Elizabeth Anderson argues that economic liberty is importantly different from other basic liberties because its exercise is often unacceptably harmful to others (not just self-harming.) Anderson provides a list of ways that the exercise of economic liberty is harmful, arguing that unrestricted economic liberty would enable corporations to stuff rat feces in sausages, market useless medicines, dump toxic waste in rivers and send the global economy into financial collapse.
Is this economic freedom? Many of these examples are cases of fraud. Just as a right to free speech does not entitle people to make fraudulent claims about the efficacy of the drugs they manufacture or the contents of the sausages they make, nor does economic freedom. Still, free speech is protected by the constitution and any legal limits are subject to judicial scrutiny. As Anderson points out, just as rights to free movement do not entitle people to directly harm others or their property, nor does economic freedom entitle companies to pollute the air and the rivers, which they do not own. Judges need not be experts on drugs or sausages or environmentalism to determine whether speech or movement or economic activity is harmful. Speech and advertising is often complicated and also deceptive. Freedom of speech and expression are not absolute, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t basic rights. So too with economic freedom. None of the basic rights entitle us to directly coerce or deceive others.
Anderson then points out that economic activity can also have less direct negative externalities. To illustrate this point, imagine that one person’s exercise of his economic liberty is harmful even if he doesn’t coerce or deceive anyone. For example, if Al contracts with Cindy to work 14 hour days, Bob may be made worse off because now Bob cannot find a job that only requires 8 hour days, or Bob’s wages are effectively lower now, or some similar effect. About people like Al, Andreson writes, “they are not entitled, in the name of their personal freedom, to undermine the conditions under which the vast majority of others can enjoy more important freedoms.”
This is where we part ways. I think that workers like Al are entitled to make their own labor agreements, free from regulation. To see why, consider another case. Al and Bob are factory workers with similar jobs. Al discovers a way to do his job better, more productively and with greater accuracy. Now by comparison Bob looks like a worse employee to their manager, Cindy. Say that this situation means that Bob now needs to work many more hours to keep pace with Al. Perhaps Al has undermined the conditions under which Bob enjoyed important freedoms, but Al was entitled to do so. In many professions, working longer hours are a way of gaining professional or economic advantage, but we don’t think that lawyers who log the most hours are doing wrong by their less productive coworkers. Why should we only reserve these opportunities for economic advantage for high-status professions like lawyers, and not for all workers, including wage laborers?
Nevertheless, Anderson is right to point out that in many ways the modern workplace does resemble a dictatorship. Tomasi overlooks that all the virtues of entrepreneurial freedom are impossible in an oppressive workplace. He talks about how important freedom is for employers, but overlooks the way those employers treat their workers. Yet it is the wrong diagnosis to say that work is a dictatorship because workers and employers have too much freedom to set the terms of labor agreements.
Rather, the morally problematic elements of work are due to the fact that not working isn’t an option for too many workers. But as Tomasi writes, “like social democratic regimes, market democratic regimes can include a constitutional guarantee of a basic income or safety net.” (I know, I sound like a broken record on this!) I agree that Tomasi should play this up more. I think he mentions a basic income only once, perhaps because it conflicts with Murray’s claims about paid labor and self-esteem, which Anderson rightly calls out as implausible and offensive to unpaid workers. Yet a UBI enables market democrats to respond to the dictatorship of the workplace without compromising on the economic liberties that matter most for self-authorship (e.g. the right to own productive property and freedom of contract.)
Such a proposal also has advantages over calls for workplace democracy. Anderson writes that
The case for workplace democracy and other democratic constraints on employers is the same as the case for democracy anywhere: it’s better for securing the freedom and personal independence of the governed than the authoritarian alternative.
Sure, but also the case against workplace democracy is the same as the case against democracy anywhere—it trades the authoritarianism of a dictator for the authoritarianism of the mob. It’s bad enough that our neighbors have so much political power to influence our economic fate and limit our rights, do we really need that at work as well?
I realize that work can be oppressive, but that’s exactly why economic freedom is so important, along with social justice. Even where unfreedom in the workplace is a problem, more limits on freedom are not the solution., especially not limits on the freedom of the most vulnerable and unfree among us.