Arnold Kling  

Employer Tyranny vs. Guaranteed Freedom

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The Debt-Fueled Binge Story, K... Pepconomics...

John Holbo writes,


Libertarians can, of course, just come out and say that they prefer contract rights to guarantees of freedom.

No one is paying any attention to me in this debate, But I wrote,

Just be careful about assuming that there must be a perfect option.

Once you assume that there is something that might be called guaranteed freedom, then you can make any alternative sound evil. But to me, guaranteed freedom sounds like something that does not exist anywhere. Indeed, it sounds like an oxymoron.

If Holbo or one of his colleagues were to pay attention to me, I would ask him to spell out the concept of "guarantees of freedom." Spell out what they are in theory and how they work in practice.

Meanwhile, for an example of a discussion that does the opposite of assuming a perfect option, see Will Wilkinson, summarizing David Schmidtz.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (36 to date)
Tom West writes:

I think the fundamental issue is that for those on the left (and I count myself among them), it is essentially immoral to see a wrong and ignore it.

Simplifying greatly, our utility function can be summed up as the welfare of the least well off (or maximizing the minimum).

Of course, the reality interferes: solutions impose their own cost, or fail to be enforced, etc. However, the immorality comes not in failing to fix the problem, but failing to try.

Anyway, that's the basic impulse. It's why I appreciate the Libertarians, even if I'm not among them. There automatic impulse towards contractual freedoms provides a much needed counter-balancing force.

stephen writes:

In a world of "guaranteed freedom" employers are guaranteed to get labor they don't have to pay for, end employees are guaranteed a paycheck without having to work.

Okay, I will admit it, I do not prefer this system. Good point!...I guess.

Arnold Kling writes:

Tom West,
If you are a libertarian, you don't have to ignore problems. You just have to fight it using non-coercive institutions, such as businesses, charities, or voluntary associations.

Thinking that the only two alternatives are "ignore the problem" or "invoke government" is very debilitating.

Andrew writes:
Simplifying greatly, our utility function can be summed up as the welfare of the least well off (or maximizing the minimum).

If this truly was the viewpoint of the "left", then they would be less concerned with continuing welfare to the "middle class" via Social Security and Medicare and they would remove barriers to trade with the truly impoverished people of the world.

They would be utilizing the cheaper and abundant carbon based energy we currently have and not rationing it thru green boondoggles.

No, the political left is just like everyone else in the world. Only concerned about their own well being and power.

John Thacker writes:
Of course, the reality interferes: solutions impose their own cost, or fail to be enforced, etc. However, the immorality comes not in failing to fix the problem, but failing to try.

I appreciate your comment, Tom West. The thing is, I thought that most liberals appreciated the idea that, for example, it is better to have free speech and accept occasional lies and so forth, in order to let free competition win out, than try to "fix the problem" and mandate that only the truth be spoken.

Free speech is a huge example of favoring contractual freedom over trying to right all wrongs. I mean, no one agrees with lying, right? And yet I think that liberals in general complain about, say, the UK's libel laws, don't they?

I will grant that the attitudes of much of the Left have grown weaker towards contractual freedom of speech, and has accepted and promulgated speech codes, hate speech laws, and even in some places in Europe blasphemy laws.

Whatever that is, it may be of the Left, but I have a hard time using the word "liberal" for it.

Tom West writes:

You just have to fight it using non-coercive institutions, such as businesses, charities, or voluntary associations.

Quite right, but there's the rub. In the CT examples, the vast majority of examples could be avoided by invoking the right of exit, and the vast majority of people *do* avoid outrageous working conditions because of that.

However, practically speaking, there's still a significant number who have no practical exit option (the least skilled, with no resources, and with responsibility of family). They're exit option is as practical (or even less so) than practicing exit from one's country.

Now, given most can avoid these examples, is the problem "solved" or not? Well, for many, the answer would be yes. For others, it's not solved until there are essentially no examples of abuse (which, agreed, is not a condition that can ever be actually reached...)

Voluntary solutions may solve much of a given problem. But they can rarely solve all of it, which is why 'invoke government' is often the first option for those on the left.

(And, yes, government solutions have their own set of problems, but they're usually different, than "human suffering" types of problems, and more "sand in the wheels until the engine stops working" type problems.)

Now again, I'm talking about impulses. Most on the left and Libertarian fonts do understand there have to be trade-offs. But their base impulses dictate where their trade-offs will lie.

MikeP writes:

I think the fundamental issue is that for those on the left (and I count myself among them), it is essentially immoral to see a wrong and ignore it.

Simplifying greatly, our utility function can be summed up as the welfare of the least well off (or maximizing the minimum).

In my opinion, immigration restrictions are the greatest rights abrogation the US perpetrates today.

It is utterly immoral to mandate discrimination based on a where an individual happened to be born. Furthermore, the great majority of prospective immigrants are without a doubt the least well off in any comparison involving American citizens.

So it seems to me that liberals who were truly interested in the moral or maximizing the minimum should be stumbling over themselves doing whatever it takes to open the borders. Instead liberals advocate minimum wages and other market interventions that directly help the top 10% and make it outright illegal for the less well off to participate at all.

John Thacker writes:

I wish that the libertarians had more influence on the right, and the ACLU and civil libertarians had more influence on the left, instead of their arguments merely being used to attack the other side when out of power, then discarded once their team is back in power.

The ACLU and civil libertarians understand contract freedoms.

John Thacker writes:

Tom West:

Some people will not have the time, education, money, or other prerequisites to determine which of the many voices in the marketplace are telling the truth. Does that justify "making an effort" to have all news articles cleared through government fact checkers? Does it justify UK style libel laws?

Joe Cushing writes:

Tom West

"I think the fundamental issue is that for those on the left (and I count myself among them), it is essentially immoral to see a wrong and ignore it."

Does it bother you that 99 out of 100 times, your attempt to fix a wrong make the situation worse and causes other wrongs?

Does it bother you that half the time when you want to step in to fix a wrong, it is a wrong created by your last attempt to fix a lesser wrong?

The immorality comes from trying to fix a problem when all the experience in the world tells us you will make it worse....and worse still that you will have to employ coercive lethal force to try any of your solutions.

Mike Rulle writes:

Re:Tom West

I appreciate his very clear statement of why he is a liberal. He explicitly states his values and, frankly, it is pointless to argue with him because his values are perfectly reasonable.

I also agree with Arnold's critique. I do not understand why those who support Tom's values (a large plurality and likely majority of conservatives and libertarians are highly sympathetic to the plight of the worst off in society) believe that government powers are the best means to achieve this.

Government is very good at equalizing outcomes. But it is very bad at making the pie larger. What is better; greater inequality with the low end better off, or greater equality (Cuba), where all are worse off.

I do not think Tom West's values are necessarily incompatible with the values of "free market" types. The real difference is faith in Government's abilities. This would seem to be an empirical question.

I do not understand how one can have faith in Government's ability to create better outcomes. The evidence appears powerful that the opposite is true.

vacslav writes:

Tom West:

When we see a wrong we should think that there might be a small chance we are mistaken. Once we accept this as a possibility we must be very careful in suggesting coercion to right the wrong: damage from coercion can exceedingly the benefit of righting the wrong.

Roger Sweeny writes:

This made me think of an exchange the physicist Richard Feynman had with a participant in a "Tiny Machines" workshop at California's New Age Esalen in 1984:

Workshop member: You are an original thinker. I would like to ask you, how would you go about designing a miniature anitgravity machine?

Feynman: I can't. I don't know how to make an antigravity machine.

Workshop member: You would lick the world's problems.

Feynman: It doesn't make any difference, I still don't know how to do it. ... I'm not going to assume the laws of physics have changed, so that I can design something or other. ... the game is to try to figure things out, with what we know is possible. It requires imagination to think of what's possible, and then it requires an analysis back, checking to see whether it fits, whether it's allowed, according to what is known, okay?

In the case of an antigravity machine, I immediately give up, because my understanding of the laws of gravity are such that it doesn't make sense for antigravity. The only antigravity machines, things which oppose gravity, that is, and which are very effective, are like you're using now--a pillow, or a floor under your behind. Those are antigravity machines and they will support you in a space, above the earth, a few feet in this case, for a relatively unlimited time. Next?"

Christopher Sykes, No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman (1994), pp. 97-98.

English Professor writes:

At the core of the BRG controversy with libertarians are differing notions of freedom. For libertarians the basic notion is still Smith's "system of freedom" from Wealth of Nations. In the system of freedom, employers and workers enter into contracts that they can end at will. BRG object to the fact that the employers have power over their workers. To lefties this is unjust. And since the workers can be fired for activities that the employers dislike, BRG see this as a limitation on the freedom of the worker. In general BRG are appalled by Smith's system of freedom; they want a structure where workers are insulated by government from the employer's power. They want government to create certain rights for labor, and they choose to call these interventions an increase in the worker's "freedom." In such a situation the workers may in fact be freer, but the system as a whole is less free. The interventions increase the power of one group (workers) and decrease the power of another (employers). It is in fact a system of government coercion that preens itself on the supposed increase of "freedom." Freedom in fact is not its goal, "fairness" is. But lefties often want to claim that they value freedom, so they come up with arguments by which they redefine regulation as the only source of "true" freedom. I teach in an English Department and run into this sort of argument all the time. Every now and then I get one or other of my colleagues to admit that they only value freedom when it produces the social outcomes they desire. If it does not lead directly to those outcomes, they are happy to see it curtailed.

MikeP writes:

The interventions increase the power of one group (workers) and decrease the power of another (employers).

There are other groups besides employers whose power is decreased by government's select promotion of these "freedoms" of workers -- namely, the unemployed, the unlicensed, and the prospective immigrant.

Such thinking exhibits profound myopia and, in fact, explicitly favors the haves over the have-nots.

Becky Hargrove writes:

English Professor,
As to the freedom your colleagues value - Yep. We are all libertarians in that we strive to get the outcome we desire, and communitarian in the sense that we have to 'rearrange' everything else to make that possible! Such is human nature for survival even at the individual level, especially evident in people as they are getting old and "don't want any help from anyone".

ThomasL writes:

I'll go with Dio Chrysostom on this, "Liberty consists in knowing what is permissible and what is impermissible."

(Probably not an exact quote.)

This may be based on the theory that if your actions are caused (even if they're caused by having a reason to do something), you are not free. So... if your employer pays you to do X then, since your actions are caused, he is coercing you to do X.

Lord writes:

If anything, I see contract rights as assuming a perfect option. Even asserting non coercive options are capable of solving these problems is another claim of their perfection. Governments, if anything, are evidence this perfect option doesn't exist. My kingdom for a horse..

Arthur_500 writes:
I think the fundamental issue is that for those on the left (and I count myself among them), it is essentially immoral to see a wrong and ignore it.

Wrongs exist for many reasons and ignoring them could be immoral to do. However, the solutions are often ill thought out and government is expected to be the only solution. In addition, immediate results are expected.

Many solutions exist that do not necessitate government intervention. In fact, by utilizing the private sector the cost of government does not increase.

Immediate results are unreasonable expectations. Consider black in the workplace. WWII brought about a higher level of respect for blacks who exhibited competence and died for others. As that started to change attitudes there was a demand for instant placement of blacks in the workplace. What a failure; as incompetent individuals were placed to meet quotas it brought about a lack of respect for all. It has taken decades before competent blacks have overcome the quota stigma. One could argue that the quota system slowed and even set back the acceptance of blacks in the workplace.

Often the best intervention is to bring about awareness of the issue. People start to look at things differently and eventually they come about to change. this is slow. this is painful. this is not immediate. however the results are better and for the long haul.

Silas Barta writes:
Libertarians can, of course, just come out and say that they prefer contract rights to guarantees of freedom.

It seems that the CT crowd flat-out doesn't "get" that abridging these "contract rights" is itself a denial of freedom. A right you cannot waive is not a "freedom from"; it is an obligation -- and one that deprives you of everything you could get through such a waiver.

It's like equating "you own this apple" with "you may not sell the apple" -- one of the benefits of owning the apple in the first place is supposed to be that you can *sell* (i.e. conditionally waive) that right, reaping whatever gains flow therefrom.

Similarly, CTers are equating "you may not be forced to submit to a search" with "you may never trade the freedom from forced searches". This fails to recognize that restricting the sale of that freedom is itself a restriction on freedom.

(This might explain why they don't appreciate the relevance of the points about employee theft: if employees can't be profitably hired without certain monitoring measures, the alternative is not "happy free workers at that employer"; it's the jobs -- or market in that product -- failing to exist at all.)

Tom West writes:

James Thacker: Free speech is a huge example of favoring contractual freedom over trying to right all wrongs. I mean, no one agrees with lying, right? And yet I think that liberals in general complain about, say, the UK's libel laws, don't they?

I find opinions about free speech lie all over the map for both left and right (although not Libertarians).

I think all sides value free speech to a fair extent, but on the left, (excepting campuses), sentiments toward censorship will increase when there's seen to be direct human suffering, or the strong potential thereof, as a result of the speech.

Thus we have hate speech laws in Canada used against Holocaust deniers (although, predictably, pushed by some aggrieved parties much farther than the original framers intended), but no big push for libel laws, even when the left feels it's being smeared.

English libel law, on the other hand, seems to be a historical artifact, rather than pushed by either the left or the right.

Shayne Cook writes:

@ Tom West:

"I think the fundamental issue is that for those on the left (and I count myself among them), it is essentially immoral to see a wrong and ignore it."

You have brilliantly captured the essence of the entire history of the human race in the last phrase of this sentence.

But you may be at least myopic in thinking/implying in your first phrase that this "fundamental issue ..." is the exclusive domain of the "left" - either in the "seeing" of the "wrong" or the definition/implementation of a correction to the perceived "wrong".

Shayne Cook writes:

@ Tom West (again):

A question this time ...

Is the definition of what is and is not immoral also the exclusive domain of the "left"?

(I'm trying to identify myself as either "leftist" or "rightist" and I don't want to be immoral.)

Foobarista writes:

Ultimately, the statist left's instinct to "solve problems" using state power versus private activity is from a desire to make problems go away permanently, and they think government is the vehicle for doing so because of its permanence, its compulsive ability (not everyone will fund charities, but the government can compel taxes from everybody, even unwilling selfish billionaires), and its apparent omniscience. Even charities supported by the left are seen as trail balloons for government programs, not the main vehicle for solving social ills.

"Progressivism" demands a government of this kind that solves and eliminates all problems, leading ultimately to perfect utopia. Such a government is frictionless and perfectly efficient, and any problems in the government are due to corruption and Bad Guys, not anything to do with the structure of the government itself. Structural issues like "public choice", interest groups, tradeoffs, unintended consequences, and organizational failings don't exist - because the brilliant bureaucrats in the government have eliminated these as well with wise policy.

Costard writes:

Tom - the problem is tail risks. Market failure has severe consequences; regime failure has catastrophic ones. Limited government is far less vulnerable to coups, dictatorships, pogroms and repressions. Governments that "solve problems" typically employ "strong men" to solve them. Given that most on the Left hold fast to the separation of church and state, I wonder how they can justify an essentially moralist political philosophy?

Also you must consider the right to exit not just of employees, but consumers as well. Public pressure has a very real effect on corporate policy, when a competitive market has been allowed to provide alternatives. Companies are also more likely to be innovative when it comes to change when customers are making an end demand, than when regulations are instituted codifying the entire lifecycle of products.

Tom West writes:

MikeP: So it seems to me that liberals who were truly interested in the moral or maximizing the minimum should be stumbling over themselves doing whatever it takes to open the borders.

Okay, before I answer this, let me say that while I think I have a decent grasp on the at least the middle class liberal left, I don't "speak for the left".

Now, first off, there are quite a number on the left who do support open borders, etc., and who have a strongly international focus.

However, the majority do not (they often support "opener" borders, but not anything that is going to fundamentally transform those currently in the country).

Why? Because we tend to worry about those we feel responsible for, and that, for many of us, mostly ends (or at least strongly diminishes) at our fellow countrymen.

So, yes, we like to think we care about the suffering of those who are worst off more than the right, but honestly, because we can't really "solve that problem", we often prefer not to think about real solutions to the poor in the developing countries much at all, except to demand that government be relatively generous with foreign aid.

After all, within most Western democracies, we can address most of the worst ills without having to fundamentally rewrite our own lives.

So the reality is that contemplating the poor in other countries makes us somewhat uncomfortable, because it means admitting that we're not willing to make certain sacrifices to help the truly badly off. And as I said, we compensate by trying to make none-life-changing-changes like promoting higher foreign aid, fair-trade coffee, better working conditions, etc.

Tom West writes:

Silas Barta:
It seems that the CT crowd flat-out doesn't "get" that abridging these "contract rights" is itself a denial of freedom.

I think the CT 'gets' that abridging contract rights is a denial of freedom, but (to their mind at least) it's a pretty small potatoes loss compared the egregious examples in the article.

And yes, the loss of the ability to (to take the most extreme example) sell yourself into slavery is a freedom they have no difficulty abridging no matter how desperate someone might be to do so.

I'm quite comfortable in saying there are some freedoms that no-one should have, even between two informed, consenting parties.

Tom West writes:

Joe Cushing: Does it bother you that 99 out of 100 times, your attempt to fix a wrong make the situation worse and causes other wrongs?

Honestly, I think only the tiniest fraction of Americans (not terribly leftist) would consider 99 out of 100 government interventions making things worse.

I don't think most Americans would believe you if you said that we'd have healthier wildlife and less pollution if we removed all environmental protections (including government information gathering), less crime if we eliminated police, faster fire fighting if we eliminated fire crews, better workplace safety if we eliminated government safety regulation, etc., etc.

Of course, we don't have an alternate world where we can rerun history to prove this one way or another, so I'll just leave it as feeling implausible.

Now, if you want to say a substantial percentage of government programs have unintended costs and trade-offs, and I think most people are right with you.

Tom West writes:

Shayne Cook: Is the definition of what is and is not immoral also the exclusive domain of the "left"?

Of course not. We just like to believe it is :-).

And as you properly pointed out, a "wrong" could means many things. Perhaps "suffering" would be more accurate.

Now of course, what constitutes suffering can vary wildly. Suffice it to say that most on the left don't consider having to pay taxes suffering despite how we wince when we sign the check to the government.

Tom West writes:

Government is very good at equalizing outcomes. But it is very bad at making the pie larger. What is better; greater inequality with the low end better off, or greater equality (Cuba), where all are worse off.

I happen to agree with you (which might get my good leftist card revoked, but most will at least privately agree with the sentiment).

However, given the human reality of real suffering among the poor (measured in health effects, life span, etc.), it's pretty clear that the avoidance of human suffering requires minimums of both absolute *and* relative wealth.

In other words, most human being might indeed be worse off doubling their wealth if every one else quintuples theirs - as long as you already have a decent standard of living.

So yes, most leftists want a free(ish) market to produce wealth, and then have a moderate (nice weasel word, eh?) amount redistributed to reduce inequality.

There is, of course, a different group on the left that consider the whole capitalist system suspect. Most have not been too big on specifics when I asked where wealth would come from.

Joe Cushing writes:

It matters not what people's opinions are, it matters what the facts are. What matters, is what actions will actually produce better outcomes, not what actions people think will produce better outcomes. This entire blog is about educating misinformed people about how to have better outcomes and about educating the rest of us about how to inform them. People think, minimum wages help the poor, they don't. People think social security makes old people have more income. It doesn't. People think welfare helps the poor. It doesn't. People think the government spending trillions of dollars is going to jump start the economy. It will stall it out.

Fire crews can be privatized, The environment can be protected through private property rights. The police do not provide protection, they only arrest people suspected of crimes. If you want protection, you have to hire somebody to provide it. I don't believe we need government safety regulation at work--at all. Most companies are so terrified of people getting hurt and the bills that involves, that they will go to great lengths to keep people safe. They initiate enough stupid safety rules already, we don't need the government adding to it. For example: I once had to wear a hard hat, safety glasses, and pants (not shorts) to hook up to a trailer outside, in a parking lot, hundreds of feet from a factory where they might be needed.

I substantial amount of government programs cause more harm than good. Some of them are downright criminal.

Shayne Cook writes:

@ Tom West:

Heh, heh. I'm glad you answered my question in the same spirit that it was asked - with a smile and a wink.

There may be hope for us yet.

MikeP writes:

Tom West,

So the reality is that contemplating the poor in other countries makes us somewhat uncomfortable, because it means admitting that we're not willing to make certain sacrifices to help the truly badly off.

But in this case the "sacrifice" being made is merely to stop the government's abrogation of rights to migrate, reside, and work.

There are two hypotheses that would seem to explain the desire to use government force to prevent the truly poor from participating in one's own world:

1. Economic misconceptions -- particularly Caplan's four biases of misinformed voters: the anti-market bias, the anti-foreign bias, the make-work bias, and the pessimistic bias.

2. That liberals' actual desire is not alleviating poverty, but alleviating poverty near them -- a desire informed less by considered morality and more by personal aesthetics. Thus if there's someone poor near them, they will tax others to offer him aid. If there's someone poor somewhere else, they will prevent his getting near them.

And as I said, we compensate by trying to make none-life-changing-changes like promoting higher foreign aid, fair-trade coffee, better working conditions, etc.

Given this list, it looks like you are in the first camp. Higher foreign aid goes to planners and governments and rarely helps the truly poor, while fair-trade coffee and better working conditions essentially applies to people far away from you a minimum wage that freezes out the poorest of the poor.

Tom West writes:

MikeP: That liberals' actual desire is not alleviating poverty, but alleviating poverty near them -- a desire informed less by considered morality and more by personal aesthetics.

Actually, I think there's an awful lot to this. Essentially, there's a strong recognition that much of our success is due to having made a good choice in our parents. This gives us genes and an environment that fosters attributes that foster success.

In other words, guilt over our success.

(It also tends to really annoy us when others with middle class backgrounds who have succeeded through education and work attribute it all to their own virtue rather than recognizing the advantages that were conferred upon them by birth.)

Anyway, how do you avoid the guilt? Well, by making certain that the people you meet or interact with (i.e. fellow citizens) are not living in conditions you consider miserable.

Having fully open borders means living cheek by jowl by people who are in unremitting poverty. (Remember no welfare = quite a number people in *really* bad shape) And that makes us feel really bad.

And truthfully, if my experience in India was any guide, bad enough that eventually mental self-defense kicks in, and we assume that anyone in poverty somehow "deserves it", so we don't have to feel as bad.

Of course, all of this conflicts with our image of ourselves caring about the poor, so we tend not to dwell too closely upon it. Thus a tendency to support facile changes like more immigration (but not enough to fundamentally change society), and various other minor fixes.

It's not all that pretty, but I don't think liberals reputation at this site is so high that I'm in danger of doing us any horrible damage. (Besides, this is one's person's opinion. I'm certain other liberals can find enough counter-examples to repudiate me, if necessary.

(And if necessary, I can produce a defense that fully open borders would transform us into a society where we'd be okay with exploiting the poor (and blocking their progress) until they were no better here than back home. It's plausible enough that I might even believe it.)

Tom West writes:

Joe Cushing:

People think, minimum wages help the poor, they don't.

Except the evidence is not really convincing on any side. I can match any study you put up.

People think social security makes old people have more income. It doesn't.

Except that there are millions of seniors who did live in poverty who, after SS, did not.

People think welfare helps the poor. It doesn't.

Except for those who would have starved, been rendered homeless, etc.

Look, there are cases to be made for all of your claims, but unless you're a true believer (in either direction), the evidence is not unequivocal in any direction. (And if you are, then the evidence opposing your view is obviously the result of bias or corruption...)

Fire crews can be privatized...

Look, there are all sorts of measures that *can* be done without coercion, but I have to say, if pure non-coercion produced such efficient results, why do firms not expect their employees to spontaneously organize to produce more efficient outcomes than top-down direction?

Now, I get a claim that the loss of freedom is not worth the extra efficiency when you don't have the power of exit (I don't particularly agree, which is why I'm not a Libertarian, but I at least understand it), but I don't get claims that voluntary organizations will produce the same outcomes as external enforcement when its pretty much economic mainstream that such coercion (once you've accepted the job) is what reduces transaction costs and provides firms with their advantage over individual contractors.

In many ways, I view a country as a very large firm, with rather less power of exit.

Anyway, I think by exaggerating your claims, you risk people looking around, noticing that reality doesn't conform to your claims (and certainly not with the certainty you maintain), and dismissing your case altogether.

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