[Editor’s Note: The following is a guest contribution from Scott Anderson, professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia. Scott’s not a libertarian, but he’a friend and a good philosopher who specializes in coercion. He offered to share his reflections on the subject in light of the recent BHL-Crooked Timber Debate.]
Do employers in a capitalist economy like that of the U.S. coerce employees? In particular, do employers who deny their employees the ability to take bathroom breaks when needed coerce them, or coerce them objectionably? These questions appear as part of a recent discussion of whether capitalism conduces to the freedom of those who have no good alternative but to labor for capitalists.
There are disputes of several sorts in play here: empirical, theoretical, and conceptual. The third category seems to me most amenable to philosophical intervention, and includes disputes about how to understand freedom and (my specialty) coercion. Given the difficulties involved in thinking clearly about freedom, I have devoted much of my philosophical efforts to clarifying our understanding of coercion, which I believe is more tractable. Coercion is not, of course, the only hindrance to freedom, but it seems to me an apt concept for getting a grip on one of the central issues in thinking about freedom.
When Matt Zwolinski recently broached this topic, however, he suggested that “it is probably a mistake to put too much weight on the concept of coercion” in tackling this question or more generally in applied political philosophy: workplaces are “rife with coercion,” and the distinction between that which is permissible and that which is not can’t be made out by using the concept of coercion itself: “we will have to look beyond the concept of coercion itself to settle the matter.” He goes on to suggest that,
More refined philosophical conceptions of coercion don’t help either. On moralized conceptions of coercion, an act only counts as coercive if it is morally wrong in some way. So in order to decide whether an action is coercive, we already have to settle its moral status. On non-moralized accounts of coercion, whether an act is coercive or not doesn’t tell you anything about its moral status. On the first approach, to infer that some activity is wrong because coercive will beg the question; on the second, no such inference is possible: coercion is a descriptive concept that applies equally to an employer’s insisting that employees show up on time and insisting that they have sex with their boss.
I think that a fair amount of trouble in this discussion (both the larger discussion about employment initiated by the BRG essay and Zwolinski’s own contribution) is due to difficulties in framing a clear, weight-bearing concept of coercion.1 Zwolinski suggests one meaning for the term which I think is fully in step with most current views: “coercion simply means threatening to do something bad to someone unless they do what you want.” This view can be dressed up considerably, but this gloss captures the greatest common factor in what most people understand coercion to mean, including those theorists whose work is routinely cited for authority about the matter (e.g., Robert Nozick and Alan Wertheimer; for other citations, please see my Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Coercion”). And I think Zwolinski is right that, despite broad agreement that this is what “coercion” means, this understanding falls quite short of being useful for thinking about something so serious, whether dressed up or dressed down.
I’ve written a fair amount about this (those interested can find a bibliography below). Here I will simply sketch a way I think we might more usefully understand coercion, descriptively, and then show that an adequate description of it can help think about the situation of labor in capitalist employment situations—as well as why the use of coercion bears a special burden. I’ll warn in advance that the answers to questions of whether capitalists coerce workers are not uniform across all situations, or even all parts of one and the same job for one and the same employee/employer. But understood properly, the concept of coercion can help gauge how much a particular employer imposes constraints on a particular employee’s freedom, given appropriate attention to the background conditions in which these agents operate.
I will omit critiquing directly the view of coercion Zwolinski moots, and instead sketch my alternative to it first, which I’ll then defend in part by comparison to the standard view. The principal factors involved in coercion are, first, that the coercer creates or draws upon a broad advantage in power over the coercee. (I’ll offer a metric for this shortly.) Secondly, the coercer uses that power advantage to constrain (what the coercee understands are) the coercee’s prospects for action, (third) either by means of a credible threat (explicit or tacit), imposed conditions, or through directly inhibiting the coercee’s ability to act (say, through locking her up or destroying her crops, tools, etc.). Fourthly, the coercer chooses to do this intentionally, at-will, for purposes that he determines.
The problem with most ordinary accounts of coercion (including the prominent philosophical ones today) is that they take for granted, without explanation, the ability of some parties to make credible threats against others, neither explaining why certain threats are likely to be credible (or incredible), nor thinking through the significance of the background conditions that make credible threats possible. Here’s an illustration of this point in the present context: If there is a shortage of workers possessing a particular skill (say, computer programmers) such that a laborer with that skill has any number of attractive job offers ready to hand, in her neighborhood, a computer programmer’s current employer might nonetheless threaten to, e.g., dock her pay or even to fire her if she takes unscheduled bathroom breaks. However, her employer lacks a kind of power over her that makes such a threat a credible threat. Even if the employer were to carry out the threat (which it seems would be counterproductive to the employer, and hence unlikely to be executed), the employer is in no position to hinder the employee’s ability to obtain other good employment with little or no disruption of her life. Thus, the employer’s threat does not threaten the employee’s ability to fulfill her significant needs in life: e.g., food, shelter, health-care, recreation, etc., as well as those of their dependants.
Of course, most laborers in the current world are not in this favorable position vis-à-vis their current and/or potential employers. At this point it is useful to distinguish between employers in general (i.e., the capitalist class), and some particular employer who may employ or fire a particular worker at will; I’ll concentrate first on what to say about particular employers, and later take up the issue of coercion by capitalists as a class. Most individuals do not have access to a stock of capital (nor the expertise to make profitable use of it if they could gain access to it) that would allow them to labor for themselves in a way that would meet their various human needs. Hence, in order for most individual workers in the U.S. to get what they need in life, they need to find some owner of capital to employ them. It also appears that capital is relatively scarce compared to the supply of willing laborers; hence, there are generally fewer employment opportunities than there are laborers willing to take them (though as the above example indicates, this differs across different places, times, and job categories). In particular, in places with a high unemployment rate, and/or for individuals whose skills do not generate more than one or a very few good employment offers, they may see themselves as having few if any alternatives to any particular job on offer. Even if there are other jobs they can obtain eventually, there are often high transaction costs that go with losing one’s job on short notice, and then needing to find another when there is a strong likelihood of prolonged unemployment. It is also worth noting that job seekers often depend on the positive assessments of past employers to be able to find future employment of a comparable kind, which adds to their current employers’ power over their future job prospects. Thus, by being able to terminate their employment (and possibly frustrate their search for future employment), many employers hold considerable power over many workers, since they can prevent those employees from obtaining access to the ordinary goods of life. By contrast, employees in general have no countervailing ability to affect that employer in any similar fashion. (I’ll return to say more about this fact later as well.) Thus for many (though not all) employees, here, today, the first condition is met relative to a particular employer who hires or might hire them.
One important point to grasp in conceiving of the power at issue here is that even if a coercer aims to have the coercee do something in particular, the coercer achieves this effect by being in a position to prevent the coercee broadly from doing other things. The employer does not literally force his employees to do things like show up on time or have sex with him; but by showing an ability and willingness to prevent an employee from achieving any number of crucial ends, he can make doing something like showing up on time or having sex with him into a necessary means to achieve those other ends. What I’m suggesting then is that we should regard the power to coerce as principally a demonstrated willingness and ability to prevent another agent from doing a broad range of important, crucial things—which I gesture at above by speaking of the ability to fulfill one’s needs. When one agent has this sort of constraining power over another, then it is open to them to use such power to direct the actions of the coercee in any number of directions.
The second and third conditions specify that, in coercing, such powerful agents utilize their advantage in power over others to constrain their ability to act, either by threats or by other sorts of conditions or impediments to action. In this, I accept per the common wisdom that threats can be used to coerce, but hold that the range of techniques of coercion is broader than is commonly understood. (A) Not just threats can be used to coerce: sometimes coercion works via more direct means, such as locking people up or (more a propos here) locking workers in, physically barring or removing them from a site, or disabling them from performing certain activities that they would otherwise be able to do (e.g., use a restroom, use their tools). (B) Some threats are tacit: once employees know that dismissal for displeasing the boss is a common occurrence, then bosses don’t need to put their threats into so many words; they merely need to make demands, and the employees can fill in the “or else” part themselves. Moreover, (C) it is of little importance whether the employer issues a demand, or whether, say, employees take it upon themselves to figure out ways to please their bosses, knowing (perhaps implicitly) that failure to do so will lead to their dismissal. Once the power dynamic is established, the matter of whether the threat is tacit or explicit, or even whether it emanates from the coercer, is all of rather secondary importance.
All that I’ve said so far, however, would seem to support Zwolinski’s contention that all demands by employers coerce virtually all workers, since employers by and large demand that workers do their jobs and threaten (overtly or implicitly) to fire them if they refuse. If this were so, then “coercion” would cut no ice here. (This then presses theorists towards moralized accounts.) Employers, however, are not typically wholly unconstrained with respect to the demands they may or may not place on their employees. Leaving aside the state’s mandates regarding pay, working conditions, etc., employers who compete to provide a service to customers (and thereby profit or even just maintain their capital) need to utilize their resources, including their workforce, in a reasonably efficient manner. This includes at a minimum getting their workers to perform the productive aspects of their jobs. Hence, my approach declines to treat all demands employers make of their employees as coercive, since employers are constrained and necessitated to make at least some such demands of their employees by virtue of the necessity that they employ their resources efficiently. An employer who pays employees but does not get them to work effectively will fail to satisfy its customers, and go out of business. Hence, we may regard employers as constrained to demand that employees do certain things such as show up, do their jobs, etc. – i.e., these demands do not emanate from the will of the employer, but rather under from the necessity of a market economy. A slightly different way to describe this situation is to note that there is an internal relationship between an employee doing her job and the employer being in a position to pay her. We need not see this as a kind of moral imperative on employees (or employers), but rather as rough way of distinguishing demands on employees that are part of the existence of their job (which depends on producing something of value to customers) from those that arise from the arbitrary will of the employer.
This distinction can be challenged, and there are no doubt large grey areas that will resist categorization. But if we take the exemplary case of an employer demanding that an employee have sex with him as a condition of holding some other sort of employment, it is highly likely that we have a case in which the employer is making use of his significant power advantage over the employee for purposes that don’t further the productive activity of the firm, and so are arbitrarily determined by the employer. Unless this is really a necessity (and it is highly doubtful that it would be), then the employer and its managers are choosing to use their power over some to extract benefits from them and transfer them to others at their discretion. This would suffice to fulfill the fourth condition.
It may be tougher to decide the case of an employer who refuses its employees the right to take bathroom breaks except upon the company’s say-so. It may be undecidable in some particular cases whether such a rule is necessitated by the need for hyper-efficiency in a particular industry, or whether such a rule reflects nothing more than the employer’s disdain for its employees, or an attempt to squeeze every last cent of profit from their activity. A comparison among similar employers in similar industries/markets might help determine this, but not always. Perhaps from the employees’ perspective, it may make little difference whether their choices are constrained due to their employers’ decision, or the cutthroat market, though this approach would still help locate the responsibility, at least in theory. And in general, at least in firms that are robustly profitable, it appears that there are good grounds to regard the impositions of such indignities as chosen by the employers, and hence as acts of coercion by the employers.
I think this account of coercion both fits with many of our ordinary views about coercion, as well as offers a useful tool for categorizing and explaining why some ways that employers treat employees are rightly regarded as making them less free—and unnecessarily so—than they would be otherwise. It will now be useful to step back from the picture of the individual employee and her employer, and consider how it is that in capitalism, certain agents (in particular, certain employers, as owners and managers of capital) become positioned to wield such power over others. I said above that employees are generally unable to make credible countervailing threats against employers, but this deserves further explanation. If coercion is simply threatening to do something bad to someone else, then it’s unclear why employees can’t, individually or in various collectives, simply threaten to take away the control of capital from employers, or threaten to murder them, etc. And of course, sometimes they do threaten such, and even bring this about. But in general they don’t, and such threats as they make are often quashed by police or other state agents, or dismissed as non-credible. In particular, individuals are unable to wrest or credibly threaten to wrest control of capital from the capitalists because capital is organized along lines of property ownership, which is itself defended by the state’s use of coercion. In a place like the U.S., the state is largely effective in protecting the lives and property rights of its inhabitants, and thus is largely effective in securing the control of capital (and the profits that flow from it) to those who hold legal title to it. That is to say, the power of capitalist employers to deny individual workers access to significant, necessary goods for living derives from the state’s manifest use of coercion to protect their property rights, in which their control of capital resides. 2
We can argue over whether and to what extent the holders of those titles earned them and deserve them, or whether it is merely a matter of efficiency that we preserve those titles against instability. We can also argue over whether some other system might be better all things considered. But whether or not capitalist relations of ownership are justifiable, it is clear that in current circumstances those who hold title to large amounts of capital wield considerably more power vis-à-vis most employees than most employees have relative to them. After all, the rich who own capital do not risk the loss of basic goods of life if they lose any particular employee—or even lose a lot of them—so long as they can convert their capital into the means of meeting their economic needs by selling it, renting it, etc. (They also frequently have large reserves of fungible investments to fall back on in tough times.) So even if employees can make any particular business unprofitable by quitting, striking, boycotting, etc., wealthy capitalists will not be similarly disabled by such actions the way many workers are disabled by losing a scarce employment opportunity.
If we recognize that the capitalist class is supported by coercively enforced property institutions, which in turn give them power over the ability of others to fulfill their needs, this also helps undermine a certain sort of appeal to “baselines” to dismiss the coerciveness employment relations. The suggestion involving baselines is this: employers don’t coerce employees because they merely make “offers” that leave workers no worse off than the baseline condition of having no offer. But my approach to coercion makes it possible to recognize that the power to make such offers, and the (would-be) employees’ lack of alternatives to them, are a direct result of the state’s use of coercion to protect property. Certain moralized theories of coercion can obscure this, but on my account of coercion, the coerciveness of the state’s institution of property rights is unmistakable. Again, the institution of property may itself be justified, in part or on the whole, but even if it is, it requires a whole other argument to show that individual capitalist employers could be justified to leverage the power conferred by title to capital to impose, at will, arbitrary conditions on their employees.
On the view sketched here, it is theoretically possible that employers in a capitalist economy could uniformly avoid coercing their workers by limiting their demands to those that are necessary in order to meet the needs of their customers, however unlikely this scenario might be. Is this a problem for the account? I don’t see why it should be. If such a situation were achieved, I think it would mark a considerable improvement over current employer practices, for the reasons that BRG elaborate. But even if no individual employer engages in what I’ve defined as coercion, several concerns remain. First, so long as capital is deployed in a way that leaves many potential workers without good jobs, there will remain a great power disparity between capital and labor, facilitating the exploitation of labor. (We might in fact see this as coercion by some employers, in that they demand that employees work harder for lower wages than is needed to make an adequate return on the capitalists’ investments, but I don’t expect this view to secure broad agreement.) Second, it remains the case that the institutions of property underlying capitalism are coercively enforced, and so they bear a justificatory burden, or so I would urge. Like Zwolinski and the libertarians he describes, I think that coercion is often justifiable. But the account offered here helps us to understand why a justification is required by restricting the scope of the concept to cases where a significant use of power is involved. So coercion turns out to be less ubiquitous than Zwolinski suggests, and should rarely if ever be counted as a trivial matter. Whether or not this coercive aspect of capitalism is ultimately justifiable is best left for another discussion.
Lastly, this picture of coercion can also be used to help justify putting in place a substantial social minimum benefit, universal health care, guaranteed rights to a job (via government-sponsored work programs, etc.), and other ways of protecting the possibility for workers to lead decent lives after losing a job. These are important antidotes to the coercive power currently residing in the ownership and control of capital. Philip Pettit used the term “antipower” to describe the function of such mechanisms in constraining the ability of some to coerce and reduce the freedom of others (“Freedom as Antipower,” Ethics, 1996). This seems roughly apt to me, and fits well with the account here.
The concept of coercion is too important and useful, I think, to toss it aside as of little interest in debates over the freedom of workers, but only if we understand it in a way different from those recently in vogue. While the picture of coercion I’ve painted here uses rather broad strokes, and needs considerable nuance to deal with some of the complexities and fine points of more intricate examples, I hope it shows that those concerned with freedom can indeed draw some useful distinctions with this view of coercion, and that it does not require much in way of contentious moralizing to make at least some helpful use of it.
Addendum regarding Julian Sanchez on coercion.
Sanchez writes a fairly thorough analysis of these issues here. While there is much that is helpful about his piece, and with which I agree, I’ll point briefly to some ways in which what I say above diverges from his analysis of the field. First, I would deny (as I do above) that the approach favored here is “baseline” approach, so stand apart from most of those his analysis intends to encompass. Secondly, I don’t put much or any emphasis on what the worker “agrees to” in taking a job. For any agreement or token of consent, there is a prior question of whether that agreement or token was coerced, so the question of coercion is always prior. I also don’t think that “the voluntary” is the right contrast class for understanding coercion, since focusing on the (in)voluntariness of any action turns us towards focusing on facts about the coecee, rather than about the coercer: it’s what the coercer (and those relevantly similar to the coercer—here, the capitalist class) does to marshal and employ power over others that determines whether coercion is in play or not.
If you are interested in reading more of my views on coercion, please see (in rough order of usefulness):
- Scott A. Anderson, “The Enforcement Approach to Coercion,” Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, October, 2010
- Scott A. Anderson, “On Theories of Coercion, Two Axes, and the Importance of the Coercer,” Journal of Moral Philosophy 5 (2008) (accessible only via proprietary databases or institutional libraries).
- Scott A. Anderson, “Coercion,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- A similar view can be attributed to Julian Sanchez, whose essay Matt pointed me to after largely finishing this response. I say a bit more about it at the very end. ↩
- The way that both individual capitalists and the capitalist class in general come to hold power over individual workers also helps distinguish the coercion in many employment relations from the kind of power differential that arises in most “rescue” cases, where one part is at the mercy of another due to the rescuee’s own misfortune or ill-considered action. ↩
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