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Putting cruelty first

[ 139 ] July 7, 2012 |

Unsurprisingly, the Bertram/Robin/Gourevich piece on freedom and work I discussed here has produced a good deal of back and forth. First, Tyler Cowen provides us with a horrific example of the economist’s tendency to imagine everything can be unproblematically reduced to a price (also, his readers are attracted to worthless analogies). Also at Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabborek demonstrates his inability to grasp the point Anatole France was attempting to make. Back at Crooked Timber, Holbo, Waring, and Farrell have excellent posts. Yglesias engages in some pretty epic point-missing, and Farrell responds accordingly, and Yglesias responds with a still problematic but much less silly post. Back at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Flanigan, Vallier, Zwolinski and Brennan (twice) have responded. (Vallier;s response is by far the most substantive and serious).

A few thoughts. First, from Belle Waring’s post:

There has been a remarkable elision in the discussion of libertarianism subsequent to my husband’s post and to Chris Bertram, Corey Robin and Alex Gourevitch’s below. The elision is from “refuses to let you leave the room to pee and you have to wear adult diapers to work and sit in your own fucking piss for hours” to “bosses you around.” That’s really smoothing out the rough edges a bit much, I think, and is extraordinarily unhelpful. And it assumes away something important that at bottom we all know perfectly well: the boss who’s got his workers getting UTIs and wearing diapers to work like his call center was the fucking International Space Station isn’t doing it to improve productivity. He’s doing it to be an asshole. He may be dressing it up in his mind a little with the productivity, but he’s in all likelihood just a petty tyrant.

The glossing over of such humiliating, cruel, and arbitrary exercises of power is indicative of a refusal to confront cruelty directly and see it for what it is. This is evident in the BHL responses. Flanigan: “Employers are not trying to oppress workers. Why would they?” This question is posed as if her interlocutors could surely not respond; as if she temporarily forgot that human nature does, in fact, have a dark side. Zwolinski’s goes further in this direction; it can be read as an attempt to simultaneously deny and justify workplace cruelty by transforming it into mutually beneficial economic rationality. The (entirely healthy) skepticism of the libertarian toward the power who justify abusive, cruel behavior through ‘security’ or ‘reasons of state’ apparently vanishes when the justification offered is ‘reasons of economic efficiency’.

The debate has been cast as a working out of two variants of liberalism, with BRG et al suggesting that the libertarian version lapses into illiberal conservatism (R would suggest it was never really anything else) and the BHL worried that BRG et al are slipping into illiberal statist paternalism. Both sides get to their conclusion by placing ‘freedom’ and ‘rights’ at the center of their analysis. From where I sit, the BRG side wins on these terms without much difficulty, but it might be useful to think about this from a different angle. Belle’s post in particular made me think about Judith Shklar as a missing voice here, and one that libertarians ought to pay more attention to. I should note that I’m not really the best person to write this post, as I’m not much of an expert on her work, and beyond the liberalism of fear essay, which I teach regularly, I haven’t read most of her work in many years. (A better candidate is already on the BHL roster).

This post shares a title with one of one of Shklar’s most famous essays. (Short version here, but the longer version in Ordinary Vices is much better). In this essay and “The Liberalism of Fear“, Shklar articulates a vision of liberalism not as a rights- or freedom-maximizing political philosophy, but as a cruelty/humiliation/fear avoiding one. Cruelty, in particular, is a uniquely horrifying evil, and one that liberalism as a set of norms and institutional structures–gives us a better chance of avoiding. Insofar as a choice is to be made between maximizing freedom and preventing cruelty, Shklar’s liberalism directs us to choose the latter.

A majority of Shklar’s discussion of cruelty regards its public manifestation–cruelty perpetuated or advanced by government. She argues robust private property rights are an important resource against the long arm of government coercion, and her deep suspicion of political action should resonate with any libertarian. She does, on the other hand, note that ‘corporate business enterprises, which are creations of the law, and in her words, ‘not public in name only’ (Liberalism of Fear, p. 31) are also potential sources of cruelty. A primary task of the liberal citizenry is to be vigilant against, and work to restrict, the cruelty of the powerful “Where the instruments of coercion are at hand, whether it be through the use of economic power, chiefly to hire, pay, fire, or determine prices, or military might in its various manifestations” (Liberalism of Fear, p. 31). There is a sense in which Shklar can be read as an odd kind of virtue ethicist, a genre in which libertarians and I share a suspicion. But insofar as this reading is plausible, her virtue ethics serve do not serve the typical end–some sort of communitarian vision–but rather a liberal, cosmopolitan, anti-statist vision of society that should appeal to the BHL crowd.

It seems to me profoundly obvious that forcing your employee, on penalty of firing, to pee her pants and sit in her own urine for hours, is both cruel and humiliating. (To actually spell out how I reach this conclusion is surely insulting to the reader.) This holds whether it is done out of a misguided effort at economic rationality, or motives far worse. Cruelty prevention comes before concern for freedom or rights-maximization  for many reasons, but an important one is the deleterious psychological effect on both the victim and victimizer. Such acts of cruelty, repeatedly perpetrated or suffered, are likely to have the consequence of moving all involved away from the temperment and mentality of liberal citizenship. Cruelty can serve as an engine that in transforming ‘mere’ economic inequality to a deeper sort of social inequality. A particular type of citizen is necessary for an ethos of limited government and broad freedom to thrive, and the toleration of cruelty is, to put it mildly, not conducive to such a form of citizenship.

How many forms of workplace mistreatment fall under the banner of cruelty, I’m not sure. It’s possible that some of them discussed in the original BRG piece may not qualify as cruel on these grounds. This is hardly the only grounds I recognize as sufficient to justify legal restrictions on this kind of behavior, so it’s not terribly important for me to sort it out. But some of it is surely cruel, in Shklar’s sense, and her case against cruelty is something I’d hope at least some members of the BHL crowd would find worthy of consideration.

Comments (139)

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  1. Daragh McDowell says:

    The Guardian did an interesting piece around this topic, or more specifically the neurochemistry thereof. Gist is that not only do power imbalances encourage immoral behaviour (whether it be manipulating LIBOR or making someone pee their pants) its a feedback loop. Being powerful makes you want to accumulate more power.

    Of course, those who’ve never been on the opposite end of this occasion will continue to sneer.

    • TT says:

      Of course, those who’ve never been on the opposite end of this occasion will continue to sneer.

      That is the common strand of DNA modern conservatism and libertarianism share. Call it–I don’t know–the Chauvinism of the Comfortable. More often than not, it seems that libertarians (and especially the glibertarian derivative) give away the game by conveniently deploying both alleged skepticism of the state’s monopoly on legitimate use of violence, and veneration of sacred private property rights, as an excuse for not lifting a finger to aid workers whose rights are being stampeded. In any event, the contempt for “the lower orders” (one of George Will’s favorite phrases) shines through.

      • greylocks says:

        I long ago concluded that “intellectual” libertards have had it fairly easy in life, although I’m sure they all think otherwise.

        But in reality they have never had truly awful, dangerous, or physically demanding jobs; they have never had a debilitating major illness, or if they did, they had gold-plated insurance and unemployment compensation; they have never had to take care of an elder with Alzheimer’s for years on end; they have never had to work two or three jobs to feed their family; they have never wondered where their next meal would come from or how they would pay the rent or how they would find money to fix the car so they could get to work. And if they have ever had to face anything like real difficulty, they’ve always had access to resources, probably equally comfortable relatives, to get themselves through it.

        They imagine that the universe plays fair, as if fairness is a law of physics, and therefore everyone else’s difficulties in life are self-inflicted. Remarkably, this attitude suddenly changes when they’re the ones who find out the hard way that there is no law of physics that says the universe must play fair.

      • DrDick says:

        I prefer to call it what it is, rampant sociopathy.

        • LeeEsq says:

          I think that most libertarians aren’t really true sociopaths.* What they, and most conservatives lack, is an imagination that allows them to compliment that randomness of life and what it is like to be receiving end of said randomness. They do not seem to believe in luck, chance, or anything else. Libertarians can not conceive that being poor or otherwise disadvantaged might cause many people to get life hard and fast.

          *However, I would not be surprised if a high percentage of true sociopaths identify as libertarians.

          • DrDick says:

            I think you are partially right. Part of what what libertarians and conservatives lack is empathy (the ability to imagine yourself in the place of someone else). I have to agree about libertarians not believing in randomness.

      • James E. Powell says:

        Re the veneration of sacred private property rights, as an excuse for not lifting a finger to aid workers whose rights are being stampeded.

        My contempt for libertarians is grounded in this. And that it isn’t that the workers’ rights are being stampeded, but rather the workers’ humanity and personal integrity are being degraded; human suffering increases without reason.

        If you let any of them talk long enough, you will eventually hear something to suggest, if not declare, that the workers have done or failed to do something so that they somehow deserve what they get.

    • shah8 says:

      and others admire, Uncle Ruckus style…

    • Mike G says:

      Flanigan: “Employers are not trying to oppress workers. Why would they?”

      To pose such a question suggests that Flanigan has had a very privileged and/or sheltered work life.

  2. c u n d gulag says:

    Having been a Customer Service and Sales Trainer, and later a Training Manager (responsible for managing both Customer Service/Sales Ops, and Technical Ops) for a large Telecommunications company, I have seen kindness and cruelty, I have seen mini-dictators and inclusive sharers.

    And from my experience – THE @$$hOLES ALWAYS WIN!

    What moved people up, at least at the company I worked for (on and off almost 20 years), was how “productive” the people who work for them were.

    Fear was a better motivator than kindness in that environment.
    Their people stayed in that seat longer, answering phones, when they had to pee or poop – and kept calls shorter.
    Their sales people stayed out later, and often oversold the customer, to max out on their numbers.
    The technicians cut corners to make more visits.

    The manager or supervisor who lets their people go to the bathroom or stay on the phone longer to answer all of the customers questions; the one tells their salespeople that they want longer retention at the level that the customer was sold at; the one who tells their technicians to do the job right the first time, no matter how long it took – the lower stats.

    And that is what that companies metrics were – the stats.

    Quality counted for almost nothing.

    Your people answered more calls, or made more sales or technical calls than the other leaders? You moved up.

    Even if another leaders employees were happier, the customers more satisfied, and the customers kept the product longer than the customers the dictator’s people handled.

    Numbers, baby!!!

    The higher-up’s didn’t want to know whose employees were happier, or whose customers were more satisfied and kept the product longer.
    No.
    That involved more extensive research, and that costs money – and can those numbers really be trusted?
    Who can really judge employees “happiness” and customer “satisfaction?” And, as for keeping the product longer, who knows what motivates people to keep something.
    NO!

    It’s much easier to look at the raw numbers. Whose people answered the most calls? Whose people made the most sales?
    Move THAT person up.

    The leaders-in-waiting in the employee base saw that, and, when given a leadership position, immediately tried to better the numbers of their “competitors” and predecessors.

    The nice ones who got in, were always chastised by the people above them because their numbers rarely matched those of the dictators.
    Because they let their people talk to customers longer instead of harping on them to finish that call and get on the next one.
    Or didn’t want their salespeople to oversell customers so that, after a few months of trying HBO, Showtime, and STARZ, and, when the special ends and the price goes up astronomically, drop all of them because of the cost and go to some satellite provider because they couldn’t negotiate the price down, and hated the company for giving them a free, or low-cost, taste of ‘Tele-crack,’ and then demanding the full price.

    Nope – numbers, baby!

    That other sh*t’s too hard to track.
    Sure, they tracked those numbers – but those figures either weren’t believed, or paled in comparison to the most important thing:
    Whose people answered the most calls by staying in their seats, sold the most for the most, or made the most technical calls?

    Like a schmuck, I worked for that company 4 different times.
    And, each time coming back, hoping either that it had changed, or THIS TIME, I could help change it.

    I left the last time, burning all of my bridges, because I knew it was the last time, and I was HAPPY IT WAS THE LAST TIME!

    I always valued quality over quantity – and, over time, that made me a pariah every time.

    I asked myself, “Who was the bigger feckin’ idiot, me for going back hoping that the company had changed – or the company for hiring back a former employee they knew wasn’t able to change?”

    But, I had always left on good terms before when I quit.
    And always gave a reason that didn’t make the company look like the piece of sh*t I thought it to be – so, they had no reason to not hire me back, since I was more than qualified.

    I finally figured out that it wasn’t Lucy, the company.
    It was me – Charlie Brown.

    They said every time I went back that customer service and satisfaction was now the companies top goal.
    And every time, I believed they had gotten the message and changed – only to find out that nothing had changed, and that things had actually gotten worse.

    The company wasn’t the fool – I WAS!

    So, I’m done with corporate life.
    After what I said the last time I left, they wouldn’t hire me back even if I was fool enough to need/want to go back.
    And now, after almost 4 years away from the telecommunications industry, no one would hire me – too many changes have occurred.

    The problem is – what do I do now?

    No one’s hiring handicapped 54 year-old’s – at least not at this time.

    Maybe later…

    • Peig says:

      Would you kindly work out your issues some where other than the comments section? Good luck.

    • sven says:

      I spent one year working in technical support for a large telecom and what c u n d has described is terribly familiar. From my experience, the extreme focus on “the stats” also leads to widespread cheating. Once someone has done the typical things to improve their speed (which other employees are also doing) they start to find ways to cut corners. A few may be caught but many are also promoted. Once everyone knows the system is corrupt, few have any interest in playing by the rules. Soon the only way to achieve promotion is through gaming the system. I knew first-hand that managers would change evaluations to retain employees with good stats or tell employees with bad stats to “do whatever it takes” including a literal wink or nod. For those who had any interest in actually solving customers’ issues, the pressure was intense.

      • c u n d gulag says:

        Yeah, I’ve seen it.

        People caught hanging-up on customers, live, and recorded – and not only aren’t fired, they’re not even disciplined.
        Recorded!!!

        Why?
        “Oh, X’s stats are great! X answers a lot of calls. We can’t afford to lose X.”

        Well, d’uh!
        Of course X answers more calls than Y – BECAUSE Y ISN’T HANGING UP ON PEOPLE, YOU FECKIN’ IDJITS!!!

        And who gets disciplined?
        Y, of course!
        It seems Y’s “productivity” is below some of the others. (See bolded/capital-lettered rant above).

        Jeez, if that’s the metric, get a robot that “answers” the call, says the moronic greeting, makes some empathetic sounds, hangs-up on the caller, and says, “Ooops!”

        There – and NO benefits or pension!
        And lots of depreciation with robots – which you can’t do with people.

        Keeeeeerist!
        What the hell am I doing?
        I hope no telecommunications honcho’s are reading this – this’ll give them an idea.

    • firefall says:

      Speaking from similar experiences at times, and the same age, one thing I’d disagree on a bit:

      That other sh*t’s too hard to track.
      Sure, they tracked those numbers – but those figures either weren’t believed, or paled in comparison to the most important thing:

      All too often, the important thing was to give a route for the manager to exercise his ego or his desire for cruelty, even in despite of the figures shown.

    • Davis says:

      I would like to point out that Herb Kelleher, who created Southwest Airlines, the only consistently profitable airline, said that he serves three groups: employees, customers, and shareholders, in that order. Happy employees make customers happy, who then make shareholders happy. He also said that the customer is not always right, that an abusive passenger can take his business elsewhere. Of course, this is not common.

      • c u n d gulag says:

        Too bad there aren’t many more like him.

        That’s pretty much just common sense.

        And too many corporations can’t get that order right.
        They think it’s ‘science rocket’ or something.

  3. fyi says:

    Yglesias means obtuse in Spanish

    • Pinko Punko says:

      Actually in it means Obtuse as in the personification of the word- a neck-bearded chundernozzle with the neutrino-like feature of mostly avoiding matter in the form of people proving that he is wrong, a lot.

    • swearyanthony says:

      Pretty sure it means “comfortable hack”. Like McCardle and Klein, he will continue to peddle crap until they have a regular Sunday morning TV spot to lecture the lesser folks. Kinda makes me want to barrack for climate change and the end of life on Earth, sometimes…

      Yglesias is the master of putting up all sorts of poorly researched horseshit, having experts face palm and correct him, then putting up more posts with information from actual experts. It’s not much different to a high schooler copying out of Wikipedia.

      • Bijan Parsia says:

        I think Klein is far far better than Yglesias and putting McCardle in with either just isn’t right.

        Though I did watch a spot where Klein was covering for Maddow and “awful” didn’t begin to describe it. Ok, so the Romney camp fucked up a venn diagram, which is moderately amusing. But Klein went on about it for minutes! And he was so mannered…ugh.

        But he does a lot of reporting on policy which is generally useful

        • firefall says:

          I’d have to concur on both points (and also on the Klein TV spot, I saw that too, and he didnt just flog the dead horse, but castigated its bones as well)

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            “I love charts. Charts are what I love. And charts are cool, right? So cool. But charts can be bad if they are used for bad things. Charts can also go bad if you don’t know how to use a chart. Which is bad! Because charts are good, but a bad good is bad. I know that’s hard to understand without a chart, but let me instead use an awkward vocal tic to distract you from my wooden hand placement (though did you see the pen I’m holding?! I’m a star, but intellectual (cf also, the glasses!)).

            Mitt Romney’s team, like many presidential campaigns, uses charts, like the venn diagram, which is good! but it is in fact [strange hand movement] bad because they *got the chart wrong*. Not just the data *behind* the chart, but the *chart itself*. A VENN DIAGRAM, that most holy of the diagrammatic symbols of the wunderkind, no less! This crime against the punditariastical order cannot be endured!!!

            [[3 hours later]]

            At last my brethren! You now have been initiated in the secret ways of the diagram venn! You understand the mysteries of the intersection and the esoteria of the non-overlap, not to mention the legend of the legend! You are now prepared to cast your scorn on the profane!

            [[2 hours later]]

            Ha ha! Mitt’s folks sure are stupid! And look! It only took 5 hours and 20 minutes to make a 2 second joke! Thank god Maddow’s audience like being talked down to do by Me! Ezra the Chart!!”

        • John says:

          The problem with Yglesias is that he is totally cocksure of all his opinions, that they are often wrong, and that when they are wrong they are usually wrong in the direction of mindless libertarianism.

          The problem with Klein is that he is really boring.

        • I think Klein is far far better than Yglesias and putting McCardle in with either just isn’t right.

          It was oh-so-right here.

          • Barry Freed says:

            Huh, I’m in a Starbucks on their wifi and can’t open that link because it says my IP is blacklisted as a spammer.

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            It’s right to put them together as a cohort with problematic interactions. It’s wrong to put them in the same league in terms of quality and in terms of the nature of what they do. Klein is generally best when he’s doing policy reporting, he can be good (though often backs down ridiculously) with certain kinds of opining, and generally is not so great with interviews (or with opining based on interviews).

            Yglesias generally doesn’t, when I was reading him, do reporting. His opining is as everyone says. Occasionally ok, but often repetitive and not in an improving way.

            McCardle is, alas, just bad.

            I think it’s pretty telling that Klein is the only one who has nurtured other reporters and built something larger than himself.

          • djw says:

            Huh. Not sure what the linked McArdle post is supposed to demonstrate, other than she’s a goofy nerd who blogs about being a goofy nerd. That’s without a doubt the least objectionable McArdle post I’ve ever seen.

  4. Shell Goddamnit says:

    It may be a tad prolix, Peig, but it’s signal, not noise. Would you kindly refrain from unauthorized policing of the comments? Ta!

  5. Matt says:

    My sense is bosses that do these sorts of things operate less out of cruelty and more out of a need for control. Not to say the outcome is any better, but it’s more about being ‘the boss’ and holding sway over people than intentionally making them miserable. When MLB was first dealing with free agency in the 1970s, the owner of the Oakland A’s (Charlie Finley)proposed that instead of the reserve clause the owners all agree to sign players to one year deals. This would have been economically the right move for the owners, but it was rejected out of hand because the owners felt they deserved control of the players on their teams. Management likes to be in control of things, and that easily drifts into behavior that can be cruel and arbitrary, but it doesn’t necessarily come from bad intentions.

  6. [...] Accordingly, as much as I like John Holbo’s post on freedom and coercion (a post which has earned John a mention in my book manuscript for a point he makes about Hayek), in this context I’d especially like to recommend two of the other replies in this conversation: Belle Waring and djw. [...]

  7. newsouthzach says:

    Yeah, I was really struck by Yglesias’ seeming insistence that there was no way to get econ professors to work for $8/hour and no benefits.

    They’re called adjuncts, Matt. Apparently it would kill you to learn a little bit about what you’re going to pontificate upon.

  8. sleepyirv says:

    I’ve discovered that by ignoring Yglesias I’m not missing much in understanding issues/discovering new policy and I get less angry.

    • somethingblue says:

      Here, let me catch you up on the last few months:

      Barber licensing requirements Height limits on buildings in DC are the greatest threat we face as a nation, as I show in my new book, The Rent is Too Damn High.”

      Also too, Finland.

      • sleepyirv says:

        The problem with writing 10,000 things a day is that your hobby horses quickly become obvious and you run out of things to say about them.

        The thing about Yglesias is it’s hard to believe he was a philosophy major- he’s very good at commenting on a variety of issues intelligently but he can never give in-depth analysis of an issue. When he talks about the same problem again, his writing doesn’t become more comprehensive or sharper, just repetitious. I have no idea how he’s written 2 (TWO!) books. Maybe he does better in a longer format.

        • John says:

          The lack of success of his books suggests otherwise.

          • L2P says:

            Wow. I can’t imagine why “More Liquor Stores, Fewer Licensed Dentists: Why the Government Shouldn’t Protect You” didn’t sell builder.

            Probably the book cover.

            • LeeEsq says:

              This my biggest gripe with Yglesias, his continual inability to realize that licensing might have some good public health or consumer protection reasons behind it even though it might also result in rent-seeking.

              • I see that you don’t pay very much attention to that line of topics at all, then.

                • John says:

                  I haven’t paid much attention to Yglesias since he moved to Slate, but LeeEsq’s comment seems like a perfectly accurate characterization of Yglesias’s pre-Slate discussions of licensing. He would always act as though it was totally obvious that it was ridiculous for, e.g., barbers to need to be licensed, and then would ignore it when anyone pointed out in the comments possible reasons you might want to license barbers (to be fair, Matt, always ignored his commenters).

                  That’s not to say that it’s necessarily a good idea to require the licensing of barbers, or that this licensing is conducted in the fairest or most efficient manner, but Yglesias would always act as though it was just self-evident that there was no need for licensing at all, and that the only reason for it was rent-seeking.

        • John says:

          The other thing I’d say is that on his hobby horses, Yglesias is more or less immune to listening and assimilating counterarguments. On education reform, for example, he just repeats the same pro-testing mantras over and over again, without ever really seeming to actually understand the arguments against them.

          Like Libertarians, he also has a tendency to make arguments based on an ideal world that doesn’t actually exist, rather than the real world. So on education reform, for instance, he takes it as a given that standardized tests will actually be good at determining whether students are learning what they’re supposed to, and that they won’t be gamed. The argument that such tests will inevitably do a bad job at this, and that they will also almost inevitably be gamed if teacher pay and employment is dependent on them, is one that he can’t even seem to understand. The idea that something which seems good to him in theory could be almost impossible to execute in an effective way in practice is alien to his way of thinking.

          • L2P says:

            True.

            He also seems incapable of seeing why people might like licensing and regulation as opposed to spending all their free time investigating whether a barber is likely to cut off their ear.

            If I had to guess, it comes from being a single guy who never had to deal with a real 5/40 job, personal finance, kids, and that sort of stuff. It makes all of the world’s problems more like essay questions on a final exam.

            • John says:

              He’s married now, no?

              • Ohio Mom says:

                Yes, he is married to Sara Mead, a rising star in the ed deform movement. If you want to know more about her, she’s very easy to google.

                As a result, Matt is never, ever going to do anything but cheerlead high-stakes testing, no matter what evidence against high-stakes testing is presented to him. I find this a bit on the corrupt and dishonest side, myself. But I stopped reading him long ago.

                • DocAmazing says:

                  Yet another point of similarity with McArdle. He has a Suderman of his own (Suderwoman?).

                • Scott Lemieux says:

                  Yes, he is married to Sara Mead

                  This is not actually true, but anyway…

                • John says:

                  He dated Sara Mead for a while, iirc, but my understanding was that he was married to somebody else. The Google is not giving me her name, though.

            • “…whether a barber is likely to cut off their ear.”

              I’m still amazed anyone would ever actually say this. I would be an absolutely awful barber, because for some reason I have very shaky hands so I’d never be able to do detail or trim without messing up the hair, but as a fully functioning adult human I would absolutely be able to not cut your damn ear off. Hell, they gave me scissors in elementary school, so I’m fairly certain I could have managed to cut your hair without removing any body parts as early as seven or eight years old.

              • John says:

                Okay, so it’s unlikely unlicensed barbers will cut off someone’s ear. They can certainly spread disease, and many of them also work with dangerous chemicals. Isn’t it a good idea that there should be some way to prevent barbers who have a history of spreading disease and/or misusing dangerous chemicals from practicing that trade (i.e., by taking away their licenses?), in order to protect the public?

                It certainly seems to be true that the licensing requirements are higher than they should be due to rent-seeking. But that doesn’t mean that licensing itself is a bad idea.

                • 1. Again, there’s a rather large hole here where the “assuming people are fully functioning adults” should be. Does it really take hundreds of hours of training to learn how to handle barbicide and sterilize metal scissors, combs, clippers, etc? I would think not. We’ve got a set of clippers here that we use to cut my toddlers’ hair and they’re easy as pie to clean (probably easier, depending on the kind of pie). I don’t see any reason a basic framework of regulating health standards and then making sure everyone is meeting them wouldn’t suffice, especially when compared to the burden on entry that an overly onerous licensing regime presents.

                  2. As for the chemicals, I’d agree with that, but again, the solution seems pretty simple: allow for splitting those practices. If someone just wants to cut hair and do other things that don’t entail perms or hair coloring or whatever, let them have at it, but require a license for doing anything that requires applying chemicals.

              • Eli Rabett says:

                Barbers use razors. Near your ears if you are a guy

                • Well if calling it a “license” imbues a piece of paper with the magical ability to prevent a person’s hand from *ever* twitching, then perhaps that’s a strong argument in favor of it.

        • Pinko Punko says:

          His repetition also suggests that he doesn’t consider the hundreds or thousands of opinions that contradicted his douchery the first time around.

  9. Richard Hershberger says:

    “Flanigan: “Employers are not trying to oppress workers. Why would they?” This question is posed as if her interlocutors could surely not respond; as if she temporarily forgot that human nature does, in fact, have a dark side.”

    This is nearly the defining characteristic of libertarianism, as the word is used in its modern debased sense. Self-identified modern libertarians are attracted to the beautiful simplicity of a model with set of assumptions that Explain Everything. The only problem is that these assumptions exclude real people from the model in favor of rational economic actors.

    The thing is, I am just old enough to have met a different set of people similarly attracted to a model with a set of assumptions that Explain Everything, except for the niggling detail of how real people behave. These were Marxists.

    When I watch modern self-identified libertarians, I have trouble distinguishing them from those campus Marxists I used to have bull sessions with. The personality characteristics are the same. The assumptions are different in some ways, but not in any way that matters with respect to the question “would implementing policies based on these assumptions lead to utter disaster?”

    • joe from Lowell says:

      Self-identified modern libertarians are attracted to the beautiful simplicity of a model with set of assumptions that Explain Everything. The only problem is that these assumptions exclude real people from the model in favor of rational economic actors.

      This is so true. They take these stripped-down models of the world that were created to do away with the larger part of the relevant facts about a subject, and then project backwards, pretending that the real things are, and function as, those models.

      Actual human beings become Rational Economic Man.

      Actual, unique pieces of land, with their own individual geographies, locations, and significance, become Property, indistinguishable from an account with a certain numerical value on an investment bank’s computer network.

      And the worst – a market, one of those real, noisy, complicated places where actual human beings bump up against each other in complex, multi-variate dances, surrounded by a feast for the senses and a thick social stew, becomes the Market, where Rational Economic Man disposes of and acquires Property according to algorithms.

  10. c u n d gulag says:

    QR,
    Well, I’ve been applying for all sorts of jobs for years, with no luck – and very, very, very, very, very, few calls back for interviews – over the phone or live.

    And none in the past year at all.

    And I’ve applied for 100′s and 100′s and 100′s of jobs!
    Each and every feckin’ year.

    And, my resume’s both pretty extensive and impressive.

    And only a few calls back a year – and most of those were some sort of ”work-at-home” scam, internet scam, or one offer from some borderline illegal telemarketing outfit pitching financial sh*t to seniors – which is over an hour away, and only pays minimum wage for part-time work with no set shifts or benefits.
    And I almost took that job – except my conscience didn’t allow me to try to sell something to gullible to seniors that’s only meant to extract money from them, without offering any real benefit that I could discern. If someone sold that sh*t to my parents, I’d want to beat them bloody.

    I’m not a religious man, so all I can do is keep sending out resume’s – which I do.

    Almost no one is hiring us older workers.

    Want to spend over two years desperately searching internet job-sites, and then filling out endless on-line job applications, and attaching resume’s?

    How about e-mailing resumes out to companies, with cover letters?
    How about snail-mailing them?
    And dropping them off?
    And calling from ads in newspapers, or local community rags?

    Care to walk a mile in my 10 year-old badly pronated shoes*, ankle brace, and cane, and see what that’s like?

    ‘Til then – don’t tell me anyone can find a job.
    I’ve tried and tried and tried, and tried some more.

    Be thankful you have one.
    I was once young, athletic, and hopeful.
    Sh*t happens.
    Better hope it don’t happen to you.

    * I keep the shoes because new ones hurt worse, and never break-in – I know. I’ve tried.

    • c u n d gulag says:

      Oh good, Quayle R-whatever’s comment disappeared, so I’m back to looking like I’m responding to voices in my head.

      What’s that?
      On my lawn?
      Really?

      “Hey kid’s! Get off my…”

      Oh, there are none.
      Maybe I am responding to voices in my head? :-)

      • Quail Runner says:

        I am about the same age. I had to hire myself.

        I now run a small (very small) business that, if I watch my expenses, pays pretty good. Unlike the teaching class, I have no benefits and eat what I kill.

        I’m just trying to help, not to rag you.

        It can be done.

        • c u n d gulag says:

          Thanks.
          I’m trying.

          What kind of business are you in?

          My Mom and I are living off my late Fathers SS money, and my unemployment money’s been long gone.

          I don’t have any start-up money, sorry to say, so I can’t start my own business – or at least one that I’m aware can be done without any.

          • Quail Run says:

            I’m in the accounting business.

            But I can’t tell you what will fly in your area. You seem to have some skills, but don’t like the corporate scene.

            Have you thought of consulting…taking your skills, knowledge and experience to those smaller businesses that thought they couldn’t afford it.

            Takes no money up front. Figure out who might need your expertise, contact them and show them how they can retain customers or sell new ones. Offer to train their staff to operate the way the “big boys” in your industry do and how it will impact their bottom line.

            It’s just a thought…

            • c u n d gulag says:

              Yeah, I thought about that. But I’m a lousy self-marketer.

              As for my field, it was training people on the billing system at the company I was at.
              And there aren’t any small telecommunications companies anymore. The big guys gobbled them all up.

              And geographically, I’m stuck.

              I need to stay where I’m at for the sake of my 80 year-old, diabetic, and almost blind mother, who I have to care for.

              And in the area I’m in, there’s little but retail, and I can’t stand – i can barely walk.

              So, here I sit, applying for jobs with little hope of even getting a call.

              I’m trying for disability, and should have a hearing at the end of the year.
              So, that’s all I can hope for, it looks like.

              Maybe if the economy improves…
              :-)
              Never give up hope!

        • Hogan says:

          eat what I kill

          Ah jeez. Do you think this phrase would disappear if I killed every single person who uses it? Because I’d be willing to try.

      • Quail Runner says:

        Oh good, Quayle R-whatever’s comment disappeared, so I’m back to looking like I’m responding to voices in my head.

        Let’s be honest. My comment didn’t just “disappear”. It was cut because no one other than socialist viewpoints are tolerated.

        This is a sample of what you get when these people are in charge. It’s in their DNA.

  11. Watusie says:

    Does anyone else think that the Catholic Bishops “religious liberty” campaign (to exempt themselves from the laws that apply to secular employers regarding employee health benefits) is actually motivated in large part by a desire to simply tell a large group of women that they are inferior? Approximately 1/6 of the hospitals in this country are affiliated with the Catholic Church – that is one hell of a lot of women to push around.

    • Anonmea says:

      Yes, and that is one reason I am reluctant to move to a new community – right now I have a great SECULAR managed care health insurance, and Im not eager to trade it for health care that is hobbled and weakened and made worse by someone else’s idea of religion. I fully support the right for ALL Catholics to make choices about the health care they RECEIVE, but if you can’t keep up with modern medicine standards of care, switch jobs, dont expect my health to suffer for your ideological comfort.

      • DGI says:

        If you do not work for a Catholic institution
        how would moving impact your insurance?

        My doctor belongs to a Catholic medical group that is part of large Catholic health system and as far as I know it has had no influence over my care. Receiving and refilling birth control prescriptions required nothing more than an initial ask and now a phone call.

  12. Anderson says:

    Reminds me why I quit reading Cowen’s blog – the guy is missing something essential to relations with other human beings.

    Used to, I would’ve said it was a “soul”; now I dunno, neurochemistry blah blah blah.

    Just because we have to resort to money to express some social interactions, doesn’t mean that everything comes down to money. Money is a language of sorts. It’s like saying that “love” and “respect” are just the words themselves and aren’t intended to refer to something in the real world.

    • DocAmazing says:

      When the guy came out and said that we had to accept that some poor people would die from being poor, it should have been a bit of a red flag.

      • Barry Freed says:

        Did he really say that? Wow.

        • Linnaeus says:

          He did. Here’s the post. To be fair to Cowen, he made that statement in the context of arguing why libertarians and conservatives should support the mandate in the ACA. He then goes on to say that there should be at least a “modest” package of guaranteed health insurance coverage for all citizens. He’s arguing against health-care “egalitarianism”, saying that it hurts the poor more than it helps and that we already allow the rich to enjoy certain things that lengthen their lives so it’s misguided to focus on “egalitarianism” in just this one thing.

          Of course, I don’t agree with this argument, and I think his statement was very badly chosen.

          • Barry Freed says:

            Thanks for that Linnaeus.

          • Mpowell says:

            I don’t like Cohen much, but the irony of that whole thing is that very few liberals disagree with him on this point. Most people have no problem with the concept of extra care for those willing to pay and nobody would argue that the rich shouldn’t be allowed to live healthier lives. You have to believe in complet income inequality to really disagree with him.

            • Well, I sort of want to give him the benefit of the doubt, even though I’m not really a fan, because I think he was kinda-sorta well meaning, but that was a really bad turn of phrase on his part. And, if I’m not misreading, it seems like he’s saying that we have to accept it because being poor creates a host of other factors that leads to poorer health outcomes (like eating a lot more crappy food, having more stress, a worse living environment, etc.) and Cowen apparently just wants to ignore all of that stuff. Of course, your average progressive wants to make all of those thing better for poor people as well, so that’s where that pesky libertarianism comes up again.

    • Hob says:

      If you don’t want to be even more grossed out, avoid reading the comments to most of the Crooked Timber posts, especially Belle’s last one. One guy got people to argue with him for several pages by calmly insisting that he couldn’t possibly be unaware of any problems that are uniquely faced by his female co-workers, because they would’ve told him; and even if they didn’t, he could’ve guessed whatever it was, because there are no meaningful differences between people’s life experiences, because they all have the same brains. There are three or four of these Turing test rejects who hang out regularly in comments at CT, and I find them way creepier than straight-up idiot trolls.

      • djw says:

        Yeah, CT comments can be pretty horrifying. Data T. (previously known as Henri Vieuxtemps and before that, abb1) is an absurd troll who offers a particularly dimwitted version of dime store Marxism, combined with a deep conviction that how race and gender are completely irrelevant to any question worth asking in every possible case. Why the regulars continue to feed him I have no idea.

        • Walt says:

          I can see the Data/Henri similarity, but Henri never sounded like abb1 to me.

          • Barry Freed says:

            Yeah, I’m with Walt.

          • djw says:

            I can’t say for certain, but someone looked it up, and Henri’s first appearance was a few days after abb1′s last. (Same with Henri–Data). When it was pointed out in a comment thread, he as much as admitted it, IIRC. I think he was still forming his personality in the abb1 days, and by the time he abandoned that handle he’d pretty much settled into what we see now.

            • Barry Freed says:

              Yeah, I think that was JW Mason who posited that theory. I think Data Tukhuswhatevers debut was on a thread concerning race issues and he was particularly infuriating. I don’t remember abb1 being that obtuse with regard to racial matters which tend to set me off but I could well be wrong having taken a few years off blogs for personal reasons.

        • Hob says:

          I guess that kind of thing bothers me more than other kinds of trolling for the same reason that it’s harder to avoid responding to it: because I’ve known people in real life who really are that obtuse (if not quite so totally unconcerned about sounding like an asshole) but who can sometimes listen to reason. In other words it’s closer to old-school trolling, playing on people’s better instincts, rather than just drive-by insult crap.

    • Davis X. Machina says:

      Reminds me why I quit reading Cowen’s blog – the guy is missing something essential to relations with other human beings.

      There aren’t a lot of changes to be rung on on “That which is, can be bought and sold, because it can be bought and sold. That which cannot be bought and sold, is not.”

      Not even Philip Glass is gonna be able to save that one.

  13. Derelict says:

    I have to echo Gulag’s experience. I’ve spent a lifetime watching butthead bosses treating employees like dirt, and then get promoted and thrive as they imposed ever-greater cruelty on ever-greater numbers of people. The nice guys didn’t just finish last–they nice guys got shitcanned for lack of performance.

    When I became a boss, I vowed to never treat my employees like I had been treated. And I quickly discovered that most of my employees simply could not function in an environment where they were treated as equals with respect for their needs and opinions. They found it profoundly confusing and made it clear that they much preferred an employer who treated them shabbily.

    Humans iz weird!

    • Matt Stevens says:

      There’s a statistical explanation for the belief that cruelty “works”: We tend to yell at folks who do badly, and praise those who do well. Regression to the mean suggests that those who do badly will, on average, get better while those who do well will do worse (roughly speaking). So we see those who are yelled at improve, those who are praised do not, and conclude (sometimes) that people should be yelled at all the time.

    • Dave says:

      This is why the whole boss/worker dynamic is screwed – both sides assume that responsibility for production lies on one side, and that a conflict of interest exists. You can’t be good, and a boss, in such a set of conditions. What you want, of course, is a self-governing cooperative structure, with worker buy-in, agreed targets and practices, and profit-distribution. Which is absolutely simple to have in theory, just not so much in practice.

      • NBarnes says:

        Profit distribution? MADNESS! How are the asshole bosses supposed to keep score without golden parachutes to compare and peons to award points based on shininess of parachute?

      • DrDick says:

        Which is absolutely simple to have in theory, just not so much in practice.

        Not really. You just have to eliminate the rentier capitalists and put the workers in charge.

  14. jefft452 says:

    “Flanigan: “Employers are not trying to oppress workers. Why would they?”

    Why does a dog lick his balls? Because he can

  15. Thanks for posting that pdf. I’ve got a few questions about the concept of cruelty which may or may not be coherent.

    – “The only exception to the rule of avoidance (of cruelty) is the prevention of greater cruelties.” This seems like a sticky wicket. Because every society is going to have different conceptions of what constitutes “greater cruelty”. Or different segments within societies. Is the French ban against face-coverings a liberal law? I don’t think we would say so, and large swaths of Frenchies wouldn’t, but larger ones would say they’re sparing women the cruelty of patriarchal submission to males and demeaning cultural practices. “Deine Papieren, Bitte” laws prevent illegal immigrants from becoming exploited and degraded by employers; anti-sodomy laws prevent someone from enduring a degrading sexual act for the pleasure of their partner; etc. I don’t believe these things, but it’s not fundamentally insane or irrational to believe them. And the pdf’s resort to “universal human concepts and abstract reason etc.” isn’t going to help here, because those conceptions are going to be different based on who’s thinking them through, and I think the examples I gave could be justified through as universal and abstract rational thoughts as one could wish.

    This all plays on the fluid and contentless nature of “greater cruelty”. Who gets to decide? According to what criteria? Is this something decided on by individual thinkers or put to a broader test by larger mechanisms like voting? If it’s the thinkers, what happens when they disagree? If it’s stuff like voting, doesn’t that guarantee the existence of “liberal” states with laws that ban and allow the opposite things?

    - The problem of changing conceptions of “cruelty”. We used to think the lash and the stocks was an acceptable form of punishment, and now we don’t; we think that being locked up in a cage is an acceptable form of punishment. (Ignore, for now, the horrendous conditions of overcrowded prisons, of poor control of prison populations which result in extralegal punishments like physical and sexual abuse, etc.) Well . . . why? Certainly there are reasons for this, but in the context of a prescription to “avoid cruelty”, isn’t the lack of content an issue? How can a rule which allows for the switching of what constitutes the rule’s conception be of any use? (This is a take-off of the well-known argument that no rule can determine its own interpretation, I think.) Is the idea that so long as the functioning of a society follows that society’s conceptions of universal standards and abstract reason for what is or isn’t cruel, everything’s ok? But then why make a big deal about overturning contemporary standards of cruelty in different societies, which are going to be just as far from our contemporary standards as historical America’s are? Again, I don’t think the appeal to universal concepts and abstract reason does the work that’s needed, here.

    - I think both these sets of questions arise from a pragmatist conception of truth. We aren’t going to be able to conceptualize cruelty, even if we try and adhere to strict standards of universal human concepts and abstract reason, in a way similar to other societies or the societies of the past. Does an embrace of cruelty as the orienting concept of a liberalism of fear entail a rejection of that conception of truth? Are there ways to make them compatible? One way out might be the Rortyian argument that we are required to believe in the superiority of our moral conceptions, whether we’re arguing with contemporary China or historical American societies. But for a universal political philosophy this doesn’t quite work, since China has equal footing to believe that its conception of universal standards of cruelty based on abstract reason would be superior.

    Like I said, these might not be coherent and are first impressions. But if I glance near anything interesting, might be worth of discussion.

    • djw says:

      Glad you liked it; these are some important questions. I’m just about to dash off to this event, but I’ll try and respond tomorrow morning, hangover willing.

    • jeer9 says:

      Rorty grapples with Shklar in “Private Irony and Liberal Hope”:

      Redescription often humiliates. … The metaphysician thinks that there is a connection between between redescription and power, and that the right redescription can make us free. The ironist offers no similar assurance. She has to say that our chances of freedom depend on historical contingencies which are only occasionally influenced by our self-redescriptions. She knows of no power of the same size as the one with which the metaphysician claims acquaintance. When she claims that her redescription is better, she cannot give the term “better” the reassuring weight the metaphysician gives it when he explicates it as “in better correspondence with reality.”

      So I conclude that what the ironist is blamed for is not an inclination to humiliate but an inability to empower. There is no reason the ironist cannot be a liberal, but she cannot be a “progressive” and “dynamic” liberal in the sense in which liberal metaphysicians claim to be. For she cannot offer the same sort of social hope as metaphysicians offer. She cannot claim that adopting her redescriptions of yourself or your situation makes you better able to conquer the forces marshaled against you. On her account, that ability is a matter of weapons and luck, not a matter of having the truth on your side, or having detected “the movement of history.”

      The practice of cruelty is not diminished by building better moral arguments or by probing psychological/philosophical foundations but by expanding our comprehension of what humiliates another person (which is best done through literature, art, and film), something libertarians seem to struggle with (understatement intended). However, since this approach by Rorty doesn’t resolve the dilemma cited by BSDI very well either, he eventually resorts to the image of civilization being like many tents in a bazaar, quite a few of which we sophisticated liberals would prefer not to enter or do business with. Thus I don’t think the pragmatist notion of truth helps lessen cruelty very much here, and it is often the reason why Rorty is sometimes (wrongly, if you ask me) characterized as a “conservative status quo” – type thinker. Chance and circumstance are rarely blocks upon which justice can be built; more often, we end up with prisons/torture chambers.

      • Dave says:

        I think Rorty has [well, had] a very finely-tuned appreciation of just how complex a mental and moral apparatus one would need to effect change in the world for good without completely fucking it up. Which is why he had almost no leverage on anything that might be called a ‘movement’, those largely being comprised of people for whom ‘complex mental and moral apparatus’ is not praise, but a diagnosis.

  16. Davis says:

    “The (entirely healthy) skepticism of the libertarian toward the power who justify abusive, cruel behavior through ‘security’ or ‘reasons of state’ apparently vanishes when the justification offered is ‘reasons of economic efficiency’.”

    In a nutshell.

  17. JR in WV says:

    My spouse once had a boss who announced to his staff that “My job is to break people!”

    Later her Dr. encouraged spouse to share her disability with her management (imagining that management would actually follow federal ADA law and help spouse deal with her problems); imagine her surprise when Boss used his new knowledge about a worker’s disability to attempt to induce his emplouee to resign, so that the company would not have a growing pension liability and health insurance claims.

    Many bosses are petty tyrants, who select an employee they perceive as weak and proceed to abuse them in a mad variety of ways, evidently just for the joy of being cruel to someone with no way to protect themselves.

    My father worked for a family business, and early in his career reached a position where he had only to do a relatively good job in order to continue in the position for the rest of his working life. He had no superior to satisfy other than the need to turn a profit.

  18. JR in WV says:

    My spouse once had a boss who announced to his staff that “My job is to break people!”

    Later her Dr. encouraged spouse to share her disability with her management (imagining that management would actually follow federal ADA law and help spouse deal with her problems); imagine her surprise when Boss used his new knowledge about a worker’s disability to attempt to induce his emplouee to resign, so that the company would not have a growing pension liability and health insurance claims.

    Many bosses are petty tyrants, who select an employee they perceive as weak and proceed to abuse them in a mad variety of ways, evidently just for the joy of being cruel to someone with no way to protect themselves.

    My father worked for a family business, and early in his career reached a position where he had only to do a relatively good job in order to continue in the position for the rest of his working life. He had no superior to satisfy other than the need to turn a profit.

    What a good job!

    He had trouble understanding why some people wanted to join a union to gain protection from abnormal people in management roles, until his children reported on the reality of working life in modern America.

    To his credit, he understood what was going on pretty well once the information was shared. I was fortunate to have (mostly) good bosses, and civil service rules, and union representation if I had ever needed it.

    Of course, Republicans want to do away with civil service, so that they can appoint any Repugnant clown to run, say, FEMA, instead of needing to follow rules intended to end the “spoils” system of govefnment.

  19. Eli Rabett says:

    The amusing thing in this is how the libertarians assume that all of the supervisors are owners. Except for the smallest businesses they are not, so the bit about how “owning” something means doing what you want is just crap. Supervisors (aka bosses) do it for the cruelty and the raises.

  20. [...] insist it doesn’t make economic sense for a boss to mistreat workers. Lawyers Guns and Money points out that some bosses will do it just because they suck. Likewise, a Tiny Revolution looks at [...]

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