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Freedom and Work

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If you haven’t yet seen it, Corey Robin, Chris Bertram, and Alex Gourevich have a magnificent, epic post at CT on freedom and the workplace in the context of an ongoing conversation with the bleeding heart libertarians blog. I won’t bother to excerpt it; it’s all good, read the whole thing, etc etc.

One good way to conceptualize the massive blind spot of the BHL crowd here is their insistence on focusing on government rather than governance. Employers are engaged in a form of governance. Governance, as libertarians constantly remind us in other contexts, is a dangerous thing indeed; far too dangerous for a exit right that often amounts to empty formalism to manage. The particular nature of the dangers of corporate workplace governance are obviously somewhat different than the governance of governments, and as such the particular form of democratic control ought to reflect that difference. The Elizabeth Anderson post on BHL I recently linked to made a similar point well: “a more illuminating conceptual map would identify government with any organization in which some people systematically issue authoritative commands, backed up by penalties, to others.”

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  • I found working for a libertarian (at Liberty Magazine) to be a cure for my libertarianism.

  • James E. Powell

    Libertarianism is nothing more than an intellectual cover for right-wingers. By adopting libertarianism, which is mostly a pose, they implicitly acknowledge that right-wing policies are odious and need such a cover.

    Freedom in a practical, every day sense of the word, requires that people be protected from abusive power, government or corporate. To a libertarian, if it’s not the government, it’s not abusive power because . . . because it’s not.

    • DrDick

      I always assumed it was simply an ideological justification for rampant sociopathy.

  • NBarnes

    “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” – John Kenneth Galbraith

  • Usually just lurk

    This sounds like a restatement of Hobhouse’s Liberalism (1911). His argument (using his terminology) was that traditional liberalism saw government as the only potential source of tyranny – that while individuals could take action against one another that would not rise to the level of tyranny. But that modern (in 1911) liberalism recognized that associations of individuals (e.g. corporations) could be sources of tyranny. And therefore that for true liberty there must be a balance – a government strong enough to contain the tyrannical forces of associations while not being so strong as to be tyrannical itself.

    • djw

      Thanks for that; Hobhouse is a bit of a gap for me.

    • DrDick

      I would argue that corporations may be the greatest source of tyranny in the modern world.

      • DocAmazing

        In fairness, corporations are probably the largest source of power in the modern world, thus its greats source of tyrrany. It’s a bit like .22 being the most common round for handgun homicides: it’s the most common round, period.

  • Anonymous

    It’s a very fine post, yes. Still, all this is so trivially obvious — I mean, you can discuss the implications of it in terms of policy or philosophy. And you can exhume the founding texts, as these authors have. There’s surely much to be said.

    But. If you need to engage in a novella-length first-principles argument to establish that WORKPLACES are COERCIVE, are you arguing with somebody who’s actually worth your time and bother to persuade? Especially when that person’s alleged lodestar principle that s/he spends every available moment reckoning is NON-COERCION?

    Libertarianism is the flat-earth society of political philosophy.

    • DocAmazing

      If you need to engage in a novella-length first-principles argument to establish that WORKPLACES are COERCIVE, are you arguing with somebody who’s actually worth your time and bother to persuade?

      It’s worth remembering that a great many Libertarians either came up as free-lancers or got on the nepotism gravy train early. Working a real job, with a time clock and a boss, is a great way to flush Libertarian views out of one’s system.

      By the way, not to take anything away from Robin, Bertram and Gourevich, but Bob Black said pretty much all this stuff back in the early 1980s.

      http://www.primitivism.com/abolition.htm

      • Simon

        But you have to admit, Bertram and Robin are quite the dynamic duo.

        • DocAmazing

          Is Commissioner Gourevich sending the Bert-signal?

    • Satan Mayo

      The craziest part is the people that reason that workplaces are not coercive because it’s all just business transactions, but a picket line is coercive because it involves emotional manipulation. Oh no! Once emotions get involved, who knows what might happen!

    • Murc

      There’s value in making a novella-length first principles argument because it helps you win the debate in the eyes of the spectators.

      When I argue in a public forum, if I actually manage to convince the person I am arguing with is (usually) simply gravy. To a large extent I’m arguing for benefit of the guy who hasn’t made up his mind yet. I probably can’t convince Hardcore Libertarian Guy he is wrong, but if Unsure Guy is lurking around watching, I’d prefer he think I am correct, not the other guy.

      There’s also the fact that sometimes arguments take awhile to sink in. People will usually double down even on something when you come straight at’em, often without even consciously knowing they’re doing it. But peoples minds CAN change if they’re forced to think about an argument long enough and if they’re honest enough not to burrow further and further into self-delusion and denial.

  • Jamie Mayerfeld

    Thanks for this post, djw!

  • bradp

    1) I will not deny that libertarians are, on most occasions, too sympathetic and often inexplicably reverant to the “elites” of industry and privilege. These libertarians, if they ever do acknowledge the historical privilege that is at the base of modern political capitalism, its almost always as a “Trust-us-it-will-work” type of aside.

    2) There is also a big problem among libertarians to target government and not the privilege of government. Its more of a conservative thing, but many “free market supporters” will blindly support any sort “privatization” simply because they assume private business to be more efficient than government. They don’t understand even the base of their ideals: that it is not the entity but the privilege itself that is the social problem. I like this brief post by Jason Kuznicki on this.

    3) You cannot eliminate governance, nor can you do a very good job of forcibly stopping it from manifesting itself upon existing imbalance. If the power imbalance exists, creating a regulatory system to stop it from manifesting itself in inequitable results is like trying to catch water in a strainer.

    4) Libertarians don’t tend to focus on governance because, in large part, the goal of libertarianism is empowering everyone to avoid bad governance. If people have the ability to say no to bad governance, then good governance will force out the bad eventually. Government, that is the state-infrastructure and not simple governance, cannot be said “no” to.

    5) “a more illuminating conceptual map would identify government with any organization in which some people systematically issue authoritative commands, backed up by penalties, to others.”

    What about parents, preachers, or teachers? There are plenty of instances where someone or some group submits to the authority of another willingly. There are even good bosses out there. If you treat all of those as one, you are basically guaranteeing that the exploitative one’s will dominate, as those are generally going to be the only one where its beneficial to endure the costs of compliance.

    • Libertarians are stupid, evil, and have poor hygeine.

      • DrDick

        You really shouldn’t talk about yourself that way, dumbass troll.

      • DocAmazing

        And take a shower, for God’s sake.

        • bradp

          You and what overly-braod interpretation of the Commerce Clause are gonna make me?

          (That one goes out to Mal)

    • chris

      If people have the ability to say no to bad governance, then good governance will force out the bad eventually.

      The same way if people have the ability to say no to bad medicine, then good medicine will force out the bad eventually? But in reality it takes the FDA or something like it to get rid of snake oil.

      Your hidden assumption of perfect information about the quality of the product is not satisfied in reality.

      What about parents, preachers, or teachers? There are plenty of instances where someone or some group submits to the authority of another willingly.

      Parents and teachers notably not among them. I’m not aware of what penalties preachers can impose on their congregations, aside from maybe public shame. But then, perhaps it’s significant that the most egregious examples of abuse by preachers involve children, who can’t choose to leave the congregation as long as their parents are determined to stay in.

      • bradp

        But in reality it takes the FDA or something like it to get rid of snake oil.

        Your hidden assumption of perfect information about the quality of the product is not satisfied in reality.

        1. I don’t expect perfect information. Do you expect perfect regulators?

        2. Access to information, economy wide, is growing exponentially.

        3. The FDA is somewhat crappy at efficiently weeding out “snake oil”.

        • Steve LaBonne

          The FDA is somewhat crappy at efficiently weeding out “snake oil”.

          Not nearly as bad as “the market” though. (Nor as good as it could be if not constrained by politics that are heavily tinctured with libertarian bullshit.)

          • DrDick

            Brad doesn’t read history as it proves libertarians are idiots. If he did, he would know that it was the failure of markets to eliminate snake oil (or outright poison) medicines and toxic food that led to the establishment of the FDA.

        • Malaclypse

          The FDA is somewhat crappy at efficiently weeding out “snake oil”.

          The peddlers of Laetrile did not exactly agree.

          In 1977, a U.S. Senate subcommittee chaired by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) held hearings on Laetrile that developed interesting testimony. Dr. Richardson claimed that the FDA, AMA, NCI, American Cancer Society, Rockefeller family and major oil and drug companies had all conspired against Laetrile. Robert Bradford said that he would welcome a test of Laetrile but that “orthodox medicine was not qualified” to do one. However, he Krebs, Jr., and Richardson were unable to agree on the formula for Laetrile. Senator Kennedy concluded that the Laetrile leaders were “slick salesmen who would offer a false sense of hope” to cancer patients.

          • bradp

            That seems to be an odd example to bring up considering it claims numerous private institutions of trusted and less than trusted authority were opposed to Laetrile.

            • Malaclypse

              And yet without the FDA, no ban. The existence of anti-vaxers should be proof that information is not sufficient to stop quackery.

              • DrDick

                Or Chiropractors.

    • 3) is an enormous claim, if I’m reading it right. Regulation has played no part in reducing inequitable treatment of workers? You can’t mean that, but I don’t see any other way to interpret what you wrote.

      4) completely ignores everything in the CT post about the inadequacy of workers “avoiding bad governance”. The word “eventually” is doing a tremendous amount of work there.

      5) is either not pertinent or obviously wrong. The most beneficial reading is that you’re making two claims, something about parents and teachers and regulation driving out non-exploitative firms.

      What the parent teacher thing is doing in a discussion about economic coercion I have no idea.

      The non-exploitative firms being driven out isn’t much better because there’s no endpoint to it. Doesn’t this argument also apply to regulations banning child labor, or maximum hours, or minimum safety requirements, etc.? If so, then it hardly needs to be demonstrated that the beneficial effects of the regulation are worth whatever “good bosses” get driven out. Why would regulations about pee breaks and the like be any different?

      The same thing applies if your argument doesn’t apply to those regulations we take for granted. Why would correcting those abuses not drive out non-exploitative firms, while enforcing pee breaks would?

      Finally, this whole line of argument confuses things immensely. If regulation has any teeth, then the universe of possible exploitation for firms has shrunk. Not being able to use the bathroom when you need it is bad, but working a 13 year old in that environment is worse. If the pee break thing gets effective regulation, firms will find additional ways to cut corners and bone employees, but they won’t be as bad as restricting use of the bathroom. Etc. Saying the variability of “good bosses” will shrink is an ineffective argument against a condition where intolerable behavior is curtailed.

      Also regulation is only one form of response to this stuff (unions, firm structure, etc).

      • bradp

        3) is an enormous claim, if I’m reading it right. Regulation has played no part in reducing inequitable treatment of workers? You can’t mean that, but I don’t see any other way to interpret what you wrote.

        That’s not exactly what I mean. Yes, good regulation can have good effects. But good regulation is often couple with offsetting bad regulation and carve outs, and usually just causes the disparity to manifest along other channels.

        I would also argue that labor power has diminished since the passage of the NLRA.

        4) completely ignores everything in the CT post about the inadequacy of workers “avoiding bad governance”. The word “eventually” is doing a tremendous amount of work there.

        I somewhat agree. See my first point. The “eventually” does do too much work, and often is apologetics.

        The same thing applies if your argument doesn’t apply to those regulations we take for granted. Why would correcting those abuses not drive out non-exploitative firms, while enforcing pee breaks would?

        Because the abuse is a matter of the relative position of the negotiating actors, and not about what one side is allowed by government to do.

        I don’t mean to argue against some of the more common sense regulations, but for every regulation you pass, businesses will begin to compete to best avoid the costs of compliance.

        When that happens, things go down hill really quick, as it is extremely apparent that a bunch of businesses competing to get around regulations are much better at that than regulators are at stopping them.

        If regulation has any teeth, then the universe of possible exploitation for firms has shrunk.

        The “universe of possible exploitation for firms” is hardly constant or constrained. Quite often well-intentioned regulation creates new avenues for exploitation.

        • I dig the general Foucault vibe you’re laying down, the concrete example of the NLRB is a good one, and regulatory capture / adverse consequences is something we have to constantly keep in mind and watch out for.

          But at some point the concrete benefits of regulation, especially among populations of workers that have little or no recourse to change their situation, outweigh all the abstract negative consequences and theoretical problems. Child labor bans, the common-sense safety regulations, etc. The examples in the CT post are all pretty much in this vein, and the BHLs argue against mitigating them. (Some make gestures toward radical labor reform, unions etc. I haven’t gone deep enough in the weeds to figure out how sincere/specific they get.)

          I get being concerned about regulation in general, but the specifics of the dispute in the CT post mean that recognizing even the possibility of beneficial action means you come down on CT’s side, I think.

    • djw

      Libertarians don’t tend to focus on governance because, in large part, the goal of libertarianism is empowering everyone to avoid bad governance.

      Alternatives to bad governmence are an important part of the cocktail of options and strategies we need for dealing with bad governance. But alone, they’re necessarily woefully inadequate. We are sociologically, economically, and psychologically rooted creatures. The (often highly formalist and largely inaccesible) right to exit isn’t enough, and it wouldn’t be even if you could wave the magic UBI wand.

      What about parents, preachers, or teachers? There are plenty of instances where someone or some group submits to the authority of another willingly. There are even good bosses out there.

      Yes, those are all potential instances of governance on Anderson’s definition. And yes, there ought to be mechanisms to prevent or resist bad governance. In some of these cases ‘a meaningful right to exit’ may do a lot more than it does in the state of the workplace, and some of the tools to resist bad governance may not be statist at all). Insofar as these particular arrangements are beneficial and non-problematic, these tools may not be used. Governance comes in many different forms, and as such different tools, techniques, rights, and circumstances are needed to correct the dangers of each of them. Aside from placing them in a broad conceptual category together, neither I nor Anderson propose treating them ‘as one’ in any practical sense.

  • Quail Runner

    Employers are engaged in a form of governance.

    Here’s the problem with this whole post. And Brad also picks up on this in his comment.

    Government, that is the state-infrastructure and not simple governance, cannot be said “no” to.

    He seems to understand that the force of government is not the same as a contractual relationship such as employment.

    Just the latest attempt to redefine terms to support a radical viewpoint that cannot be supported any other way.

    • Steve LaBonne

      He seems to understand that the force of government is not the same as a contractual relationship such as employment.

      No matter how many times this bullshit is repeated, it’s still bullshit. An agreement between an employer and a powerful union can be genuinely contractual; the relationship between an employer and a lone employee is inherently coercive (for all but a tiny minority of highly skilled and genuinely hard to replace employees. And few people are as irreplaceable as they like to think they are).

      • bradp

        An agreement between an employer and a powerful union can be genuinely contractual;

        Agreed. Wouldn’t this point to the difference you were trying to refute?

        the relationship between an employer and a lone employee is inherently coercive

        You can’t say something is inherently coercive as you are laying out examples where it is not.

        • Steve LaBonne

          I guess your reading comprehension skills don’t extend to being able to grasp the difference between “lone employee” and “union”. But then, libertoonianism depends on exactly that kind of self-induced stupidity.

          • bradp

            the relationship between an employer and a lone employee is inherently coercive (for all but a tiny minority of highly skilled and genuinely hard to replace employees. And few people are as irreplaceable as they like to think they are).

            I was referring to the part in bold.

            But then, libertoonianism depends on exactly that kind of self-induced stupidity.

            Since this is your opinion of libertarians, there is no point in continuing this discourse.

            • Steve LaBonne

              Indeed. So go away or I shall taunt you a second time.

              • bradp

                You go away.

                I’m the one being civil here.

                • Steve LaBonne

                  Fuck civility. There is nothing civil about the amoral, destructive and stupid ideology that you hold.

                • bradp

                  Then fuck you too, champ.

                  Good thing you’re only a internet tough guy, cause you could be regretting those words.

                • Steve LaBonne

                  Oooh, I’m scared of the big bad scary libertard.

                • bradp

                  Oooh, I’m scared of the big bad scary libertard.

                  Not me. I’m the pansy/pacifist sort. There are a lot of the sort who is very happy when the other side decides to do away with civility.

                  But you win, I’m sufficiently embarrassed by the direction this conversation took to stop posting. (And I’m certainly not embarrassed easily!)

                • UserGoogol

                  Steve LaBonne: It is precisely because libertarianism is stupid and evil that you need to be civil. The point of civility is not as a reward for good behavior, it is to allow rational discussion to happen and for truth to win out. As such, because libertarianism is a harmful ideology, we need the full force of reason on our side, and can’t allow distractions by petty namecalling.

                • Steve LaBonne

                  That would be true if politics were entirely rational. They are not; and as a result libertarian ideas currently nave a (thoroughly malign) political influence which is far out of proportion to their intellectual value. Libertarians must not merely be refuted (which will only result in more of their sophistical responses,) the idiocy of their position right from its foundations up must be mercilessly exposed and they must be be mocked and hounded out of respectable discourse. That is the only sane response to people who simply do not care about truth as non-ideologues understand that concept. If one tries to engage them as good-faith intellectual opponents they will simply cheat by moving the goalposts, as we’ve seen over and over.

                  bradp is welcome to exercise his freedom of choice and seek a forum friendlier to his bran of nonsense.

        • DrDick

          You still do not understand the effects of scale and power differentials I see.

          • bradp

            I just don’t think you have paid attention to a word I have said.

            • John (not McCain)

              I have. What you have said is that, because there exist anecdotal examples of individual employees who are of such great worth to the employer that they can’t be easily replaced, it doesn’t mean the 99% of employees who CAN be easily replaced find themselves in a coercive relationship with their employer.

              And THAT’S why you get called names.

              • bradp

                I have.

                No you haven’t, because I haven’t said anything remotely close to that.

                • NonyNony

                  Then you need to be a bit clearer, Brad, because that sounds exactly like what you’re saying.

                • bradp

                  No you haven’t, because I haven’t said anything remotely close to that.

                  In this particular thread, I disputed that the employer-lone employee relationship is inherently exploitative.

                  In other threads I have usually conceded a great deal but tended to argue that government is rarely a solution and often a big part of the problem.

                  I have been extremely clear that I accept that the exploitation of the working class occurs on a vast scale. I just see government as a finger on the scales in the wrong direction, and that the real solution is radical individual and collective private non-political activity.

                • Malaclypse

                  the real solution is radical individual and collective private non-political activity.

                  That, exactly, is “collective private non-political activity”?

                • Malaclypse

                  “What”, not “that”.

                • elm

                  [W]hat, exactly, is “collective private non-political activity”?

                  The only thing I can think of is unions.

                • bradp

                  The only thing I can think of is unions.

                  Yes

            • DrDick

              I did pay attention to what you wrote and you imply that the lone employee and the union organizing thousands of workers in the industry are on an equal footing vis a vis the employer. You assume, as you always do, that there are no asymmetries of power in the workplace which always favor management/capital. That is simply, empirically false.

              • bradp

                Quote what you are referring to, please.

                • DrDick

                  Here:

                  You can’t say something is inherently coercive as you are laying out examples where it is not.

                  He provides minor exceptions, but that does not mean that on the whole the relationship is not normally coercive.

                • bradp

                  So:

                  You can’t say something [employer – lone employee] is inherently coercive as you are laying out examples where it is not.

                  causes you to jump to this:

                  the lone employee and the union organizing thousands of workers in the industry are on an equal footing vis a vis the employer

                • DrDick

                  Here is that post of yours in its entirety:

                  An agreement between an employer and a powerful union can be genuinely contractual;

                  Agreed. Wouldn’t this point to the difference you were trying to refute?

                  the relationship between an employer and a lone employee is inherently coercive

                  You can’t say something is inherently coercive as you are laying out examples where it is not.

                  The first half clearly implies the equivalence of the union and the lone worker. Please try to keep track of what you actually said.

                • bradp

                  The first half clearly implies the equivalence of the union and the lone worker. Please try to keep track of what you actually said.

                  The first part states that there is a difference between the coercion of the state and the coercion of the employer contra LaBonne.

                  But, man, whatever. My words are there for people to interpret how they want I guess.

                • DrDick

                  My words are there for people to interpret how they want I guess.

                  Well if we all seem to misinterpret your words, then perhaps you should consider expressing yourself more clearly. Otherwise it just makes you look like you are being shifty when challenged (a common libertarian ploy).

    • DocAmazing

      He seems to understand that the force of government is not the same as a contractual relationship such as employment.

      Given that “Work or starve!” is as much an underpinning of a contract as is “Your money or your life!”, then a mugging is a contractual undertaking. Additionally, the existence of such things as union-busters, Pinkertons, and Blackwater mercenaries who clear out old employees to make way for new ones, we see that “employment” is a pretty flimsy veil under which to hide the power of money.

      • Quail Runner

        Given that “Work or starve!” is as much an underpinning of a contract as is “Your money or your life!”, then a mugging is a contractual undertaking.

        What a load of STUPID!

        It’s “Work or find other work”, dumbass.

        • DrDick

          It’s “Work or find other work”, dumbass.

          Have you ever visited the real world? It is a very exotic place for people like you and unlike anything you have ever known. That statement is a quantum buttload of counterfactual stupid.

        • DocAmazing

          Yes, with official unemployment approaching the double digits and unofficial unemployment well-established–any city of decent size can boast a large homeless population, for example–there are work alternatives busting out all over. So many, in fact, that we give tax credits to employers for shipping factories overseas.

          “Work or starve” is indeed the order of the day. Or do you advocate a generous welfare state and prolonged unemployemtn benefits until The Job Creators start creating jobs?

  • I just couldn’t parse this. Is there a clarification?

    “. . . far to dangerous for a exit right that often amounts to empty formalism to manage.”

    • djw

      should be too not to.

      Point is this: exit rights, especially in a social context in which exercising them is very costly, if not practically impossible, can’t do the work libertarians want them to do.

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