Equality, freedom and wage labor

by John Quiggin on July 14, 2012

I haven’t been active in the debate between Crooked Timber members and various others (Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Matt Yglesias, Tyler Cowen) so far. Broadly speaking the claim on the BHL side has been that if only some minimal conditions (existence of a universal basic income, for example) were met, all employment contracts could be assumed mutually beneficial and there would be no need for governments to regulate their terms, for example to prevent sexual exploitation.

Most  at CT have been dismissive of these claims, but I’d like to explore the question a bit further. Is the objection that the necessary conditions aren’t likely to be met in practice, or that the employment relationship is inherently unbalanced, simply by virtue of the fact that one party gets to boss the other around.

Suppose that the following conditions were met

* Full employment, so that the cost to a worker of finding a new job is no greater than the cost to an employer of hiring a replacement

* A minimum wage adequate to allow a decent living standard without requiring acceptance of degrading working conditions

* A universal basic income sufficient to ensure that, even without working no-one need be poor

* A default employment contract, incorporating prohibitions on sexual harassment, rights to regular breaks and so on, unless these are explicitly contracted out

Would we then feel that legislative restrictions on employment contracts were needed, and, if so, which and why? Or, is the question badly posed in some way

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