Tag Archives | Democracy

Questions and Answers on Workplace Democracy

[cross-posted at C4SS and BHL]

My BHL colleague Chris Freiman has three questions for left-libertarians concerning how we reconcile our “commitment to workplace democracy” with the “other commitments that libertarians are inclined to have.” Here I suggest some answers.

Does workplace democracy really eliminate bosses?

Most libertarians, Chris notes, “would deny that granting all citizens a vote in a political democracy means that you are your own boss in a meaningful sense.” So in a workplace democracy, just as in a political democracy, isn’t it likewise true that “your single vote is unlikely to be decisive, meaning that you are exercising little to no real control,” and instead have simply “traded one boss for a thousand bosses”?

Cooperative-hire-ourselves

First: left-libertarians think that economic freedom will result in a much more competitive labour market. One dimension of this will be greater competition among different workplace structures, so that traditional hierarchical wage-labour employers will face more competition from workers’ co-ops on the one hand and individual proprietorships on the other. But another dimension will be greater competition among workplace structures of the same type; thus workers’ co-ops, for example, will face competition from many other workers’ co-ops. Just as traditional employers have to treat workers better when there are many other traditional employers competing for those workers, so co-ops have to do likewise when they face heavy competition from other co-ops. Thus in the kind of competitive market that we’d expect to result from the abolition of the current system of state privilege, it will be very hard for co-ops to maintain the kind of micromanaging, chickenshit control over their members that Chris is worried about.

Indeed, the ideal for many left-libertarians is for the situation of workers to become more similar to that of independent contractors. As agorist pioneer Samuel E. Konkin III noted, “independent contracting lowers transactions costs … relative to boss/worker relationships running the gamut from casual labor with annoying paperwork and records to full-scale Krupp worker welfarism.” And the transformation of wage labour into something approaching independent contractor status naturally results from a more competitive labour market, as the availability of other employment opportunities raises the cost of micromanagement, for co-ops and traditional employers alike.

Second: the reference to “a thousand bosses” suggests that Chris is envisioning workplace democracy as applying typically to vast firms with thousands of workers. I agree that in such large firms, the influence of any individual’s vote is likely to be negligible; but that is precisely why those who want more control over their day-to-day work situation will tend to prefer working for smaller co-ops rather than larger ones.

Chris anticipates this answer, and replies that workers’ co-ops “can’t get too small if they want to take advantage of economies of scale.”

Now I have to say, asking a left-libertarian “what about economies of scale?” is a bit like asking Cato the Elder “how come you never say what should be done about Carthage?” After all, one of the positions for which left-libertarians are best known is our claim that in a freed market, economies of scale would tend to be overtaken by diseconomies of scale at a fairly low point, and that the enormous firms that prosper in our present economy are made possible, for the most part, only by systematic state intervention that props them up by socialising the costs generated by diseconomies of scale while allowing the firms to pocket the benefits generated by economies of scale. (For details, see Kevin Carson’s book Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective, available either in print or as a free download.)

Third: one of the most frustrating things about ordinary wage labor is the extent to which the commands of bosses are out of touch with the reality of what is actually happening on the shop floor; this is a Hayekian knowledge problem that predictably besets large, bureaucratic organisations. (Again, see Kevin Carson’s book on this point.) Consequently, often the only thing keeping a firm profitable is the fact that workers quietly disregard their bosses’ instructions.

I once taught at a university (I won’t say which; I’ve taught at five) where the administration, having read somewhere that no one can remember more than three points from a lecture, demanded that in future no lecture should contain more than three points. Following this rule would of course have made it impossible for the faculty to do their jobs, i.e., to cover in a semester the material their courses are supposed to cover. I suspect this requirement was also in conflict with contractually-mandated academic freedom, but in any case the problem was solved by the fact that most professors simply ignored it. (The rule was essentially unenforceable anyway, because who decides what counts as one “point”?)

In the words of an old anarcho-syndicalist pamphlet:

Every industry is covered by a mass of rules, regulations and agreed working practices, many of them archaic. If applied strictly they would make production difficult if not impossible. … If managers’ orders were completely obeyed, confusion would result and production and morale would be lowered. In order to achieve the goals of the organisation workers must often violate orders, resort to their own techniques of doing things, and disregard lines of authority. Without this kind of systematic sabotage much work could not be done.

Indeed, that is why actually following all the rules and instructions is considered a form of worker resistance – a “rule-book slowdown”!

One of the great advantages of workplace democracy is that workers actually know what workers do all day, thus greatly alleviating the familiar problems of information flow in hierarchies. And of course a rule that has to be followed by the people making it, as in a workers’ co-op, is likely to be less obnoxious, for both informational and incentival reasons, than a rule made by one group for another group, as in traditional firms.

Let me give a concrete example of these various points. Like most of my BHL colleagues, I myself work in an industry (university academia) that combines bosses (the administration) with some aspects of worker control (the faculty). Both groups regularly generate edicts that are completely insane, but in interestingly different ways. The insanity of administrative demands tends to reflect the extent to which administrators are completely out of touch with, and not especially interested in, what our work as faculty actually involves. (Hence the aforementioned three-points-per-lecture rule.) The insanity of demands from fellow faculty rarely takes that form, but is instead mostly ideologically driven. Which one is worse depends on the issue. I can certainly understand an academic worrying that workplace democracy would, in this case, involve faculty governance being extended to all the issues that administrative governance now covers; whether this would be better or worse than the status quo, it surely wouldn’t be much better. But under a freed market, what we should expect universities to look like is not very much like “just what they are now, only with more faculty governance.”

Thanks to government regulations, higher education is one of the most highly cartelised industries in existence. Accreditation laws make it extraordinarily difficult to start a university, or to run one in nonstandard ways; and this artificial shortage, together with the perverse incentives of government funding, boosts tuition prices ever higher (a situation from which administrators disproportionately benefit, at the expense of faculty and students; see here and here). In a freed market, higher education jobs (whether in a traditional university structure or something else) would be so much more plentiful as to constitute a salutary check on the irrationality of faculty governance.

What about rational ignorance?

Chris likewise wonders why libertarian critiques of political democracy that appeal to rational ignorance don’t cut against workplace democracy too. (Chris calls workplace democracy “economic democracy,” but that phrase seems to have a rather different meaning.) “If the vote I cast,” Chris notes, “is probably going to be inconsequential, then I have little incentive to make it a good one.” Given that rational ignorance on the part of voters is “a standard explanation for the poor quality of political governance,” why won’t workplace democracy face the same problem?

Well, there are several important differences between workplace democracy and political democracy. One is that, given left-libertarian predictions about average firm size in a freed market, the number of voters per firm will tend to be small, meaning that each individual vote counts more. In addition, in a small firm, workers can influence the final outcome not only through voting but also through trying to persuade fellow voters via argument.

Not only is the power of voice typically stronger in workplace democracy than in political democracy, but so is the power of exit. The only way one can exit a political democracy, ordinarily, is by moving to a different geographical region (and if your political democracy is the U.S., even that won’t do it). If moving to Denmark would be prohibitively costly to me (whether financially or otherwise), I don’t have much incentive to research the differences between Danish and American laws. But a workplace democracy can be exited just by switching jobs; given the lower cost, I have more incentive to become well-informed about the pros and cons of different firms’ policies.

Moreover, much of the information that participants in workplace democracy need is information they already have by virtue of working there, so the question of how much incentive they have to acquire the info is moot. I’m talking about, for example, Hayekian local knowledge about the production process – knowledge that often travels poorly up chains of command.

Are capitalist acts between consenting adults permitted?

By “capitalist acts,” Chris, following the Nozick quote, presumably means acts of market exchange. (Of course this is not what left-libertarians mean by “capitalist acts.”) Thus he asks: “Suppose a risk-averse worker wants to sell her shares to a second worker in exchange for a steady income. Is this transaction permitted?”

Permitted by whom? If the members of a workers’ co-op want to arrange things so that shares in the co-op are transferable, or if they want to arrange things so that shares in it are not transferable, those are both permissible private contracts – as is a traditional employment-for-hire contract, at least when it takes place against a background without state privilege. Left-libertarians are not interested in interfering in the details of private contracts (though many of us would insist that enforcement of service contracts be by damages rather than specific enforcement, for familiar libertarian reasons). We may regard some workplace structures as morally preferable to others, but we regard a peaceful combination of a) moral suasion, and b) letting economic incentives work, as the best strategy for implementing this preference.

china-syndroom

What left-libertarians oppose is not wage labour per se, but the wage system – a system in which, thanks to the state-enabled monopolisation of the means of production (as well as the use of those means) in the hands of the ruling class, the working class has no choice but to perform wage labour for others. In a freed market, no doubt many workers would still choose wage labour – but they would not be forced to do so, given that rival options like workers’ co-ops and self-employment would no longer be kept artificially scarce (and the plentifulness of such rival options would also render such wage labour as existed much less unpleasant).

Ah, but if we allow workers to opt out of workplace democracy in the way described, Chris replies, then “we have reason to think that hierarchies will arise spontaneously from an initial condition of worker equality.” (This is what Marxists seem to think too.)

Okay, I’ll bite: what reason is that? Chris says there is one, but he doesn’t say what it is – unless it’s just the “risk-aversion” he mentioned earlier. But there are other methods of reducing risks besides wage labour – mutual-aid insurance, for example, which flourished until the state shut it down. Plus, in a more prosperous economy there would be less need for risk-aversion.

Left-libertarians argue that hierarchical workplaces are both unpleasant and inefficient; hence, while some may exist in a freed market, they are unlikely to predominate. The fact that workers will be free to work in hierarchical workplaces if they so choose is no reason to think that most of them will do so.


Panarchist Anthology Published

[cross-posted at C4SS and BHL]

A new anthology titled Panarchy: Political Theories of Non-Territorial States, edited by Aviezer Tucker and Gian Piero de Bellis, has been released by Routledge.

panarchy-cover

The concept of panarchy comes from an 1860 work of that title by the Belgian botanist and political economist Paul Émile de Puydt (1810-1891). The essence of his panarchist proposal is that people should be free to choose the political regime under which they will live without having to relocate to a different territory. The new anthology assembles a number of sources, both historical and contemporary, developing this idea.

The editors define panarchism as “a normative political meta-theory that advocates non-territorial states founded on actual social contracts that are explicitly negotiated and signed between states and their prospective citizens.” (p. 1) This characterisation, with its call for explicitly signed contracts, is a somewhat narrower use of the term than is common in contemporary anarchist circles, or at least those in which I move. John Zube, who has done more than anyone to popularise the concept, defines it a bit less rigidly as the “realization of as many different and autonomous communities as are wanted by volunteers for themselves, all non-territorially coexisting … yet separated from each other by personal laws, administrations and jurisdictions ….” (quoted on p. 90)

If one’s standard for political legitimacy is efficiency, wouldn’t the competition of multiple systems within the same jurisdiction be more efficient, for familiar economic reasons, than the imposition of a single model? If one’s standard is what rational agents could consent to, why not support a system in which everyone gets the system they actually consent to? After all, part of the point of the hypothetical consent stories that have dominated contemporary political philosophy is the assumption that actual consent could never be unanimous – an assumption that panarchism shows how to circumvent. If the worry is that competing systems within the same territory would be unworkable, a number of the pieces in the volume point out how, in Aviezer Tucker’s words, “there have been many historically functioning models of mixed, overlapping, and extra-territorial … jurisdictions” (p. 148) – or, in Richard C. B. Johnsson’s formulation, for most of human history “laws followed the persons, not the territory.” (p. 207)

The various contributions to the volume make a fascinating and, to me, compelling case. (Self-promotion alert: I have a chapter in the book, one of my pieces from the 1990s advocating “virtual cantons.” In the interests of further disclosure, one of the editors, Tucker, is a friend; I recall with fondness a long hike with him down Prague’s Petřín Hill, in the course of which his daughter learned to walk.)

Left-libertarians should be warned, however, about occasional passages that will make their jaws drop, such as Max Borders’ cheery assurance that “if police are cruising your neighborhood, you’ll benefit” (p. 174), or Michael Gibson’s equally cheery assurance that large corporations, despite their “visibly dictatorial” structure, are “not poorly behaved at all.” (p. 167) Perhaps these writers are from a parallel universe?

Amazon currently lists the print edition of the book at over $100, and the Kindle edition at over $50. So I can’t in good conscience urge anyone to buy the volume. Urging you to recommend it to your local academic library is another matter, however.

In what follows I address three more specific issues.
 

Panarchism and Anarchism

Is panarchism a form of anarchism? Certainly it’s often so regarded. De Puydt himself appears to have envisioned a monopoly apparatus administering the various social contracts, but more recent panarchists have generally dispensed with this element; and even de Puydt included “Proudhon’s anarchy” on the list of political options among which citizens could choose (though how the nonexistence of the monopoly apparatus could be one of the options offered by the monopoly apparatus is something of a mystery).

While granting that the distinction may, at least in some cases, be “semantic rather than substantive,” Tucker is inclined to distinguish anarchism from panarchism, for the following reasons. (Incidentally, Tucker takes anarcho-capitalism in particular to accept some notion of territorial sovereignty, which seems to me to be in most cases a misinterpretation.) To begin with, panarchism demands “voluntarism … in the choice of social contracts,” but has “nothing to say about the contents of contracts,” which “may be highly coercive”; thus while anarchists typically reject “states and institutions that are based on authority, hierarchy, domination, and coercion,” panarchy as Tucker conceives it allows people to contract into “states with coercive powers” that “force their citizens to do things they do not want,” and even licenses a “Hobbesian social contract” in which citizens “give up all their civil rights in return for the state’s guarantee of physical safety.” (p. 9)

Judging from this passage, Tucker does not appear to countenance the idea of inalienable rights – that is, rights that cannot be surrendered in contract. But this is not a point on which panarchists are unanimous. Michael Rozeff, in his contribution to the volume, writes that those who “choose a Government” can “choose to leave a Government.”

They need only retain the option to exit in their choice of government. But persons actually cannot give up that option. They cannot voluntarily give up their wills. (p. 91)

De Puydt himself took an intermediate position between complete freedom of exit and irrevocable self-alienation:

I do not suggest one should be free to change one’s government at any time, causing it to go bankrupt. For this sort of contract between states and citizens one must prescribe a minimum term, say one year. (p. 34)

But if one takes the Rozeffian option of complete freedom of exit, then it’s not clear that the anarchist has any reason to reject the legitimacy of contracting oneself into a dictatorship, since a dictatorship that one can leave at any time is merely like bondage using safe words. A slave with a safe word is no slave at all. And the idea of free experimentation with different systems of rules has been embraced by many anarchists, of both communist and market varieties. (On this point, see Kevin Carson’s recent C4SS study Anarchists Without Adjectives: The Origins of a Movement.)

More broadly, for Tucker anarchism and panarchism must be at odds, because panarchism allows people to “associate and dissociate with states voluntarily,” while anarchism “opposes the very existence of states.” (p. 12) For those accustomed to the Weberian definition of the state as a territorial monopoly of force, this might seem puzzling; if the political entities that panarchists advocate are not territorial monopolies, why call them “states,” or suppose that the anarchist rejection of states must apply to them?

Part of the reason, it seems, is that Tucker does not accept the Weberian definition. He writes:

The Greek polis was essentially a structure of people united by law, not by a relation to a territory. When the Greeks colonized, the future state, the polis, its hierarchical political structure, had already existed on the ship, before a favorable precise site was chosen. (p148)

This is a fair point; but I’d want to make two caveats. First, while the Greek polis may not have been a territorial monopoly, it was certainly a monopoly (over a given population); and second, it always ended up in fact claiming and exercising jurisdiction over a particular territory. In both respects it resembles modern states in a way that competing panarchist regimes do not.

In reply, Tucker would presumably point to the “division of power between the church, the king, and the vassals” in medieval Europe, as well as the “extra-territorial arrangements of mixed sovereignty … in the Ottoman and Chinese empires” (p. 149), as examples of (things we call) states that were not monopolies, territorial or otherwise. Again, a fair point; but I would still insist that these states they were much more like territorial monopolies than are the regimes that panarchists propose. People born into a medieval king’s territory often had a choice as to whether to use a royal court, a manorial court, an ecclesiastical court, or a merchant court, but for the most part they had no choice as to whether or not to be subject in general to the king’s authority. The Ottomans allowed Christians to be governed by Christian rather than Muslim law, but this was a grant of privilege from a territorial ruler who determined the content of the concession. And so on.

In short, then, I would resist calling the panarchist’s political regimes “states”; and I have no problem regarding panarchism, at least in its modern form, as a species of anarchism.
 

Neglected Precursors

The contributors to the volume identify a number of historical precursors to their ideas. One is de Puydt’s countryman Gustave de Molinari, whose 1849 proposal for competing security agencies is included; another is the anarchist historian Max Nettlau, whose 1909 essay on the subject is also included. Another example, a surprise to me, is Moritz Schlick, the founder of logical positivism. (p. 12) Sadly, his work on the subject – unfinished since, as Tucker rather euphemistically puts it, Schlick “died prematurely” (he was shot by a disgruntled student) – is not included.

There are other precursors that might have been mentioned in the book, but are not. Perhaps the earliest panarchist proposal, albeit made in jest, occurs in Aristophanes’ Acharnians, whose central protagonist, an Athenian citizen, claims the right to decide his own foreign policy, both military and economic, rather than following that of Athens as a whole. A less favorable treatment occurs in Plato’s Republic, in which Athens is described, rather implausibly, as a “supermarket of constitutions” where each citizen can live under whatever regime he likes, regardless of what choice his fellow-ciitzens make. (On panarchist ideas in Aristophanes and Plato, see my recent essay on the subject.)

Another unnoted panarchist precursor is the German idealist Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who defended a right of individual secession in his not-yet-fully-translated 1793 tract Contribution to the Rectification of the Public’s Judgment of the French Revolution. But this is perhaps an unwelcome precursor, given the work’s repulsive – and rhetorically self-defeating – antisemitism. (Rhetorically self-defeating, because Fichte’s ostensible aim in mentioning the Jews is to point to them as a successful example of a non-territorial political community, and so his immediately taking the opportunity to indulge in an antisemitic rant hardly aids his purpose.)

The idea of individual secession was revived independently by Herbert Spencer in his 1850 Social Statics, specifically in his chapter “The Right to Ignore the State” – though while he allows citizens to sever relations with their former state without a change of territory, he does not envision the possibility of their signing up with a competing service provider.

Much closer is the American individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker, who in 1887 wrote:

There are many more than five or six Churches in England, and it frequently happens that members of several of them live in the same house. There are many more than five or six insurance companies in England, and it is by no means uncommon for members of the same family to insure their lives and goods against accident or fire in different companies. Does any harm come of it? Why, then, should there not be a considerable number of defensive associations in England, in which people, even members of the same family, might insure their lives and goods against murderers or thieves?

(Tucker incidentally takes the side of Rozeff against his homonym on the question of inalienability, maintaining that “no man can make himself so much a slave as to forfeit the right to issue his own emancipation proclamation.”) Tucker’s disciple Stephen Byington agreed, pointing to the fact that in Kansas City, the state line “runs right through the edge of the city, among popular streets,” so that “[m]en who live on the same street are subject to different laws.” (Byington also mentions the exemptions for Christians in Muslim countries.) Another Tucker disciple, Francis Tandy, held similar views.
 

Economic Justice

There is one objection to panarchism that I suspect will be widely raised, especially by Rawlsian liberals, and I don’t think it gets much discussion in the book. That objection is that panarchism is economically unfair.

”You want a redistributive state?” Rich Ralph asks Poor Petunia. “Go ahead and sign up for one. But my rich friends and I are all going to sign up for something else. Have fun redistributing wealth among your impoverished pals, but count us out.”

At this point the Rawlsian liberal says: “Look, Ralph: you and your rich friends, and Petunia and her poor friends, have all been part of the same society-wide cooperative endeavor for mutual advantage; they’ve brought you your caviar nachos, you’ve paid their salaries, and so on. We need to ask whether the fruits of that cooperation are being fairly distributed, or whether the situation has been objectionably exploitative. For you to simply pull out and thus declare yourself exempt from the redistributive laws that Petunia and her friends want to pass is rather too much like a thief declaring that he’s going to sign up with a regime that says theft is okay (or at least that theft by members of that regime against members of other regimes is okay) so he’s not bound by the anti-theft laws that his victims want to pass. You can secede from their authority, but they can’t secede from the externalities you’re dumping on them.”

There are a number of different ways that a panarchist could respond to the Rawlsian liberal, but I suspect the most effective would be to show, along the lines that left-libertarians have suggested, that it’s precisely the absence of panarchy (or in other words, the presence of a monopoly state) that is chiefly responsible for the economic disparity with which the Rawlsian is concerned. However, this would require taking sides on issues that at least some panarchists seem to want to remain neutral on, such as the comparative merits of left-libertarian and right-libertarian economic analysis.


New Molinari/C4SS Books

[cross-posted at BHL]

Two of my Molinari/C4SS comrades have new books out.

desktop-revolution

One is Kevin Carson’s The Desktop Regulatory State: The Countervailing Power of Individuals and Networks. The blurb says:

Defenders of the modern state often claim that it’s needed to protect us – from terrorists, invaders, bullies, and rapacious corporations. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith, for instance, famously argued that the state was a source of “countervailing power” that kept other social institutions in check. But what if those “countervailing” institution – corporations, government agencies and domesticated labor unions – in practice collude more than they “countervail” each other? And what if network communications technology and digital platforms now enable us to take on all those dinosaur hierarchies as equals – and more than equals? In The Desktop Regulatory State, Kevin Carson shows how the power of self-regulation, which people engaged in social cooperation have always possessed, has been amplified and intensified by changes in consciousness – as people have become aware of their own power and of their ability to care for themselves without the state – and in technology – especially information technology. Drawing as usual on a wide array of insights from diverse disciplines, Carson paints an inspiring, challenging, and optimistic portrait of a humane future without the state, and points provocatively toward the steps we need to take in order to achieve it.

The other is Sheldon Richman’s America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited. The blurb says:

This book challenges the assumption that the Constitution was a landmark in the struggle for liberty. Instead, Sheldon Richman argues, it was the product of a counter-revolution, a setback for the radicalism represented by America’s break with the British empire. Drawing on careful, credible historical scholarship and contemporary political analysis, Richman suggests that this counter-revolution was the work of conservatives who sought a nation of “power, consequence, and grandeur.” America’s Counter-Revolution makes a persuasive case that the Constitution was a victory not for liberty but for the agendas and interests of a militaristic, aristocratic, privilege-seeking ruling class.

Wisdom from the right-libertarian corgi

Wisdom from the right-libertarian corgi

Another of my Molinari/C4SS comrades, Nick Ford, has a forthcoming anthology on anti-work anarchism, titled Instead of a Book, By a Man Too Lazy to Write One; check out the description.


Rubio’s Philosophobia

[cross-posted at BHL]

The other night I caught a few minutes of Marco Rubio talking about education. (I think it might have been from this.) One of the remarks he made was that students shouldn’t major in “Roman philosophy” if they want a successful career after graduation. Apparently he’s been saying this a lot, though more often with Greek philosophy as his example.

Will studying Cicero wreck your career?

Will studying Cicero wreck your career?

I suppose it’s no surprise that a Senator named Marco Antonio Rubio would have it in for the likes of Cicero. But apparently Rubio is unaware that philosophy is one of the very best majors one can take to prepare for a successful career. For those going on to law school, philosophy majors score higher on the LSAT than any other major; they also have higher admission rates to law school than such common prelaw majors as political science and criminal justice.

For other graduate degrees, philosophy majors score higher on the verbal and analytic portions of the GRE than any other major, and are also very competitive on the GMAT. Philosophy majors also enjoy a higher acceptance rate to medical school than either biology and biochemistry (and also higher than English or history).

For students planning to go straight on to the job market after graduation rather than going to graduate school, philosophy majors with no post-bachelor’s degree receive on average a higher starting salary than most other majors, including biology, chemistry, and business. And philosophy majors also enjoy a faster rate of salary increase than any other major.

I wouldn’t suggest that any student major in philosophy solely for the sake of the career boost. First, such a strategy disrespects the mind. And second, the kind of student who values philosophy solely as a career boost is not likely to have the kind of mindset that makes philosophy majors do so well after graduation. But any student who loves philosophy but is afraid to major in it because she doesn’t plan to become a philosophy professor and she thinks there’s no other practical use for the degree should take heart – and heed the data rather than the junior Senator from Florida.


Spooner or Later

In the midst of beginning-of-term hecticity, I forgot to mention this while it was happening, but I recently participated in a Liberty Matters discussion with Randy Barnett, Matt Zwolinski, and Aeon Skoble on the legacy of Lysander Spooner; read it here.

See also my previous Liberty Matters discussions on Molinari and Spencer.


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