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Signal Boost: Pay Attention To The Contracts Behind The Curtain - Elf M. Sternberg
Signal Boost: Pay Attention To The Contracts Behind The Curtain
One of the best things I've been reading this week is Chris Betram's Let It Bleed: Libertarianism and the Workplace, in which Bertram starts with the point that "power over a man's subsistence is power over his will." There are two kinds of Libertarians: The bleeding hearts who would double your taxes to make sure this illicit power didn't exist, and the black hearts who don't care that that power exists.

The latter currently control of our country.

Bertram points to a litany of the abuses of power in the workplace, the vagueness by which a job description may be abused, and how these abuses, many of them legal, amount to a curtailment of one's rights outside the workplace and often with consequences that muzzle free speech, association, and political activity. (Even the bleeding hearts, Bertram points out, have trouble saying exactly why "Fuck me or I'll fire you" is wrong under the Rand/Hayek/Friedman ideology.)

Bertram's catalog of ills is held up to a question: "Why is a union picket line worthy of handwringing over 'coerciveness' and 'bullying', but workplace abuse by owners and managers is simply Business AS Usual, Get Used To It?" The libertarian argument for freedom remains for a specific kind of freedom, allocated to a specific class by contingency and maintained by an oligarchic "pulling up of the ladder behind themselves."

Belle Waring then hits the roof with her own workplace experiences, illustrating in personal and professional ways how being a woman in the workplace can be different from being a man, and how "a workplace run by an evil boss is like nothing so much as a tiny Soviet satellite state."

Slate magazine fired off a salvo with a depiction of two workplaces: one where the "evil boss" kept costs down so workers got paid more, and one where a "lax boss" (interesting contrast that) didn't push so hard or invade employee's privacy so much, but consequently didn't have as high profits. The contrast there is pretty striking-- and contrary to actual business experience, but whatever. Brad Delong entertainingly fired back with a bearded Spock:
But if you're debating the question of whether it should be illegal to require workers to self-extract their left kidney with a razor blade in the bathtub and hand it to their employer to sell into the transplant market before they get to start work, it doesn't get anywhere to point to the fact that some people are better off in general than others.

Maybe there are two companies in town running roughly similar businesses that require the use of some unskilled labor. Both firms are concerned about the problem of employee theft, and both firms are also interested in paying their workers as little as possible. At one firm, they're offering the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, and they're losing some product. At another firm, they're offering $8.25 an hour and requiring kidney self-extraction. Sometimes people get so fed up with having to self-extract their kidneys that they quit and go across town to the lower-paid, less pleasant job. Other times people get fed up with trying to make ends meet on a minimum wage job, so they quit and go across town and extract and surrender their kidneys in exchange for more money.

Sad stories all around, but telling the higher-paying firm that its business model is illegal and it has to switch to the lower-paying one isn't going to make the stories any less sad.
Because in a truly free-market world, there's nothing in contractarianism to prevent companies from doing exactly that.

Meanwhile, John Holbo circles back around and looks at Hayek's claim that "vote yourself into tyranny" doesn't mean you're free after making that electoral choice. Hayek tried to use this to make the point that political participation by itself isn't enough to guarantee freedom; but since you can also "contract yourself into slavery," Hayek's argument is worthless: contractual power is also not sufficient to maximize freedom.

One impassioned libertarian in Bertram's opening essay, "Fuck Me Or Your Fired," tries to defend his point by writing:
Employers saying "Fuck me or you’re fired!" is a bad thing, but bringing out the government guns to stop them saying that is a worse one.
Hand over that kidney, kid.

Once you've absorbed all this, go back and re-read Bertram's essay I linked to up above. As dessert, consider When Libertarian Go To Work, where Julian Sanchez exults in being able to quit a job he doesn't like because he has nothing to tie him down: no mortage, no kids, no real stake in his community.

I suppose that's a life. Of sorts.

Current Mood: determined determined

5 comments or Leave a comment
ben_raccoon From: ben_raccoon Date: July 10th, 2012 02:16 am (UTC) (Link)
It's fascinating how the one thing that seems to be consistent about the Randian libertarian mindset is that they're disgusted by the simple idea of the weak banding together to defend themselves against the strong. (EG: unions, democratic governments, what have you.) And yet, every time I meet someone who holds that viewpoint, they have invariably been at the very bottom of the societal totem pole, despite their fantasies otherwise.
elfs From: elfs Date: July 10th, 2012 03:56 am (UTC) (Link)
Having read The Fountainhead, I can tell you why: every Randian dreams of being Rourke. He labored under the worst conditions, at times was threatened with homelessness and starvation, was at the very bottom of every societal totem pole (except the ones based on color and/or gender, of course), and still came roaring back at the end on the strength of his genius.

It's the perfect prayer story: either you were prayed/believed/acted strong enough to become one of the elect, or you didn't. Either way, your success is your fault. In the Christian universe, that's just the way it is. In Rand's universe... well, that's just the way it is too.
ben_raccoon From: ben_raccoon Date: July 11th, 2012 01:49 am (UTC) (Link)
Gah. Well, that doesn't surprise me. It's strange, though, since I've met a few who seem to think they're part of the successful elite *already*. Yet they're usually something like welfare clerk or Walmart stock boy. Or in at least one case, furry pornmonger.

I never did get past the first couple pages of that book. It felt like even more of a slog than the Malazan series, but without the payoff.
resonant From: resonant Date: July 10th, 2012 02:24 am (UTC) (Link)
"the black hearts who don't care that that power exists."

Not true - they care very much that this power exists, as they enjoy using it.
l33tminion From: l33tminion Date: July 19th, 2012 05:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
(Had to look up that Brad Delong quote, it's from here. The Slate piece is here. Note also that I am not a libertarian.)

This is one of my biggest issues with libertarianism: Libertarians are so concerned with gun-to-head coercion (to the point where all situations where guns and heads might be somehow involved seem exactly the same) that any other sort of coercion goes to the wayside (and in fact libertarians will make arguments that obviously-coercive things are somehow not coercive at all).

I think it's important for libertarians to recognize the validity of explicit and implicit agreements. Which means what's written down in a contract isn't the be-all-and-end-all of an agreement. If you understand an agreement one way, but should expect that the other party will understand it another way, it's not a valid agreement, even if your understanding is a literal-genie-interpretation of what was written down and signed.

If an employment contract says "the employer has carte blanche to fire and change job responsibilities", the employee is likely to assume (and the employer should know that the employee is likely to assume) that all sorts of implicit caveats apply. The employer should expect that, so if those caveats don't apply, the employer had better make that clear to the employee in advance.

(I guess that means I'd (within a libertarian framework, anyways) defend Flanigan's argument here and to say that Bertram's reaction (that the line of argument is "bizarre") is perhaps unfounded. There's a substantial difference between "also take this mail to the post office" and "also strip down and bend over" as far as changes in job responsibilities go. Employees will predictably believe different things about those two scenarios, even if the contract says "job can change to whatever".)

That alone isn't enough to protect your kidneys from up-front forfeit, though. Unless you were to say that there are some implicit (or explicit) collective agreements between employers and employees which the "first remove your kidney" employer and the "surprise! your job description is now 'prostitute'" employer are trying to unilaterally renegotiate. That would be heresy from a libertarian point of view, though.
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