Coercion vs. Freedom: BHL vs. BRG (Happy 4th of July!)

by John Holbo on July 4, 2012

This post is mostly by way of trying to make Bertram, Robins and Gourvitch’s post sticky, as it deserves to stay at the top for a while. If you haven’t read their post yet, do so. If you are already reasonably conversant with their points, proceed under the fold, if you like, for what is really just a Hayek-inflected restatement and reinforcement of some of their main points. (Also, it’s effectively a late, long footnote to the Red Plenty seminar):

The BHL’s haven’t responded, but the Marginal Revolution folks are on the case – Tyler Cowen; Alex Tabarrok. Both responses illustrate the Bertram/Robins/Gourevitch (hereafter: BRG!) thesis: namely, libertarians are either liberals (in a Rawlsian sort of way) or not the freedom-lovers they claim to be. Tabarrok and Cowen fall into the latter camp.

The mistake Cowen and Tabarrok make, which the BHL’ers tend to make (except for Jacob Levy and Will Wilkinson, in his guest post, and maybe someone else over there whose stuff I haven’t read) is one Hayek warns against in The Constitution of Liberty:

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.

If you voluntarily contract yourself into slavery, it does not follow that you are still free. Hayek wants to wield this as an argument against construing participatory political power as either necessary or sufficient for ensuring freedom. But it works as well as an argument against the sufficiency of ensuring contracting power, as a mechanism for maximizing freedom. (Hayek himself misses this.)

This classically Hayekian point is one of BRG’s main points:

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.

Here we can get into a genuine argument about effective ease of entry and exit, in real life, which is going to be substantially an empirical argument about variable circumstances and overall socio-economic conditions. The BHL’ers want to guarantee a minimum income. BRG make the point that 1) this is more than we are going to get in practice; 2) it’s not enough to have the desired effect, i.e. making people always free to leave, in effect. Let’s set all this aside for a moment. BRG are unquestionably right about this much: if you sell yourself into slavery, you are a slave, not free, for the duration of your period of servitude. Even if the sale was voluntary. As I said, the BHL’ers miss this. And now Cowen and Tabarrok.

Cowen is confused about what BRG are getting at: “Is the complaint that workers aren’t getting enough of the pie?” Various possiblities as to what they might want are canvassed but, significantly, he does not consider that the answer might be: freedom. (Why is freedom-as-ideal a blind spot for Cowen? Because he thinks he’s already aiming at it, so they can’t be. But he’s wrong on both scores. This is the point.) More negatively: BRG are making the point that libertarians are unconcerned with maximizing freedom. The proof is simple. Different ways of regulating the workplace will plausibly increase freedom-as-non-coercion relative to the levels that a libertarian regime will produce, and libertarians are not willing to go for it. They are unwilling in principle. From which it follows that libertarians are not concerned to maximize freedom. They are maximizing contract rights and property rights. They don’t see they are not, hereby, maximizing freedom because they make the mistake Hayek diagnoses (and then frequently makes himself): contracting away your freedom is not tantamount to keeping it. Perhaps contract rights are more important than freedom. But don’t say you are maximizing freedom when really you are actually trading it away for a different good.

Tabarrok:

If the CTrs were merely arguing for greater economic growth there would be little with which to argue – who doesn’t want bigger televisions and better working conditions? The CTrs, however, confuse wealth and political freedom. Bigger televisions don’t make you more free and neither do better working conditions, even though both goods are desirable.

A job is an exchange with mutual consent and benefits on both sides of the bargain. The freedom is in the right to exchange not in the price at which the exchange occurs.

No and no. BRG are not saying workers need to be paid more (though I have no doubt they would say so, if asked). More to the point: freedom is not ‘in’ the right to exchange. If you exchange your freedom for a TV you become an unfree person with a TV, not a free person with a TV, even if you prefer a TV to freedom. This is, to repeat, an orthodox Hayekian point (albeit one that Hayek loses track of more often than not.) The shoe could not fit more snugly on the other foot, then: Tabarrok says BRG are systematically conflating wealth (things like TV’s) with freedom. But in fact they are keeping them separate and Tabarrok is conflating them, opting for wealth when they come apart.

Let’s go back to basics. What is libertarianism? Let’s stick with Hayek as a paradigm, for simplicity. Libertarianism does not take freedom as an end but as a means. Hayek is a utilitarian, not a Kantian. “If there were omniscient men, if we could know not only all that affects the attainment of our present wishes but also our future wants and desires, there would be little case for liberty.” If Red Plenty came true – if central planning produced more goods people really wanted – Hayek would be a communist. (I don’t believe him. But he says so right there.)

So why put freedom on a pedestal, nominally, if it’s just a means to whatever actually belongs on the pedestal? Basically, because the thing that actually belongs on the pedestal can’t be directly aimed at (Red Plenty will never work). In part we don’t even know what it is: the true standard of overall welfare for humanity; something like that. Even if we were sure what that meant, we still don’t have enough knowledge to aim at it. The best we can do is let loose all the knowledge locked up in all the individual people in the world. Maximizing freedom is the best proxy for maximizing welfare for humanity. (Freedom is the only god we can name, even though there is also an unnamed god that the named god, freedom, serves.) So how do you maximize freedom? Here rubber meets road. You don’t maximize it by ensuring property and contract rights the way Hayek and other libertarians want. As BRG say, this will sometimes result in less freedom, overall, than you might otherwise attain, due to the fact that ensuring these rights is consistent with the emergence of highly coercive, freedom-destroying private regimes of power.

Libertarians can, of course, just come out and say that they prefer contract rights to guarantees of freedom. (Indeed, a lot of what Cowen and Tabarrok have to say amounts to saying that BRG are slighting other goods that may be more valuable than freedom: “How about a simple mention of the massive magnitude of employee theft in the United States, perhaps in the context of a boss wishing to search an employee?”) What they can’t say is that contract rights guarantee freedom, much less that guaranteeing contract rights maximizes freedom.

At this point the BHL’ers, Cowen and Tabarrok will want to reply: sez you! It’s a complicated and substantially empirical question what arrangements will really maximize freedom. In a tight labor market, workers hold the whip hand even if, at other times, management may have the upper-hand, driving wages down and cutting bathroom breaks if they like. “How about a brief mention of the fact that workplace regulations, in practice, very often are used to protect insiders and restrict employment for outsiders?”

But getting into the empirical weeds like this gives the game away. Actually existing libertarianism is not a philosophy of ‘I wonder what will maximize freedom-as-non-coercion. It’s complicated, but whatever it is, I’ll do it.’ Libertarianism isn’t a philosophy that blows different directions in the shifting winds of the labor market – coming out against unions when they get bloated and corrupt and exclusive but turning against management and capital when they are, as they certainly may be, objectively greater threats to freedom than any actually existing labor union. Actually existing libertarianism is the philosophy of treating as axiomatic that maximizing contract/property rights is tantamount to maximizing freedom. But, even if this happens to be contingently correct, in some circumstances – even in many circumstances – treating contingent truths as axioms is very confused.

Suppose we soften the libertarian position to be less dogmatically axiomatic (I know some of the BHL’ers will indeed want to do this): let’s be ‘rule libertarians’ on the model of ‘rule utilitarians’. We all know that sometimes killing old ladies and distributing their money to the poor might increase overall utility, but we don’t let people do it because more often we’ll get into some awful Raskolnikov mess. Don’t trust people to make that sort of call on a case-by-case basis. Likewise, even if sometimes instituting worker protections would increase freedom, we don’t let people do it because more often than not we’ll get into some awful union-type mess. The fact is: that last claim, just sitting there on its own, is not empirically plausible enough to justify ‘rule libertarianism’. At any rate, even if you decided at the policy level that rule libertarianism was less bad than the alternatives, at the theory level you would have to grant the point that, on a case by case basis, the non-libertarians might be often right about what is freedom-maximizing. (Just as rule utilitarians admit that, on a case by case basis, the Raskolnikov’s of the world are technically correct in their thinking.)

Let me conclude by asking an important question: why does even Hayek make the mistake of not seeing that he is plainly making the mistake that he himself diagnoses as a clear mistake? Let’s sharpen the point. Hayek writes: “In the sense in which we use the term [liberty], the penniless vagabond who lives precariously by constant improvisation is indeed freer than the conscripted soldier with all his security and relative comfort. But if liberty may therefore not always seem preferable to other goods, it is a distinctive good that needs a distinctive name.”

But if the vagabond is freer than the soldier, he is pretty clearly also freer, by Hayekian lights, then an office worker who has little say in how her contract is expansively interpreted, to suit management’s tastes – even if she is, like the soldier, more secure and comfortable than the vagabond.

If Hayek really wanted freedom most, there is a sense in which he should have written Down And Out In Paris And London; or On The Road – not The Road To Serfdom. If vagabonds are most free, then vagabondage should be our free ideal. There’s something a bit screwy here, and it has to do with Hayek’s excessive refusal to consider that an important component of freedom is positive capacity to do the things you want to do (not just absence of coercion).

But set that aside (important though it is). Hayek fails to see that he is not actually interested in maximizing freedom because, actually, he thinks that some people’s freedom is a lot more valuable than other people’s freedom. Liberals always want to ensure the maximum freedom consistent with enjoyment of that freedom by all. Hayek is definitely not on board with that sort of egalitarianism regarding freedom: “To grant no more freedom than all can exercise would be to misconceive its function completely. The freedom that will be used by only one man in a million may be more important to society and more beneficial to the majority than any freedom that we all use.” Ideally, we would find that one man and even make all others his slaves, if that is what it took to let him exercise his freedom to the fullest. Hayek thus affirms a freedom monster argument somehat analogous to the classic pleasure monster reductio. But obviously the point would not be that the man might have some preposterously bottomless capacity to be free. Rather, Hayek is saying that a world with much less freedom – a world in which this one-man-in-a-million is even a tyrant, perhaps – is better than a world full of freedom.

Of course, it doesn’t matter, because Hayek is insistent that we can’t identify that man. (He is yet another god we cannot name.) So we have no choice but to maximize freedom, i.e. give everyone roughly the same dose of the stuff. Maximizing freedom is thus not really even second best, overall, but third best. Best: maximize welfare (but we can’t and don’t even really know what that means). Second best: maximize freedom for only those who can best maximize welfare (but we can’t pick them out of a line-up). Third best: maximize freedom. But really I think it’s pretty likely Hayek thinks (or feels) we can actually do a bit better than third best. We can pick out a class of people who are likely to be better users of freedom. This is no part of Hayek’s official philosophy, but the reason he sees coercion on one side (workers) not the other (employers), even when this is flagrantly inconsistent with his own philosophy, is that he has a strong intuition that the freedoms of workers are less valuable. Employers/capital/management will be more likely to want to do things that will, on the whole, benefit everyone. So it is more important for them to be able to do what they want. I think this unexpressed conviction explains a lot of the oddities in Hayek’s writings.

This view that Hayek is really all about the hierarchy – freedom for the better people – seems to fit with Corey Robin’s standard line on the reactionary mind. But I would be more even-handed in spreading the blame. The BHL’s often emphasize that liberals and leftists don’t place enough value on economic liberty. See their seminar on Tomasi’s book. Short version: I actually agree with Tomasi about a lot of stuff. I think he’s right that Rawls is too narrow in granting citizens only ‘thin’ economic basic rights. (I’m not sure I accept Tomasi’s solution but I do accept his diagnosis that there is a problem.) Another example: I think G.A. Cohen’s camping trip analogy, in Why Not Socialism?, is terrible and does great damage to his case. (If you have an argument to which ‘but life is often not like a camping trip’ would be, if true, a quite deadly objection, then you have an argument with troubles.) Cohen just doesn’t get why people want to be economic actors of a certain sort. It’s not his thing. That’s ok, but it deforms his theory. This is a common disease: political theory as crypto-virtue ethics. You have a perhaps rather narrow sort of character ideal in mind, playing no official part in your theory, but exerting a great influence over its overall shape. J.S. Mill, for example, obviously exalts a certain sort of contrarian, cosmopolitan individualist. On Liberty is justly charged with begging the question, rather badly, on behalf of the sort of person Mill most admires. Hayek may be guilty of nothing worse: he admires economic actors of a certain sort more than other people. He maximizes freedom for them, while genuinely thinking he is maximizing it for everyone.

As a reward for reading my whole post, may I point out that the best album of the year, Regina Spektor’s What We Saw From The Cheap Seats [amazon] is on seriously cheap seat 99 cent sale. She is such an amazing songwriter. I think someone should start a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of bribing politicians to make it illegal for Tom Waits not to cover “Firewood”.

{ 152 comments }

1

Anarcho 07.04.12 at 7:31 am

As I’ve written many a time, the confusion is eliminated once you realise these people are NOT libertarians — they are propertarians. Genuine libertarians have recognised since Proudhon wrote “What is Property?” that property is both theft (exploitation) and despotism (oppression).

Indeed, Murray Rothbard admitted that the propertarians stole the name “Libertarian” from the anti-state left (the anarchists) in the 1950s:

“One gratifying aspect of our rise to some prominence is that, for the first time in my memory, we, ‘our side,’ had captured a crucial word from the enemy . . . ‘Libertarians’ . . . had long been simply a polite word for left-wing anarchists, that is for anti-private property anarchists, either of the communist or syndicalist variety. But now we had taken it over . . .” (The Betrayal of the American Right, Ludwig von Mises Institute, p. 83)

Libertarian had been used by the anti-state/anti-property left since 1858 (see 150 years of libertarian). Once you refuse to let them appropriate libertarian to describe their ideology, the obvious contradiction in their ideas disappear — they are NOT interested in liberty, they are interested in PROPERTY.

2

Scott Martens 07.04.12 at 7:46 am

The missing concept here seems to me to be empowerment, something that is very definitely about freedom, about having political rights over your government, and is very obviously enhanced by wealth and welfare. (And unlike “freedom” and “entrepreneur”, it is a concept that they really don’t have a word for in French or Russian.)

Hayek does not seem very concerned with empowerment, and he certainly does not want to see everyone equally empowered. But his example of the beggar being free and the soldier (and perforce office worker) voluntarily trading their freedom for security doesn’t seem to hold up for empowerment. The beggar is certainly not more empowered than the office worker – he is not, in practice, freer to act.

I do think the discourse of empowerment sharply undermines notions of social contract (which never made any sense to me, for the same reasons Hayek rejects them), or the treasured but almost completely fictitious “voluntarism” of the libertarians.

3

John Holbo 07.04.12 at 7:53 am

“The beggar is certainly not more empowered than the office worker – he is not, in practice, freer to act.”

You are not wrong, Scott. Hayek is indeed not enthusiastic about empowerment.

“Neither of these confusions of individual liberty with different concepts denoted by the same word is as dangerous as its confusion with a third use of the word to which we have already briefly referred: the use of “liberty” to describe the physical “ability to do what I want,” the power to satisfy our wishes, or the extent of the choice of alternatives open to us. This kind of “freedom” appears in the dreams of many people in the form of the illusion that they can fly; that they are released from gravity and can move “free like a bird” to wherever they wish, or that they have the power to alter their environment to their liking.

This metaphorical use of the word has long been common, but until comparatively recent times few people seriously confused this “freedom from” obstacles, this freedom that means omnipotence, with the individual freedom that any kind of social order can secure. Only since this confusion was deliberately fostered as part of the socialist argument has it become dangerous. Once this identification of freedom with power is admitted, there is no limit to the sophisms by which the attractions of the word “liberty” can be used to support measures which destroy individual liberty, no end to the tricks by which people can be exhorted in the name of liberty to give up their liberty. It has been with the help of this equivocation that the notion of collective power over circumstances has been substituted for that of individual liberty and that in totalitarian states liberty has been suppressed in the name of liberty.”

This is obviously nuts. Unless you have some sense of freedom as effective capacity to do, it becomes incomprehensible why, if you love freedom, you would not want to raise up humanity to universal vagabondage.

4

John Holbo 07.04.12 at 7:55 am

All my quotes from Hayek are from “Constitution of Liberty”, which I’ve been rereading. I should probably provide some references, but all I’ve got are Kindle Locations. And if you’ve got a Kindle, you can just search for the text.

5

Neville Morley 07.04.12 at 8:06 am

But the problem is that, however much ‘propertarian’ is a more accurate label than ‘libertarian’, they reject it wholeheartedly – and in most cases in the genuine belief that it’s unfair name-calling, and that they really are libertarians. The Rothbard quote shows exactly why it was such a triumph to appropriate the rhetorical power of being able to claim, simply through one’s political self-identification, a direct link to freedom, the US constitution, the spirit of the pioneers etc. Let’s face it, in terms of the wider political culture they’ve been wholly successful in seizing the term and making it their own, and the claim that ‘genuine’ libertarians are completely different has no traction. Once, they would have had to admit that they were engaged in changing the meaning of the word; now, it’s too well-established.

We have a better chance to show, as BRG and John Holbo do, that their apparently sincere commitment to liberty is actually a commitment to a very specific conception of liberty, and even in those terms there’s greater commitment to the liberty of some rather than others, which tends to render their claims either incoherent or corrupt.

6

The Raven 07.04.12 at 8:09 am

“But really I think it’s pretty likely Hayek thinks (or feels) we can actually do a bit better than third best. We can pick out a class of people who are likely to be better users of freedom.”

Is this not, finally, an argument for aristocracy? It’s odd how the old arguments keep coming back. I suppose, faced with the re-emergence of aristocracy in the West (Occupy says, “The 1%,” and everyone understands them–the word aristocracy might be rejected, but the idea we have no trouble grasping) it is natural that we are discussing it.

7

Neville Morley 07.04.12 at 8:14 am

Sorry, that was a response to Anarcho at #1.

I find myself wondering to what extent one strand of this intellectual tradition is the Greco-Roman conception of freedom from all dependence (not only actual slavery but anything that can be represented as a kind of slavery) as the highest good. That conception would indeed claim that the beggar is freer than the emperor’s slave (and hence is, or at least could be, a proper human being, unlike the slave).

8

Nick 07.04.12 at 8:29 am

I think we are making progress, but perhaps that is because I incline more towards the BHL position than the former. A few points:

1. I think there is a sense in which being able to alienate large amounts of your effective freedom, through choice, is a facet of moral freedom that is worth defending. The entering the Jesuit order example sounds like a paradigm of that, but I think you could call it ‘existential’ freedom in general, and it could include things like marriage. The choice to become something radically different from what you are now is something worth defending. I don’t think we necessarily want a regime that enforces a “brief habits” lifestyle for everyone.

2. Having said that, I don’t see how such personal transformations are strengthened (morally or otherwise) by being instituted by enforceable contracts. I don’t see why the state should enforce marriages or enforce the rights of religious groups over their followers, for example. So I think there is an important distinction between the sort of practices that a state should acquiesce in if all the participants are going along with it, and the sort of practices that failure to go along with means that you have broken an enforceable contract.

3. Can a workplace democracy make you pee in a cup on demand by, say, a majority vote? Suppose you are the worker using machinery that could harm your co-workers if misused. Or so your co-workers say. Who decides what is a reasonable personal infringement in a particular context. What are your options if you radically disagree with the majority view in a workplace?

Are we discussing which particular workplace indignities should be barred (difficult for theorists)? Or are we discussing who should decide? Because if we are trying to discover a process by which unnecessary indignities are minimised, then I think we are going to be pushed more towards the ‘stacking the deck’ in favour of workers out the outset of a negotiation along the lines that the BHLers suggest. Because merely changing who decides does not necessarily change the content of the decisions and how they may impact on, or be experienced by, particular individuals.

9

Scott Martens 07.04.12 at 8:51 am

John, I’ve occasionally floated, in less reputable fora than CT, the somewhat trollish claim that there is no such thing as a “freedom from”. Even the ostensibly negative liberties like freedom of conscience, protection of privacy, etc., are really the power to demand that the police and the courts take away those who would deprive you of those freedoms. I’m pretty sure I stole the notion from someone, but for the life of me can’t remember who.

It seems to seriously shock the consciences of the young South Park libertarians who haunt less reputable fora, who seem to believe that police and courts are the enemies of freedom. So I keep running with it, since I have now reached the age where shocking and offending the youth entertains me.

I don’t think Hayek has a response to this – I don’t remember seeing anything in his works along those lines – but he’s dead and therefore gets to meet a lower standard of discourse. In the fantasies of gun nuts, the rights of the property owner are based on his right to shoot trespassers, but Hayek was more than capable of seeing that it really was based on his power to call the police to shoot the trespassers, and to call in enough police to keep shooting them if they shoot back. The idea of a “freedom from” gravity, his reductio for why we can’t all be free, takes on a whole different character if we reject the notion that there are any negative freedoms from obstacles, only positive powers to have obstacles removed and to prevent others from placing them in your way. If the government had a secret formula that safely enabled people to fly, it could indeed offer them a freedom from gravity, but only in the form of a positive right to receive the appropriate dose of formula.

10

Cal 07.04.12 at 8:53 am

This is one of the more thoughtful posts I’ve read on CT. Certainly moreso than the BRG post that is the subject of this one. However, it misunderstands some important issues.

1. Freedom is not conflatable with personal autonomy or immediate self-management or absence of interpersonal influence (or wealth or happiness or whathaveyou). At least, it’s not if one is trying to honestly evaluate academic libertarianism… for instance, one is free to give up one’s autonomy in many ways. One can voluntarily engage in BDSM sex activities like “bondage” and not give up any of her freedom in the libertarian sense (which most libertarians argue is also a standard, if not the dominant, ordinary language sense of “freedom”) though they lose virtually all immediate personal autonomy in such activities.

2. Freedom is something along the lines of absence of proactively imposed interpersonal constraints i.e. absence of interpersonal “coercion.” In practice, this definition is dependent on some intersubjective general rule of ownership of things external to one’s body i.e. some property norm. Freedom and property are two sides of the same coin: as Proudhon put it: “Property is liberty” and went on to explicitly argue in 1862’s Theorie de la propriete.

3. This does not mean that immediate personal autonomy (or wealth or happiness or material equality) is unimportant. Far from it. Indeed you can call any/all of these “freedom” if you really want to, and Hayek’s clumsy definition of coercion in COL encourages such conceptual conflation of freedom with autonomy as you quote (though Hayek himself was not confused).

Regardless of what autonomy etc. are called, they are consequentialist concerns and libertarian freedom is put forward by Hayek and others as the optimal attainable means to most such ends. If immediate personal autonomy in the workplace is your end, libertarianism only presents itself as relevant to that insofar as it necessitates judicious comparative institutional analysis (i.e. look at whether state interventionism vs. free interaction would make things better for workplace autonomy without making other things worse). Such comparative institutional analysis is avoided like the plague by most critics of libertarian ideas.

11

Z 07.04.12 at 8:59 am

Neville Morley @7, isn’t the evolution of the meaning of freedom from “being able to interact with people” to “being the absolute master of oneself” in the context of the judicial foundations of the institution of slavery discussed at length in a book which was recently discussed here (ambiguity intended in order not to reactivate any of the unpleasant aspects of this past discussion)? Certainly, western european legal tenets were deeply influenced by the roman conception. I found the thesis interesting, especially as it seems to nicely illuminates the intellectual roots of the unease we still feel about the question central to John’s post: is contracting away your freedom still freedom? John says no (and I agree of course), but I think heirs of this judicial tradition might say yes, and it is nice to (try to) understand whence they might be coming.

That said, unlike you, I have a too superficial knowledge of the actual historical conditions to pursue much further these ideas. So, what do you think?

12

Chris Bertram 07.04.12 at 9:12 am

I don’t want to thread derail from this excellent post, but various reasons, some of them reasons of loyalty, make me think I ought dissent from John’s remark about Jerry Cohen and the camping trip. If Cohen had affirmed that life is like a camping trip, or affirmed something with that implication, then the correct observation that it is not would indeed be an objection. But in fact he himself affirmed that it was not, in the sense that he recognized that we lack the mechanisms, social technology, etc to make “from each/to each” into a viable general principle to regulate society. The dialectical point of the camping trip is to point out – contra general right-wing and other assertions about “human nature” – that there are contexts (beyond immediate family) where ordinary people are led to acknowledge the fundamental communist principle as being the normatively salient one. Consequently, Cohen thinks, the communist/socialist isn’t in such a hopeless position some people believe. But it’s the start of the argument not the end. It gets the “from each/to each” principle on the table, as it were.

13

Nick 07.04.12 at 9:19 am

“John, I’ve occasionally floated, in less reputable fora than CT, the somewhat trollish claim that there is no such thing as a “freedom from”. Even the ostensibly negative liberties like freedom of conscience, protection of privacy, etc., are really the power to demand that the police and the courts take away those who would deprive you of those freedoms. I’m pretty sure I stole the notion from someone, but for the life of me can’t remember who.”

You probably got it, indirectly perhaps, from Cass Sunstein. It was challenged by Tom Palmer here: http://www.cato.org/pubs/journal/cj19n2/cj19n2-10.pdf

“Holmes and Sunstein argue that I cannot have a right not to be tortured by the police unless the police have an obligation not to torture me, and the police can only have an
obligation not to torture me if there are some taxpayer-funded persons (monitors) above the police who can punish them (since ‘‘duties are taken seriously only when dereliction is punished by the public power drawing on the public purse’’). But to have a right not to be tortured I would have to have a right that the monitors exercise their power to punish the police for torturing me. Do I have that right? According to Holmes and Sunstein, I would have such a right only if the monitors had a duty to punish the police, and the monitors would have a duty to punish the police only if there were some taxpayer-funded persons above the monitors who could (and would) punish the monitors for failing to punish the police, and so on, ad infinitum.”

So you are welcome to collapse “freedom from” into freedom but at the price of collapsing “freedom” generally.

14

John Holbo 07.04.12 at 9:31 am

“The dialectical point of the camping trip is to point out – contra general right-wing and other assertions about “human nature” – that there are contexts (beyond immediate family) where ordinary people are led to acknowledge the fundamental communist principle as being the normatively salient one. Consequently, Cohen thinks, the communist/socialist isn’t in such a hopeless position some people believe. But it’s the start of the argument not the end.”

Glad you like the post, Chris. Yes, I’m being a bit quick in dismissing Cohen. (It was a long post and this point was tangential so I didn’t want to bog down even worse.) I realize that Cohen doesn’t actually want to have to say the camping trip is a comprehensive paradigm. But I think he ends up not really getting past this starting point satisfactorily. I like Cohen a lot but I think he really does have too narrow a virtue ethics, as it were.

15

Neville Morley 07.04.12 at 10:02 am

@Z #11: I don’t know enough about the libertarian tradition up to and including Hayek to know whether classical ideas are likely to have played a significant role in its development; I’m simply struck by the resemblances, in terms of an obsession with freedom from anyone else being in a position to coerce oneself – and also with the fact that this is actually the ideal of a limited number of wealthy men (hence they conceive of wage labour as a form of slavery, and regard even a free man as inferior if he lacks the leisure to be able to develop his virtue fully). In these terms, selling oneself into slavery (even fixed-term debt bondage) is certainly conceived as a loss of freedom, and even involuntary slavery (e.g. as the result of being captured by pirates) is seen to involve a moral taint.

16

ZX 07.04.12 at 10:11 am

“But really I think it’s pretty likely Hayek thinks (or feels) we can actually do a bit better than third best. We can pick out a class of people who are likely to be better users of freedom.”

Hayek says quite explicitly in “Road to Freedom” that there are two types of people and only one type is valuable; he writes; “independence of mind and strength of character are rarely found among those who cannot be confident that they will make their way in the world by their own effort”.

17

gordon 07.04.12 at 10:29 am

“Clever men are the tools with which bad men work”.

– Hazlitt

18

aepxc 07.04.12 at 10:32 am

Discussions of freedom may suffer from the fact that most are from the perspective of what should not be done to us, rather than the perspective of what we should not do to others.

Do not take more than what you have given. Do not own more than what you have produced (without consuming).

The unnamed thing on the pedestal is not welfare but fairness/justice (“liberty and justice for all!”), and it is a theory of fairness more sensible than what Marx came up with that is sorely missing right now. In this vein, freedom is not something that produces fairness – it is something that is necessarily present whenever fairness is present (with the advantage of being easier to measure), but which can nevertheless flourish under significant levels of unfairness as well.

19

Scott Martens 07.04.12 at 10:56 am

Nick@13: No, I reject the infinite regress argument, and I think Palmer is stupid for making it. I haven’t read Sunstein’s book, so I can’t comment on his other criticisms although a lot of them seem pretty lame to me, but that one is stupid in the unique way that really only an American libertarian who is more than smart enough to know better can be stupid.

The regress either stops at the top – “l’État, c’est moi” – with the right of the sovereign to violate any right, at any time, for any purpose; or it stops with the voters, who in a democratic society are always able to judge the leadership on exactly those points. The idea that rights exist without mechanisms for enforcement is at best metaphysics and at worst bad religion.

20

Nick 07.04.12 at 11:10 am

“or it stops with the voters” – nope. By positivist logic, you don’t have the right to vote (or appeal to voters) unless that right is enforced. So you are left with “l’etat, c’est moi”, which is to say no enforceable individual rights, positive, negative, welfare or otherwise. And that’s only until a bigger state comes along…

I think its a fair enough position to take. I think David Hume, and many other sceptics, might recognise it. But its a nuclear option, reducing all rights talk, not just that of negative rights.

21

Mike Huben 07.04.12 at 11:13 am

Libertarian ideas of freedom are spandrels, and thus particularly weird. That’s a basic philosophical problem with defining things in terms of negatives.

Freedom is the practical ability to stop people from interfering with your activities. You notice that this is not a negative, passive nor costless definition. Freedoms can conflict because they are rooted in your ability to take coercive action. We create government to regulate the coercion, so that there is less conflict. Practical ability means that it is not too expensive to stop unwanted interference.

If you are abused at work, you may or may not be free depending on the expense to you of taking action.

22

Kieran 07.04.12 at 11:23 am

It was quite striking to see Tabarrok to go straight to a very pure version of “The law in its majesty forbids rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges”—in his case it was “The law in its majesty allows rich and poor alike to make contracts” and thus freedom rings and those who complain should consider whether they’d prefer North Korea. Cowen’s instinct, meanwhile, was to say that of course many strong workplace restrictions are in place, but this is because ordinary workers are feckless, cheating, drug-addled thieves.

23

Scott Martens 07.04.12 at 11:40 am

you don’t have the right to vote (or appeal to voters) unless that right is enforced

Seems to me Thomas Jefferson had some remarks on that with the whole “blood of patriots” thing. But yes… what do you think happens when there’s a military coup and then no more voting? Either elections stop, or someone makes them start again. Rights have no agency of their own, only actors do. It seems very silly me to base something as fundamental as rights on metaphysics.

24

Ranger 07.04.12 at 11:54 am

Really, what kind of brew must the Holbo/Waring household be? John = 20 gazillion words on libertarianism in the workplace then 1 tiny paragraph on aesthetics/Belle = 200 whipping words on aesthetics and 1 tiny stinging sentence on libertarianism in the workplace. The mind boggles!

25

Nick 07.04.12 at 11:55 am

“Rights have no agency of their own, only actors do. It seems very silly me to base something as fundamental as rights on metaphysics.”

The notion of personal identity, and therefore actors and individual agency, requires some empirically unverifiable and very probably scientifically misleading metaphysics. Which means the whole liberal enlightenment project of focussing on the interests of individuals is, at some sufficiently abstract level, ‘silly’. It doesn’t make it without value once you drill back down into real-world questions. And then you have silly things like rights back too.

26

Anon. 07.04.12 at 12:22 pm

I don’t get what the point of the Hayek passage is. Even if we accept that government should stop people from selling themselves into slavery, what does this have to do with the original post?

Are you really trying to draw an equivalency between selling oneself into slavery and an air traffic controller (or any other similar worker) not being able to leave their post at will to go to the toilet? I feel like I’m missing something.

27

John Holbo 07.04.12 at 12:26 pm

“Are you really trying to draw an equivalency between selling oneself into slavery and an air traffic controller (or any other similar worker) not being able to leave their post at will to go to the toilet?”

It’s not an equivalency. It’s an analogy.

28

RSA 07.04.12 at 12:30 pm

These posts are teaching me something about libertarianism; thanks. I once was discussing the difference between positive and negative freedoms with some libertarians, and the case we talked about was comparable to Hayek’s. I’ll paraphrase:

“In the sense in which we use the term [liberty], the penniless vagabond who [has fallen down a well, broken his leg, and can't get out] is indeed freer than the conscripted soldier with all his security and relative comfort.”

I gave up at that point.

29

Data Tutashkhia 07.04.12 at 12:50 pm

The penniless vagabond can, in theory, publish an anti-government pamphlet, but the soldier (and even the general) is not allowed to do that. Therefore the vagabond has to be freer than the general. That’s a pretty standard understanding of ‘freedom’ in terms of ‘liberal democracy’, ‘human rights’ and all that. Officially ‘bad’ states are judged by the way they treat their dissidents; suppressing political dissent is very, very bad, a terrible violation of liberty, even where those dissidents represent a negligible segment of the population. Is this not a liberal position anymore?

30

David Kaib 07.04.12 at 1:07 pm

It seems to me that there is a tension between libertarianism as about property and contract and libertarianism as hierarchy, but some people are conflating them (I think). To take one example, we’ve had and continue to have in the US a rather rampant stealing of houses by banks, facilitated by the government, in blatant violation of both property and contract rights. I can’t speak to whether self professed libertarians have been making an issue of this – but clearly the former version says they should and the latter says they shouldn’t.

31

Mike Huben 07.04.12 at 1:16 pm

If you look at freedom as the practical ability to stop people from interfering with your activities, then neither the soldier nor the penniless vagabond has much freedom.

The soldier cannot prevent his superiors from interfering. The penniless vagabond, surrounded by property, has not the money to pay owners who would interfere with him using their property. Both lack freedom.

Hayek presents a false choice here.

32

faustusnotes 07.04.12 at 1:30 pm

I can’t see much point in arguing with someone (Tabarrok) who says “no has a right to a job.” So far removed from basic labour market politics as to be a world unto himself. These people don’t actually have any policy clout do they?

33

faustusnotes 07.04.12 at 1:31 pm

that should be “noone has a right to a job”

34

UnlearningEcon 07.04.12 at 1:48 pm

Mike Huben is correct. The distinction between positive liberty and negative liberty is functionally meaningless, as property also uses ‘coercion’ to restrain people’s access to certain resources.

35

Cal 07.04.12 at 1:58 pm

@30

Hayek isn’t putting forward a “false choice,” rather a conceptual distinction which can of course be ignored (at the expense of understanding what libertarians are saying).

Making freedom dependent on the individual’s “ability to enforce noninterference with his activities” is a bit silly and patently not what Hayek is referring to… freedom rests not on the individual’s capacity but on general rules of interpersonal conduct, particularly those wrt presumption of innocence, of good title, etc. which often require no enforcement at all on the relevant individual’s part.

@27

Imagine this vagabond is an escaped slave who broke his leg and fell into the well. Imagine the sentiment that despite his misfortune, he died a free man. You should now understand at least what libertarians are conceptually getting at.

36

faustusnotes 07.04.12 at 2:14 pm

except he’s not, Cal. He’s a homeless vagabond who fell down a well.

37

David Kaib 07.04.12 at 2:21 pm

I would think that libertarians are getting at something more than the idea that it’s better to not be an actual slave.

38

Cal 07.04.12 at 2:24 pm

@35 A homeless vagabond can’t also be an escaped slave? Anyway, you seem to be missing the point, which was to illustrate what libertarians (and many non-libertarians) are conceptually getting at when talking about “freedom.”

39

William Timberman 07.04.12 at 2:30 pm

The Raven @ 6

Hayek’s is not an argument for aristocracy, per se, but for management. Economists worry a great deal about how to keep the great engines of capitalist productivity firing on all cylinders, and rightly so, I suppose — at least until we cook ourselves. Even socialist economists post Marx sniff with a surprising delicacy around the concept of worker management — Alec Nove, in The Economics of Feasible Socialism, for example, is very careful to circumscribe what he believes to be its limited applicability in a modern economy. Right now, we see this dilemma being played out on the world stage as Democracy vs. the Euro, but it’s endemic to the system which supports us in luxury on the one hand, and enslaves half the world on the other.

Who runs things mattered less, and was more clearly arbitrary, when there wasn’t much to run. When you have to worry about who keeps the electrical grid up, or who gets soybeans to China at what price, it matters a great deal, and Hayek doesn’t trust the hoi polloi to get it right. Neither do Wolfgang Schäuble or Barack Obama, for that matter.

They may have a point, but their focus is too narrow. This may be appropriate to their specific responsibilities, but not to the more general responsibilities which fall on us as human beings. If we want to defend freedom and plenty in the same sentence, it seems to me, we have to make the case. When Mitt Romney, in his classics comic-book parsing of Hayek, is offended by our desire to tax the Jahb-creators, the burden of proof is suddenly on us. Can we rein in the capitalist parasites who limit our bathroom breaks, yet still make the trains run on time, provide reliable electricity for everyone’s iPhone, and keep Vermont Yankee from melting down? Stay tuned….

40

Neville Morley 07.04.12 at 2:32 pm

Slavery is a good thing, ‘cos otherwise he wouldn’t get to feel the satisfaction of having died a free man?

41

faustusnotes 07.04.12 at 2:37 pm

No Cal, we live in an era where slavery (in developed nations) is a very rare thing, and most “vagabonds” are just guys with mental health issues or real bad luck. I know you libertarian types are still fighting the slavery battle (on account of being all states rights and everything) but you should remember that a) it’s not very contemporary and b) for vast swathes of the developed world (i.e. everywhere except America) it’s irrelevant.

So please do try to recast your examples so that they’re relevant. “vagabond” = “homeless person” (“vagabond” is so 1920s!) and homeless people are not escaped slaves. Examples involving escaped slaves are a waste of everyone’s time.

Now, if you want to try again …?

42

Donald A. Coffin 07.04.12 at 3:09 pm

Parts of this discussion make me want to bust into song, specifically the chorus to “Me and Bobby McGee:”

“Freedom’s just another word
For nothing left to lose…”

Solzhenitsyn says something similar about freedom in The Cancer Ward, (paraphrasing here), that once everything has been taken from you, you are free…

43

Sam 07.04.12 at 3:11 pm

One small point. Holbo says: “Actually existing libertarianism is the philosophy of treating as axiomatic that maximizing contract/property rights is tantamount to maximizing freedom.”

People need to get over the “if you don’t believe that property rights necessarily maximize freedom, then you’re not a libertarian, you’re a liberal. Gotcha!” Come on. Libertarianism is a diverse family of views. Some libertarians are believe that private property rights do promote freedom, but so do other things and these things can conflict. Is that so surprising? Good things conflict all of the time.

Of course, no one can stop you from using the term “libertarianism” to mean “property rights are axiomatically magic!” But it is impolite to suggest that people who self-identify as libertarians aren’t really libertarians because they don’t believe this (wildly implausible) necessity claim.

Imagine that you define “egalitarianism” to mean “equality trumps all other values.” Then someone comes along and says: “well, I’m an egalitarian, but I think other values can defeat equality, like freedom.” It would be rather impolite to say: “ah hah! You are actually a libertarian, not an egalitarian!”

Anyway, one other small point. Somewhere we need to make a distinction between respecting autonomy versus maximizing freedom (as, say, non-interference). Sometimes we shouldn’t maximize freedom because we should respect people’s autonomy to bind themselves via contracts. Again, not saying that this is some absolute moral rule. But just because someone doesn’t think we should maximize freedom doesn’t mean they don’t care about freedom broadly construed. There are different appropriate attitudes to a value. Promotion is just one.

44

temp 07.04.12 at 3:58 pm

Labor contracts are not analogous to slavery, because you can quit at any time. But quitting is expensive. So give labor money. This gives them freedom to quit, but also the freedom not to quit and use the money otherwise. I think the best libertarian argument, which both Tabarrok/Cowen and the BHLs are getting at, is that you’re almost always better off giving workers wealth rather than regulating their contracts, because that improves their negotiating position and therefore lets them get what they want rather than what you think they want from outside.

And, though I’m not a libertarian, I agree with this argument. Moreover, I think this argument is actually stronger than the libertarians make it, because there are many reasons in favor of the wealth transfer approach which libertarians avoid for cultural or ideological reasons. Egalitarianism is good! Wealth redistribution gets you there much faster, and in a more direct way, and with less waste, than regulations.

45

ed 07.04.12 at 4:39 pm

Yes to everything “temp” says.

The original post is all about how employment is like slavery, but the word “quit” doesn’t appear until comment 43!

46

Consumatopia 07.04.12 at 4:41 pm

There’s a difference between the claim that having a right to freedom from X means that somebody else is obligated to prevent X from happening to you, and the claim that freedom from X means that taxpayers must actively be spending money at this moment to prevent X. Both rights are “positive” rights–they impose obligations on someone else to do something. But infinite regress is only a problem for the second one–taxpayers can’t afford an infinite number of layers of bureaucracy.

The first one could be fulfilled by a (tax-funded) police force protecting the rights, combined with the body of citizens at large monitoring the police, as well as each other. Nothing rules out cycles. Indeed, a moral system that does rule out such cycles is likely wrong–of course citizens must watch the government as the government watches them.

So negative rights are positive rights. And the other way is true as well, as 33 pointed out “property also uses ‘coercion’ to restrain people’s access to certain resources”.

I understand that there is a subset of freedom that libertarians are willing to recognize as “freedom”. But we can’t simply adopt their definition when discussing libertarianism. As Cal put it, “most libertarians argue is also a standard, if not the dominant, ordinary language sense of “freedom””. Using their definition of “freedom” would constitute an admission that this obviously false claim is true. Furthermore, their attempts to build a distinction between the kinds of freedom they call “freedom” and the kinds they don’t tend to fail. I don’t think it’s ultimately sensible to try to define one word for whatever quality is maximized by state enforcement of contracts and property–we should not presume that whatever quality this is, it somehow exists prior to the institutions of contracts and property, rather than being defined by them.

@Sam

” Somewhere we need to make a distinction between respecting autonomy versus maximizing freedom (as, say, non-interference). “

You’ll notice that some libertarians above are using “autonomy” and “freedom” in exactly the opposite way that you are.

47

Zamffir 07.04.12 at 4:49 pm

@temp, I am fairly sure that if you ask Cohen and Tabarok about wealth transfers, they oppose nearly every extension of them. Unless perhaps in return for taking something else away.

So if their argument is that wealth transfers are more effective to increase freedom, then they also think that the thieving hoI polloi have quite enough freedom already. Unlike tax burdened professors, who are the downtrodden masses in need of liberation.

48

Data Tutashkhia 07.04.12 at 4:54 pm

I like the universal basic income idea too, but I’m curious how the UBI idea squares with the ‘free immigration’ idea. In a liberal/libertarian mind, I mean. Taken together, they’re gotta be more controversial than the old good “Socialism in One Country” theory.

49

Donald A. Coffin 07.04.12 at 5:12 pm

Here, b y the way, is a (1988) paper by Andrei Shliefer and Lawrence Summers (“Breach of Trust in Hostile Takeovers”) which has more than tangential relevance for the issues of freedom and agency raised in this discussion: http://www.nber.org/chapters/c2052.pdf

50

Barry Freed 07.04.12 at 5:23 pm

who doesn’t want bigger televisions …

Has anyone else noticed this liberatarian and general right-wing obsession with the poor and working class and the proper size of their televisions?

51

Jim Harrison 07.04.12 at 5:26 pm

Maybe it’s just an American or Anglo-Saxon thing, but recent arguments about political philosophy have a distinctly 18th Century flavor. It isn’t just tea party members who chose to wear three-corner hats. We’re thinking about what we ought to do and believe in a particular historical conjuncture and yet it sounds like we’re in somebody’s salon debating timeless abstractions. Maybe it would clarify things if we ask why the libertarian/anti-libertarian blow up is so salient at present. When workers are not in demand, employers are likely to abuse their employees for the same reason that a dog licks his balls. The legitimacy/illegitimacy of political interventions to limit the prerogatives of the bosses becomes a fraught issue, especially since the same low-growth conditions make the bosses want the government to intervene on their behalf to protect them from the workers and make possible an increase in the intensity of exploitation. In the current environment, property holders find themselves simultaneously calling for no government and for drastically more authoritarian government. That’s the contradiction that matters.

52

chris y 07.04.12 at 5:28 pm

Has anyone else noticed this liberatarian and general right-wing obsession with the poor and working class and the proper size of their televisions?

It isn’t a new thing either. I’m old enough to remember when the talking point was whether it was morally permissible for them to have colour, as opposed to appropriately plebeian black and white.

53

Jim Henley 07.04.12 at 5:43 pm

@Cal:

Hayek isn’t putting forward a “false choice,” rather a conceptual distinction which can of course be ignored (at the expense of understanding what libertarians are saying).

As a former libertarian I can say with certainty: no. Rejecting what libertarians are saying is not the same as misunderstanding what libertarians are saying. The “left” posters and commenters in these threads are doing the former, not the latter.

54

David Kaib 07.04.12 at 6:05 pm

Ed @ 44

The beginning of this post is this:

This post is mostly by way of trying to make Bertram, Robins and Gourvitch’s post sticky, as it deserves to stay at the top for a while. If you haven’t read their post yet, do so. If you are already reasonably conversant with their points, proceed under the fold, if you like, for what is really just a Hayek-inflected restatement and reinforcement of some of their main points.

That earlier post already discussed the ability to quit makes the employment relationship non-coercive, which is why no one felt the need to rehash it again.

55

Hob 07.04.12 at 6:23 pm

Jim Henley: “Rejecting what libertarians are saying is not the same as misunderstanding what libertarians are saying”

I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen an earnest libertarian flat-out refuse to accept that premise there. Is there any other political philosophy whose adherents are so convinced that the pure light of reason would naturally win over everyone to their side if only every single one of their detractors weren’t so confused or willfully obtuse? “You only disagree because you don’t understand my point” is at least less hostile than “You only disagree because you’ve been brainwashed by the Man” or “because of your class affiliation” or “because you hate America”, but not much less annoying.

56

temp 07.04.12 at 7:17 pm

David Kaib@53:

But whether the ability to quit is sufficient is still the main issue at dispute, right? In this post Holbo convincingly argues that freedom maximizers should forbid people from making voluntary contracts putting them into slavery. Any libertarian who supports slavery contracts is really a contractual-maximalist rather than a freedom-maximalist. But surely the BHLs already agree with this?

Holbo says that Hayek should concede that just like a soldier is less free than a vagabond because of their contract, so too is an officer worker because of theirs. But this is clearly wrong. If an office worker wants to become a vagabond he can do so at any time, so he must have at least as much freedom. A soldier or slave can’t.

Basically, is it really true, as Holbo implies but never really defends, that office workers contract away their freedom? It seems to me that this is a much stronger claim than BRG ever make. To BRG, the problem with the quitting argument is that leaving a job and finding a new one is difficult and expensive. The problem isn’t that you’re bound to your employer by contract, but that you’re bound by all sorts of other things (you bought a house expecting to keep your job, it will be bad for your long-term prospects to quit, finding a new job takes time, etc.).

57

Jim Henley 07.04.12 at 7:22 pm

@Hob:

Is there any other political philosophy whose adherents are so convinced that the pure light of reason would naturally win over everyone to their side if only every single one of their detractors weren’t so confused or willfully obtuse?

Perhaps every unhappy ideology is unhappy in its own way.

58

David Kaib 07.04.12 at 7:26 pm

Temp@55

Basically, is it really true, as Holbo implies but never really defends, that office workers contract away their freedom?

Again, this was precisely what was discussed at length in the last post. People seem to be objecting to it but they aren’t challenging that argument, as far as I can see.

59

Jim Henley 07.04.12 at 7:47 pm

Basically, is it really true, as Holbo implies but never really defends, that office workers contract away their freedom? It seems to me that this is a much stronger claim than BRG ever make. To BRG, the problem with the quitting argument is that leaving a job and finding a new one is difficult and expensive. The problem isn’t that you’re bound to your employer by contract, but that you’re bound by all sorts of other things (you bought a house expecting to keep your job, it will be bad for your long-term prospects to quit, finding a new job takes time, etc.).

I don’t think John’s actually implying this. Rather, many libertarians are using the principle of contract to attempt to end the argument: if the worker takes the employer’s money, she’s agreed to do whatever the boss tells her to do. Her right to stop taking the employer’s money – exit – is all the remedy she requires or deserves. (Don’t believe me? Check the supportive comments under the Tabarrok post. This is the mainstream argument there.) IOW, because she could have chosen not to work there and can leave she must be free while she is there, end of story. I take John as saying that per Hayek’s precepts, it’s not the end of the story at all.

The bigger problem for libertarians is that the idea of a “contract” isn’t an adequate concept to characterize relations within a firm. (Or, you know, society.) Firms form because some contracts can’t be adequately specified. This is basic transactional theory of firm formation, per Coase.

60

bianca steele 07.04.12 at 8:05 pm

Still reading, but:

seems to fit with Corey Robin’s standard line on the reactionary mind. But I would be more even-handed in spreading the blame.

Okay but this: Hayek is insistent that we can’t identify that man. (He is yet another god we cannot name.)

is no longer the case if we think we can identify those people (men). Obviously. If things always work out so we know who they are: if they are always rich, or good looking, or charismatic, or sexy, or highly moral, or in a position of power, or forceful and persuasive, or use excellent grammar, or otherwise designated by Chance or God as someone you ought to obey—even to model yourself on, if that’s what you want.

And this, I think, does go back to Robin’s argument. And the problem with the BHL’ers (as with most libertarians) is that they do, I think, agree that—within institutions like firms—“in a position of power” or “rich” or “persuasive” are good reasons to obey.

If you’d add that BHL’ers and Robin’s reactionaries tend to disagree in predictable ways about the characteristics of “who you must obey,” I’d agree. (Though at the same time I suspect the number of right-wing reactionaries who’d ever agree that the boss is not among “those whom you must obey” is sometimes overestimated around here. This is why the paying-for-contraception issue really bothered them. It isn’t because they assumed employees can take their bosses’ advice or leave it.)

61

Jim Henley 07.04.12 at 8:16 pm

Over on MR, a commenter wonders about the actual amount of employee theft, and whether there are statistics on it that don’t come from a self-interested party like the chamber of commerce. It’s an interesting question, and also one where just talking in terms of dollars can mislead, because what sounds like big dollars compared to your car payment can be tiny as a portion of the overall economy.

Employee theft is a component of corporate shrink, which includes internal theft, external theft and administrative error. A shrink level above 2% of revenue is considered high, so overall shrink across the corporate population will be less than that.

Administrative error probably accounts for half of all shrink. Particularly in a large, complex enterprise, it’s just very easy to screw things up.

That leaves us 1% of revenue for theft internal and external. The USCoC estimates that 80% of theft is internal. I frankly have my doubts about that figure. In my first career I managed bookstores in a central business district, and I certainly had some dishonest employees come through, but I’m dead certain I lost a lot more value to shoplifting (which can be a sophisticated enterprise).

Now I work for an online marketer, and the overall fraud loss for that industry is around 1%. Think about what it would mean if the same industry had 4 times as much internal theft going on: 5% of all sales lost to shrinkage. Compare that to typical net-income or EBITDA percentages of 5-10%. If the chamber’s 80% principle held, the entire industry would be out of business.

Regardless, at overall loss to theft of 1%, even 80% internal theft is 0.8% of overall corporate revenue. And here’s another thing: if you really, really, really want to steal a lot from your company, step one is not to be a line employee, but in management. There’s only so much you can slip out of the cash register before people notice. (It happens. I’ve caught and fired people for taking money out of a cash register.) The real money is in swiping inventory, entire cash deposits, and so on, and for that you need keys, passwords and access.

In other words, the people who can do the most damage to a company by stealing are the same people telling their employees, “Fuck me or your fired.”

62

Data Tutashkhia 07.04.12 at 8:25 pm

The bigger problem for libertarians is that the idea of a “contract” isn’t an adequate concept to characterize relations within a firm

I think their biggest problem is that they are geeks, who sincerely try to apply logic of a simple computer game to human society, full of complicated living creatures.

63

tempo 07.04.12 at 8:34 pm

temp #43: “Egalitarianism is good! Wealth redistribution gets you there much faster, and in a more direct way, and with less waste, than regulations.”

Can you provide us with some real world examples of countries that have gotten there, or closer to there than most others, by systematically skipping the kind of regulations under discussion and instead opting for cash distributions?

One could argue that the countries that are least inegalitarian in the prosperous west are the nordic model welfare states where regulations are extensive and unions even more extensive.

64

temp 07.04.12 at 8:40 pm

Jim Henley @ 58:

I think Holbo is indeed saying that workers contract away their freedom. For example:

Libertarians are not concerned to maximize freedom. They are maximizing contract rights and property rights. They don’t see they are not, hereby, maximizing freedom because they make the mistake Hayek diagnoses (and then frequently makes himself): contracting away your freedom is not tantamount to keeping it.

It’s obviously possible to contract away your freedom. Selling yourself into slavery is an example. Joining the military is an example. Non-compete agreements and non-disclosure agreements are examples. Most jobs in most developed nations today are not. The freedom you lose from your job, as described by BRG, does not come at the point of signing a contract, but as you invest in the job and thereby lose access to other opportunities.

65

Purple Platypus 07.04.12 at 8:50 pm

“Is there any other political philosophy whose adherents are so convinced that the pure light of reason would naturally win over everyone to their side if only every single one of their detractors weren’t so confused or willfully obtuse?”

All of them. There are plenty of ills unique to Libertarianism, but this is not one of them.

66

ben 07.04.12 at 9:08 pm

This whole article is one big straw-man argument.

No-one said that it should be possible to trade away the right not to be aggressed against (which would be necessary to sell yourself into true slavery and such), and certainly no-one claimed that if it were possible, that person would then still be free.
The non-aggression principle is not something a person “owns” as his property, it is a fundamental principle which – according to libertarian philosophy – pertains to all people in all situations.

Signing a work contract has nothing to do with trading away your fundamental rights. What you are trading in is some of your labour (which is something you own). The non-aggression principle still holds for you like it did before you signed the contract, which is why if you change your mind and refuse to complete your side of the contract, the employer may not drag you to work by your feet or flog you, he is then merely freed from fulfilling his side of the contract as well. (Plus, if your premature breaking of the contract verifiably caused him financial losses, you owe him restitution.)

This is the “worst case scenario” of how you can end up in a libertarian market system: Being in debt.
Comparing this to slavery, i.e. ending up without your rights, is just silly.

67

temp 07.04.12 at 9:30 pm

tempo @ 62:

I think the Nordic nations are actually a good example. I’m not an expert, but my understanding is that labor regulations are weaker than in other Western European nations, while redistribution is stronger. See “flexicurity”, for example.

68

Jamey 07.04.12 at 9:36 pm

I always thought Shakespeare’s apothecary in Romeo and Juliet put this argument most succinctly, “My poverty not my will consents”. Although it’s never been clear to me whether this is to be interpreted as 1) Statement of the facts of the matter. No further interpretation required. OR 2) Just an attempt on the part of the apothecary to absolve himself of any moral responsibility for selling deadly drugs. You could still accept the basic validity of the philosophical argument about freedom but maybe it doesn’t really apply to the apothecary. Maybe he’s just doing what lots of people do when they know they are doing something they shouldn’t. Blame circumstances and claim you had no choice.

And not’s open the can of worms about what libertarians/propertiarians would say about Mantuan laws forbidding the sell of such drugs.

69

Kris 07.04.12 at 9:38 pm

nice post John,

Counterfactuals seem useful as a way of showing what’s wrong with Cowen-Libertarianism. Can Cowen imagine a world -forget about the real world- that has private coercion. Imagine there are two or three great corporations that employ most everyone on earth. Work for one of them or starve. They give each other references regarding employees and if you quit one corporation, you’ll never work for the other. Government has a weak welfare system, but many starve on welfare. The government regulates the three corporations only by enforcing contracts, protecting their property rights (no oe outside them owns much of anything), and protecting individuals from rape and murder that they didn’t consent to in a contract. Some of the intellectuals who work for the corporations say you are free because you can always quit and start your own corporation, but this is hard because they own all natural resources.

Can Cowen-Libertarians at least agree that such a world is unjust and its people are unfree? I think they will.

The only remaining questions then, are how much is our world like this world and how can we reform our world to make it less like this. Well, the latter question can only be answered in one way. Collective action in the form of government action or union bargaining will be required.

The former question is harder to deal with when you’re talking to someone like Cowen. I think its important to recognize the fact that regardless of your view of free will, individuals have a lot harder time starting their own business, negotiating their own contracts, etc than Cowen believes. But that’s another post.

70

Jamey 07.04.12 at 9:52 pm

@ Purple Platypus #64

I think libertarians have to take a few extra hit points though because they have a magazine called Reason which is published by the Reason Foundation. Most other political ideologies usually only go so far as to imply that their outlook is synonymous with reason itself. I doubt that The Nation or National Review would go so far as to rename their publications Intelligence or Virtue.

71

ZX 07.04.12 at 9:59 pm

“When workers are not in demand, employers are likely to abuse their employees for the same reason that a dog licks his balls.”

Some employers will do this; just as some workers will steal, goof off etc if they can.
Hayek and libertarians assume that employers are always people with ‘strength of mind and character’, and workers are always ‘the other’. Any real life experience of working in the lower paid jobs would demonstrate to smug little middle class wankers that bosses can be stupid, lazy, and totally lacking in character and integrity.

72

Will 07.04.12 at 10:56 pm

Nick @ 24 said:

“Rights have no agency of their own, only actors do.”

In other words, we are talking about what is actually a relationship between people as if it were a thing. Reification! Note that actual rights are more or less constantly negotiated on the ground: I have no “right” on paper to have a beer at the park, but I know full well that the police will not do anything about it, so in effect I have this right. Likewise with employee theft.

It is in this context that we should think about the relationship of freedom in the workplace and the abandonment of full employment, both it’s redefinition by economists, and as a goal of public policy. As Michal Kalecki pointed out, employees in a full-employment economy may not be as subservient as their employers would prefer.

73

gordon 07.05.12 at 12:34 am

With regard to working life, here are some extracts from an Alternet article on increasing job insecurity:

“Job insecurity is nothing new for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Since the ’70s and ’80s, a shifting labor market and anti-worker policies have been fraying the ties between employers and employees, fueling the perception that a job is a temporary affair. Globalization, outsourcing, contracting, downsizing, and recession have conspired to make confidence in a stable, long-term job a privilege that few can enjoy.

“A recent survey by the American Psychological Association paints a picture of workers on the verge of a nervous breakdown:

Sixty-two percent say work has a significant impact on their stress levels.
Almost 50 percent indicate their stress levels have increased between 2007 and 2008.
Forty-five percent of workers say job insecurity has a significant impact on stress levels.

“[A recent] study found that chronic job insecurity was a stronger predictor of poor health than either smoking or hypertension. Months, even years, are shaved off of life expectancy.

“The apologists for unbridled capitalism tell us that employers need maximum flexibility to hire and fire so that wealth can be created for all. In the face of ever-increasing income inequality, that line doesn’t play.

“Most Americans are prepared to work hard for a living, but is premature death our only reward?”

http://www.alternet.org/economy/156104/job_insecurity%3A_it%E2%80%99s_the_disease_of_the_21st_century_–_and_it%E2%80%99s_killing_us/?page=4

There are links in the original to research studies quoted.

74

John Holbo 07.05.12 at 1:01 am

I was hoping that the fact that the slave analogy came from Hayek would help calm some folks down and make them think: given the source, I shouldn’t just assume that this understanding of freedom is totally uncomprehending of the spirit of libertarianism.

But I see that some people think that I’m just straw-manning. “Signing a work contract has nothing to do with trading away your fundamental rights.” This just misunderstands the issue.

Put it this way: suppose you are trying to decide. Will I take the job where I can ‘be my own boss’ – either because it’s my own company, or because I’m given wide latitude and creative freedom and all that – or will I take the assembly-line job where I screw the top on the tube all day long but I get good pay and security? (Never mind the fact that this sort of robot work is actually done by robots these days. Just grant that there are jobs where you get to be the boss and there are jobs where all day someone bosses you. Being a slave is just the limit case of a job where all day someone bosses you. That’s what it means to be a slave. You add: AND you can’t exit. Don’t worry, we’ll get to that, kid. But first, back to your choice of jobs.)

The obvious answer is: you’ve just got to decide, kid. There’s obviously a trade-off.

The obvious answer is NOT the one implied by those complaining about the slavery analogy: there’s no trade-off! If you decide to take the toothpaste tube top screwing-on job then you are, at every moment of the work day, just as a free as the man who we foolishly call ‘his own boss’ (foolish because everyone in this system is ‘his own boss’.) By freely contracting, you make every top you screw on a top you freely screw on. Therefore, take the toothpaste job. More pay. No loss of freedom. No. Hayek is right. If you reduce yourself to the toothpaste top-putting on equivalent of the Jesuit who “regards himself ‘as a corpse which has neither intelligence nor will’,” at least from 9 to 5, then you are selling your freedom, from 9 to 5, not preserving it. This isn’t necessarily bad, of course. But it is a trade-off. (Be it noted: just as, by following Hayek, I am not saying that all work for hire is slavery, so, by following Hayek, I am not saying that all factory work is a form of spiritual asceticism, from which it would presumably follow that anyone working to enact certain sorts of worker protections would be an anti-Catholic bigot. Not every analogy is a statement of strict identity. Not every example is a universal generalization. Wise words to live by.)

Another example: the US allows free emigration. If you don’t love it, you can leave it. A lot of libertarians complain about ways in which the US is not a free enough country, either because Barack Obama is a socialist, or just because the government isn’t as minimal night-watchman state as one might like. It would be very silly to dismiss these concerns like so: your freedoms cannot possibly be violated because you are always free to leave and go live somewhere else. The fact that you can always leave is unquestionably a good thing, but it not an automatic guarantee of the absence of the sorts of problems that might cause you to avail yourself of it.

It would also be silly to say to a slave: you aren’t really unfree because you could either run away or stage a slave revolt or something. If it’s true that the slave can easily run away (it might be true), that is an important factor to consider. It’s likely to make his master treat him better and so forth. That’s not nothing. But the absurdity comes in here. If I am already not really a slave because I could always run away from my master if I wanted, then I don’t actually have a motive to run away – because I’m (see above) always already not really a slave. This is confused.

[comment edited for clarity]

75

David Kaib 07.05.12 at 1:07 am

Not every analogy is a statement of strict identity.

This has been bothering me, so I’d like to take this a little further. By definition, and analogy compares two things that are not the same thing. An analogy is not an identity.

76

matt w 07.05.12 at 1:12 am

Kieran @22: I was pretty astonished to find that you weren’t exaggerating what Cowen said one tiny little bit.

77

Watson Ladd 07.05.12 at 1:26 am

The US doesn’t allow free emigration. You have to pay taxes indefinitely, and if you decide to give up your citizenship to stop paying the taxes they won’t let you back in. Of course, this doesn’t affect the basic point.

But there does seem to be a difference between complaining about the boss and the state. Ones relation to the state rarely terminates, nor are there usually duties you owe to it. (Jury duty is the obvious exception, but that’s directly because of the right to a trial by jury). But we all accept that accepting employment means selling labor to the boss, and that failure to provide that labor results in not getting payed. If you work at the toothpaste factory and then don’t work, you probably won’t get payed. The question becomes what conditions can we put on that contract? I don’t think we need a concept of freedom to get at the fundamental problems of work here. But if we do want a concept of freedom to do the heavy lifting, what makes the grocery store, or indeed any sort of human relationship not equally oppressive?

Your wife no doubt would object to you forgetting her birthday. But you don’t have a general duty to remember birthdays that is owed to everyone. (Or pick up your room, or groceries etc.) So your freedom in infringed by marriage. Yet I doubt any of us are terribly concerned by that. By contrast we are all immensely concerned by the police detaining persons for a short period of time and searching for weapons under a pretextual Terry stop in New York. (Hold the race issue: yes it matters, but so does the civil liberties issue). Yet it is not clear to me which set of infringements, as infringements in and of themselves is more onerous. Voluntariness seems to matter.

78

temp 07.05.12 at 1:50 am

John Holbo @ 74:

I’m not sure how this fits in to the rest of the argument. So there’s a tradeoff between personal autonomy and wealth/security. Are you saying that libertarians, to not be hypocrites, should care about which point people choose on this axis? That they should be in favor of state intervention to lead people more towards the “personal autonomy” end at the expense of the “wealth/security” end?

79

Nachman Mendel 07.05.12 at 2:37 am

Scott Martens @ 9, your assertion that negative liberties are “really” just the power to demand the government to enforce your rights is incorrect. If you shoot and kill a home invader, you’ve effectively exercised a legally recognized right to self-defense without resort to the courts or police. In fact, the only time you’d need to ask the government to do anything at all is if the state initiated criminal proceedings against you in the first place! (And then you’d only be asking one branch of government to follow its own laws and keep the other branch away from you.)

This isn’t some fantasy dreamed up by “gun nuts”; it’s just the law. And those who have real experience with the legal system tend to realize, contra political theorists, that it’s a highly ineffective means of protecting rights unless one happens to be extraordinarily wealthy.

On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of self-help, as long as you know what your rights are.

80

John Holbo 07.05.12 at 3:04 am

“You have to pay taxes indefinitely, and if you decide to give up your citizenship to stop paying the taxes they won’t let you back in.”

Fair enough. But, as you say, this doesn’t change the basic point. If your employer told you that if you quit, you couldn’t come back into the building, that would not be an argument against the possibility of exit.

“So there’s a tradeoff between personal autonomy and wealth/security. Are you saying that libertarians, to not be hypocrites, should care about which point people choose on this axis?”

First, I’m saying that libertarians are committed to denying the trade-off exists. That’s wrong. Second, I’m saying that libertarians are not interested in maximizing freedom, by their lights. So they should stop saying otherwise. Third … well, here it gets complicated. If you care about freedom, you should care about trade-offs of freedom against other goods. But obviously the right to trade-off your freedom against other goods is itself an important freedom (even though it does not follow that you are never trading off your freedom, after all). It’s a nice question when forbidding certain freedoms maximizes freedom (a classic problem in a lot of areas.) It’s not obvious that we are all best off as vagabonds even if we grant that vagabonds are most free. That said: libertarians, if they truly care about freedom, should be concerned about us living in a world in which people wish they had more practical capacity to push the slider to the freedom side, trade-off-wise, but find that all the jobs they can get are jobs that require them to push the slider way to the other side. If we could make a world that worked differently than that, work-wise, we could make a world that was more free, perhaps. If what you want is freedom, you should at least consider that.

The reason for favoring ‘voice’ over ‘exit’ is that voice is more freedom-preserving, plausibly. That’s a start.

81

Nachman Mendel 07.05.12 at 3:07 am

And as far as the original post is concerned, it’s hard to believe people still take utilitarianism seriously these days. Asking what will increase the “overall utility” of society is not an “empirical” question; it’s a meaningless question. Utility functions are mathematical models illustrating individuals’ subjective, ordinal preferences. “Utils” do not correspond to an objective unit of measurement that can be interpersonally compared; only ignorant social theorists still believe in that sort of nonsense. It’s sad that people have yet to move on from this naive, Benthamite claptrap. Futilitarianism is for economic illiterates.

82

Belle Waring 07.05.12 at 3:30 am

The most obvious situation where the government has gotten involved in intimate personal contracts is in laws forbidding marital rape. I’m sure libertarians prior to the passage of these laws would have said anyone who didn’t want to be sexually available at any and all times to her husband could just not get married, or, having mistakenly done so, she could even get divorced, so that there was really no way her rights could be violated by her being raped in her marital contract. Except all those hundreds of thousands of people getting raped. Which we needed the government to stop.
Ranger @24: our daughters complain we are too sarcastic.

83

Watson Ladd 07.05.12 at 3:48 am

Belle: So, the government, by preserving the freedom of the wife to not have sex, is affirmatively shaping the marriage contract. In the employment scenario an analogy would be that the employee can refuse to do what the employer tells him to, which is always the case. (They may of course get fired for it). But in the marriage scenario we don’t say “oh, men can’t divorce over sexual problems in the marriage”. The analogy doesn’t seem to do the lifting you need it to.

John: Imagine a farmer who farms for himself. He needs to eat. This forces him to do things he might not want to do, like hoe, and seed. So his freedom is infringed upon by necessity. But then if he wants to have a big screen TV, and so must hoe more, is his freedom infringed upon in the same extent? It seems that absent a convincing metaphysical account of freedom and necessity, we’re not able to progress with this argument. But I don’t think we need to: if we simply note that the damage to the telemarketer from letting his employees pee is minimal and financial, while the gain to his employees’s health considerable, there is a strong argument for regulation. This though raises the question of why the rule exists in the first place.

84

Nachman Mendel 07.05.12 at 4:01 am

Belle Waring @ 82

“I’m sure libertarians prior to the passage of these laws would have said anyone who didn’t want to be sexually available at any and all times to her husband could just not get married”

Maybe Walter Block and Robert Nozick might have said that, but just about every other libertarian rejects the idea that one can transfer title to his or her own body. Even under libertarian contract theory, violating a contract to have sex would at most result in liability to pay liquidated damages. Forced sex is always rape (again, except according to Block and Nozick).

85

Nachman Mendel 07.05.12 at 4:03 am

I meant “breaching,” not violating. The point remains.

86

John Holbo 07.05.12 at 4:16 am

“So his freedom is infringed upon by necessity.”

This is a classic problem to which there is no clear answer. Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man complains: “The laws of nature have oppressed me. More than anything else in my life.” Most philosophers – including Hayek – regard that as absurd. If someone breaks your legs, they are coercing you into not walking, in effect. But the laws of nature, not being agent-like, do not coerce you into not flying. Admittedly, it is all rather confusing.

87

Consumatopia 07.05.12 at 4:16 am

@Watson Ladd

But in the marriage scenario we don’t say “oh, men can’t divorce over sexual problems in the marriage”.

But we do say that a wealthy man (or woman) can’t simply kick their penniless spouse out of the house without paying some sort of alimony. It’s not that we regulate the dissolution of marriages less than the dissolution of employment relationships, it’s that we regulate them differently (a wealthy person would likely find it much cheaper to fire an employee than to divorce their spouse, even if they can make the latter decision completely at-will.)

88

John Holbo 07.05.12 at 4:34 am

“violating a contract to have sex would at most result in liability to pay liquidated damages.”

Phrase for the ages!

89

Watson Ladd 07.05.12 at 4:39 am

John: Forgive my not understanding, but it seems you do need necessity to be oppressive to get oppression to result from the exercise of rights by others. The question of whether coercion exists in the workplace depends upon the employer’s exercise of his right to fire (that is terminate the employment contract) being an exercise of coercion, or even his putting certain conditions into the employment contract. I’m just not seeing an element of freedom here, beyond these are two people coming to a mutually beneficial agreement.

90

John Holbo 07.05.12 at 5:13 am

“The question of whether coercion exists in the workplace depends upon the employer’s exercise of his right to fire (that is terminate the employment contract) being an exercise of coercion”

There are a lot of issues. Partly the problem is that Hayek’s account of coercion is ultimately unclear. I’m piggy-packing on that account in my post, largely by way of trying to induce libertarians to take some correct points serious, but at some point I’ve going to want to get off this pig, because it will get silly. (This does not mean I’m tricking the people I’ve been trying to convince with Hayek arguments I myself think are bad. The points I’ve made seem to me correct, for the reasons I’ve given.)

Perhaps we can start with something relatively clear (even if the full analysis of it might be debated): telling a worker who needs her paycheck, and can’t really be sure of getting another one somewhere else, to have sex with you or she’s fired, is coercion. Now many libertarians will say this is wrong – mean, cruel – but legally permissible: fire-at-will and all that. You don’t need a good reason. Ergo, you can have a bad reason. In a sense, the worker and the employer are coming to a mutually beneficial arrangement (she regards sex plus the job as less bad than the alternative), but it’s still coercion. Possibly the employer has the right. But it’s still coercion.

Now, possibly other examples of firings would not be coercive. The concept has a distressing tendency to include everything our fellow humans do, if you don’t keep it on a leash. But possibly a lot of other examples will turn out to be coercive even after we’ve reined in ‘coercion’ to a sane degree. So the problems I’ve indicated rather abstractly may turn out to be real and rather typical. I suspect so. But in the meantime, we do need to come up with a coherent account of coercion, I admit. Hayek’s ain’t it. Can’t ride that pig forever.

91

temp 07.05.12 at 5:56 am

John Holbo, do you think that religious-freedom maximalists are committed to forbidding people from becoming Jesuits? Or at least, to seriously considering whether forbidding people from becoming Jesuits may actually increase religious freedom, for the reasons Hayek gives? It may be an interesting question when forbidding freedom actually increases freedom, but I think liberals have generally been consistent on this point, in most contexts. Liberals usually favor giving people the freedom to choose how free their religious practice is (some liberals may oppose certain religions for enabling some members of those religions to coerce other members, but this is different–by Hayek’s account, the Jesuit gives up his own freedom by his own choice, without external coercion). Similarly, liberals favor giving people freedom of assembly, even if they may choose to use it to join sports teams or hire personal trainers and, by your (interpretation of Hayek’s) account, trade their freedom for recreation or fitness. Liberals don’t see any tradeoff between freedom of assembly/religion with some other freedom, unless those freedoms are used to coerce others. If you actually want to say that going to fitness class and paying someone to boss you around should be of concern to liberals who care about freedom–which you seem comitted to by 74 and 80, though maybe you’ve stepped back from that in your recent posts?–that seems very radical, especially for a post claiming to be mere support to the much more moderate claims of BRG.

If you don’t want to say that, then it seems straightforward that people should be able to choose on their own where they want to be on the wealth/security vs. autonomy axis, and there’s no contradiction to claiming to be a freedom-maximizer and giving people this choice. In which case, it’s just like any other tradeoff people make, not relevantly different from bigger house vs. nicer car. Giving people money, like the BHLs advocate, seems like a good plan. If the state takes care of necessities, the choice becomes luxury vs autonomy, which seems fair.

92

John Holbo 07.05.12 at 6:30 am

“John Holbo, do you think that religious-freedom maximalists are committed to forbidding people from becoming Jesuits?”

No. But this is a good question. I don’t mean to imply that there are no issues here, or that Hayek is beyond a doubt right about how to view this case; but religious freedom is a matter of choosing your religion, not choosing what the religion you choose should involve, if you see the distinction. You can choose to be Catholic, but it doesn’t follow that you have the right to choose that Catholicism (or some restrictive ascetic, monastic sect of Catholicism) shall involve more freedom than it, as it so happens, does. In general, you are allowed to trade off freedom for other things, up to a point. A liberal should say that people can join this sort of sect if they want. But the sect can’t, legally, force people not to leave, in a liberal political order. But if adherents want to deaden their wills, of their own will, that’s ok. One of those liberals have to tolerate illiberals results kind of things. You can work in a toothpaste factory, too, if you want. The toothpaste factory case is likely to be of greater concern because economic conditions might force people into deadening work. It’s unlikely that people will be, effectively, forced to become ascetic Jesuits, when really they would prefer to be office workers if only they could find work.

“If you actually want to say that going to fitness class and paying someone to boss you around should be of concern to liberals who care about freedom—which you seem comitted to by 74 and 80, though maybe you’ve stepped back from that in your recent posts?”

I certainly don’t want to say that liberals should be concerned about people hiring personal trainers. That’s patently totally unproblematic and I don’t think I’ve implied otherwise. But if I have, obviously I need to fix something somewhere.

93

temp 07.05.12 at 6:59 am

You claim in 74 that accepting a job where you get bossed around all day represents a genuine loss of freedom that honest libertarians should be concerned about. Just like there are different ways of pursuing money, with different degrees of preserving individual autonomy, so too there are different ways of pursuing good fitness. On one extreme, you pay to get bossed around. This seems like a sacrifice of freedom in the same way as the toothpaste factory. Am I missing something? What’s the difference?

I would say that the difference is that there are other options for pursuing fitness and there aren’t always other options for making money. But you say in 74 that even if there are other good options, and even if the worker chooses nevertheless to work in the toothpaste factory of their own will, because they value the money and security more than freedom, it’s still a genuine trade-off and the worker has in a real sense given up freedom (and libertarians should be concerned about this). So this can’t be the right answer.

94

piglet 07.05.12 at 7:14 am

Jim 51: “In the current environment, property holders find themselves simultaneously calling for no government and for drastically more authoritarian government. That’s the contradiction that matters.”

Yep.

95

ben 07.05.12 at 7:33 am

@John Holbo

“Another example: the US allows free emigration. If you don’t love it, you can leave it.”

This is nothing like an employment contract.

In an employment contract, being paid (plus the right to enter the office building, use its coffee machine, etc. etc.) is a temporary privilege granted to the employee by the terms of the employment contract. Not a fundamental right of his.

With your example it’s the other way around:
My living in the country of my birth is a birthright, is not a privilege granted by the terms of some contract between me and the government. There is no such contract. Nor could there be, because the government doesn’t own the country. Its purpose is merely to serve its inhabitants by functioning as a democratic administrative and rights-protecting agent. Rights are not granted by the government, they pre-exist. The government merely has the job of protecting them. If fact, the government officials are *our* (the people’s) employees, not the other way around.

96

Scott Martens 07.05.12 at 7:35 am

Nachman@79: So your rights are dependent on the state offering you a positive defense, before a state-operated court, which must otherwise charge you with murder and deprive you of your liberties? You have a positive right to make such a claim and a positive right to be liberated if you make it convincingly, otherwise, the court will uphold your victim’s positive right to have the state intervene against you. I’m not sure your example gives you what you want.

Absent the state, you may kill anyone you like and they can kill you back. You may imagine you have rights under such circumstances, but you can also imagine that Jesus comes down from heaven and tells you what to do. I don’t see much difference between the two illusions. Unless you are empowered enough to mobilize in defense of your claimed rights, they are just delusions of grandeur.

97

ben 07.05.12 at 7:43 am

@John Holbo, temp & others:

Entering a contract where you promise not to make use of some of your rights/freedoms in certain ways, is NOT equal to losing those rights/freedoms.

You still have those rights/freedoms. You can exercise them at any time if you choose so. No one may aggress against you to forcefully interfere if you choose to do so.

It’s just that if you actions violate your side of the contract, the other person is no longer obligated to fulfill their part of the contract, either.
Because *they* have the same rights/freedoms, too.

98

Nick 07.05.12 at 8:49 am

Belle @82:

While I am sure there are plenty of views on marriage within the libertarian canon, one common view is scepticism of the value of marriage and whether marriage should be instituted and enforced by the state at all. Herbert Spencer seems to have thought that a husband’s domination in marriage was a remnant of slavery:

“There should be a thorough recognition on both sides of the equality of rights, and no amount of power should ever be claimed by the one party greater than that claimed by the other. The present relationship existing between husband and wife, where one claims a command over the actions of the other, is nothing more than a remnant of the old leaven of slavery. It is necessarily destructive of refined love; for how can a man continue to regard as his type of the ideal a being whom he has, by denying an equality of privilege with himself, degraded to something below himself? To me the exercise of command on the part of the husband seems utterly repugnant to genuine love, and I feel sure that a man of generous feeling has too much sympathy with the dignity of his wife to think of dictating to her, and that no woman of truly noble mind will submit to be dictated to.”

http://praxeology.net/HS-LM.htm

99

Conall Boyle 07.05.12 at 8:53 am

There is another real-existing example of UBI (apart from Alaska). It’s in much-maligned Iran, of all places. You can find out more at:
http://www.citizensincome.org/resources/newsletter%20issue%202%202012.shtml#Mainarticles

100

Conall Boyle 07.05.12 at 9:26 am

As a life-long advocate of UBI (we now call it Citizens’ Income; see previous posting), I am delighted that this highbrow discussion of Libertarianism and Job-coercion has led to such knowledgeable chatter about UBI. Most of our (Citizens’ Income UK group) analysis has been about conversion of welfare payments and tax allowances plus extra income tax to fund UBI. It is assumed the Job-system remains intact.

This is wrong on two counts:
Firstly, as those posting on CT point out, taxing income from jobs at 50%+ to pay for UBI is totally absurd, politically.
Second, there is a vast amount of unearned wealth that can be used to fund UBI. Chris Bertram has already alluded to the Georgist ideal of resource-based taxes (which is where the money to pay quasi-UBI in Alaska and Iran comes from).

But there is another source of money from which our beloved bankers make their squillions: Seigniorage is the posh name for this; Social Credit as purveyed by Maj C H Douglas is the political label for the idea of reclaiming the benefits of money-issue for public benefit.

Tosh! says Hayek and the Austrian economists. Gold-based currencies will bypass both governments and banksters, and save us all from socialist serfdom. But as the earlier CT discussion of David Graeber’s Debt, the first 5,000 years shows, they are utterly mistaken. Money has always and everywhere been created by the State, but as we can clearly see, has been usurped by the private banking interest.

So UBI is quite easily affordable, funded by resource-use charges and seigniorage. But what about the workers? Maybe post-UBI we can at last say ‘thank you’ to the engineers who brought us goods in abundance at very low cost. This productivity miracle requires very few workers. Instead of trying to push the majority of men and women into pointless full-time jobs, we can look forward to the ultimate freedom — more time of our own, to do what we wish to make our lives more fufilled.

101

John Holbo 07.05.12 at 9:31 am

“You claim in 74 that accepting a job where you get bossed around all day represents a genuine loss of freedom that honest libertarians should be concerned about.”

Obviously it is permissible to take a job where you get bossed around all day. But if we live in a world where most job are like that and we could live in a world in which fewer jobs were like that, anyone who is interested in maximizing freedom should consider whether the second world is better.

Perhaps this helps: libertarians often say they are maximizing liberty. Liberals often say they are optimizing the supply of liberty. They are trying to secure the greatest amount possible, consistent with everyone having at least the basics, and consistent with certain concerns about equality. Libertarians may suggest that they are most committed to liberty because they are maximizers not optimizers. But it is false that libertarians actually are maximizers. When we look at what they are securing, it may (I think will) turn out to be less than the liberal optimum.

ben: “This is nothing like an employment contract.

In an employment contract, being paid (plus the right to enter the office building, use its coffee machine, etc. etc.) is a temporary privilege granted to the employee by the terms of the employment contract. Not a fundamental right of his.”

One thing we are trying to determine in this debate is what our fundamental rights are, or should be. So let’s not start at the wrong end. The relevant analogy is this: according to libertarians, the possibility of exit from your job proves that you’re freedoms aren’t infringed on the job. You can always leave. But this possibility of exit exists for your country, too. No one would say that the possibility of exit itself proves your freedoms aren’t infringed in your own country. So what does the possibility of exit from your job really prove about whether you are enjoying freedom on the job?

“Entering a contract where you promise not to make use of some of your rights/freedoms in certain ways, is NOT equal to losing those rights/freedoms.”

So if I sign up to be locked in a cage at the zoo, for pay, thereby giving up my freedom to leave the cage from 9-5, I am not actually unfree to leave the cage from 9-5, during which time I am in fact locked in the cage, and don’t have a key (let’s say)? Is this just because I actually can exit, i.e. quit the job? I can holler ‘I quit’ or ‘I feel sick’ and someone will, in fact, come with a key?

102

Data Tutashkhia 07.05.12 at 9:37 am

You’re free if you have a better lawyer than the other guy.

103

Nick 07.05.12 at 9:42 am

“So if I sign up to be locked in a cage at the zoo, for pay, thereby giving up my freedom to leave the cage from 9-5, I am not actually unfree to leave the cage from 9-5, during which time I am in fact locked in the cage, and don’t have a key (let’s say)? Is this just because I actually can exit, i.e. quit the job? I can holler ‘I quit’ or ‘I feel sick’ and someone will, in fact, come with a key?”

That sounds about right. You are not free in the Hobbesian negative liberty sense (you can’t physically leave) but you are free in so far as you are entitled to leave whenever you choose, and failure to let you go would infringe that entitlement.

104

ben 07.05.12 at 10:07 am

“That sounds about right. You are not free in the Hobbesian negative liberty sense (you can’t physically leave) but you are free in so far as you are entitled to leave whenever you choose, and failure to let you go would infringe that entitlement.”

Exactly.

Btw, this example has again little to do with the workplace. In the workplace scenario which John Holbo considers illegitimate coercion, you [i]can[/i] physically leave.

105

ben 07.05.12 at 10:16 am

PS: To clarify, in the cage example, the “entitlement to leave” is not just a hypothetical right that would kick in if you *could* physically leave. It kicks in immediately.

It’s the zoo keeper’s action of keeping the cage locked and the key physically away from it that prevents you from leaving. As soon as that no longer happens with your consent, it becomes a breach of the non-aggression principle.

In the workplace scenario, however, there is no such breach.

106

ben 07.05.12 at 10:26 am

One thing we are trying to determine in this debate is what our fundamental rights are, or should be. So let’s not start at the wrong end.

It isn’t to me.
To me, the non-aggression principle directly determines the fundamental rights of people, not some vague notion of utility to be evaluated at the end of the argument.

Perhaps this helps: libertarians often say they are maximizing liberty.

Again, with the assumption that all political philosophy must be based on utilitarianism.

Most libertarians I know are *not* about “maximizing” liberty, but about *respecting* liberty in a formal and deontological sense.

107

Jim Henley 07.05.12 at 11:50 am

People seriously need to shut up about employment “contracts,” particularly in the US case. The vast majority of US employees do not have contracts. The vast majority of new-hire documents – offer letters; employee handbooks – take great pains to declare that “this is not a contract of employment.” Firms exist because contracts are inadequate or inconvenient to cover all commercial relations, let alone all social relations. Stop pretending that contracts are a sufficient frame for the issues raised in these posts.

108

ben 07.05.12 at 12:20 pm

@Jim Henley

A contract is simply a consensual agreement where both participants know what it’s about.
It does not have to be a piece of paper with signatures on it.

109

rea 07.05.12 at 12:23 pm

Jim @ 107–no, the employment relationship is still contractual, even if terminable at willl by the employer. If you put in a day’s work, you have a legally enforceable right to a day’s pay, even though you might not have a job tomorrow. And there are always enforceable terms and conditions of employment, even if those terms are–“you must follow the rules in the handbook, but we don’t have to.”

110

John Holbo 07.05.12 at 1:54 pm

Sorry. Busy night. No time for long comments but clearly any further discussion would have to be quite involved because ben and rea and effectively saying they want to chuck the Hayek stuff, which is the post. Which is fine. But then we need to start from scratch in some ways. A question for ben (and maybe others). But you should know: I probably won’t be back after this for 12 hours so so, so you’re on your own.

Why do you think “respecting liberty in a formal and deontological sense” requires “the non-aggression principle” and nothing more – or nothing less? Obviously it could just be a definitional point: respecting liberty formally could be defined as following the non-aggression principle. But that’s sort of circular. (Why accept that definition rather than a different one?) The burden of my post, and the first BRG post, was that your vision is consistent with private regimes of power making people less free. So you end up with the paradox that respecting liberty makes people less free. You will respond by saying: I don’t call the thing you call ‘freedom’ ‘freedom’. Fine. Call it ‘a ham sandwich’ if you like. But it’s quite obvious why people WANT the thing I call ‘freedom’ and you don’t. But presumably you think it’s wrong to care about what I call ‘freedom’ more than about the thing you call ‘freedom’. Usually the argument turns utilitarian at this point, in my experience. Hayek has a long story to tell about what’s wrong with my sense of liberty, but it’s a utilitarian argument. But you say you are not going to go there. Very well: what’s the source of the appeal of your view, for you? (It’s not that I can’t imagine any non-utilitarian argument for libertarianism. But I want to hear yours.)

111

Consumatopia 07.05.12 at 2:08 pm

I didn’t note this earlier because it seemed so obvious that it would be annoying, but given that some people are taking the UBI seriously as a mechanism for giving all workers a reasonable alternative to submitting to their boss’s demands, I guess I should be annoying. The UBI wouldn’t do anything for someone who had a pre-existing health condition and could not purchase health insurance in the private market.

Essentially, people with pre-existing conditions start out with a massive negative income–if you actually want to give someone a “basic income” you must first deal with those conditions.

So, at the very least, to accomplish its goal the UBI would have to be supplemented by universal health care, or at least something like the regulatory scheme of Obamacare.

Perhaps the BHL people addressed this somewhere, but I couldn’t find anything.

Note that disease is, itself, a perfect example of why any talk of a “non-aggression principle” is absolute nonsense (even aside from the fact that property is aggression). Many diseases are caused by other people. You might have injuries inflicted in criminal acts, or from accidents. We all catch communicable diseases from other people. Pollution produced by all of us increases the rates of cancer, birth defects, and other diseases.

112

soru 07.05.12 at 5:48 pm

Presumably the underlying philosophical difference between JH’s rhetorical position of progressive libertarianism and actual real-existing libertarians is that they are not progressive, but conservative or reactionary?

Dig into Hayek and apply philosophy, you can identify a metric of liberty. One society has a higher value of the metric than another if it is, on the whole, more free. The natural thing for a libertarian progressive would want to gradually improve that metric, in the belief that greater freedom would be self-reinforcing. Similarly, a left-libertarian revolutionary would have an idea for a society with a very high value of that metric, even if the details of how to get there are a bit fuzzy.

Conservatives, by definition, _don’t want to do that_. Instead, they assume a best-case scenario of things not getting much worse, with a big downside risk. And of course reactionaries want to return that metric to the value it had at some semi-specific point in that past, whether or not that was lower than today.

You wont convert either by poking into the details of the metric used is calculated or specified. It’s the shape of the graph, how it will or should move, that matters.

This is why no amount of description of actually-existing nastiness (adult diapers, preexisting condition insurance, and so forth) will ever influence a mainstream libertarian. If it actually exists, it can’t be a hypothetical potential that would make things worse.

So it is politically irrelevant.

113

choncan 07.05.12 at 7:32 pm

I am very late to the party and have little to add beyond expressing general enjoyment at these kinds of blog fights, but I would be unable to live with myself if I didn’t at least note for posterity that Kieran @ 22 provided me with one of the most concisely expressed and bulls-eye accurate bombs of enjoyment I’ve ever experienced and for that I thank him.

114

Nachman Mendel 07.06.12 at 12:49 am

Scott Martens@96: “So your rights are dependent on the state offering you a positive defense, before a state-operated court, which must otherwise charge you with murder and deprive you of your liberties? “

No. It is patently untrue that the state “must otherwise charge [me] with murder.” Nothing compels the state to do any such thing.

“You have a positive right to make such a claim and a positive right to be liberated if you make it convincingly, otherwise, the court will uphold your victim’s positive right to have the state intervene against you.”

Again, false. Recall my example: shooting a home invader in self-defense. A home invader is not a “victim,” but rather is merely a decedent. As an aggressor, moreover, such invader has no “positive right” to “have the state intervene” whatsoever. You dislike my example because it refutes your argument, so you try to redefine it in terms of “victim” and “murderer” so you’ll get the conclusions you want. This is either stupid or dishonest.

“I’m not sure your example gives you what you want.”

I’m not sure you understand the law well enough to know whether it does. (Hint: it does.)

“Absent the state, you may kill anyone you like and they can kill you back.”

Indeed. But the same is true when the state is present! The state is just another variable; it does not magically prevent people from killing each other. The state is like any other institution: sometimes, a tool to be exploited for my own ends; other times, an obstacle to be overcome or avoided for the same.

“You may imagine you have rights under such circumstances, but you can also imagine that Jesus comes down from heaven and tells you what to do. I don’t see much difference between the two illusions. Unless you are empowered enough to mobilize in defense of your claimed rights, they are just delusions of grandeur.”

I concur. My power is my right. Such is unavoidably true under all circumstances, whether a state exists or not. I am referring to “rights” here in a jurisprudential sense — i.e., those actions I can take while being reasonably certain of being free from negative consequences. You’re confusing me with silly libertarians. I don’t believe in rights in the metaphysical sense in which you’re referring. My posts are merely intended to show that your argument — that all “negative rights” necessarily imply “positive rights” — is unsound.

115

Nachman Mendel 07.06.12 at 12:50 am

EDIT: I meant to write: necessarily imply the use/invocation of positive rights.

116

Salient 07.06.12 at 1:35 am

I think there is a sense in which being able to alienate large amounts of your effective freedom, through choice, is a facet of moral freedom that is worth defending.

That makes me think of this. Glad I could find it. It might be unfair. I just don’t think anyone for whom that quote rings true and darkly funny is thinking, oh man, is there ever something wrong with the law!

I guess those of us who are nonlibertarians (nonpropertarians, whatever) have to wrestle with the fact that under any definition of exploitation a considerable number of people are willing to be exploited, possibly resentful of others’ unwillingness, possibly resentful of the state not authorizing the opportunity.

Frankly, I don’t think it’s a human right to be treated indecently by state-authorized institutions (businesses included). And it’s not a human right for a person to live in a world or community in which people’s human rights are violated by any entity with state authorization, even if that particular person doesn’t mind giving up that right and actually really really wants to.

I feel like thinking otherwise just breaks my brain. There’s no inalienable human right that you can give up. And really what we’re discussing is voluntary alienation, like you said. Some of the rights you think are alienable, I think are inalienable.

Oh, sweet! Just thought of something! What I just said is wrong! We’re not actually at odds with the principle of alienation. Maybe. We need a finer-grained distinction. Let’s try:

I think there is a sense in which being able to alienate large amounts of your effective freedom, through choice, is a facet of moral freedom that is worth defending. However there is no moral freedom to alienate any of your effective freedom through a means that has state authorization (including all interactions between state-recognized entities and persons).

Spend your life handcuffed to a bed if you want. But not to your desk. Spend your life performing menial tasks for no pay if you want. Just not in a cubicle.

…and the latter of those two quippy statement pairs is really stretching the limits of what I can consider acceptable (actually it’s a little beyond that limit even when stretched, but setting aside some considerable personal discomfort’s necessary to engage in any threads on this topic, so, ok). Just in case it’s not patently obvious why it feels almost beyond the pale: I’m having thoughts, like, Hold up a sec. That was the fate women were mostly consigned to until, like, just a few years before you were born. Don’t give it more air to breathe. Don’t say it’s okay so long as X, Y, and Z. Not until society has achieved a state of transcendence in which we can be genuinely certain absolutely no one who chooses that is under any individual duress or social pressure. And that will not happen in your lifetime. If you voice approval here and now, it will probably only be used as a wedge to drive back toward giving that type of relationship state sanction. That way lies state authorized exploitation. The first things to get forgotten or neglected, in any conceivably plausible implementation, will be X, Y, and Z. We’ll be back to bickering over whether or not it’s acceptable to hire a secretary+prostitute because hey, some women would jump at the chance. Prospective slippery slopes are actually slippery when the content you fear will be lost are the subclauses that were necessary to make the main clauses OK. So don’t give this any air. You owe billions of former people and millions of still-alive people at least that much. But that’s kind of stratospherically overestimating how much of an effect my approval or disapproval would have, so, eh.

(Apologies in advance if this was already discussed and hashed out in later comments. Just started reading them and didn’t want to lose the thought.)

117

Don 07.06.12 at 2:09 am

These discussions are futile. My own problem with libertarians is that they think they are doing philosophy. I don’t mind arguing the benefits and burdens of market regulation, from a standpoint of economic efficiency or outcomes. I don’t have a problem with someone expressing a preference for free market economics and civil liberties, and professing that they are somehow conceptually related.

The problem is that they believe they have some sort of coherent philosophy that brings these ideas together, and an absolute moral system that is superior to all others. They end up talking gibberish, and believing their fantasy world, constructed with no real reflection, trumps obvious realities. They are insufferable bores.

118

Josh 07.07.12 at 1:07 am

You seem to be saying “I sold you X in exchange for money. But I’m not truly free because now I can’t use X.” You find it interesting when X is explicitly “my right to do anything I want”. But what does it matter if X is instrad a pencil? You still are not free under your definition because now you don’t have a pencil. It’s not wrong to claim that allowing people to sell pencils is more free than preventing them from selling them simply because in the alternative, people still have ther pencils. Same holds for any X.

119

Jim Henley 07.07.12 at 1:41 pm

@Josh (118):

That’s true to the extent that “any X” is like a pencil. Which, it turns out, means its not very true at all.

But while we’re on the subject, let me ask you a question. Ingrid Newkirk of PETA is famous (or notorious) for the dictum, “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” Do you agree with her?

120

Roger 07.07.12 at 4:17 pm

Don,

This libertarian would like to engage you without being a bore.

The argument on workplace offenses is really quite simple:

To what extent will coercive regulations on employer conduct help or hurt society? Will they even help the coerced workers, considering unintended consequences? If they did help the coerced workers, do they help workers in total? If they help workers, do they help society in total due to effects on prices, dynamism, and long term prosperity and opportunity?

These are empirical, albeit complex, questions. Libertarians believe that coercion, in general, tends to lead to more problems than it solves. Many of us are moderate. We don’t believe every rule is bad, indeed, property rights in general are enforced via rules.

I believe there is a subclass of employer abuses that are so outrageous that we should regulate against them. I think another class could be handled non coercively through transparency and independent agencies which disclose to prospective employees the type of employer they are considering. I think other abuses are so minor or the unintended effects of regulating it are so great, that they should be accepted as the best alternative available at this time.

It seems the this should be an interesting discussion. I will try not to be insufferable.

121

Nachman Mendel 07.07.12 at 5:32 pm

Roger@120.

“These are empirical…questions.”

No they are not. See my post at 81.

122

Data Tutashkhia 07.07.12 at 5:43 pm

What the heck is “coercive regulation”? As opposed to what?

What about the coercive regulation that prevents us from looting property of the idle rich? I would like to test it empirically, and I strongly suspect that removing it will have a very positive effect on the society in total due to effects on prices, dynamism, and long term prosperity and opportunity.

123

Roger 07.07.12 at 6:00 pm

Nachman,

I am glad you brought that up, yours was the post that I most wanted to discuss.

I agree completely that utilities cannot be measured, weighed or added. However, this does not mean that the concept is totally barren of value.

What we can do is identify revealed preference by observing the behavior of reasonably rational adults. When a person makes a voluntary choice, it is reasonable to assume they are doing something to improve their utility. When two or more people agree to a mutually agreeable interaction, we can similarly assume they are expecting to each increase their utility. Or in simpler terms, they are attempting to make the world better for themselves.

By concentrating on the principles of voluntary interactions without coercion or fraud, we can be reasonably sure that the people most affected by the interaction have decided that it increased utility.

In other words, the most reasonable path to higher social utility is via noncoercive win win interactions.

Not that I am a utilitarian. I’m not. However the key to social prosperity and progress comes via the path that merges the goals of the altruist, the egoist and the utilitarian. Where we can create social institutions to blend these paths, good results occur.

124

Roger 07.07.12 at 6:03 pm

Data,

My take on history is that it has been tried and found wanting. I am pretty sure you agree with me and are just exaggerating. You would not want to live in a society without property “rights” for long.

125

Consumatopia 07.07.12 at 6:05 pm

If they did help the coerced workers, do they help workers in total? If they help workers, do they help society in total due to effects on prices, dynamism, and long term prosperity and opportunity?

These are empirical, albeit complex, questions. Libertarians believe that coercion, in general, tends to lead to more problems than it solves.

In which case, they should be skeptical that allowing coercion of workers would solve more problems than it leads to. Workplace coercion is still coercion.

That’s not to say that your position (e.g. classes of employer abuses) is indefensible. But such a defense needs more than simple heuristics (e.g. coercion is bad)–there are arguments using exactly that heuristic on both sides.

126

Consumatopia 07.07.12 at 6:32 pm

Roger@123, you really should read the more recent post here.

@124, whether or not Data is exaggerating isn’t really the point. Whether or not private property is a good institutions, whether or not you, Data or I would prefer that it continue to exist or not, it is undeniably a coercive regulation. The “voluntary choices” you refer to in 123 are all made in the coercive context created by private property.

127

Roger 07.07.12 at 6:55 pm

Consumatopia,

I agree workplace abuse is a bad thing. I want less of it. I simply want to move forward in a direction of greater net results not just better intentions. If a regulation were to cause more harm than good, would you not agree it would be bad? I will agree that a regulation that does more good than harm is good.

Yes, I see reasonable property regulations as one such good rule.

In general coercion (harming others) is a bad thing. In general, I recommend it be used as a last resort and then as a way to prevent or discourage coercion. In other words, I suggest that if fire is bad, that we use fire as a last resort to fight fire.

128

Roger 07.07.12 at 7:11 pm

Consumatopia,

Free markets are based upon the concept that the best person to decide what an individual should do is the individual himself. It is a pragmatic conclusion based upon the general observation that nobody knows the individual’s values, needs, context, and tradeoffs better than the individual himself, and that nobody is less likely to exploit the person and nobody is more likely learn via feedback than the individual. The problem is that individuals can take actions that affect others. Therefore the pragmatic rule is that where ones actions intersect with another, that the actions should be mutually agreed upon. They must be consensual. Voluntary. They must be win wins ( or at least win neutral).

Property conventions take the above and create a system which assigns decision making “rights” to individuals. These conventions have evolved culturally over the past ten thousand years or so. The practical effect of them is to encourage the creation, preservation and improvement of property and ideas for the advancement of man.

If your concern is that the rules themselves are not voluntarily consented to, then I am willing to accept that as a condition. We should indeed strive to create a system where everyone gets to agree to which rules they operate under. If so, I am pretty sure most of us will choose rules that respect property rights and which minimize exploitation.

129

Consumatopia 07.07.12 at 7:11 pm

If a regulation were to cause more harm than good, would you not agree it would be bad?

Not in all cases. I argued this in greater detail in the comments of an earlier thread. Whether a regulation causes “more harm than good” depends on what other regulations and policies the proposed regulation is combined with.

In other words, I suggest that if fire is bad, that we use fire as a last resort to fight fire.

Coercion isn’t fire. If we’ve already decided that we will coerce some people (by enforcing property claims) than deciding against some other kind of coercion means we are coercing some people more than we coerce others (because private property represents more coercion to someone without property than to someone with property.)

130

Roger 07.07.12 at 7:26 pm

Consumatopia,

I think you made some good points in that thread. I can agree that there are some violations that are so heinous that we should prohibit them. For example, I think it is totally wise to limit an employer’s ( or employees) ability to exploit a person by requiring sex for a job.

I am in no way saying there should never be any rules or regulations.

See my above comments on property rights. I see them as pragmatic ways to assign decision making conventions to things and ideas. They work like traffic signs, we agree to the inconvenience of stopping at an occasional signal, so that we can travel faster and safer. They are rules of the game that lead to improved lives. If we have too many rules, or too many lights, everything can get screwed up.

Please do not mistake me for an anarchist or one of those deontological platonic rights libertarians. They make no sense to me either.

131

Data Tutashkhia 07.07.12 at 7:41 pm

Hi Roger,
sorry about responding sarcastically earlier. I see, so you are a real conservative. Good for you.

Property rights evolved, then got taken down, there’s been several cycles. People used own people, but not anymore. Aristocrats used to own most of everything but then they got their heads chopped off. So, this time around they’ve been evolving again, but it seems unlikely that it’ll stay like this forever. Too many obvious flaws; doesn’t work well.

As for ‘coercive regulations on employer’, well, I guess it just seems reasonable to coerce a few to make it more difficult for them to coerce many.

132

Consumatopia 07.07.12 at 8:08 pm

@Roger, perhaps our differences aren’t so much over the law as the theme tune. I certainly don’t think that everything an employee doesn’t like should be banned.

I’m willing to accept private property, but I consider it a necessary evil. The market may increase prosperity, but it imposes coercion on many. I accept the system of private property only on the condition that its part of a democratic system with the power to regulate commerce and impose taxes. If the legitimacy of the latter is called into question, so too is my consent to the former.

If you want to argue that a proposed regulation has more costs than benefits, that’s all well and good. It’s only when that argument is accompanied by a song and dance about freedom that I become greatly annoyed–our system is built on coercion.

133

Roger 07.07.12 at 8:27 pm

Data,

Seems that human cooperation/society is a messy and flawed thing. We learn and improve as we go along.

Seems that we are pretty much at the apex of cultural advance right now. We live longer, healthier, are better educated, cleaner, have more freedom, more opportunity, less violence and so on than just about any time ever.

In other words, this may not be anywhere near perfect, but it is vastly better than 99.9% of history. We are truly blessed to live now. Question is what social institutions and protocols got us to this state and which ones got in the way? How can we make it better? I’d put money on private property and freedom as being good social institutions not bad. But I could be wrong.

134

Roger 07.07.12 at 8:29 pm

Consumatopia,

Thanks, I value your perspective. Can you share more why you think our system is built on coercion? Do you want it based on coercion? How should it be based?

135

Walt 07.07.12 at 8:31 pm

Roger, I think these arguments turn heated because of the libertarians who will not grant that there is a subclass of employer abuses so outrageous that we should regulate against them. I imagine most people agree that some problems can be solved through regulation, and some can’t, and the question is which. It’s the rhetorical move to put the question out of bounds on purely philosophical grounds that’s infuriating.

136

Data Tutashkhia 07.07.12 at 8:46 pm

We are truly blessed to live now.

You are, and people around you. I am too. And that affects our judgement. Not everybody is bless-ed. Those coerced by their employers may feel different. I imagine those in the ghetto, on the other side of the tracks, would definitely disagree. They probably feel that we have it too good, at their expense. One of these days they might just show up at the door, and chop our heads off. I’d really prefer to avoid that.

137

Consumatopia 07.07.12 at 8:48 pm

@Roger, simply put, your post @128 is backwards. It is not that the market is free and property “conventions” are built on the market. It is that property is coercive and the market is built on property. In that sense, our system is coercive. As every system which grants exclusive access to some scarce resources must be.

This, I can tolerate, so long as the coercion isn’t unidirectional–so long as the regulations aren’t called “coercion” when they are for workers but “freedom” when they are for owners. We both seem to believe, more or less, in evaluating policies by their effects. But I think the language you’re trying to use ends up putting a thumb on the scales in favor of property holders–or, worse, attributing to worker “choice” things that they only chose in a coercive context. I don’t necessarily want to abolish that coercive context, I just want it recognized as coercive.

138

Roger 07.07.12 at 8:55 pm

Walt,

I totally agree. The extremists can be embarrassing — on all sides of the debate. It is great talking to some intelligent people from a different political or philosophical orientation on this site. For the record, the libertarian extremists are not able to explain themselves to me on their own sites either. I keep probing and eventually they ignore me In the end it comes across as some type of secular religion. And I say this from the vantage point of someone who you would all label as a moderate libertarian.

139

Roger 07.07.12 at 9:19 pm

Consumatopia,

Interesting perspective. I am still not sure I totally get why you say it is coercive though. If there were no conventions of property, it would involve a chaotic free for all. Might would decide right, as whoever wanted to could steal anything they wanted. Human cooperation, investment and creation would make no sense. Whatever we produced would be exploited away from us. Coercion — the use of force — would rule everything.

Personal freedom and property conventions allow us to all agree to a set of rules that encourage voluntary non coercive interaction. I can produce whatever I want, work with or for whomever agrees to work with me and sell to whomever wants to buy from me.

Exclusive access is not granted in free enterprise, it is earned, purchased or produced. In general humans exchange their labor and their ingenuity for property. That is where I got all mine. I produced it, or exchanged something for it. There was rarely if ever any coercion involved. Was your experience different?

140

Alice 07.07.12 at 10:12 pm

Roger

“Seems that we are pretty much at the apex of cultural advance right now. We live longer, healthier, are better educated, cleaner, have more freedom, more opportunity, less violence and so on than just about any time ever…. it is vastly better than 99.9% of history”

Yeah? You were there were you Roger? Have you any evidence of this claim?

It shows your ignorance of the ‘facts’ and the current knowledge in the area of anthropology. I am hoping someone with some real qualifications in this area will bring you up to date. But perhaps I should realise that some of you people just don’t have the cognitive flexibility to understand the complexity of the latest theories.

From my amateur investigations into what traditional lifestyles, in particular the Australian Aborigines, were really like, you have it arse about – that’s an Australian term – we say and write arse not ass. An ass is a donkey over here, whereas an arsehole is something much worse.

These beliefs you have about traditional societies would be quaint and old-fashioned if they didn’t actually retard any attempt to extend the benefits that you enjoy to all the members of the human species, which is what you ‘pretend’ to want.

141

Consumatopia 07.07.12 at 10:32 pm

What would happen in the absence of property has nothing to do with whether property is coercive. It’s probably the case that every system is coercive. Even the least coercive system is still coercive. Then we might choose that system because we want to minimize coercion–but this does not mean that we can say all decisions taken within this system are freely chosen!

Personal freedom and property conventions allow us to all agree to a set of rules that encourage voluntary non coercive interaction.

It also encourages involuntary interaction. When two people decide to interact with each other, that affects others. If property regulations keep a desperate person desperate, we cannot say their choice in the marketplace is free.

Exclusive access is not granted in free enterprise, it is earned, purchased or produced.

The original holders of land didn’t earn, purchase, or produce it–they took it from someone else and held it by force. Even if original owners had obtained the consent of everyone alive at the time, they did not and could acquire the consent of everyone yet born.

That is where I got all mine. I produced it, or exchanged something for it. There was rarely if ever any coercion involved. Was your experience different?

Those of us spending time discussing on the Internet tend to be much better off than the average human being alive today. Do you really think that all that separates us from the destitute millions on the bottom is that we are much better at earning, purchasing, producing and exchanging things? Perhaps in your case this is true–perhaps you were born with nothing and climbed up entirely on your own. But for me and most middle class Americans, we were quite lucky to be born with the advantages we had. And there is no way to escape the reality that past injustices contributed to some of those advantages. For most of us, coercion is an essential part of how we got where we are today–of what we became or failed to become. This is even true if we limit ourselves to things that “deontological platonic rights libertarians” would call coercion, such as immigration restrictions.

Speaking of Internet discussion time, I think I’m just about out of it. Have a good day or evening.

142

Nachman Mendel 07.08.12 at 12:18 am

Roger,

“I can agree that there are some violations that are so heinous that we should prohibit them. For example, I think it is totally wise to limit an employer’s ( or employees) ability to exploit a person by requiring sex for a job.”

How do you square this with what you said previously:

“When a person makes a voluntary choice, it is reasonable to assume they are doing something to improve their utility. When two or more people agree to a mutually agreeable interaction, we can similarly assume they are expecting to each increase their utility. Or in simpler terms, they are attempting to make the world better for themselves.

By concentrating on the principles of voluntary interactions without coercion or fraud, we can be reasonably sure that the people most affected by the interaction have decided that it increased utility.”

If two people each prefer an arrangement that involves exchanging money for sex, then, according to your reasoning, this means that they are performing a transaction that increases their utility ex ante. You also claim to support maximizing such transactions. If so, then why do you call this a heinous “violation” (of what?) that must be stopped? And if it is indeed a “violation,” then where do you get off arguing against those who similarly wish to prevent transactions that they believe are unfair or coercive?

The problem is that you’re using terms that are loaded, imprecise, and nonrigorous, like “coercion” and “exploitation.” In fact, by inserting limiting phrases like “reasonably rational adults,” your language is so slippery that it’s impossible to tell what you actually believe.

143

Nachman Mendel 07.08.12 at 12:30 am

Alice @ 140,

If you believe that a primitive lifestyle is preferable, nothing is preventing you from living one. The fact that you’re posting on a blog reveals that, despite your protestations to the contrary, you share, along with the overwhelming majority of the human race, a preference for technologically advanced society.

144

Roger 07.08.12 at 12:39 am

Hi Nachman,

How rigorous should my language be in the comments section of a blog?

I think that there are some actions that are so distasteful and counterproductive that regulations are effective. One example is that I think it should be against the law to sell oneself to slavery. I also agree that we can pretty safely pass a regulation against undisclosed Sado masochistic sex with dead animals in order to keep ones job or buy a product.

The way that I square what I say is that I am”reasonably sure” that voluntary acts among consenting adults will tend to lead to higher utility. The system is not foolproof or perfect, because humans are not foolproof and perfect. We also need to be cognizant of externalities.

My guess is you agree with me on most of the above. Where we disagree is in measures of social utility. Though I agree that we can’t add or measure “utils” we can establish systems with voluntary interaction and freedom of opportunity and competition. This self amplifies actions which are in general win wins. Value is created and amplified.

This is clearly revealed by the somewhat common nature to many of our preferences. We tend to prefer long life to short, opportunity to the lack of opportunity, knowledge to ignorance, freedom to slavery, health to sickness, nutrition to starvation, clean environments to polluted ones, living children to dead ones, entertainment to boredom and prosperity to poverty. In general these things have never been better for the human race. Not even close.

145

Roger 07.08.12 at 12:50 am

Alice,

I echo Nachman. I believe I am extremely well read on anthropology, and I can imagine someone preferring to live an aboriginal lifestyle. I encourage anyone that does prefer it to do so.

I think most people prefer something else. Compared to an aboriginal lifestyle we can support a hundred or thousand times more people with greater standards of living, longer lifespans, more healthy children, greater literacy and so on. Today the vast majority can live the life they choose, and you can live the life you choose.

146

Alice 07.08.12 at 1:58 am

Nachman and Roger,

There is no possibility of any of us being able to live an aboriginal lifestyle, even if anyone of us should want to. There are far too many of us and our culture has changed us. Do you think we might have developed some of our worst and most unchristian – I am not a christian but I’m not going to deny that Jesus had some great ideas about how we should do things – traits after we left the tribe and the face to face contact that sort of society requires?

Ok, you are right that we are so much better off materially – and the internet and the possibilities this sort of contact makes available nearly makes up for all the other ugly material crap that I could argue make my life less enjoyable – and we are ‘cleaner’ physically (although I’d say that the spiritual burden we have incurred is horrendous. Lucky you if you are able to rationalise it away).

But the latest thinking and evidence about the Aborigines seems to me, to show that ‘our’ aborigines lived a lot longer than was previously thought and that they were very much healthier, despite being dirty. They had a different way of dealing with pathogens. Creative people they were. There are also other groups of people in other parts of the world who developed ways of living that ensured they lived very long lives; we white people just are not the pick of the crop you know.

It is the triumphalism and chest beating – we are the best – that I react to with an emotional response because I have experienced how dysfunctional it is for producing a positive response in the other ‘less able’ type of people.

You may also be right that we have more freedom now but it depends on what sort of freedom you are talking about. The aborigines laws were very strict and governed nearly every aspect of life – one certainly wasn’t free to not be circumscised but the individual was meticullously prepared for these rituals and the pain and violence was the source of self-esteem. But within that grid of certainty, I can imagine that there was a lot of freedom and for me, a person who values security more than freedom, that is an attractive idea.

More oppportunity you said. How could we even imagine what opportunities they hade that we don’t have? I’d admire the opportunity to learn to paint the way they do and I’m not much attracted by the opportunities that are available to me in this society – like working in a stinky egg farm with all the pain of mistreated animals around me.

But I wouldn’t want to live like an aborigine, of course not, the idea is to look for value in other things and ways of doing things; to see if there is something that they had that we could use. There are lots of , the ‘others’ are not all the same, and the ‘others’ all have something to offer our society if we can open your eyes to possibilities and stop with the comparisons that put the dead white male ideas and behaviours on top of the heap.

The dead white males were extraordinary blokes and I’m so amazed by their ability to reason – Spinoza is the ‘best’ in my opinion – but c’mon, we’ve moved on and we need another set of heroes and a new way of seeing the world and it’s people.

Just saw the last sentence in your post and supporting lots more people? Why is that a good thing?

147

Roger 07.08.12 at 2:18 am

Well said Alice, beautifully in fact.

It does seem that the hunter gatherers gave up something special albeit not perfect for the sake of their children. And Malthus was cruel to them in the long run.

What could be better than more living beings that get to experience the joys of life? I can’t think of anything more precious than the gift of life.

148

Alice 07.08.12 at 2:54 am

The thing that impressed me about the aboriginal way of reconciling the male female thing is their story that in the beginning the knowledge and laws were held by women but for some reason and I can’t find any information about this aspect of it, the men ended up with this job. So it seemed to me that the usual things I knew about how aboriginal women were mistreated might be wrong.

It is complicated and impossible to judge whether life as a woman would have been better then but the position of women certainly wasn’t as bad as it was described by the early settlers/invaders. The only thing that I can see is different between them and us that makes their ideas better, for me, is that there is an explicit acknowledgement of women as important.

But lol my own romantic cognitive style becomes apparent; thanks Roger!

149

Alice 07.08.12 at 3:37 am

But still I have to set you straight – I’m a quibbler I guess – that the Aboriginal people in Australia didn’t voluntarily up their hunter-gatherer ways for the good of their children’s lifestyle. They never did give up their culture; we destroyed it and now they are having to be forced to adopt ours.

The idea that they were less intelligent than the white Europeans is widespread. The figure that Jensen uses which is from a paper and pencil test done in the 1930’s is 60. It is incredible to believe that any group of people with the sort of intelligence that goes with an IQ that low would have would be able to survive in a this harsh climate. None of the white explorers could do it.

The most obvious evidence that they were just as intelligent as us, is that the first Aborigine the white people kidnapped and forced to live with them, learned to speak English in a matter of months and lived in the Governor’s house, using all the complicated table manners of the day etc.

He preferred the tribal way of life but was forced to live with the whites. He travelled to England hung out with the Aristocracy and when he returned to Australia, realising that he and his lifestyle had a snowflake’s chance of surviving, he took to drinking, as many of his people now do.

That doesn’t sound like a person with an IQ of 60 to me, so something is fishy and it may be our understanding of what went on in the hunter gatherer mind.

150

Data Tutashkhia 07.08.12 at 9:52 am

I don’t think this has anything to do with anybody’s IQ. It’s just that it’s hard to hinder progress. As agriculture develops, hunter-gathering goes away. Technological advancements, higher levels of specialization follow, society grows more and complex. Some evolve at their own pace, others are forced by colonization, and that’s more dramatic. But in any case, people, naturally, feel nostalgic for the old, simpler times; this happens, more or less, to every generation. Too bad, but that’s the general gist of things.

151

Roger 07.08.12 at 3:14 pm

Alice,

I agree that people have tended to exploit each other wherever possible for most of history. The aborigines exploited each other and the settlers exploited them even as they exploited each other too.

Yes, some did not give up the lifestyle voluntarily. Today, we are the great, great grandchildren of a mix of the exploited, the exploiters, those that gave it up voluntarily and those that were forced out.

152

Jem Wallis 07.09.12 at 7:49 am

@Kieran 22

Something else for Cowen to chew over: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2012/jul/09/fraud-bosses-206m

Comments on this entry are closed.