The idea of workplace democracy is popular among left libertarians, but I think it’s hard to square a commitment to workplace democracy with other commitments that libertarians are inclined to have. So here are a few sincere questions for left libertarians who support worker-owned firms:
Does workplace democracy really eliminate bosses?
The claim that democratically-run, worker-controlled firms would result in greater freedom for workers seems like a strange one for libertarians to make. After all, most libertarians would deny that granting all citizens a vote in a political democracy means that you are your own boss in a meaningful sense. In both economic and political democracies, your single vote is unlikely to be decisive, meaning that you are exercising little to no real control over the direction of the democracy. (A point also made here.) In an economic democracy perhaps you’ve traded one boss for a thousand bosses, but one thing doesn’t change: you aren’t the boss. (Maybe economic democracies will tend to be a lot smaller than political democracies. But they can’t get too small if they want to take advantage of economies of scale.)
What about rational ignorance?
Here again it seems like textbook public choice worries about political democracy apply to economic democracy. If the vote I cast in an economic democracy is probably going to be inconsequential, then I have little incentive to make it a good one. The rationality of voter ignorance is a standard explanation for the poor quality of political governance, so why would things be different with economic governance?
Are capitalist acts between consenting adults permitted?
Nozick famously wrote that socialism “would have to forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults.” A similar problem arises for economic democracy. Suppose a risk-averse worker wants to sell her shares to a second worker in exchange for a steady income. Is this transaction permitted? If so, then we have reason to think that hierarchies will arise spontaneously from an initial condition of worker equality. If the transaction is not permitted, then it’s unclear in what sense this position is libertarian, given that it forbids capitalist acts between consenting adults.
To be clear: I don’t intend these as rhetorical questions. I’m genuinely curious what left libertarians have to say about them.