For some time, I’ve been going back and forth with the libertarians, trying to suss out the extent of their commitment to freedom. As readers of this blog know, I don’t think it extends very far. While libertarianism may begin as a critique of state coercion in the name of personal liberty, it invariably ends up as an apologia for the absence of freedom in large parts of most people’s lives.
But over the last few months, I’ve gotten some interesting push-back from one of the more thoughtful subsets of that crew—the Bleeding Heart Libertarians— who insist that their commitment to freedom is real, even in places like the workplace.
In a new piece just posted over at Crooked Timber, I join forces with Chris Bertram and Alex Gourevitch to examine more carefully the claims of these Bleeding Hearts. And what do we find? Take it away, Tony Bennett.
And if that’s not clear enough for you, here are some excerpts from the Crooked Timber post:
Given this awareness that freedom can be diminished by private action, one might think libertarians would reject a state of affairs in which large portions of the population endure daily subjection to the commands of others. Especially when those issuing orders give their subjects detailed instructions on how to live their lives and are in a position to threaten them with severe negative consequences should they disobey. But one would be wrong.
Whether or not libertarians are consistent in their understanding of workplace coercion, there is little doubt that they are confused about or indifferent to its presence and reality. Indeed, the ease with which [Bleeding Heart Matt] Zwolinski, like Murray Rothbard before him, subsumes “the power” employers “have over their workers” under the category of “the freedom of employers”—a move with a long lineage in the history of both wage and bonded labor—suggests how far we have to go before the Bleeding Hearts establish that theirs is not simply the same old black heart of libertarianism we all know.
Outside a unionized workplace or the public sector, what most workers are agreeing to when they sign an employment contract is the alienation of many of their basic rights (speech, privacy, association, and so on) in exchange for pay and benefits. They may think they’re only agreeing to do a specific job, but what they are actually agreeing to do is to obey the commands and orders of their boss. It’s close to a version of Hobbesian contract theory—“The end of obedience is protection”—in which the worker gets money, benefits, and perhaps security in exchange for a radical alienation of her will.
The larger problem lies in the simplistic notion that the ability to freely enter or exit the workplace disposes of the problem of freedom inside the workplace. On the front end, most libertarians believe that contracts are freedom-preserving….But this is a mistake. If someone contracted to be the slave to another person for a year, with no possibility of exit, surely that initial moment of consent does not preserve the slave’s freedom for the remaining 364 days of the year. Even libertarians—at least the sane ones—believe that there are some things you cannot consent to, like slavery, and still retain your freedom….In those cases, the contract is freedom canceling, not freedom preserving. And it’s not the desperate conditions—which give rise to the contract—that make it freedom canceling; it’s the contract itself.
On the back end, the limitations of exit as an instrument of freedom can be illustrated by a simple analogy. Suppose Canada were a dictatorship, but the United States welcomed anyone who wished to leave, paid for her ticket and promised her a job. Would that mean that anyone who stayed behind was free? Or think about the implicit contract at the heart of ethnic cleansing: exit and live; stay and die. Now it’s undoubtedly true that exit is better than no exit—ethnic cleansing being better than genocide—in that it limits the reach of coercion. But it’s not true that exit lessens coercion and increases freedom among those who stay. Surely we don’t want to claim that those Jews who refused to flee the pogroms of tsarist Russia were somehow free.
Another way to protect workers’ freedom is to give them more voice on the job. If entry and exit are emblems of freedom because they express the voluntary will of the individual, why limit those expressions to two moments: when she steps inside the workplace and when she leaves? Would the worker not have more freedom if she had more opportunities to express and act upon her will inside the workplace? Not just more occasions but also more ways to express her will? To say something beyond “I’m staying” or “I’m going”?…It’s true that these expressions of worker freedom require limitations on the employer’s freedom to fire workers. But that, it seems to us, is at the heart of any notion of equal freedom in society: your right to swing your arms always ends just where my nose begins.
Make sure to read the whole post here.