Exploitation, Libertarianism

Libertarianism and Private Power

Corey Robin and Chris Bertram have both recently claimed that libertarianism is insufficiently responsive to concerns about private power – especially the power employers wield over their employees. If libertarians care about individual liberty and freedom from coercion, then why focus exclusively on the ways in which big government undermines these values, to the utter neglect of the ways in which ordinary employers do?

I think there’s an important critique here, even if I don’t think that employment relationships are the best way to illustrate it. My own choice of example would have been racial and sexual discrimination and subordination. All too often, libertarians argue as though racism and sexism would virtually disappear if only big government would stop propping them up. And, of course, libertarians are right that states have done at least as much to buttress invidious discrimination as they have to dismantle it. But to blame discrimination entirely on the state is to ignore the myriad ways in which it draws support from purely private customs, prejudices, and traditions – indeed it is to ignore the ways in which state policies themselves are largely the product of these private oppressive practices and beliefs, even as it they simultaneously serve to reinforce and cement them. Some of the recent left-libertarian literature (especially this fine essay by Roderick Long and Charles Johnson) has gone some way to correct this myopia, partly by reviving the insights of earlier libertarians who were not as single-mindedly focused on the state. But until libertarians learn to lose their knee-jerk hostility to concepts such as “white privilege,” we still have a long way to go.

Still, while racial and sexual oppression is something that (contemporary) libertarians haven’t given sufficient attention to, the same cannot be said of employment relationships. So what explains libertarians’ resistance to having the state intervene in order to protect workers from their employers?

It’s not that libertarians don’t recognize that employers have power over their workers. Whether you want to call it “coercion” or not, employers are in a position to threaten their employees with negative (sometimes severely negative) consequences unless they do what they’re told. Sometimes they do this in a way that almost nobody would find morally problematic (“Show up to work on time regularly or you’re fired”), and sometimes they do it in a way that almost everybody would find problematic (“Fuck me or you’re fired”). Either way, it’s certainly an exercise of a certain kind of power, it certainly means workers are often made to do things they wouldn’t rather do, and it’s certainly capable of giving rise to abusive or exploitative relationships that anyone ought to regard as objectionable.

The reasons libertarians resist the intrusion of state power into this relationship are three. The first and probably most well-recognized is a straightforward commitment to the value of economic liberty. For reasons which John Tomasi articulates so clearly in his new book, libertarians believe that economic liberties are entitled to the same privileged status as civil liberties such as freedom of speech and association. This includes the freedom of employees to choose their place of employment, to form, join, or decline to join unions, or to stop being employees altogether and start working for themselves. But it also, for reasons that Jessica Flanigan has recently articulated, includes the freedom of employers. Put simply, it’s important for employers to have a certain range of freedom to set terms of employment as they wish. Sometimes, they use this freedom in ways that we think are admirable – designing innovative and effective compensation programs for their workers, or hiring employees from traditionally underrepresented groups. Other times they use it in ways we find objectionable – telling their workers to put out or be fired. In between lies a vast gray area. Is it a good use of their liberty for employers to institute a dress code at work? A speech code? To only hire Catholics, or large breasted women? Libertarians believe that such questions are generally not ones that government has the competency or authority to decide, and that they should be left to individual employers to decide as they see fit.

This might seem to put a lot of power into the hands of employers. But, and this is the second reason libertarians generally oppose government intervention, libertarians believe that in most cases, employers don’t actually wield as much power over their employees as they might seem to. Of course, employers might like to force workers to work very hard for very little pay. They might even like them to perform degrading acts for their own amusement. But in most cases, competitive pressures prevent them from being able to make these demands effectively. If employer A asks too much of her employee, or offers too little, the door is open for employer B to step in and make a better deal. The existence of a lot of people who want to take advantage of you severely constrains the ability of any of them to do so. This is why even sweatshops pay wages that are significantly higher than wages elsewhere in the domestic economy. It’s not because they want to. It’s because they have to.

Competition isn’t a cure-all. It can only force employers to pay employees what they’re worth in economic terms, not perhaps what they deserve in moral terms. And even a generally competitive economy will contain individuals who, through bad luck or bad decisions, will wind up in special situations of vulnerability. A social safety net of the sort advocated by classical liberals such as Hayek, Friedman, and Flanigan will go some ways toward mitigating these difficulties. But should government go further, intervening in workplace decisions directly in order to prevent employers from taking advantage of that vulnerability?

But before we can make that determination, we need to consider the final reason that libertarians generally oppose government intervention in the workplace. This reason, which comes straight from Mill, is that when government does interfere, “the odds are that it interferes wrongly, and in the wrong place.” Unlike the power of employers, the power of government is subject to little in the way of competitive discipline, and democratic accountability is a relatively weak and ineffective substitute. And historically, as left-libertarians like Kevin Carson and Gary Chartier have argued, government intervention in the struggle between labor and capital has done much more to weaken labor than to strengthen it. We can imagine a world where the ghost of John Rawls is president and congress is populated by his many smart, well-intentioned, philosophical descendants. But in the world we actually inhabit, giving power to government means giving it to people like George Bush, Scott Walker, Barack Obama, and their ilk. Why think that the future will be any different from the past?


  • Aeon Skoble

    The other reason libertarians focus on state coercion is that state coercion is the only kind for which there’s no legal remedy.  Private coercion can be redressed via tort action, not just through competition.  But when the state is coercive you’re SOL.  State coercion has the unique and disturbing property of being presumptively right.  When you come up with examples like “take your pants off or you’re fired,” pretty much no one thinks that’s ok.  When the state says take “take your pants off or we’ll lock you up and get you fired,” that’s fine, because it’s for national security/the children/Bushwasworse.  Libertarianism doesn’t need to exhaust all of moral philosophy.  It’s a position about the nature of government, its  justification and scope, and its relation to the individual.

    • good_in_theory

      If a private entity was able to presume immunity from torts, why wouldn’t it?  The reductio ad  “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”  applies to any agency granted the power to enforce torts, or any entity which exists in a world where no one is empowered to enforce torts.  Apart from fabulist arguments from ‘competition’ there’s no reason to think ‘public’ or ‘private’ has much of anything to do with the problem. In any case, one can bring tort against the federal government, so to say there is no legal remedy available is simply… false.

      • Aeon Skoble

        Really?  Good luck getting the TSA to leave you alone, or telling them that you’d prefer to invest your retirement savings as you see fit, or that you feel responsible enough to try some marijuana. 

        • Yeah, I agree with Aeon here. I understand that there are areas where state action can actually prevent bad acts by employers and private powers and can sometimes enhance individual liberty.  But I always come back to my large worry that governments at their best use absolute coercion of a kind that private powers like employers  cannot. That is, government law is effective because lawbreakers are threatened with forcible arrest, takings (by way of fines), and inprisonment. Private employers, even at their worst, cannot take money, imprison, or arrest employers. 

          So, while I understand that governments can enhance individual liberty and private employers can restrict individual liberty, my concern is that governments always use very direct coercion, where private employers really can’t. 

          • good_in_theory

            I’m not concerned here with private employers.  I’m concerned with private enforcement of tort claims.  Private enforcers may also be private employers, but that is hardly the issue.

        • good_in_theory

          Procedures for defining the law and procedures for seeking redress against failure to follow the law are different.  Whether an unjust law is being enforced and whether a law (just or unjust) is being enforced unjustly (or whether other laws are broken in the enforcement of a law (which that law does not, in itself, give one authority to supersede) are different questions.

          An unjust law can nonetheless be enforced justly, as far as that goes (e.g. there is a meaningful difference between indiscriminate enforcement of drug law and enforcement of drug law which specifically targets poor black men, and there is a meaningful difference  between an orderly arrest and an arrest in which an officer assaults the criminal).As it stand, here you go.  File your tort claim against the TSA.


          • Aeon Skoble

            Are you trolling? I know there’s a paper procedure for filing complaints against the state.  My point was that there’s no comparison between a dispute between two individuals, and a dispute between an individual and the state.   In the latter the deck is slightly stacked, no?  There’s a presumption that the state is in the right – in a way this is even worse in democratic societies than monarchies, since the state is the “will of the people.”  When Bob sues Tom, neither enjoys the presumption of righteousness that the state has.

          • good_in_theory

            Tort claims are very rarely suits between two individuals.  They are, rather, suits between two individuals, and an agency which forces one individual to be subject to the claims of another party.  That is why we have this whole thing called the criminal justice system.  Criminals tend not to voluntarily agree to be the subject of criminal torts, exceptions in, say, lex mercatoria not withstanding.  It is only a particular set of conditions which make people amenable to mutually and voluntarily subjecting themselves to third party arbitration.

            Wherever there are agencies which enforce torts, there will be tort claims levied against the enforcers.  And in every case, the enforcers will be relatively resistant to being forced into anything.  It’s a general property of enforcers.  And so we have the reductio ad “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”.

    • skeptical reader

      It’s nonsense that state coercion carries a unique presumption of correctness.  The typically law student often confuses lack of immediate remedy with a notion that no remedy exists at all.  But, history teaches even the slowest interested learner that the state changes its presumptions over time.  The youngest think a generation is forever; the seasoned see change over a generation more hopefully.

  • Nice post. But I have a couple of critical comments.

    First, ‘the struggle between labor and capital’ is a piece of Marxist nonsense, isn’t it? A good deal of the capital of large companies is owned by workers through their pension funds, as well as via separate stock market investments they may have made (as many do).

    Second, on the whole I think I would prefer George Bush to John Rawls.

    • good_in_theory

      “A good deal of the capital of large companies is owned by workers through their pension funds, as well as via separate stock market investments they may have made (as many do).”

      No it’s not.  In the US, for example 7% of business equity, 2% of financial securities, 19% of stocks, and 23% of non-home real estate are held by the bottom 90% of the population.

      Obviously they hold larger percentages of pensions, but pensions are a small percentage of total financial wealth.  In general, the bottom 90% of Americans hold 17% of all financial wealth.

      And don’t forget, the bottom 80% hold about 75% of all debt – for which their stocks and other assets are liable.

      So no, “the workers” don’t own “a good deal” of anything.

      • Your figures are not really to the point, whether or not they are accurate. My claim was that a good proportion of the shares of listed companies are owned by workers.

        What do you say? First, you say that significant, though rather low, percentages of companies, of financial capital and of property are held by the bottom 90% of the population. Why is that relevant? Generally, people own more company shares, either directly or through pension schemes, when they are older; and generally, they hold most just before retirement.  What proportion of the population are just below retirement age? Even if everyone, over his lifetime, invested the same amount in company stocks, we would expect that the pre-retirement grey-hairs would hold a lot more than other people, and that the bulk of the population, being much younger, would hold a lot less. Your population-distribution does not take account of the age-distribution.

        Whether or not pensions are a small proportion of financial wealth, I was talking about ownership of companies. Recall that this discussion was about employment, which Matt mis-described as a struggle between capital and labour.  I pointed out that the people who supply the labour also invest in pension schemes which buy company shares. Returns to capital are therefore also, indirectly, returns to labour. If you swipe from capital to raise wages, your are, in part, taking from employees’ pensions to give them more to spend now.

        You say: “the bottom 80% hold about 75% of all debt.” Let’s suppose it is true. Why is it relevant? For one thing, you are not (it seems) talking about net debt. Many well-off people increased their debt when interest rates were low, but they were still well-off because they had assets of much greater value. For another thing, people generally have a lot of debt when they are young, but they pay it off through their careers. These sorts of figures about the top x% and the bottom y% fail to take account of people’s life-cycles.

        For what it is worth, in 2003, more than 16% of UK listed company capital was held by pension funds, and about 20% by individuals (including via unit trusts and investment trusts). That is the latest figure I can find in a quick search. Ten years earlier pension funds owned more than 31% of listed company capital and individuals/unit trusts/investment trusts owned 43%. I think the main reason for the change was government regulation which required pension funds to invest a greater proportion of the funds in gilts (government debt).

        • good_in_theory

          Ah yes, the good old inequality does not exist because of demographic effects canard.

          So let’s isolate what we need to show: that the distribution of asset ownership between the workers and the rich is meaningfully different for workers at their prime ownership years (55-64) than for workers in aggregate.

          Now, the median networth of those in the 54-65 bracket in the US is 170k.  Of course, wealth and income distributions are highly skewed, so it will do to account for such skewness.

          The mean, then, for the same bracket, is 430k.  Needless to say our networth distribution is quite skewed, so the average networth of the bottom 50% is likely much less than 100k – in fact, given the likelihood of a power distribution, we’re looking at significantly less than 85k.

          But let’s turn to the specific composition of their assets.  Now, the argument seems to be that the prime age worker must surely have much more in capital assets than our initial numbers referring to the total population suggest.  But, the median holdings in stocks for the total population is 19k.  For our 55-64 age group, it is 22k.  Business equity?  Total pop is at 25k, our group is at 30k.  The major source of increased equity relative to national medians comes from equity in the home, which goes from 90k to 110k, and from IRAs and 401ks, (43k v. 65k).

          In other words, the young are doing much less to skew our distribution negatively than the wealthy are doing to skew our distribution positively.  (The mean networth of the highest quintile of earners is over 550k.  You can fill in the disparities in stock, business, and financial instrument ownership yourself.  To give a hint of the skewness, the median for the same group is just under 300k.  Power law  &etc)

          Now, if we want an income to go along with out median 55-64 year old, it is about 55k/year.  So, for our median prime age household, they have a little over 100k in stocks and bonds, business equity, and their retirement accounts.  So they earn roughly half that per annum in wages.

          One can judge for oneself how much lifecyles distort the picture

          • Again, you have given a load of figures about inequality, which is irrelevant. You seem to be obsessed with inequality; but I was not making a point about inequality at all. My point was simply this. Many workers own shares in companies, either directly (individually or through a ‘syndicate’ investment, like a unit trust), or indirectly through a pension scheme. Thus many workers are ‘capitalists.’  It is therefore a piece of Marxist nonsense to talk of  ‘the struggle between labour and capital.’

          • good_in_theory

            Whether or not workers own some amount of capital tells us nothing about whether or not there is a struggle between capital and labor.

            Your point is a total non-sequitor.

          • good_in_theory

            Or, to put it a bit more clearly, your initial comment started with a claim:

            “The struggle between labor and capital is nonsense”

            It then followed with a purported statement of fact:

            “A good deal of capital is owned by workers.”

            Now I took this to be, implicitly, an argument:

            “Because workers own ‘a good deal’ of capital, there is no struggle between capital and labor.”


            If workers own a good deal of capital, then there is no struggle between capital and labor.

            You have now moderated your claim to this:

            “If workers own shares in companies (and hence are to some degree capitalists), then there is no struggle between capital and labor.”

            My arguments were to address the claim that workers own ‘a good deal’ of capital.  A place to find that out for the USA is in the census data, which is what I’ve been looking at.

            Presently, the claim is that any ownership of capital rules out the possibility of struggle between capitalists and workers.

            Now, while the position that if one is significantly invested in something, one can’t be in much of a struggle with it is plausible (though even then not very convincing – Ed Crane owns 25% of Cato, and is also an employee, and is in conflict with its ownership both as an owner and as an employee, despite his substantial holdings – ergo one might modify the claim to “one cannot be in struggle with what one has a controlling interest in”), the position that if one is at all invested in something, one can’t be in struggle with it, is absurd.

            Further, even the argument that there is no struggle between capital and labor if laborers own a significant amount of capital is specious.

            Insofar as a laborer would be in immediate opposition to capital, it would be in the sphere of the workplace in which he actually works.  Ownership rights outside of the firm in which he is employed may give him increased freedom of exit from his specific working conditions, and may give him control over the working conditions in other firms, but they do nothing to add or subtract from his ability to directly intervene in the conditions of his own workplace (besides, of course, the indirect security achieved through having increased freedom to exit).  What is at stake in the conflict between capital and labor is the setting of the conditions in which one oneself works.

            Ergo, insofar as a worker is not engaged in direct control over the conditions of his own employment, but is rather subject to the conditions and commands of another, he is in a setting of struggle.  So it may end up being the case that every worker is, in aggregate, allied with capital, but simultaneously is, in every particular instance, opposed to capital insofar as he or she remains, and must remain, a worker in a workplace which he or she does not control.

            Of course, that presupposes that the employer/employee relationship is adversarial.  But to dispute that would require a different sort of argument than an argument that owning some capital means one cannot be in struggle with capital (that such struggle would be absurdist nonsense).  And while it is certainly true that there are many things in which a worker and his employer share a common interest re: the organization of the workplace, there are invariably things where such common ground does not exist, and as such the two exist in an agonistic relationship, or at least one of competitive strategic bargaining.

          • I seem to have touched a nerve.

            ‘The struggle between capital and labour’ is a piece of Marxist nonsense. ‘Capital’ and ‘labour’ are not two mutually exclusive and antagonistic classes. Ownership of the capital of large companies is dispersed; and many people who work as employees for a wage or salary are also owners of company capital, sometimes capital of the company they work for, more often the capital of other companies.

            Of course, you are right when you say that workers are under managers’ direction (to a large extent), and that there is conflict as well as co-operation in this relationship. But who are the managers? In a large organisation, they are also salaried employees. Even the directors of a large company are salaried employees (‘labour’ in the Marxist scheme), though they usually get paid partly in shares.

            Much of what you say above is difficult to relate to reality because it takes over the Marxist categories of ‘capital’ and ‘labour.’ Imagine trying to talk to someone who explains social situations or events in terms of witchcraft or demonic possession. ‘The struggle between capital and labour’ is a fairy story. Marx’s whole approach to social theory was childish.

          • good_in_theory

            Yes, I know that you think the struggle between capital and labor is nonsense, but do you actually have an argument that is not itself nonsense?

          • RickDiMare

            “‘The struggle between capital and labour’ is a fairy story.”

            Yes, it is. The real struggle is between labour and capital vs. rent-seeking by landowners: http://www.econlib.org/library/YPDBooks/George/grgPP.html

          • good_in_theory

            Perhaps I should be more charitable.

            The only reasons I can find that you’ve offered for why there can be no struggle between capital and labor are:

            1. There are no antagonistic relationships between people which cleave along the lines of ownership and the lack thereof.

            2. Ownership of capital is dispersed.

            2.A. Some workers have pensions.

            3. There is no class which does not own ‘a good deal’ of the capital of businesses (henceforth just ‘capital’).

            4. There is no class which will not, over the course of its life, come to own ‘a good deal’ of capital.’

            4.A. There is no class that will not, in the course of its life, come to own some share of capital.

            5. If at any point in one’s life one owns some capital, one cannot at any point in one’s life be in an antagonistic relationship with those who mostly own a lot of capital.

            1 is false, 2 and 2.A are irrelevant, 3 is false, 4 and 4.A are false, and 5 is false.

            What else can one say?

          • I appreciate your attempt to make sense of my objection; but you cannot succeed if you continue on your present course.

            The terms ‘capital’ and ‘labour,’ as they are used in the expression ‘the struggle between capital and labour’ (i.e., as Marxists use them), do not designate anything. They are like the terms ‘phlogiston,’ ‘demonic possession,’ ‘celestial spheres,’ ‘the ether,’ ‘witch,’ ‘caloric,’ etc.  People used to hold theories in which these terms stood for entities which, according to the theories, were part of the real world. But the real world contains no such entities.

            It seems that you have not understood my objection (and your last message is also irrelevant), because you think some variant of Marxist theory is true and that ‘labour’ and ‘capital,’ as used in that theory, apply to the real world. You are trying to interpret what I say in terms of the categories of a theory I reject. Imagine trying to explain to someone that there is no such thing as demonic possession, but he keeps trying to make sense of what you say in terms of demonic possession.

            The reason there is no ‘struggle between capital and labour’ is that there is no ‘capital’ and no ‘labour’ in the relevant senses.

          • good_in_theory

            Absent a specification of what you think limits membership in the respective classes, it isn’t possible to tell whether the classes, as defined, are nonsense in virtue of a failure to refer to real people – i.e. if the classes are so limited such that their membership is effectively or actually zero.

            So far, the stipulations you have implied quite easily pick out and populate our classes with real individuals.  As such, the only person speaking fantastically here would be you, in your insistence on claiming that clearly existent individuals are mere figments of our imagination or malevolent trickery, much like a Young Earth Creationist confronted with carbon dated fossils.

          • Recall Dummett’s example of  ‘the bosch,’ which was supposed to refer to a nation of people who are inherently barbaric and cruel. There is no bosch. Someone may say I am talking rubbish because look! there’s a German there! That objector has not grasped that I reject his racist approach to understanding the world. So long as he sticks to his racist theory, he is not going to understand much at all: he will always be misinterpreting everything.

        • good_in_theory

          Restarting from the thread shrinkage:

          “Recall Dummett’s example of  ‘the bosch,’ which was supposed to refer to a nation of people who are inherently barbaric and cruel. There is no bosch. Someone may say I am talking rubbish because look! there’s a German there! ”

          I have no idea why you think every aggregate or classification is like a race or a nation.

          Let’s try “the basch,” which is supposed to refer to a class of people who are barbaric and cruel and live in Germany.

          There is a basch.  Look, there’s a German neo-Nazi right there.

          Or, let’s try another, “the bisch,” which is supposed to refer to a nation which has a high proportion of members who are complicit in perpetuating and enthusiastic in supporting barbarism and cruelty.  (Shall we observe support for torture and retributive military action in the US now?  Support for draconian punishments for women in various Middle Eastern countries?  It seems “bisch” may very well refer as well.)

          Now maybe a “busch,” which is supposed to refer to an individual who is ‘inherently’ barbaric and cruel.  Why look, there are some clinical sociopaths, right over there, in that mental institution.

          So what about the class, “people who, throughout their lives, largely depend upon wages and/or welfare to support themselves.”  Or the class “people who, throughout their lives, have little to no savings.”  Why look, those classes refer as well.  Amazing.

          Easier, of course, to concoct strawmen definitions oneself (like “bosch”), with criteria you refuse to define other than eliptically, which you then attribute to others (including, say, Marx) without any respect for what they themselves mean when they use a word.

      • One (important) figure I missed out:  currently 48% of UK employees are in a pension scheme (it was 55% about a decade back).

        • good_in_theory

          And 85% of the world population has no retirement savings, according to the World Bank.  But surely, ‘the workers’ all own ‘a good deal’ of capital in their non-existent retirement accounts.  Why, I’m sure the 50% of the world that controls less than 1% of global wealth is just rolling fat and happy in their ‘good deal’ of capital.  In case you weren’t sure, that works out to an average of $357 in assets for each of the bottom 50%.   Chiefly held in stocks and bonds, sans aucun doute.

          Or perhaps the simple fact of the matter is that a small subset of workers own a small deal (perhaps significant, perhaps not) of shares of large companies, and this fact doesn’t really tell us anything about whether or not their is a struggle between capital and labor.

  • I’m supposed to be writing a reply to Jessica F and along comes more stuff that I have to take into account … oh well. 

    A brief comment on your final paragraph. The United States is not the whole world. Government intervention is far more extensive in Europe than it is in the US. That has given us things like longer vacations, better maternity leave, protection for pregnant women against dismissal etc. I understand that, in the US, most new mothers give up breast-feeding within 6 months, partly because they are forced back to the workplace. That isn’t the case in Europe (or, I think, Canada). To my mind these aren’t small things. Often these provisions are the result of union pressure on governments or by legislation from parties with ties to the labour movement. The historical perspective on government of that final para looks rather parochial.

    • Krinein_ev

      Silly goose! You’re introducing actual facts.
      That’s strictly forbidden in libertarian circles.

      • I’m sorry, I seem to have missed the actual facts about breast-feeding, or anything else, presented by Chris.

        What I see is Chris being at least as parochial as he claims Matt as being. He’s making arguments based on his idealized impressions of what Europe and Canada must be like, instead of data or facts.

        •  The breastfeeding thing was anecdotal. But statutory maternity leave and longer paid vacations are not. My “idealized impressions” come from living and working in the UK and having lived and worked in France in the past, as well as travelling extensively for work in Scandinavia and Germany. I take it you don’t dispute that employees in the UK, Scandinavia, France and Germany have better statutory entitlements to vacation and maternity leave that US workers do?

          • So you’ve gone from arguing your opposition to the personal power of “Fuck me or your fired” to being an apologist for “give them statutory holidays and maternity leave or you go to jail without any recourse because we are the ultimate power” principle with a fig-leaf of good intentions to justify this.

            While there may be hardships, you can walk out on a job, without anybody’s permission or a vote. In other words an employer’s personal power is insufficient for them to fuck you, not even once, should you choose.

            With state power, and a law that doesn’t break it’s tissue paper restrictions you have no recourse but to (metaphorically) bend over and take it up the ass, day after day, all the whilst this is happening you have to beg the rest of the country (or the politicians) to stop them fucking you up the ass, while people like you stand around telling them to stop whining and take it for everybody’s benefit, to stop being so ‘selfish’.

            This is where the personal power argument fails. Not because of whether it exists or not, that’s a red herring. Because you propose a bigger power that is abused daily to ‘solve’ it.

            Shall we count the ways and the degrees to which state power has fucked the world and compare it to what you think businesses have done using personal power. (what they do with the power of the  state that you hand them doesn’t count)

            Given this then tell me you’d rather have the reality of the state power as it is over the reality of you estimation of business personal power as it is. (No wishing for a better government, because if you can wish for better government you can also wish for a better employers, and it’s a lot easier to say no to an employer than the government)

    • Cal

      “Government intervention is far more extensive in Europe than it is in the US.”

      No, it’s not. In a number of European countries, it’s less extensive; and in very few European countries could it be reasonably said to be “far” more extensive. See the WSJ/Heritage and WB/Fraser indices of economic freedom, for instance.

      And your personal judgement of what constitutes “small things” or not (based on what breast-feeding data anyway? please cite such things when you do respond to Jessica F) is largely arbitrary–e.g. why could 6 months not be the average point among the US population where the marginal benefit of breast-feeding become less than the marginal benefit of doing something else? This looks like statusful regulation, the signaled imposition of your higher-status values on lower-status women, which, if implemented as state policy, would likely end up hurting lower-status women in order to make higher-status progressives like you feel better.

    • Actually, I think you’re wrong about Canada: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-625-x/2010002/article/11269-eng.htm

      About half of mothers do give up breast-feeding within 6 months.

      Note that the highest rate of breast-feeding is in the more libertarian West (Alberta and BC), and the lowest in the East, including some Red Tory places.Alberta in particular has less of a safety net than many other provinces. Also note that the lowest rates are found in Newfoundland & Labrador and Nova Scotia, where longer vacations are particularly common because of the abundance of seasonal work, and there is much greater usage of employment insurance and greater unemployment.

      I suspect, then, that it’s cultural.

      The US and Canada do have a slightly higher share of the labor force that is women than Europe (though within each there are significant differences.) http://www.bls.gov/fls/chartbook/section2.htm

      Note that France appears to have unusually low breast-feeding rates, despite a generous safety net: http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/30/56/43136964.pdf Belgium, Ireland, and the UK also have low breast-feeding rates.

    • j r

      I was in the middle of replying to this when I saw that Cal had done a much better job than I would have.  I’ll only add that, for me personally, I am more than willing to admit that there are certain types of doctrinaire libertarians who do indeed wholly discount the abuses of private power and attempt to place any discussion of that outside of the purview of libertarian political philosophy.  

      Now, if only you would be willing to admit that the use of state power to enforce a particular set of social norms, which seems to me to be a big part of the progressive project, is fundamentally illiberal.  You can call it justice if you like, but it is a type of justice that seems particularly focused on a certain set of institutions and processes to the point of divorcing those institutions from their intended purposes. I support a fair and equitable relationship between employer and employee and the right of any individual to associate with any other individuals, but it is unclear why that has to manifest itself in the particular form of a labor union (especially a labor union whose other primary purpose seems to be aggregating votes for a particular political part).  Another perfect example is public education.  I am always nonplussed when I hear people talking about “supporting public education.”  I support kids receiving a good and suitable education and I am indifferent as to whether that happens in a government school or a religious school or in a home.

      Also, it would be nice to hear a progressive admit that there is a constant tension between the preferences of those who tend to gravitate towards the levers of state power in this country and everybody else.  There’s a reason that Bloomberg is trying to ban large sodas and not syrupy lattes or expensive cupcakes.

  • “indeed it is to ignore the ways in which state policies themselves are largely the product of these private oppressive practices and beliefs, even as it they simultaneously serve to reinforce and cement them ”

    This is true. But I would argue that that it is difficult to expect the government to do anything other than implement the private oppressive practices and beliefs of the majority (even if the current majority is a coalition of minority interest groups.) There are two general impulses:

    1) We must use our power as a majority to stop misguided minorities and individuals from doing something wrong.
    2) We must prevent the majority from forcing minorities and individuals to do something that they don’t want to do.

    Most people, broadly speaking, are more worried about minorities and individuals doing something wrong when those minorities and individuals are Other to them. They worry, conversely, about their own liberties being trampled on by the majority. Outside of that, everyone balances these two concerns in their own way.

    Libertarians are distinguished by caring more about 2) as a wrong than 1) compared to most people. They will try to explain that competition decreases the number of individual wrongs, but in the end will generally accept a number of wrongs of type 1) as the price for for preventing wrongs of type 2).


    Hi Matt,
    I know this isn’t the main point of your post, but I would love to see some hard data supporting this “white privilege” that you seem to think dominates our society. As far as I can tell, we live in a society where every major corporation touts its “diversity” and outreach efforts to minority communities; where the government sets aside various construction contracts for minority firms (big scandal in Washington State over this now, regarding “front” companies); where the U.S. president is black; where our public and private universitites use affirmative action to boost minority admissions (often with resulting high drop-out rates); and where there is a huge minority presence in the entertainment industry. Sure there are individual rascists, but these programs/facts would not exist in a society that was largely comprised of bigots.  The charge of “white privilege” is easy to throw around, but shouldm’t we have data to back it up?

    • j r

      When corporations, or governments or individuals, for that matter, go to great lengths to tout something, it’s usually a pretty good sign that they are lacking that thing in the first place.

  • hya

    I agree with a lot of things you said. Theres something that i find missing about minimizing workplace coercion by competition: Why cant the same be said about states: if you find some state coercive move to a different one, with less taxation or less regulation or etc?

  • hya

    I agree with a lot of things you said. Theres something that i find missing about minimizing workplace coercion by competition: Why cant the same be said about states: if you find some state coercive move to a different one, with less taxation or less regulation or etc?

  • “…indeed it is to ignore the ways in which state policies themselves are largely the product of these private oppressive practices and beliefs”

    Thank you Matt!

    It occurred to me yesterday morning as I read about Vladimir Putin’s @$#%@$^ punitive measures against peaceful protesters that in the very simplest terms he’s running Russia like a private corporation.

    And while reflecting on Jacob Levy and, later, Will Wilkerson’s (hey, BHL the blog really is starting to influence the conversation!) thoughts about unions in conflict with businesses is the creepy-to-me hypocrisy of so-called “hard” libertarians in deploring the exercise of even the mildest authority in government while simultaneously celebrating out and out despotic abrogation of rights by property owners of those within their clutches.

    If Russia was a corporation instead of a state, the kind of yes-men who draw paychecks from Cato would be pooh-poohing how employees and tenants were perfectly free to take their “business” elsewhere if they didn’t like the policies and demands imposed by CEO Putin and his board of directors in the Duma.  (They’d likewise be blowing spittle were anyone to question a decision by Bloomberg to prohibit his company’s employees from drinking “too large” sodas!  Meanwhile if anyone imagines anyone in the news industry has many opportunities to work elsewhere if they don’t like their employer’s demands it’s time they moved out of their parent’s basement.)

    I’ve already mentioned, repeatedly, my utter contempt for Ron Paul’s assertions that while it’s anathema for federal marshals to coerce anyone it’s hunky dory for state troopers to do so.

    It is no more tolerable WalMart’s equivalents of Catbert and the Pointy Haired Boss coerces Dilbert or even grunty little interns like Asok.

    To the extent anyone’s ever bothered to read my comments the above is probably obvious, but it might not be obvious that, at least to me, the chain of reasoning extends back the other way.

    I am actually quite tolerant of business and property owners making reasonable impositions on those they employ, rent to, or otherwise have potential “offer you can’t refuse” leverage over.  And while I’m also tolerant of similarly reasonable impositions by polities, I’m tolerant for exactly the same reasons: constituted bodies, whether private corporations like Bloomberg News or WalMart, or public corporations like the the City of New York, have certain rights to operate as their owners (Bloomberg himself, WalMart’s shareholders and the board members they elect, New York’s citizens and the officials they elect) see fit if and only if their impositions remain reasonable.  Otherwise?  Otherwise, the minute they begin imposing unreasonable demands then whether they’re private or public their rights become null and void and for exactly the same reasons.

    Thus, if it was intolerable for, oh, say, Japan to conscript “comfort women” for it’s troops prior to and during WWII it’s identically intolerable for a private employer to make sexual impositions on his employees.  Or, if that seems too extreme, if it’s intolerable for Russia’s Duma to punish speech or dissent by its citizens it’s identically intolerable for someone in control of private property to punish speech or dissent by its employees, tenants, or guests.

    Now as far as I’m concerned you can argue that, no, private property owners have an absolute right to encroach on liberty or otherwise exercise despotism and coercion within their private fiefdoms.  (Rand Paul, for instance, seems to argue that it’s perfectly legitimate for his private police to curb-stomp those who disagree with him.)  But to take that position is to argue that public entities have a right to exactly the encroachments on liberty and to exercise despotism.  Because as far as I’m concerned there are no, zero, none differences — exercise of despotism is exercise of depotism, encroachment on liberty is encroachment on liberty whether one claims one’s authority derives from a plebiscite or a property line.

    Anyway, I so appreciate your point that government behavior is often a reflection and even a product of the behavior of private practices and beliefs.  Because that as much as anything else, is what drives my very real but also very non-property-fetishizing libertarianism.

    Thanks again!


  • I’m
    sympathetic to Matt Zwolinski’s position. But I’m also skeptical that
    Zwolinski and other libertarians can give people like Chris Bertram convincing reasons to
    accept this position. To see why, note that the dialectic seems to go like this.

    Libertarians say
    that economic liberty is important, the government will probably screw
    up if it tries to intervene, and we should aim for liberty-preserving
    policies that both protect workers and respect the liberties of employers, like
    a universal basic income.

    Left-liberals respond: first, economy liberty is a genuine consideration, but it is not absolute. Other
    considerations can defeat the reasons to protect economic liberty, just like
    other considerations can defeat freedom of association, right to free movement,
    etc. Second, the government doesn’t always screw up. Sometimes the government
    does a competent job in regulating businesses. Third, workplace domination will
    continue to exist even if there is a universal basic income in place. Anyway,
    left-liberals can always fall back to the conditional claim that, if it is the
    case that states are unable or unwilling to implement a universal basic income
    (which is a plausible claim), states should pursue a second-best policy of regulating
    the workplace in order to protect the freedom and well-being of workers

    It is seems like
    this debate is inconclusive. Why? On my view, it looks like most reasonable people on both sides accept roughly the same set of considerations. But they make different judgments about the weight of different considerations. It is unclear to me how philosophical argument can show that different all-things-considered
    judgments are mistaken when the judgments are about the relative strength of the same set of considerations. This just doesn’t seem to be amendable to abstract argument.

  • RickDiMare

    “So what explains libertarians’ resistance to having the state intervene in order to protect workers from their employers?”

    I think it’s related to failure of libertarians (and workers in general) to see labor as adding value to whatever it is that employers are producing, which undervaluation of their labor leads them to defer to employer power, and to the notion that workers’ wages are coming from the employer’s capital. 

    But the employer’s capital is not really where the wages are coming from. That capital simply represents the labor of other workers, or prior work that existing employees have performed for the employer. In other words, the worker is actually creating new value for the employer, but fails to see it, and therefore fails to protect the wage as a property right.

    Henry George explains it better in “Progress and Poverty,” Book 1, Chapter 3: “Wages Not Drawn From Capital, but Produced by the Labor.” 

    However, I’m confused as to why Nozick considers George’s theory regarding labor to have failed. In my copy of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick writes on page 175:

    “No workable or coherent value-added property scheme has yet been devised, and any such scheme presumably would fall to objections (similar to those) that fell the theory of Henry George.”

    • RickDiMare

      Libertarians also generally fail to understand that under U.S. tax law (and this is historically unprecedented because of U.S. experience with slavery) employers are second-class legal citizens in three major ways:

      First, under the Sixteenth Amendment and the employER portion of the Social Security tax under Helvering v. Davis (1937), the mere controlling of another human’s labor subjects the employer to federal tax jurisdiction, and this tax jurisdiction is unavoidable once a dominating posture is assumed over another. We’re free to hire independent contractors and to control the labor of our dependents without triggering this inferior legal status, but not otherwise, whether the hiring involves a single nanny or thousands of employees.

      Second, under Flint v. Stone Tracy (1911) employers who incorporate are subject to another layer of federal tax jurisdiction, which ordinary workers can easily avoid (by not incorporating and thereby not compromising their legal status as “natural persons”).

      Third, though few workers know it, the currency-regulating income tax authorized by the employEE portion of the 1937 Social Security tax in Helvering v. Davis (and later expanded upon by the 1942 “victory tax” and 1965 Medicare income tax) is avoidable by workers, but would be very difficult for major employers to avoid. (The problem is that presently this tax is not even understood to apply to corporate “person” employers, and workers have been convinced that these taxes only apply to them.)

      These are all great ways libertarians could use the state to their advantage, and to use the state to protect property rights in labor, but for whatever reason, fail to do so.

    • TracyW

      I have never come across a worker, of any political persuasion, who thinks that workers’ labour generally doesn’t add value to the employer. 

      Although, everyone I know of can think of some people in particular whose labour is harming any one unlucky enough to employ them.

      • RickDiMare

        Fair enough, but why aren’t workers giving legal effect to the “value-added” theory by claiming their wages to be personal property (on par with real estate, bank accounts, vehicles, etc.), and not taxable income?

        Apparently workers believe they’re adding value to an employer’s endeavors, but not to the extent that they’re willing to have the value recognized by property law theory.

        • TracyW

          The tax department has better lawyers?
          And what would be the point? I predict that even if a country’s top court ruled that wages aren’t taxable income, that would just mean that the law (or the constitution) would be changed so that wages could still be taxed.  I don’t know how an indefinite idea such as “property law theory” can recognise anything, and I don’t see the relevance. What matters is what the government of the day recognises.  

          • RickDiMare

            “The tax department has better lawyers?”Yes, and lots of them.

            Also, it would take lots to change the Constitution that fundamentally. It would be easier to scrap the whole thing (because since inception, it’s been designed to kind of covertly free the slaves’ labor from both real estate values and slaveholder profits).

  • Counsellor

    Pragmatic (Normative) Libertarian-ism is not assewrted as a design for “curing” or mitigating all the issues of any social order.

  • TracyW

    I’ll add another factor. Making it more difficult to fire employees means that at the margin employers are less likely to hire in the first place.
    As a worker I’d far rather have a low unemployment rate than any real world legal protections, because a low unemployment rate makes it far easier to leave jobs for personally important reasons that no legal system could realistically supply (such as boredom, or wanting to move closer to family), as well as for reasons like sexual harassment. And there seems to be no morally compelling reason why we should protect workers that currently have a job at the expense of would-be workers who don’t. 

  • RickDiMare

    Danny states:  “The reason there is no ‘struggle between capital and labour’ is that there is no ‘capital’ and no ‘labour’ in the relevant senses.”

    Yes, and the ultimate cause of this disconnect is the way modern money comes into being.

    Near the end of his life, Henry George commented on money. My understanding is that many Georgists don’t believe money can be called “capital,” but this contradicts what George said about money and capital in his latter years.

    While holding that post-Civil War U.S. coinage could be called “capital” because its intrinsic value approached the coin’s face value, he eventually conceded that “seignorage” (the difference between a coin’s intrinsic value and its face value) could also be called “capital,” but only if the coin was issued directly by Congress’ Treasury Department, i.e., represented only the Constitutional money-issuer’s seignorage.  

    However, George definitely ruled out the possibility that private bank notes (including what he called “hybrid currencies”) could qualify as capital. In fact, he would not even regard Treasury-Direct paper Greenbacks as capital, though I think a redeemable-on-demand Treasury coin note might be okay.

    I just wanted to add my two cents here, because capital is supposed to represent stored labor or prior labor and is incapable of serving this function under the current monetary system, which is quite a serious problem.

    • RickDiMare

      This leads to the (seemingly absurd) conclusion that only current U.S. coin, or a paper/electronic currency that solely represents it, is money capable of holding property rights in labor, both in the form of wages (current labor) or capital (stored labor).

  • Ayn R. Key

    Is the “or you’re fired” threat really considered in the same light as punishment?  Let us look at psychological classification.  It leaves us four options:

    1.  Apply reward
    2.  Withhold reward
    3.  Apply punishment
    4.  Withhold punishment

    “You’re fired” is option 2.  Only the state has options 3 and 4.  Both “apply reward” and “withhold punishment” are used to encourage positive behaviors, and both “withhold reward” and “apply punishment” are used to discourage negative behaviors, but I say there is a distinct and clear difference between “withhold reward” and “apply punishment”.

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