Arnold Kling  

Exit and Voice in the Workplace

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Elizabeth Anderson writes,


I'm arguing that the case for workplace democracy and other democratic constraints on employers is the same as the case for democracy anywhere: it's better for securing the freedom and personal independence of the governed than the authoritarian alternative.

Pointer from Tyler Cowen.

Read the whole thing. She seems to me to be arguing that more economic relations should be governed by voice. If my reading is correct, then I strongly disagree.

To me, the great thing about economic relations is that they are governed by exit. If you don't like the way that Wal-Mart treats employees, then go work for Costco, which has a completely different model for employee relations. If you work for Wal-Mart because you have no other choice, I see that as your problem, not Wal-Mart's.

Anderson is correct that we resent being told what to do. We resent it as political subjects. We resent it as customers. We resent it as workers.

However, as customers, we typically have a powerful and effective exit option. As workers, the exit option is more difficult to exercise, but it still is available and it still works. As political subjects, even in a democracy, we have no exit option.

I continue to champion the exit option over democracy. The widely-unread Unchecked and Unbalanced contains many proposals to move away from democracy and toward exit as a model for government.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (10 to date)
stephen writes:

If I didn't have many options I would definitely not want democracy destroying the one that I had. Where would you rather work, Toyota or GM?

Tom West writes:

If you work for Wal-Mart because you have no other choice, I see that as your problem, not Wal-Mart's.

However, as customers, we typically have a powerful and effective exit option. As workers, the exit option is more difficult to exercise, but it still is available and it still works. As political subjects, even in a democracy, we have no exit option.

I have to disagree with the last sentence. You can try and obtain citizenship in another country. It is, however, even more difficult exercise.

But that's the crux. We're not talking about any absolute differences - only differences of degree (even being a customer can be difficult to change).

Thus it's little wonder that you get some people who are upset about being being ordered around by their supplier, more who are unhappy about being ordered around as an employee, and quite a number who are upset about being ordered around as a citizen.

Lastly, I suspect a multiple government scenario wouldn't last. The idea that the right to govern must come from the people is a powerful one that mandates democracy. And as more people move to an economically successful government, they're almost certain (after a generation or two) going to want to change the tenets that made it successful.

Who is going to be the "super-parent" that tells a majority of the population that they must leave rather than chance the government?

(However, it would be an *incredibly* interesting experiment.)

Jody writes:

Isn't workplace democracy just small-scale Marxism?

aez writes:

The best workplaces I've been in were situations where exit was handled reasonably, and the cost of browbeating the disgruntled or ambitious-and-hemmed-in was rationally weighed against the costs of search and replacement. Exit was respectfully questioned, but usually ended in a mature acquiescence, and the contrast with "normal" supervisor behavior--ranging from tantrums to lower-key efforts to discourage--was high.

Gene Hayward writes:

Not sure what level of worker you are speaking about, but I worked a lot of low wage jobs when I was younger. Other than pay/compensation, most people in those types of jobs just want 2 things: (1)the scope of the work to be well defined--no more no less, (2) and for the low/zero marginal product worker around them to be addressed/dismissed/etc. A more authoritarian-type of management style (disguised with a little collaborative/democracy element)usually is what these workers want, truth be told. Not sure how anyone with any experience working in this environment can possibly disagree. Thanks for your time and attention.

Nicholas Weininger writes:

Tom West, yes, in some sense it's a difference of degree. But it's an enormous difference of degree. There are a couple of hundred companies in the world; there are millions of employers. And if you don't like any of those millions you can start your own business: this is not easy by any means, not everyone is in a position to do it, but it is trivial compared to starting your own country.

There are people who can easily change citizenship; there are people for whom sticking with their current employer is the only viable option in their lives. But both of these are exceptions-- and if we want to make social institutions better and people freer, we should seek ways to make the former more common, and the latter more rare.

Tony N writes:

Workplace democracy often exacerbates the negative effects of external regulation. For example, if minimum wages disenfranchise those willing to work for less, then workplace democracy will likely lead to internal regulations in favor of those who benefited from reduced competition, i.e. less competitive workers.

Philo writes:

@ Nicholas Weininger
I agree with you, but I think you shouldn't have written: "Tom West, yes, in some sense it's a difference of degree." 'In some sense' is inappropriate--no different senses of 'degree' are involved. Like you, Tom West is just flatly, unqualifiedly right.

Matt C writes:

I suppose I'll have to read the Tomasi book. I hope it is more readable than people talking about the book.

Peter writes:

I'm with Gene in my day to day experiences working all over the spectrum from fast food to mid-level government bureaucrat. The people I work, and have worked with, simply want their duties clearly defined. While indifferent to the ZMP workers as a whole, they don't want to do the ZMP worker's job for them nor have the ZMP worker impact them directly (i.e. they have a problem with the ZMP bookkeeper who doesn't get their paychecks out on time or correct pay mistakes once identified). Basically folk want a concise field to work in with measurable output and defined right and left bounds and then left alone. It's not that they don't like taking direction/orders/etc it's that these directions/orders/etc often fall outside their defined and agreed upon bounds and usually at their expense (i.e. picking up somebody else’s slack). For the most part people aren’t upset with their boss telling them to do their job, they're upset with their boss telling them to do somebody else’s job and/or not telling them what their job is and then complaining about their level of productivity.
Yes I understand the world probably looks different from academia, professional, or other soft less structured jobs.

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