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Putting cruelty first


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.

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