I just read an extremely thoughtful essay by Chris Bertram, Corey Robin and Alex Gourevitch over at crookedtimber.org. It is a must for anyone seriously interested in discussing libertarianism and its logic. While Bertram and colleagues largely take on a new group that — apparently without trace of irony — calls itself “Bleeding Heart Libertarians,” many of the points they make can be applied to a broader analysis of libertarianism.
As is well known, the core idea of libertarian philosophy is the preservation of the maximum amount of freedom possible. Though the concept seems, in practice, to be limited to the freedom of employers, we will give the libertarian the benefit of the doubt and assume he really does mean freedom for all; which is what immediately generates the fundamental and, as far as I can see, inescapable contradiction of the libertarian doctrine.
The crucial problem is that one simply cannot have freedom without limiting freedom. I know, it sounds like an oxymoron, but in fact libertarians themselves acknowledge its truth. Libertarians are not anarchists, and they understand that individual freedom is maximized only by the presence of a government that regulates the rules of engagement among people (otherwise we are back to a Hobbesian war of all against all). So, for instance, no libertarian would argue that the possibility of charges of murder are an impediment to your freedom to kill me. That’s because if you do kill me, my freedom is going to be (terminally, as it were) limited.
The same goes for your freedom to steel from me, obviously. So we already have two fundamental rights — to life and property — that do require government regulation, or our existence is going to be nasty, brutish, short and all the rest. Curiously, these also happen to be the only two kinds of freedom that libertarians acknowledge. But why? Our society recognizes additional freedoms that libertarians would find hard to object to in principle, and indeed, they strenuously defend when they perceive them to be threatened by government action. Freedom of speech and of action (e.g., how, when and with whom to have sex), to name just a couple.
And that’s where the problem becomes obvious. Why, exactly, is it objectionable for the government to infringe on these liberties, but not for a private employer? In case you doubt — or, like most Americans, are simply unaware of — the fact that employers routinely do infringe in an entirely arbitrary manner on our personal freedom, consider the following two lists (both verbatim from Bertram et al.’s article. Apologies for the lengthy quotations, but their force resides precisely in their being long lists).
Let’s start with examples of abridgment of workers’ freedoms inside the work place, which include, but are certainly not limited to:
“Workers in most parts of the United States can be commanded to pee or forbidden to pee. They can be watched on camera by their boss while they pee. They can be forbidden to wear what they want, say what they want (and at what decibel), and associate with whom they want. They can be punished for doing or not doing any of these things — punished legally or illegally (as many as 1 in 17 workers who try to join a union is illegally fired or suspended). ... Outside the usual protections (against race and gender discrimination, for example), employees can be fired for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason at all. They can be fired for donating a kidney to their boss (fired by the same boss, that is), refusing to have their person and effects searched, calling the boss a “cheapskate” in a personal letter, and more. They have few rights on the job — certainly none of the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendment liberties that constitute the bare minimum of a free society; thus, no free speech or assembly, no due process, no right to a fair hearing before a panel of their peers — and what rights they do have employers will fight tooth and nail to make sure aren’t made known to them or will simply require them to waive as a condition of employment.”
And here is a partial list of freedoms workers have lost outside of their job, just in order to be able to keep employment (both lists include copious links to sources in the original article):
“Employers invade employees’ privacy, demanding that they hand over passwords to their Facebook accounts, and fire them for resisting such invasions. Employers secretly film their employees at home. Workers are fired for supporting the wrong political candidates (“work for John Kerry or work for me”), failing to donate to employer-approved candidates, challenging government officials, writing critiques of religion on their personal blogs (IBM instructs employees to “show proper consideration…for topics that may be considered objectionable or inflammatory — such as politics and religion”), carrying on extramarital affairs, participating in group sex at home, cross-dressing, and more. Workers are punished for smoking or drinking in the privacy of their own homes. (How many nanny states have tried that?) They can be fired for merely thinking about having an abortion, for reporting information that might have averted the Challenger disaster, for being raped by an estranged husband.”
If the above lists don’t strike you as an egregious infringement on individual rights and freedoms I don’t know what you mean by those terms. The crucial question is: why do libertarians so clearly favor the right of employers to do all of the above (in the name of their “freedom”), but object to any attempt — through unionization or government intervention — by the workers to retain their rights and freedoms?
Here is where we encounter one of the most persistent and pernicious libertarian myths: the idea that workers are not actually being coerced (or, as some Bleeding Heart Libertarians put it, “unreasonably coerced”) because, you see, they are free to quit their job if they object to whatever unreasonable demands their employer makes on them.
This is such a preposterous fantasy that you do wonder how intelligent adults can seriously entertain it, but the power of the human mind to rationalize things is truly awesome. Bertram and company do an excellent job of explaining in detail what is wrong with the free-to-work-somewhere else myth, but a few points should be obvious. First, often it is simply not the case that an equivalent or near equivalent employment can be found elsewhere, simply because of the way the economy works. Which means that (much) more often than not the employee will be at a disadvantage with respect to the employer — precisely the sort of asymmetry that made possible child labor and working weekends during the robber baron era, and which was brought to an end by unions and government regulations (I should immediately add that I do not consider unions to be a panacea, but simply a necessary if imperfect tool to balance things out as much as possible).
Second, it seems curious to me that libertarians do not apply the same “you can always go someplace else” argument to other circumstances. For instance, shall we say that if someone doesn’t like living in a country under a dictatorship or a theocracy, one cannot truly complain that their liberty is being unreasonably curtailed, because after all one is always free to move to another country? No, we don’t say that, because we immediately realize how ludicrous that sort of reasoning is. There are constraints and high costs in leaving one’s country, constraints and costs that often make the move essentially impossible. Which is why people are more likely to try to change things internally, if they have the power to do so.
And that brings us to the third objection to the idea that one is free to leave one’s employment at any time. There are costs and constraints (ability to find similar employment, impact on family members, inability to keep up with long term financial commitments like mortgages, etc.) that by necessity make an exit strategy an “unclear option” (to use Bertram and colleagues’ phrase), to be used only as a last resort. Which is why many employers ratchet up their unreasonable demands little by little, so that the employee is unlikely to threaten to quit just because, say, he is being asked to stay an extra half an hour without pay at the end of the day, or to pee in a cup at the discretion of the employer. Which, again, is why employees need fine tuned instruments to constantly negotiate conditions on the job, instruments like government regulations (yes, not too many of them) and union bargaining power (yes, that also subject to limits and rules).
How anyone can find something reasonable to disagree with regarding the above analysis is truly beyond me. And yet, I fully expect a flood of harsh criticism as soon as this essay is posted. Three, two, one... Go!