Rights Theory, Liberty

Freedom and Work

Crooked Timber just posted an article that discusses the posts I’ve written about the workplace. I enjoyed reading it (also- these follow ups) and I’ve been thinking about where we disagree. One charge is that I either am a garden-variety liberal or I am not a defender of freedom. Maybe there is some truth to the first claim, though I value economic freedom and oppose paternalism more than other garden-variety liberals. In any case, this re-labeling doesn’t bother me too much if the libertarian label is all that is holding people back from accepting the arguments. Why is it some kind of ‘gotcha’ to say I’m not a libertarian? Why would the name matter when what we really care about is the view?

What does bother me is the claim that I am not a defender of freedom. Defending freedom is a pretty big part of my practical identity! So of course I agree that neither employers nor employees should impermissibly coerce or deceive people. I think what is going on here is that I defend a vision of freedom that Bertram, Robin, and Gourevitch (BRG) reject. This is where the action is so I will try to say a bit more about it here. The questions are 1) whether the workplace is usually the kind of thing that impermissibly undermines freedom and 2) whether further limits on freedom are the solution.

As I’ve written before, just calling something ‘coercive’ doesn’t get us very far in knowing whether it is an impermissible limit on our freedom. What we really care about is whether interference violated someone’s rights. BRG seem to think that impermissible violations occur any time someone is compelled by the penalty of getting fired to do something that she did not explicitly consent to. On this view, labor arrangements are often impermissibly coercive because getting fired is so devastating that workers are at the mercy of bosses.

I’m with Alex Tabarrok in thinking that this definition is too broad because it would include a lot of practices that are just voluntary mutual exchange. An employer usually does not violate your rights when she exercises her right to stop paying you even if it would be bad for you if she did. Impermissible coercion would require an antecedent entitlement to continued employment and wages. I’m open to this possibility in some cases. For example I find Sophia Moreau’s recent paper about discrimination pretty compelling. Still, I doubt such entitlements or obligations exist in most cases.

BRG are especially concerned with employer’s power to influence our private lives. Why is Corey Robin so concerned with public officials’ off-duty activities but he thinks that workers shouldn’t ever be judged for their off-duty behavior? We ask about the private lives of officials for the same reasons that employers ask for information about the private lives of their employees—employees influence the fate of the company, represent the company, and act on its behalf. Employees can refuse of course, and employers can choose other workers just as voters can choose not to elect a president who refuses to disclose his finances. Often the reasons for private intrusions like drug tests and background checks are even stronger though, insofar as they are used to promote coworkers’ and consumers’ safety, to protect employers from theft, or to prevent rare cases of disability fraud. Concern with the private sphere aims to address wrongdoing in these cases. Employers are not trying to oppress workers. Why would they?

Say we buy the idea that an employer’s power to fire makes workers too vulnerable because unemployment is a serious harm. Even then, I have suggested that a basic income could  mitigate the badness of unemployment and thereby insulate workers from this kind of vulnerability at work. BRG have less affection for the UBI. They say that I overlook the non-monetary costs of leaving a job, (e.g. you’ll miss your coworkers.) Again, I agree that it’s bad for workers when they miss their pals but this is only an impermissible penalty to impose on people if they are entitled to retain the non-monetary benefits of employment. Such a right is over-inclusive. For example, this theory would render temporary employment agreements morally wrong because they ultimately impose non-monetary costs on employees at the end of the contract.

Another claim is that the basic income would not be feasible. This is an empirical point, but people on the Left and Right have suggested that a UBI can be economically feasible, perhaps even with our current level of social welfare spending. In any case, I am surprised to find advocates of workplace democracy complaining that my UBI proposal is not economically and politically feasible, and arguments about a policy’s current political feasibility are not a strike against the justice of any policy.

Finally, BRG propose a thought experiment that is meant to illustrate that good exit options (like a UBI) do not adequately address the tyranny of the workplace:

The limitations of exit as an instrument of freedom can be illustrated by a simple analogy. Suppose Canada were a dictatorship, but the United States welcomed anyone who wished to leave, paid for her ticket and promised her a job. Would that mean that anyone who stayed behind was free?

Yet the workplace isn’t like the Canadian dictatorship because states are territorial, non-voluntary associations and the workplace is not. We are not born into our workplaces. I am more skeptical about political leaders’ rights to rule us than employers’ rights to rule the companies they created. Employers secure the actual consent of their workers while few of us actually consent to political leaders. These asymmetries are normatively important.

To make the Canadian analogy more apt, imagine that Canada was unpopulated but for one person who justly owned all the land. Say he put an ad in the paper that said, “Residents wanted! Beautiful camping and Tim Horton’s Coffee! Must submit to dictatorial rule—cancel any time!” Then, if people moved to Canada for the camping, but found the laws to be too much, they could move on back to the States. Maybe the dictator is still doing something wrong, but we wouldn’t find this scenario nearly as problematic. In fact, this set-up kind of sounds like a homeowners association to me.

This is the heart of our disagreement. BRG think that workers are entitled to the benefits of employment unless they do something that is obviously wrong. They claim that this right requires a lot of regulation and state interference.  The idea is that employees should be able to exercise all their rights in the workplace without fear of getting fired for doing so. On this view employees may even have political rights to control their workplace.

I think that all workers are entitled to make employment agreements for themselves without state interference. Employers have rights to stop extending the benefits of employment to their particular workers just as employees have rights to quit. Employers can permissibly place conditions on employment just as employees can negotiate the terms of their contracts when they are hired. While I agree that no one is entitled to harm others, employers and employees may have rights to do wrong. This means that the law should not prohibit wrongful behavior in all cases. This doesn’t mean that horrible bosses and bad employees act permissibly; I just doubt that further limits on occupational freedom are the right tool to address workplace unfreedom.

I suspect that some of this controversy is because the Crooked Timber crew thinks that my proposal would fail to maximize freedom on balance. I do not focus on the balance of freedom because I think that free choices should be respected, not maximized.

Where does this leave us? BRG propose law, regulation, and economic democracy. They call it more voice. I call it more bosses. I see that BRG have a different conception of rights and freedom. What I still don’t see is why workplace democracy and regulation would be liberating on any conception of freedom. Why are these self-proclaimed liberals are so hostile to the UBI? Do they really think that right to own productive property and contract are so insignificant that they can be radically curtailed and even eliminated without the state and the workplace becoming less free? How did we get to this point where the libertarians are the vocal advocates of a basic income while the Marxist liberals are arguing that what workers really need is less choice?


  • Jessica,

    I’m a confirmed liberal, but I don’t find a lot to disagree with you about here. In theory, a UBI sounds like a great thing and could easily obviate the need for a whole lot of workplace regulation, minimum wage laws, etc. But that’s just theory. Seriously, do you really see such a thing happening anytime in the foreseeable future? More to the point, looking back, can you identify a time in the past century when such a proposal would have been taken seriously? Even during the New Deal and Great Society reform eras?

    I wish I were wrong, but I doubt it. And given that empirical, political reality, advocating tearing out existing workplace protections (totally viable if Republicans gain the upper hand) with a totally unobtainable panacea like a UBI is nakedly disingenuous.

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  • Who is Crooked Timber? Not to hate too much, but there doesn’t seem to be much substance there. It would appear that they are condoning intervention in every case where leverage is involved. Where are the limits?

    Really enjoyed the line about maximizing freedom.

  • I find discussions about whether x is coercive to be not only really frustrating (abstract nouns can often be defined in several ways, none obviously ‘correct’), but generally unhelpful in resolving whether x is morally permissible. Particularly, questions revolving around whether the exit option has to be of some decent quality for the person’s choice to qualify as voluntary (or the offer coercive) are really quite maddening; they hinge often on very subjective judgments about what makes an option ‘acceptable’ or ‘etnertainable.’

    To me, the best answer to the employer/employee issue is to start with two questions: (a) is what each party is offering (money, labor) theirs to offer, and hence, theirs to negotiate with, and (b) is either party artificially making the other’s worse off than it would be had the exchange not been offered at all.

    So, the employer likely owns or has right to the money they are offering, and the laborer, the labor she is offering. To my mind, that means there should be a very strong presumption that both parties have a right to negotiate the terms under which they will exchange what they have for what they want. (I generally loathe the idea that a third party can put terms on my voluntary exchanges with others, unless there is a strong reason by way of externality.)

    And in most cases, “do x or your fired” means that the speaker is only threatening to leave the other in ONLY as bad off a position as she was had the exchange never happened in the first place. It is hard for me to see that as coercion, per se, because what is really going on because no one is artificially making the other’s worst-off option worse than it naturally was. (There are exceptions; like when a boss says to do x or the employee will be fired and blacklisted, etc.)

    • ben

      A possible example of how the fired employee might be worse off, is if she had to move to a different town to take the job (i.e. put lots of money into moving, and had to leave behind lots of “human capital” in terms of friends / connections / knowledge of the local economy / etc.), only to be fired and find herself in a new town starting from zero.

      • “A possible example of how the fired employee might be worse off, is if she had to move to a different town to take the job …”

        I understand how one could say that this is the employer (threatening to fire her) making her worse off than she’d have been had she not taken the job in the first place, but to me, her moving was part of her taking the job. In threatening to fire, the employer is not making this relocated worker worse off than she would be had the job not been offered, because her agreeing to move WAS PART OF THE JOB OFFER.

    • Blacklisting is a rather common practice.

  • Often, modern liberals find it necessary to violate the rights of individuals, especially if those individuals are business owners, managers, investors or entrepreneurs, in order to maximize advantage for approved-of groups. Political interventionism over economic liberty, which is basically the underlying emphasis of social democracy — use capitalism through political power to maximize social justice.

  • billwald

    I would not have bought my condo if the rules were objectionable. I would not have moved back to Seattle if the municipal code was unacceptable. I can move out of Washington State if the RCW becomes unacceptable. If I didn’t like my job I could have quit. Some day people will be able to leave the world if they think some other planet is more acceptable.

    • Damien S.

      Your statements assume the privilege of having lots of different choices. If all the employers who’ll hire you will make you pee on camera, if all the municipalities have obnoxious zoning laws, then you don’t have much choice, other than who you’ll pee in front of and exactly which obnoxious regulations you’ll live under.

      As for switching jobs, I wouldn’t put much weight on “will miss friends”, I’d put it on the availability of jobs. The world faced by a programmer in Silicon Valley is a lot different from that faced by a specialist in demand by only a few large companies in the world (Boeing and aero engineers, perhaps?) that like to locate factories in the boonies, let alone someone without in-demand skills of any sort. And even programmers can get treated shittily, though paid well for it (would you like less pay but more reasonable working hours and European vacation? Good luck!)

      • Damien,

        Of course, how many choices you have affects how much bargaining power you have and how much freedom you have to choose which rules you will submit to.

        But, to me, the basic question is still whether the employer is making you worse off by offering the job in the first place. If you accepted the job and its terms (assuming that you understood the terms), then one MUST presume that you believed the trade-off was worth making. Before taking the job, you had no job and no income, but could pee where and when you wanted, and after taking the job, you have a job and income, but cannot pee where and when you want. Presumably, the fact that the you took the job indicates that you thought freedom-of-urination was worth trading for a job and money, lest you wouldn’t have done the deal.

        Yes, you’d be better with a job and freedom-of-urination, but what I don’t think can be disputed is that you believed (probably rightly) accepting the job in question makes you better off than not accepting the job.

        • good_in_theory

          But, to me, the basic question is still whether the employer is making you worse off by offering the job in the first place.”

          Ok, I counter with this basic question:

          Is the employee making the employer worse off by self-managing the relationship between her bladder and her work?

          Things that one might want to demonstrate in order to show otherwise:

          1. the manager has a greater incentive to increase the employees’ productivity than the employees themselves
          2. the manager knows how to increase employee productivity better than the employees themselves

          One might also want to interrogate the incentives of any pee-nazis.

          For example, do they have an incentive to…

          1. shirk covering for peeing employees
          2. appear to have control over workplace productivity
          3. create policies which allow them to attribute responsibility for falls in productivity away from themselves
          4. create policies which strengthen their ability to fire workers at will
          5. create policies which allow them to demean their employees

          Or, in other words, might their policies have nothing to do with increasing marginal productivity?

  • wilson263

    How did we get to this point where the libertarians are the vocal
    advocates of a basic income while the Marxist liberals are arguing that
    what workers really need is less choice?

    It’s not a long trip; it only requires the libertarian to embrace the leanest of welfare states and the liberal to stand in place. Marxist liberal rhetoric supports the worker, but their preferred policies never have, as far as I know.

  • billwald

    “In theory, a UBI sounds like a great thing and could easily obviate the need for a whole lot of workplace regulation, minimum wage laws, etc. But that’s just theory”

    Say every citizen was sent an identical debit card deposit every month and every other federal cash payment including Social Security was cancelled – pensions excepted because a pension was supposed to be one leg of retirement income. Would the total outlay be more than the sum of all the bits and pieces?

    Say a source of free energy was invented and robots did all the work that humans did not WANT to do (gratis, for the status). Would there not still be a social food chain?

  • Damien S.

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

    Because people often like to power trip and lord it over others. Hell, it’s a basic accusation libertarians such as Fernando Teson level at liberals.

    “Why is Corey Robin so concerned with public officials’ off-duty activities but he thinks that workers shouldn’t ever be judged for their off-duty behavior?”

    Because people who seek power over others should be held to a higher standard of scrutiny? “These asymmetries are normatively important”

    “the libertarians are the vocal advocates of a basic income”

    Be fair: a few libertarians. Most will denounce such a thing as socialism funded by government theft.

    “the Marxist liberals”

    Do you know that BRG view themselves as Marxist, or are you descending into typical libertarian mislabeling? “Marxist” and “liberals” usually don’t go well together. And UBI has had advocates from all across the left-right spectrum; don’t inflate your argument with them into something more significant than it is, for either libertarians or liberals.

    Me, I’m sympathetic to both UBI and freedom to contract or not contract, subject to externality considerations. OTOH, I’m far from convinced that a substantial UBI is economically feasible — ahem, incentives — let alone politically practical. More cautiously I’d opt for citizen’s grant — in addition to free education — and government jobs program, in addition to the usual unemployment insurance.

    • Jessica Flanigan

      Hi Damien,
      1- You’re right, some people are jerks that just want to oppress people, I probably shouldn’t have generalized like that
      2- Employees often have power over others too, not just over other employees, but power over the fate of the company.
      3- I have an earlier post on the UBI which includes a round up of a lot of libertarians all of whom believe in the basic income. It may not be everyone, but it’s not the exception either.
      4- Well, I’m friends with Alex and he calls himself a Marxist all the time. Chris Bertram has written a lot on Marx and seems to endorse some version of what the Analytical Marxists believe in his work. Corey Robin, who knows? But all of them are ‘marxist liberals’ in contrast to anarchist marxists because they advocate at least in the short run for statist solutions to promote a marxist idea of freedom or egalitarianism, or that is how I meant the term.
      5- I think a UBI is financially feasible, and I don’t really care if it is politically practical or not. Why would you favor a government jobs program instead of a UBI?

      • Jeconiah

        By your definition, Noam Chomsky is a “Marxist liberal,” which is just about the funniest thing I’ve heard today.

      • Jessica Flanigan

        And.. i should clarify on point 4. I actually don’t realy care about the labels. Maybe they want to disavow that label i pinned on them, like I said i care more about the view than the labels anyhow. The point is, they have a vision of freedom that seems to require something in that ballpark. That quip just meant to point out the irony that the defenders of ::their:: vision of freedom are advocating for pretty intrusive limits on labor freedom and are so worried that my UBI proposal is not feasible.

        Anyhow, as with so much on the internet, that aside is probably going to get me in trouble, but it doesn’t matter if they identify as marxist types or liberals or whatever, the point of the post was about different views of freedom.

        I wish that was what we were talking about, instead of which label is best..

  • Damien S.

    “that what workers really need is less choice”

    Of course, sometimes limiting one’s choices leads to better outcomes. In the game of chicken, say — the guy who can’t swerve will beat rational people with the freedom to chicken out. Or the prisoner’s dilemma; mutual coercion to cooperate leads to a better outcome than having the freedom to fall into the mutual defection trap.

    If 99 workers want X, and 1 worker is willing to take Y, and if this would cause the other 99 to be forced to take Y, then removing Y from the table of legal options will be pretty attractive, and arguably less coercive in real terms.

  • adrianratnapala

    Why is it some kind of ‘gotcha’ to say I’m not a FOOist? Why would
    the name matter when what we really care about is the view?

    It doesn’t matter to the person being gotcha’d, but it does matter other more-or-less FOOist people. This is because FOOism is not some platonic ideal, it is a label with rough description that helps people with partially similar views find each other and cooperate to push those views. Those people have an interest in managing the description.

    Now say the rival BARists define FOOism in a way that says it should compel the eating of babies. Then correct FOOist response is: “well screw your crazy definitions!” (assuming here that they do not in fact eat babies). If instead member of the arguably-FOOist coalition timidly says “well since I don’t eat babies, then I am not a FOOist” then they lose their coalition.

    To her credit, Jessica Flanigan has not been timid. She has come out swinging. Good for her.

  • SimpleMachine88

    My lord is that crooked timber piece polemical. Just as an obvious response, the employee has “coercive” power or, whatever we’re calling it, over the employer as well. “Pay me this or I won’t show up”. It’s just a free exchange, and recasting this as coercion is kind of odd as far as I see it.

    The response is that the employer has more “leverage”, but that really just comes down to that the employer is probably wealthier. This reminds me of a liberal who tried to tell me that businesses discriminate against poor people (because they only sell you things if you pay them :P). The key here to get more leverage in this relationship is just to raise your value to the employer, by getting an education, or being a hard worker, or finding a career where there’s a lot of competition for labor. That means you’re bringing more to the table, and you have other options if your employer doesn’t treat you the way you like. One trick for getting the things you want in life is working hard. And try to keep some savings so that you can quit if necessary.

    From a societal perspective, if we’re trying to make things better, one problem to remedy is that far too many workers have been failed by our educational system. 1/5 of Americans are functionally illiterate, which means they get poor jobs, and they have to put up with whatever their boss tells them. Or cut taxes, or improve our infrastructure, or cut trade barriers, or reduce regulations. All these things will raise worker productivity and therefore their bargaining power.

    The best response to this debate was Yglesias’, while making his classic pitch for higher inflation, that this really depends on the economy and on full employment. High unemployment means horrible bosses, cuz it’s them or the breadline. This also cuts against Crooked Timber’s spiel I think, because unionization and the lower labor mobility that comes with that hurts the economy. I say, give Americans a working economy and we can take care of ourselves. The last thing we need is Crooked Timber’s “help”.

    PS- I take that back. Here’s Marginal Revolution’s response…
    Cowen- http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2012/07/libertarianism-and-the-workplace.html
    Tabarrok- http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2012/07/libertarianism-and-the-workplace-ii.html

  • SimpleMachine88

    Also, concerning whether a workplace is a “dictatorship”, of course it is. I have to do what my boss says or she will fire me. This is unpleasant, but about as surprising as “rain is unpleasantly wet”. Work sucks, that’s just how it is.

    The workplace is also somebody’s property, somebody who is not me. Meanwhile, I have my own property. If they don’t want me on theirs, I can not go there: if I don’t want them on mine, they can not go there. This is fine by me. I support property rights because I’m a property owner too.

    • SimpleMachine88

      Also I’m an employer of state employees as a tax payer, including the “workplace democracy” of the California Prison Guard’s Union, who democratically decided that they should be payed more than me, the guy who’s footing their bill, and democratically decided that more of their employers should be locked up for non-violent offenses so that there will be a need for more prison guards.

      Yeah, I want them watched on CCTV, and drug tested, because many of those employees are smuggling drugs and working for the gangs. And their Union gets them off. Sometimes employees need to be treated less well.

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  • Brian Shea

    I hope you don’t mind my noting two places where I think your post misses the thrust of what BRG are saying, and I think something interesting got lost.


    “Why are these self-proclaimed liberals so hostile to the UBI? … How did we get to this point where the libertarians are the vocal advocates of a basic income while the Marxist liberals are arguing that what workers really need is less choice?”

    This strikes me as inaccurate. BRG say that

    There’s no doubt that a far heftier UBI—one that allowed a single person to live more than an impoverished existence—would offer a reasonable alternative at the moment of contract. It’s not at all clear, however, that even a robust UBI would constitute a reasonable alternative at the moment of exit, when an employee must consider all the costs (financial and otherwise) of leaving her job and all the sunk costs she’ll never recover,

    and also also ask “whether a large enough UBI to make entry and exit genuinely voluntary could be financed with whatever taxes [Bleeding Heart Libertarians] consider to be just.” For what it’s worth, I happen to be supportive of a UBI, and think (1) that their point is not hostile but a reasonable thing to consider in weighing the virtues of a UBI, and (2) that the tax question is particularly relevant to bring up to authors who identify as libertarian. They do say that in their opinion a UBI of eleven to fifteen thousand dollars annual would not constitute “a reasonable alternative to work”, but that does not imply any hostility to the UBI idea.

    By the way, I’m fairly sure Peter Frase would not identify as a liberal (Marxist, probably), and he’s very far from hostile to a UBI [1, 2]. I think that some of Seth Ackerman’s [3, 4] concerns about a UBI are interesting—both on their merits, and also to illustrate that concerns about the limits of a UBI arise entirely within lefty discussion. I believe that BRG, Ackerman, and also commenters here have all raised concerns about a UBI. People seem to disagree about the strengths of a UBI regardless of the politics of the particular advocate or skeptic involved.

    Finally, the claim BRG “are arguing that what workers really need is less choice” seems to be a judgment and not a description of their view. I’m not sure I wholly follow why BRG think that a UBI would have significantly more effect at the point of entrance than exit. My current best guess is that they think the fact that someone is considering taking a particular job at all basically controls for entanglements, sunk costs, transaction costs, etc in a way that doesn’t hold when someone considers leaving a particular job. I do not read them as suggesting that workers should have less choice or that a UBI would give workers less choice. I think they’re questioning the extent to which a UBI gives workers more choice—particularly when it comes to exit.


    “They say that I overlook the non-monetary costs of leaving a job, (e.g. you’ll miss your coworkers.) Again, I agree that it’s bad for workers when they miss their pals but this is only an impermissible penalty to impose on people if they are entitled to retain the non-monetary benefits of employment.”

    Again, this strikes me as inaccurate. BRG do not claim that limits or weaknesses of the exit option stem from “missing your pals”. Instead they say

    Anyone who has been in a job for a while, who has committed to a mortgage, has children in school and shares her life with a partner, knows that just walking out, with an income stream committed months or years ahead, is a very bad idea unless they have something definite lined up. … Men and women who have worked in a place for years may be embedded in a network of relations—with co-workers, clients, suppliers, and so on—that constitute a major part of their world. They live in communities where their children attend schools, their partners work, and they have built lives. They may be in a career where entry opportunities are easier when young and have devoted themselves to a profession they will be lucky to get back into if they walk out.

    One may ultimately hold that these are not significant limits to exercising exit, but glossing them as “missing your pals” does not address the points that BRG did in fact make. Also, I did not read them as claiming that employees had some entitlement to these things, rather that these are reasons that exit can be a weak option.

    Anyway, like I said before, I’m more than sympathetic to the UBI idea. That’s probably why I think discussion of how much it does or does not strengthen exit or effect a “capitalism among consenting adults” [5] would be interesting to read.

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  • If you can pay a woman to fuck you, if you can pay football players to KNOWINGLY get brain injuries, and VOLUNTEER firemen run into buildings to save people without pay, you certainly can pay some one to keep their mouth shut or wear what you tell them.

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