working class, any increase in regulations that can serve business will.

229

Ralph Swanson 07.04.12 at 8:22 pm

Libertarians stand 4-square for unions and that rights are inalienable. Modern Libertarian-direction work was started and defined by the Hosper/Gilson standard platform, not some Liberal/Libertarian-oriented economists’ speculations.

http://www.LibertarianInternational.org shows what LIO fans and Libertarians worldwide are in fact doing no matter what these academics think.

230

Matt McCandless 07.04.12 at 8:51 pm

I would imagine that this has already been brought up in the comments, but there are so many I could not read them all.

It would seem that the logic espoused in this post essentially vindicates intervention in every case where one party holds leverage over another.

If I no longer want to be friends with Jim anymore I could theoretically be prevented from unfriending him simply because the loss of my friendship could be construed as “pain”. My decision to investigate Jim’s lifestyle to determine if he is a good candidate for friendship could be spun as an invasion of his privacy. And my request that Jim not shout racist obscenities at passers by for fear he might lose my friendship, could be argued to be a suppression of his choice and a failure to maximize freedom.

BHL seems to have the upper hand in this one.

231

matt 07.04.12 at 11:06 pm

I suppose I don’t see anything that different between employment contracts and hiring an independent contractor that should require employment contracts to be given less flexibility.

The author of this piece seems to have a very limited imagination…if you hired me to paint your house and I showed up with a big van that promoted death to abortion providers and played Rush Limbaugh on my radio at high volume all day long, would you be prevented from terminating our contract according to its termination clauses by the police?

What if an someone that you hired and desperately needed to complete a project to prevent bankruptcy demanded that you perform some demeaning act?

Employment is not a right…

232

Salient 07.05.12 at 12:10 am

Since you’ve apparently forgotten the agreement between us to not address one another, a brief reminder:

Watson, do kindly FUCK OFF.

233

Substance McGravitas 07.05.12 at 12:13 am

This was a striking sentence from someone who doesn’t like consequences for sexual harassment because LIBERTY:

I believe that a continually more educated, virtuous, and free society will make progress on these problems.

Where does the virtue come from?

234

Jim Henley 07.05.12 at 12:50 am

I suppose I don’t see anything that different between employment contracts and hiring an independent contractor that should require employment contracts to be given less flexibility.

It sounds like you don’t know much about either contracts or established theories of firm formation. I’d get on that.

235

Matt 07.05.12 at 2:05 am

But if running the gauntlet of shouting workers as a condition of employment is coercive—because of the emotional distress (Hayek calls it “organized pressure upon individuals”) it inflicts—how is having to put up with any number of humiliations and indignities in the workplace as a condition of employment not equally coercive?

Duh – because the latter is done by the Chosen JAAAAHB CREATORS, and is therefore the Will of The Market…

236

Dan Dennis 07.05.12 at 3:06 am

‘Lifeguard fired for helping drowning man’: because in helping him he broke company rules: the drowning man was in the wrong part of the beach…

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-18715684

237

Watson Ladd 07.05.12 at 3:22 am

Matt, there is a better argument then that. The condition that you walk past shouting workers as a condition of your employment isn’t a condition that actually conditions your employment. You haven’t agreed to the harassment in any meaningful sense by being employed at the target of the strike, any more then an abortionist agrees to have protesters by his home. She knows its going to happen because of her job, but there is nothing that legitimizes it more then other harassment because there is no agreement allowing it.

By contrast, dangerous conditions at work are sometimes very much part of the job, and you agree to work at an oil refinery fully aware it can kill you twenty different ways, no matter how many precautions are taken. This after all is working with giant containers of hot flammable liquids. Obviously there is a need for regulation to ensure worker safety, and freedom from harassement, etc. But ultimately anyone who endangered you as much as working at an oil refinery did, would be infringing upon your rights, unless there was a way you temporarily alienated your rights in exchange for something else.

238

Freshly Squeezed Cynic 07.05.12 at 4:16 am

Salient @221:

Just to back up your point, I remember vaguely that Paul Foot mentions in his book The Vote that in the 70s/80s the NUM wanted to invest their pension funds into a few businesses that the miners liked and enjoyed; a brewery, the Daily Mirror, etc. The pension fund managers declined to do so, saying that they had chosen what the NUM’s pension fund should be invested in to generate the best rate of return. The NUM took the pension fund managers to court, and lost.

“We” do not own, or control, a damn thing.

(Ironically, as a coda, the portfolio that the miners wanted to invest in actually ended up outperforming the portfolio that the pension fund managers chose over the next few years. So much for the mediocrity of the “proles”!)

239

Data Tutashkhia 07.05.12 at 6:29 am

@238, true. But similarly, in case my point in 218 wasn’t clear (which is hard for me to imagine), “we” don’t write the business laws either.

240

Data Tutashkhia 07.05.12 at 7:32 am

@221, Proxy routing or something to spoof your IP?

Sorry, I missed your inquiries, mate. I usually only read a couple of lines on top of your comments.

Well, what can I say? I certainly encourage you to start writing laws banning proxy routing. And when that doesn’t help, please feel free to write laws banning all commenters whose tone and/or content annoys you.

You should also write amendments to already existing laws (“The same goes for comments which are personally defamatory or insulting”, http://crookedtimber.org/notes-for-trolls-sockpuppets-and-other-pests/ ), to legitimize your fondness for personal insults and paranoid rumblings. As well as a law that would allow you to enforce any “agreement between us to not address one another” that, of course, exists only in your head.

I hope this answers all your questions. If not, I’d be more than happy to provide clarifications.

241

Foppe 07.05.12 at 7:37 am

@236 wanna bet that CYA rule was created because some other ‘person’ decided to sue the company when his family member drowned because the assigned lifeguard was ‘away’ saving someone who wasn’t on ‘company turf’? Go lawsuit culture..

242

ZX 07.05.12 at 9:00 am

So many stupid rules and regulations govt’s have to create to defend themselves against the possibility of entrepreneurial litigation. I blame libertarians for this waste of taxpayer money.

243

incitatus4congress 07.05.12 at 11:56 am

The freedom of workers to associate into unions seems like a self-evident solution to checking the coercive power of the “masters” to this classical liberal*. I get the libertarian ojection to the state actively conspiring with unions against employers, but that’s no more objectionable than the tendency (more common?) for the state to come down firmly on the side of the employer against the worker. I don’t think the US government has ever put soldiers into the field in order to threaten employers on behalf of disgruntled workers, for example.

I agree that supporting a UBI (as I do) really isn’t terribly consistent with the hardline freedomz-or-death, property-is-sacrosanct trip of many modern libertarians. Truly bleeding heart Thomas Pain T-shirt-wearing Georgist types like me tend to be a bit more flexible on issues of redistributive taxation when it comes to supporting such an initiative, and I think the UBI would be a worthwhile alternative to the bureacratic fustercluckery and skewed incentives inherent in the current US and UK welfare systems. But admittedly we’re a minoirty and, at libertarian interweb forums, what Billy Conolly would describe as being about as welcome as a fart in a space suit.

* actually I’ve been told I’m an ordoliberal, and subsequently had to look up what that was. I can’t keep up with it all. I think the increasingly complicated taxonomy of economic liberalism is very much part of the problem with this sort of debate. Libertarians alone come in more flavours than Jelly Beans. How does one mount an effective argument against for or against libertarianism under such circumstances?

244

Ralph Swanson 07.05.12 at 4:46 pm

Thanks for the article.

To see what Libertarians are doing worldwide, see the non-partisan Libertarian International Organization at http://www.LibertarianInstitute.org

245

BenK 07.05.12 at 6:34 pm

The freedom to bind oneself – i.e. the freedom to commit – is a major freedom. It is the basis for almost every biological revolution in history; and many social revolutions as well. Stripping this freedom – the freedom to work on an extended time scale – and substituting some imagined freedom on only shorter time scales – creates a situation which is utterly untenable. Not only does it revoke effective employment, freedom of religion, freedom of association, parenthood, friendship, and marriage, but it forces everyone into a pattern of uncertainty in which a person’s word is only good for a moment so very little constructive can be done.
Conceptually, only some of these long term commitments are contractual; the freedom to take commitment into the marketplace, as it were. Many others are something other than a contract – marriage is often confused with a contract, for example, but it is not at all a contract though certain ideologies force it into a procrustean bed (although, some marriages have been entered into like contracts, some are executed like contracts, much to the disgrace of the institution). Being a parent is certainly not contractual. All these freedoms to commit – to the Foreign Legion, as Hayek uses in his example, or to a child, or to a church, or to a friend – are important freedoms. ‘Freeing people’ from the ability to put themselves in chains, as it were, is no freedom at all. It frees them from trust, loyalty, and even love. It conceptualizes life on an inappropriate time scale.

246

MPAVictoria 07.05.12 at 11:28 pm

“It frees them from trust, loyalty, and even love.”

God to I love my crappy mcjob so much…..

247

Ted 07.06.12 at 12:40 am

Pardon me if someone has already cited this, but here’s one example of what oppression on the job looks like:

http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/02/mac-mcclelland-free-online-shipping-warehouses-labor?page=1

248

Ted 07.06.12 at 12:58 am

Re: comment 220, those arguments seem to parallel feminist arguments about why women can’t just leave abusive husbands/relationships. I need to think about this some more.

249

John David Galt 07.06.12 at 4:53 am

Merging back in a point I raised at MR: as it stands now, there is no practical way for an employee to enforce any condition on an employer, even if agreed in a written contract, unless it’s something as straightforward as pay rates or vacations where compliance is obvious. Even if I succeed in getting my boss to promise he won’t fire me over private consensual sex behavior on my own time, if he fires me for it anyway, I’ll never win a suit because I’ll never be able to prove that’s why he fired me.

Result: even if such an agreement would be efficient, it won’t happen. The Coase theorem fails (or if you like, the “transaction cost” is so high it’s impossible to meet).

The only possible way I can see to solve this conundrum is one I don’t like at all: adopt a scheme like Germany’s unemployment system, where every termination requires the employer to give a reason and to prove at a hearing that it happened.

I would like to start a discussion to come up with a better answer. There ought to be one.

250

Hidden Heart 07.06.12 at 6:27 am

John: As you no doubt know, it’s a fairly common thing for libertarians to tell the rest of us that we have to buck up and accept this or that unpleasant reality and comply with it and get on with our lives. Heck, it’s part of the fun of being a contrarian, as I can testify from my own lapses in this regard with other principles. But seriously, when faced with a response that demonstrably does work, at what point might it be your responsibility to buck up, accept it, comply with it, and get on with your life?

251

Hidden Heart 07.06.12 at 6:34 am

Actually, let me add some to that, so that it doesn’t look at mean as I fear it might. I’m actually interested as a general thing in the question of how and why each of us decides when to accept an unpleasant reality, and when to keep pressing for alternatives. I have no real pearls of wisdom on the subject, I just find it fascinating.

252

Freshly Squeezed Cynic 07.06.12 at 6:49 am

Ted @247:

Amazon.com made headlines earlier this year when 20 current and former employees of its Breinigville, Pennsylvania, warehouse told the local Morning Call that workers were fainting in stifling heat and getting yelled at for not meeting ridiculously high productivity goals and generally being “treated like a piece of crap.” Employees who were sent home with heat exhaustion were disciplined; a local ER doc eventually called OSHA and reported “an unsafe environment.”

But surely they would get paid less and the extra costs passed onto the consumer now that the regulatory bodies have stepped in! Everyone is worse off!

253

Joshua Lyle 07.06.12 at 4:12 pm

Chris Bertram, Corey Robin and Alex Gourevitch,
I find the ease with which you turn to violence to solve problems disturbing. Much admirable discussion of the admirable end of protecting human freedom and dignity, followed by four paragraphs of assuming that violent means are called for by merit of those ends is hardly enough justification. You have a great burden of demonstrating efficacy and necessity that you seem almost unaware of, that you might convince me that the salient libertarian critique, vis that state action is inherently violent, and therefore a means suited only to respond to like violence, while other objectionable behavior such as the terrible workplace coercion you elucidate, can only be justifiably opposed by non-violent means.

254

Joshua Lyle 07.06.12 at 4:12 pm

tl;dr: Give peace a chance.

255

The Whited Sepulchre 07.06.12 at 9:15 pm

We purchase fast food, clothing, and other goods and services from supplier A instead of supplier B, changing our minds many times about who to employ for these commodities based on the flimsiest of excuses.
I’ve known people to go from McDonald’s to Burger King based on just one bad experience. True story. It really does happen. No warnings, no legal recourse for McDonald’s at all.
Here’s what happened when I tried to switch from Food King to Kroger with my meat purchases:

http://www.thewhitedsepulchre.blogspot.com/2012/06/my-unemployment-lawsuit.html

It’s been a legal hell.

256

Brad 07.07.12 at 2:04 am

Just read this article on HuffPo which should be relevant to the discussion.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/06/bosses-exploit-workers_n_1655112.html

257

Dan Kervick 07.07.12 at 4:59 pm

At least the Hobbesian contract specifies this alienation of the will. Few employment contracts do. If they specify anything, it is the performance of labor—and often indeterminate labor at that—in return for a wage. What they don’t specify is the rules of bathroom access, employer prerogatives over speech onsite and offsite, dress codes, and more.

Is this really true? When I took my current job, as I recollect, I was treated by the human resources department to a large stack of paperwork. I think it was all in there somewhere. From time to time, we are sent new pieces of paperwork outlining new policies, and we have to sign and return these pieces of paperwork.

258

Consumatopia 07.07.12 at 5:34 pm

while other objectionable behavior such as the terrible workplace coercion you elucidate, can only be justifiably opposed by non-violent means./blockquote>

Very well, you can only respond to my non-violent tresspass on your property non-violently–you may not use force or government action to evict me.

259

chris y 07.07.12 at 6:00 pm

Very well, you can only respond to my non-violent tresspass on your property non-violently

In Britain, as I understand it, in most cases unless you have used force or criminal damage to enter my property I have only civil remedies against you. Of course I can eventually get a judge to issue an injunction again you to leave and ultimately if you persist in contempt of court the injunction can be enforced by bailiffs or police. But I have to respond non-violently first.

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Brad 07.08.12 at 4:25 am

I think that this whole debate misses the point. While the original piece gives us plenty to think about, consider what the argument looks like, not just concerning workplace issues, but in any case where a non-libertarian argues that government interference is justified:

X is a problem.
Government intervention can solve X whereas freedom/free markets cannot.
So, government intervention is justified.

The debate on every topic becomes a fight about the second premise. The non-libertarian argues for the positive case that government intervention can solve or at least diminish the scope of the problem and a hands off approach will not. The libertarian argues that the government only makes the problem worse and that a hands off approach is the best solution. The original post is the former type of argument and the responses by libertarians above (and on the BHL blog) are of the latter type.

But, this dynamic misses the real issue. The real issue is not the second premise but the first premise: the non-libertarian and the libertarian are really fighting about what constitutes a problem is in the first place. For non-libertarians, work place coercion is a problem. A lack of income mobility is a problem. The easy availability of guns is a problem. The lack of adequate healthcare is a problem. Let whatever issue that you think the libertarian cannot address adequately be called X. The libertarian either does not think that X is really a problem or, if they do, then the debate that is being had just misses the point.

For any X, the libertarian does not ask if X is a problem but first asks whether it will exist in their ideal state or not. If it does not then there is no reason to worry about it. This is why so much virtual ink gets split arguing that competition solves all, that people have choices whether to leave or not, that such and such is not really coercion, etc. The putative problem is not a problem for the libertarian since in the ideal state everyone is free to make some other choice. So, X is not really a problem at all for the libertarian if their interpretation of the world eliminates it. This at bottom these are empirical issues to be justified through empirical evidence and not through argumentation.

Now, suppose that X will not be eliminated in the ideal libertarian state. For the libertarian then either X is not a problem and thus not something to be addressed at a social level or it is a problem and needs to be fixed by government intervention.

In the former case, the non-libertarians worry about X is merely dismissed as violating the legitimate freedom of others. Thus, there is really no problem here. The libertarian response is “so much the worse for you” and that is the end of the story. This is the hardline libertarian view. Now, of course, it will get dressed up claiming that people should be moral, people should behave better, etc. but at bottom X is not a problem at all; it is within the legitimate sphere of freedom that X exists.

On the other hand, if X is to be fixed by government intervention (as our BHL friends will say about the UBI for instance) then they are not libertarians on that issue; they are consequentialist liberals. But, almost all us are consequentialist liberals: freedom unless there is a highly compelling reason to restrict it.

So, in longwinded sum: the libertarian has three responses to any of these putative examples of problems that the non-libertarian poses.
1. Claim that it is not a problem since the free market will eliminate the problem.
2. Claim that it is not a problem since any attempt to restrict it violates the legitimate freedom of individuals.
3. Claim that it is a problem and not be libertarians about that issue.

Arguments of the first type will not be solved through dialogue and why these debates are at an impasse: the libertarian has faith plus some empirical data to suggest that the problem will not exist if there is more freedom and the non-libertarian has faith plus some empirical data to suggest that the libertarian is wrong.

Arguments of the second type are also at an impasse since the libertarian has faith that there is no real problem to be addressed and the non-libertarian thinks that the libertarian just has their head in the sand.

Arguments of the third type are uninteresting from the libertarian vs. non-libertarian perspective. We all agree that something should be done that limits the freedom of some and our only debate is where the proper limits lie.

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Misaki 07.08.12 at 5:59 am

>The current, rather miserly, poverty line for a single person in the United States is $11,170. Providing a UBI of $11,170 would require taxing roughly 40 percent of current GDP.

Unemployed (looking for work) 13 million, ×$12000 = 156 billion

GDP per capita is $48000, so even if every single person in the US was getting UBI that would only be 25% of GDP.

Anyway, job creation without higher government spending, inflation, or trade barriers: /ɯoɔ˙ʇodsƃolq˙uɐlduoıʇɐǝɹɔqoɾ//:dʇʇɥ

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Misaki 07.08.12 at 5:59 am

*current GDP. Obviously if no one was working there would be no GDP.

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Watson Ladd 07.08.12 at 6:24 am

Brad, the problem with the argument it outlined is that effectiveness is not an excuse for policymaking. A law demanding that we all house homeless veterans might be sound policy, but would be an infringement of liberty.

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incitatus4congress 07.08.12 at 9:21 am

Misaki,
Not following your calculation at #261. If the benefit only goes to the unemployed, it isn’t UBI (negative income tax?).

In the US, the cost of a $11K UBI handed to, say, the 230 million adults (>18) in the US would be around $2.5 trillion. That has to be recovered from an aggregate income of around $7-8 trillion, so before you’ve even covered other government expenses you’re having to take a third of this income to cover the UBI cost. I think proponents and opponents agree that a flat tax in the area of 45-55% would be necessary, depending on how payroll taxes would be corrected (or abolished) should such a system be put in place. Of course, you also have state taxes on top of that.

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incitatus4congress 07.08.12 at 10:09 am

Bryan Willman,
“So supporters of anything like UBI need to make a case that there is a level of UBI that will generally avoid starvation, exposure, and so on, yet NOT cause excessive “free riding” that will put too much drag on society.”

One of the chief arguments given for UBI or NIT proposals is that they have a smaller negative effect on work incentive. That is, in contrast to many current means-tested welfare programs, going to work does always means taking more money home.

As it is, “free riders” have always represented a minority of recipients of any welfare (as much as The Daily Mail might want us to suppose otherwise). It’s not worth spending a lot of bile and angst over a tiny group of genuine workshy who have chosen to live a life the vast majoirty of us would never choose for ourselves. Let them have at it, and good luck to them.

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Brad 07.08.12 at 10:54 am

In reply: 260, 263

You’re right Watson; that argument was far stronger than I intended it to sound (note to self: don’t try to proofread after 10 pm).

More like:
X is a problem.
Government can solve X whereas freedom/free markets cannot.
If X is a problem and government involvement can solve X then government intervention merits discussion concerning pros/cons/costs/benefits of implementing a policy.
Therefore, government intervention merits a discussion.

This is better if less elegant :-)

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robotslave 07.08.12 at 11:04 am

@152

It would be a very freshly-minted anarchist indeed who had not yet wondered whether or to what degree personal property might be curtailed without compromising autonomy.

There’s no need to argue about this, thankfully. Anarchists debated the issue rather ferociously amongst themselves long before I was born, so we can simply survey the historical record, rather than snarl and claw at one another over the question.

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Misaki 07.08.12 at 5:24 pm

@ incitatus4congress

There is a nice summary of the definitions here: http://www.nextnewdeal.net/rortybomb/38-million-missing-quits-battle-quit-and-replacing-government-ubi-three-points-workplace

“If you want to give everyone $10,000, that will require taxing 20 percent of GDP.

A lot of people suggested that was too high. Those people are usually, almost by definition, doing one of a few things. They are excluding some populations from the UBI (such as giving children nothing or much less), they are really discussing a negative income tax (a means-tested UBI done through the tax code), they are also removing current government services (such as unemployment insurance, or food stamps), or they are redefining “cost” to just focus on the redistribution element (associated with the negative income tax). Changing those numbers would change the final result.”

Does someone really need Social Security checks AND another $12k/year? Is a tax really a “tax” if it isn’t collected, the same way both corporations and individuals don’t pay the nominal tax rate because of deductions?

>would be around $2.5 trillion. That has to be recovered from an aggregate income of around $7-8 trillion,

GDP is about $15 trillion, what’s wrong with taxing corporate profits and capital gains?

Step 1: “tax credit” of $12k per year, can be paid in advance. People with high incomes simply pay less tax. Step 2: remove government services which are less necessary when everyone has a basic income. Step 3: make up for the revenue loss with a general increase in tax rates, which can affect the lowest brackets too.

Some people would still make stupid decisions and end up with $500/month in credit card interest payments, but there’s no real way to fix that except, well, make jobs available so people are able to earn more than the minimum!

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Hidden Heart 07.09.12 at 4:30 am

“GDP is about $15 trillion, what’s wrong with taxing corporate profits and capital gains?” For those of us on the left, nothing. But when has any libertarian ever sustained an argument in favor of such a thing, for any reason at all? More to the point, when has any libertarian ever organized in support of them, or to oppose their repeal?

I’ve seen plenty of arguments from libertarians that our current level of taxation is necessarily immoral. I just can’t believe there’d be any real libertarian support for the level or nature of taxes necessary to sustain a real UBI.

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Misaki 07.09.12 at 5:06 am

Perhaps the “Job creation without higher government spending, inflation, or trade barriers” mentioned above would be a more practical way of addressing the workplace quality of life issues described in the original post, then, since it would give people options when quitting a job without the taxes required by UBI.

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Richard 07.09.12 at 5:11 am

The entire premise of the argument is that employers are inherently scarce and employees are somehow dependent upon employers for their very lives. The premise is itself based on government coercion, a government that is so big that forming a company requires an army of professionals to do right, and interactions with all levels of government to do legally. Remove the governmental force that prevents easier company formation and this entire discussion goes by the boards. From zoning requirements to anti-competitive licensing laws to complex labor laws and expensive delays in obtaining necessary permits to operate… government has created the scarcity of employers that makes employees so dependent on “a job” rather than on ability.

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Foppe 07.09.12 at 9:18 am

@271: 1. We’ve had laissez-faire capitalism before; read up on its results here. We’re getting there again today, though it’s called neoliberalism nowadays.

2. That bureaucracy you describe allows NIMBY chaps to prevent others from ‘infringing’ on their right to have peace&quiet near their homes, from those companies dumping waste on their land, kind-hearted employers from being outcompeted by competitors willing to use slave labor, etc. etc..
Having said that, I know you weren’t trying to be constructive, so I’ll leave it there.

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Misaki 07.09.12 at 10:38 pm

Employers are not scarce, there are 6 million employers in the US and 21 million other firms with no payroll. http://www.census.gov/econ/smallbus.html

This is counting a company with multiple establishments as a single employer; the top 1000 firms by number of employees had about 700,000 establishments total.

Job openings are scarce, not employers. And regulation leads to hiring of lawyers, accountants, bureaucrats, etc. which reduces unemployment.

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