Tag Archives | Left-Libertarian

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.


A Blast From 1837

Here’s an early (pre-Spencer) statement of the law of equal freedom and/or non-aggression principle:

[N]o movement can be permanently successful among progressive minds which stops short of a full and complete recognition of the entire liberty of the individual, so long as the action coming from such liberty trespasses upon neither the person or [sic] property of another.

Particularly interesting is its source: an 1837 publication of the First International; see details here. (The article is about Josiah Warren, but the quotation is not from Warren; in fact Warren wanted to make it less libertarian by including a right to one’s “reputation,” i.e., to the contents of other people’s minds.)

Addendum:

I am an idiot. Of course the First International didn’t exist in 1837. And so of course this quotation is from 1873, and so of course it’s not pre-Spencer.


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.


Upcoming Panels on International Law and Prison Reform

[cross-posted at BHL and C4SS]

Two panels organised by the Center for a Stateless Society are coming up at two different conferences next week, bringing a left-libertarian market-anarchist perspective to international relations and prison reform.
 
 
1. The Molinari Society will be holding its annual Pacific Symposium in conjunction with the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association in San Francisco, March 30-April 3, 2016. Here’s the schedule info:

Molinari Society symposium:
Author Meets Critics: Gary Chartier’s Radicalizing Rawls: Global Justice and the Foundations of International Law

G6D. Thursday, 31 March 2016, 6:00-8:00 p.m. (or so), Westin St. Francis 335 Powell St., San Francisco CA, Elizabethan C, 2nd floor.

chair:
Roderick T. Long (Auburn University)

critics:
David Reidy (University of Tennessee)
Zooey Sophia Pook (New Mexico State University)

author:
Gary Chartier (La Sierra University)

 
 
2. We’ve also organised a panel at the Association of Private Enterprise Education conference in Las Vegas, April 3-5, 2016. Here’s the schedule info:

Prisons: Reform or Abolition?

2.G.8. Monday, 4 April 2016, 4:00-5:15 p.m., Bally’s Hotel and Casino, 3645 Las Vegas Blvd. S., Las Vegas NV, room TBA.

chair:
Roderick T. Long (Auburn University)

panelists:
Daniel J. D’Amico (Brown University)
Gary Chartier (La Sierra University)
Jason Lee Byas (Georgia State University)
Roderick T. Long (Auburn University)

Another C4SS writer, Billy Christmas, will also be speaking at APEE on “Toward Methodological Anarchism,” on Tuesday, 5 April, in a session at at (horribile dictu) 8:00 a.m.


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.


Lego and the Building Blocks of Patriarchy

[cross-posted at C4SS and BHL]

The Lego corporation, popular producer of interlocking miniature toy bricks, has recently been making increased efforts to market its toys to girls. Some of these efforts have met with criticism from feminists, who worry about toys that are stereotypically “girly” in a way that reinforces traditional gender roles.

Little pink houses for you and me

Little pink houses for you and me

In a recent piece titled “Un-PC Lego Making Toys Girls Like,” libertarian writer Ryan McMaken comes to Lego’s defense.

The title of Dr. McMaken’s article is somewhat misleading, since the Lego line that attracted the most feminist criticism, the “Lego Friends” range, dates from several years ago, whereas the newer line – which features female astronomers, chemists, and paleontologists – has been received more positively by feminists. Perhaps Lego is not being so “un-PC” these days after all?

With regard to the older Friends line, however, McMaken quotes feminist Dana Edell, who charged that Lego was “sending a message that girls get to play with hair dryers while boys get to build airplanes and skyscrapers.” As McMaken sees it, Edell’s complaints are misguided:

Ms. Edell … should probably aim her disappointment and disdain at seven-year-old girls rather than at Lego. After all, Lego’s success, or lack thereof, in marketing these products depends on the decisions of little girls. … The real problem the anti-Lego feminists have, then, is not with Lego but with the fact that girls like to play with the sort of toys found in the Friends line. The blame for this lies with the girls themselves. After all, Lego did not raise these girls or tell them what to like.

And McMaken draws what he takes to be a broader free-market moral about consumer sovereignty:

The activists think that Lego is responsible for deciding what girls should want because – like many people who don’t understand how markets work – they think that producers dictate to consumers what to buy. … But it doesn’t work that way. Companies make money by selling what people want.

But surely the defense of the free market doesn’t – and had better not – depend on treating consumer preferences as radically exogenous in this way. In particular, what kinds of toys young girls like to play with is not the product of innate drives free from the influence of the surrounding culture. (Though attempts have actually been made to offer sociobiological explanations for, e.g., girls’ preference for pink and boys’ for blue – in apparent ignorance of the fact that the gender associations of pink and blue are less than a century old, as well as fairly specific to our own culture.)

The inculcation of gender norms is enormously pervasive, and begins early. Many studies have shown that parents and other caregivers treat male and female infants (or those they believe to be such) differently, even when they are unconscious of doing so. For example, mothers are “more likely to repeat or imitate vocalizations from a girl baby than from a boy baby,” and also “more likely to try to distract a male infant by dangling some object in front of him.” (Anne Fausto-Sterling, Myths of Gender, p. 36.) Likewise, if “observers … believed [an infant] to be a boy,” they “handed it a toy football more frequently than they did a doll.” (Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender, p. 137.) Likewise, parents “mete out more physical punishment to boys” and “stimulate gross motor behavior in male infants more often than in females.” (Fine, p. 151.)

Deborah Rhode recounts a telling anecdote: “One mother who insisted on supplying her daughter with tools rather than dolls finally gave up when she discovered the child undressing a hammer and singing it to sleep. ‘It must be hormonal,’ was the mother’s explanation. At least until someone asked who had been putting her daughter to bed.” (Rhode, Speaking of Sex, p. 19.)

To come to a full recognition of the thoroughgoingness with which gender roles are inculcated, consider the following thought-experiment developed by neuropsychologist Cordelia Fine. Imagine a world in which “parents of left-handed babies dress them in pink clothes, wrap them in pink blankets, and decorate their rooms with pink hues,” let the “hair of left-handers grow long,” and provide them with “bottle, bibs, and pacifiers – and later, cups, plates, and utensils” that are “pink or purple” with “motifs such as butterflies, flowers, and fairies.” By contrast, “right-handed babies … are never dressed in pink,” their hair is “usually kept short,” and their clothing and accessories tend to feature “vehicles, sporting equipment, and space rockets.”

Let’s further suppose that the difference is also marked in other aspects of life. Parents say “Come on, left-handers!” or “I’ve got three children altogether: one left-hander and two right-handers.” At school, children are greeted with “Good morning, left-handers and right-handers!” Most of their teachers are left-handers, while most truck drivers (e.g.) that they see are right-handers; and countless venues from “restrooms” to “sports teams” are “segregated by handedness.” In such a society, children will inevitably “come to think that there must be something fundamentally important about whether one is a right-hander or a left-hander.”

Analogously, then, in a world where “gender is continually emphasized through conventions of dress, appearance, language, color, segregation, and symbols,” it’s not surprising that children have an overwhelming tendency to internalize gender roles. (Fine, pp. 209-212.) To this we might add the tendency to treat the male version of anything as the generic, standard version of it, from phrases like “the caveman diet” (why not the cavewoman diet?) to the use of the male pronoun to cover both sexes – with the effect of privileging the male status.

Libertarian readers are familiar with dystopian novels like Ayn Rand’s Anthem or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which every aspect of society, including the very structure of the language, is engineered to promote a totalitarian ideology. The all-pervasive promotion of traditional gender roles in our own society should be recognized as similarly totalitarian and akin to brainwashing, even if it is not imposed directly by state action as the examples in the aforementioned novels were. (Both Rand and Orwell certainly had an interest in systematic but non-state or not-purely-state misuses of language to promote harmful ideologies.)

Corporations like Lego do not, of course, bear sole responsibility for brainwashing children into identifying with traditional gender norms; they are merely one part of a systematic, polycentric cultural program. But to treat such corporations as if they bore no responsibility for gender-norming – as if their production choices were entirely on the side of effect and not at all on the side of cause, or as if children formed their preferences in complete isolation from marketing – is to oversimplify a very complex process.

Admittedly, figuring out one’s moral responsibilities when one is simply one factor in a much larger constellation of causes is tricky. (For some of the issues involved, see my working paper “On Making Small Contributions to Evil.”) Still, if Dr. McMaken thinks Lego should be concerned solely about what will make the most money, and not at all about its possible contributions to sustaining sexist ideologies and practices, why doesn’t he follow that counsel in his own work? In other words, why doesn’t he write statist books and articles instead of libertarian ones?

After all, there’s clearly a bigger market for statist writing than for libertarian writing; that’s why books by Paul Krugman, Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, and Ann Coulter dominate the best-seller lists and ours don’t. So why doesn’t Dr. McMaken bow to consumer sovereignty and start writing books and articles attacking the free market? Presumably because he (rightly) thinks it important to try to change the culture, to challenge the dominance of statist ideology, and to attempt to shape consumer preferences in a more libertarian direction.

Does McMaken’s attempt to alter consumer preferences mean that he “doesn’t understand how markets work”? Not at all. As a fellow student of the Austrian School, Dr. McMaken presumably shares the Austrian view of entrepreneurs as proactive catalysts of change rather than passive price-takers. But if it’s appropriate for McMaken to try to move consumer preferences in a less statist direction, why is it so awful – or a sign of misunderstanding the market – for feminists to pressure Lego (so long as the pressure is peaceful) to try to move consumer preferences in a less sexist direction? What’s sauce for the libertarian gander should be sauce for the feminist goose, shouldn’t it?


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