David Gordon emails me on the workplace


I enjoyed reading your excellent post on the Crooked Timber workplace coercion piece. Many of their complaints also hold for the university classroom, e.g., limits to free speech, students have no say in what work is required, etc.; and often there are costs to refusing to enroll in classes the student finds onerous, such as failing to obtain the desired degree. But I doubt Bertram and his friends would regard this situation as coercive.

Best wishes,


Nor is it always easy to switch schools…


So, would "F@#$ me or you get an F" be acceptable or should there be rules against this? How about "F@#$ me or you're fired"? Which is more prevalent- the former or the latter?

But there are rules against both. The original CT post was complaining about things for which there aren't rules.

Complaints that well intentioned rules are not observed is a different sort of complaint, one that people can draw different lessons from.

So libertarians are against rules, except for sensible ones?

You can't very well define all quid pro quo exchanges except those involving physical threats or coercion as voluntary and mutually beneficial, and then when someone calls your attention to an unsavory case argue, "Well, there are rules against that."

So you are for non-sensible rules then?

I have some sympathy for the CT view that a completely deregulated labor market isn't ideal. For example, having personally been in many plants with questionable safety practices, I am a big proponent of strong OSHA regulation.

However, the CTers go from sensible rules to, as many liberals do, complain that work is work. They seem to believe that the answer to low-wage work is to both arbitrarily increase wages and make it very difficult to fire people. We have already seen the effects of this kind of regulation in Europe: very high structural unemployment in the lower classes. It is the reason, for example, that McDonald's in France have kiosks to order food.

The answer then is not 60% youth unemployment like Spain has or 50% among poor French teens. The answer is limiting regulation to sensible things like health safety, where the employed may not be able to make an informed tradeoff between safety and higher wages. The answer is also to have markets set wages, thereby encouraging lower-class employees to improve their skills and to encourage prospective minimum wage employees to stay in school instead of going into the workforce.

The answer is not to arbitrarily set rules contrary to the market. $7 an hour work won't magically become $15 an hour work just because you say it is. Consumers decide that, not governments.

But even with OSHA, does OSHA do anything? I was in many plants and never met anyone from the government. It is still people self-governing. Why wouldn't that be vastly more efficiently handled through courts and contracts?

It's not a random point. The CTs NEVER acknowledge that by increasing the fixed costs through regulation they necessitate larger corporations exacerbating the power imbalance. And since I consider stuff like that, and they are completely unaware of the meta-analysis, they mistake that for single-minded focus on property rights.

1) Why wouldn't employees be able to make informed decisions about such trade-offs? They do basically the same thing whenever they buy any form of insurance (only in reverse); instead of paying a risk-adjusted premium they collect risk-adjusted wages.

2) I suspect that OSHA has relatively little effect on safety.

No, I'm not for non-sensible rules. Neither is anyone else. Everyone thinks the rules they like are sensible. So it tells me nothing for someone to say, "I'm in favor of rules, but only sensible ones."

My point was that there is an element of "No true Scotsman" in John Thacker's comment.

Why wouldn’t employees be able to make informed decisions about such trade-offs?

Because they don't have access to the necessary information? Have you checked the sprinkler system lately? How do you know the wiring is safe? Emergency exits clear?

And those are just questions for office workers. In a factory it gets a lot more complicated.

Building codes are the best example of regulations where government does have a role to play. The alternative would be some sort of UL-rating system, but with rare events people wouldn't choose houses or grocery stores based on the likelihood of a rare event.

OSHA-type regulations are taken on a case-by-case basis, but I do have personal experience with seeing managers pushing the envelope on clear risks. By that, I mean working around live high voltage, not having a harness for 30+ feet, working around a live paper machine, etc. In the real world, it is not like these workers took a 1% chance of dying for $1 more per hour. If them or their managers are not educated on the risks, which many aren't, then they will do whatever is necessary to finish the job. They move to another job for more pay, but it's very rare safety will play a part in that decision. That's like shopping at a grocery store for the quality of their sprinkler system and the number of fire exits.

On self-governing enforcement regimes:

Tom Schwartz and Matthew McCubbins have an article on oversight regimes, comparing "police patrol" to "fire alarm" models. When regulation is brought up, it seems the standard envisioned is always of the police patrol model - and certainly, many promiment regulatory regimes take that format (regular/random inspection). But regulation can also take the form of fire alarms - that is, empowering individuals to make tort or criminal claims.

But empowering people to make tort or criminal claims requires positive law. The basic point, then, is that if employment contracts are not going to individually stipulate every contingency, then the public needs to enact statutory regimes which give people the power to go to court. That will require the funding of a judicial system, instead of the funding of a regulatory agency. Which is cheaper or more effective will be an empirical question, but in either case we're looking at state policy and a deviation from a pure contractarian solution where everything was accomplished in employment contracts and bills of service.


John Thacker is trying to isolate what exactly we are debating about. Now the CTers are claiming that they are not explicitly or implicitly talking about regulation (rules?). You are re-expanding the question.

There are a few points that John Thacker is implying, I think, that are being misunderstood.

1. The rules he refers to are often internal rules. The "firm" already doesn't want managers abusing their direct reports. This is why I get the silly (freedom reducing) memo about not dating anyone in the department (funny how they always get everything backwards). So, what is the CT critique here, exactly?
2. If they are not talking about new regulation, then what are they talking about? Do you "care" about starving in Africa? I suspect we all "care" about it. Are you talking about doing something about it? Are you talking about priorities? Revealed preference? Differential strategy? What?
3. I forget the third point...

Btw, as you can tell, I'll chat with anyone about anything...forever- much to the annoyance of many people. And this whole thing started with the olive branch libertarians engaging with CT. So please, take the comments about us not engaging elsewhere.

In response to Matt Waters on OSHA and other 3rd or quasi-3rd party (semi-independent safety and quality in-house organizations).

It has always been my experience that the burden still always falls on the worker. I'm not absolutely sure about the legal particularities, and that's part of the point, us peons are always at an information asymmetry.

What actually happens in my life is the manager says (in essence ) "you have to meet quota" and I respond "but I have to meet the safety requirement" and the manager responds "so, you have to meet quota, now sign this document that says you also did all the safety requirement."

I don't know if I have some OSHA guardian angel, but I've never felt I did.

I think that the point byomtov was making was that the discussion was about the system we want not the system we have. To say that we have rules against those sorts of things is not really germane. The question is, "should we?". Many of the people responding to the original CT post suggested that we should not have such rules, or that behavior in violation of those rules is not coercive.

If by rules, you mean regulations, then yes that's true. But one could see an at-will labor contract that would include the right to fire an employee if they refused the above offer. Should we even have rules against this?

Cue the libertarian refrain- regulating sexual coercion in the workplace will just cause more unemployment, leaving workers worse off. This was my point. Libertarians that favor reducing labor regulations can't just say "there are rules for that" if their ideology favors letting the market work and not having the government intervene in labor markets.

That being said, I agree that the right to quit and the threat of exit is a check on coercion in the labor market- I think liberals and libertarians agree on that. But markets+regulations or markets+unions or markets+workers management can get us to an even better outcome than pure laissez faire. In fact, with the the third option (markets+workers' self management) plus a Universal Basic Income I think liberals and libertarians could agree to something very close to pure laissez-faire with no government intervention at all (save for some antitrust). At least I could.

How 'bout this "Never promote any policy that causes a non-natural-scale increase in corporation size."?

That is, hypothetically, a high-speed rail corporation has a natural scale related to running the entire track and the required administration. If they get into selling car insurance, fireworks, tax preparation, and banking there is probably something wrong on the policy side.

The existence of something like GE says that either corporations are really great (they have natural economic advantages such as transaction costs), or something is wrong with the policy and business environment. Real business synergies are potentially overrated, and probably just cover for non-business factors, while the scale effects vis-a-vis government, policy, and finance appear to be significant.

Libertarians that favor reducing labor regulations can’t just say “there are rules for that” if their ideology favors letting the market work and not having the government intervene in labor markets.

That's just asking if prostitution should be legal. If it should, then it's just a question of whether you contracted for it, and whether you've followed the public safety rules (i.e. registering as a prostitute, STD testing, etc.) that libertarian solutions for prostitution always contemplate. If it shouldn't, then the whole thing is unlawful anyway.

I think that's why the question was raised in the first place. As many liberals and libertarians support legalizing prostitution, then what does this imply for at-will employment?

I don't think you understand at-will employment. The labor contract doesn't contract over every possible task the worker would have to perform. I believe an related question in the post is: What about "Get the mail or you're fired". Is this in your labor contract? Would you be able to sue if this became part of your job responsibilities? With at-will employment, you can be fired for just about anything, even if you didn't contract for them. If libertarian theory of contract is that only specific tasks that have been contracted can be requested of an employee, then this is a *much* more onerous regime for employers than simply having some labor regulations.

But in any case, I don't think you really believe such a strong case, as you want to have public safety "rules", which are just regulations. Once you push many libertarians, they end up supporting the idea of regulations, so I don't totally understand what all the hubbub is about. The libertarians in this debate have largely conceded that some basic workplace regulation (call them rules if you like) is justified, but that they really like labor markets and think it adds a lot of freedom. If this is the position, then the difference is just the scope of the regulations.

It doesn't matter if you actually specified sex in the contract, for two reasons -- one, you can always quit, and two, in practice you probably actually would have to have such a contract for the sex to be lawful, because like, say, planting demolition charges, sex would be regulated as a potentially hazardous activity. You don't sign up for light clerical work and then get handed blasting caps one day! The employer liability alone would be huge.

The issue is whether regulations are reasonable protections from harm, or if they going beyond preventing harm and preventing employees/employers from contracting for restrictions on "freedom of speech" as the CTers suggest.

It's also a question of whether, if prostitution were legal, should it be a routine requirement of employment. In absence of legal limitations, it might very well become one.

Seems unlikely, again for liability reasons, even assuming customers did not care.

FWIW, I know of more such incidents in an academic setting, noting that the initial contact goes in both directions.

I think you refer to consentual sex, not coerced sex, unless the student can somehow coerce the professor. I'm glad to know libertarians support both regulations in the market and in the classroom though, as this debate has shown.

I thought that feminists and others generally agreed that a culture of supposedly consensual sex between someone in a position of power and an underlying could result in effective coercion as well as mistreatment of others in an inferior position.

Are liberals discarding that point of view? (I know that Clinton seemed to discredit it.)

I was at McD's the other day. My fries were a little limp. I didn't sign a contract, but I got a fresh bunch of fries and free coupons after I spoke to the manager. On the other hand, I don't think I've ever been treated nicely after complaining to a government agency.

What annoys me about these discussions is how clueless they are.
Instead of comparing states-of-being to their alternatives, they compare them to some imaginary place in their head. For example: "X is bad so we should ban it" is not sufficient justification. One must show that the effects of the ban are also less bad than the risk adjusted behavior they were trying to prevent.

I think the problem is that they are comparing their state-of-being to our ideal and our state-of-being to their ideal.

I'm pro-market, they are anti-business. To them, I appear pro-business and to me they appear anti-market.

Depends how you talked to either. Eli has suspicions

I think that would have to be explicitly written into the contract.

That's a typical "parade of horribles" argument with no bearing on reality. People pay to substitute a more-preferred state for a less-preferred state. A university that required students to sexually service the professors in exchange for passing grades wouldn't be in business too long. (In fact, past history shows the incentives run in precisely the other direction.)

The liberaltarian lament: "I have to trade value for value. COERCION!"

". A university that required students to sexually service the professors in exchange for passing grades wouldn’t be in business too long."

Try: "A movie studio that forced aspiring starlets to trade sex for roles wouldn't be in business too long"


Does it still work?

Sure it still works; you're tripping over mouse poop. I used the example of university-level students because I would assume (being an old-fashioned sort) that they have different ideas about transaction costs than actors and actresses, who are well aware of the price for admission charged by the L.A. film industry. John Travolta had to take one for the team--want to join the team, so will you.

I guess you get really worked up about the porn industry. Do you know what they require those men and women to do?

It's funny how all these steely-eyed economists arguing coldly about macro and economic efficiencies turn into shrieking social workers on certain subjects.

I'd *love* to see what that ivory tower club thinks of the idea that they're denying freedom to the students that hate their classes but have to take them to graduate, and are thus a very source of oppression they were just ranting about ...

I think they'd say it's OK. Just like they say oftentimes lack of liberty in the workplace is OK. Their point is that it's libertarians who should have a problem with these things, the broader point being that libertarianism is not a consistent ideology.

Of course it's not. Childhood alone turns libertarianism into an absurdity. How can you condone creating people without consent, knowing they will be legal slaves for 18 years, and still call yourself a libertarian?

The only good thing about libertarianism is that they can be allies in the fight against intentionally created suffering, under narrow circumstances, and even that has only limited utility - is there a loud-voiced libertarian right-to-die campaign effort?

" How can you condone creating people without consent, knowing they will be legal slaves for 18 years," I can't. It ought to be 25.


For similar reasons, libertarians don't see zoos as prisons either.

I've been a left-liberal and later a conservative. Libertarianism has two major advantages over both: 1) it generally works better in practice 2) it makes more sense.

I thought libertarians don't consider zoos prisons because they are speciesists who consider only humans as morally relevant.

The wikipedia article doesn't actually go much into detail about reasons. I am entirely aware that children have limited life experience, impulse control and cognitive capacity.

However, if one cares about non-aggression, the correct answer to these biological facts can't be paternalism. It has to be antinatalism. It is logically incompatible with non-aggression to create a person who will predictably be a slave for 18 - and if people like dearieme get their way - 25 years. There is no rational reason to assume that this is okay, and then also assume that governments ought not interfere paternalistically with consensual adult conduct. If paternalism is wrong, one has to condemn parents for being parents. It is avoidable after all.

Consent for birth and childhood paternalism cannot be assumed either, based on an argument like, "They would consent if they understood the reasons". It's not clear that they all would. I wouldn't consent to being a child again, even if the alternative were non-existence.

My problem with exceptions like these is that they are so arbitrary as to turn the moral philosophy into a joke.

Children are slaves and zoos are prisons? What?!?

Maybe these are less disproving of moral philosophy than these assertions haven't been completely thought through.

Which brings me to the point that the CTers composed their treatise over months, while in good faith discussions with the olive branch libertarians I might add.

So, not that they have any duty in the first place, but you could at least grant T&A a couple of days unless your goal is purely ad hominem.

Dent -- no, libertarians generally oppose animal cruelty. The issue here is capacity to contract.

Children aren't slaves, they just lack capacity to contact. A child is no more a slave than a housecat.

Andrew', there was no ad hominem in my posts as far as I can see. You haven't addressed the actual points I raised.

I already conceded that the capacity to contract (or informed consent generally) is lacking or at least diminished in children and non-human animals. However, I can't see how this gets someone who endorses the non-aggression principle to accept childhood paternalism. It should logically lead them to reject childhood itself, i.e. the act of procreation, which is optional and avoidable. Contraception works, even abstinence would work. We could punish parents like any other child abuser.

It surprises me that reproduction is seen as a basic right - a right libertarians defend and whose use they condone, as far as I know. Why is that a basic right? Because it is a natural bodily function? My capacity to rape people is entirely natural, yet its application is incompatible with non-aggression because it violates the bodily autonomy of others without consent. Reproduction should be seen in a similar light - it has severe and predictable negative consequences for the children's autonomy, including the bodily autonomy, of another person (the child). Some of these consequences are good, but a lot of them are bad, and in total, they are significant.

The problem is that children cannot consent *to being a child in the first place* and forcing them to is clearly aggression. We cannot just assume that they would all consent if they could - for instance, I wouldn't. Even if many end up liking life and condoning the parental decision retrospectively, this is not the same thing as consent. Some end up suffering greatly or regretting the parental decision otherwise. I don't have the right to rape a comatose girl simply because she cannot refuse consent. Even if I point out that other girls in the past consented to sex with me. It's still rape.

Also consider the practical logical implications of condoning free reproduction while otherwise insisting on the non-aggression principle. It would lead us to accept a world in which parents can unilaterally decide to force arbitrarily many children into existence, even if the can't feed even one. And no one else would have a responsibility to step in and share wealth with them. But from the perspective of a starving one-year-old - who never even consented to being a part of this universe to begin with - slowly starving to death is agonizing. Non-aggression?

Btw, from a non-speciesist perspective, pets are slaves too, and many of them are being abused by their "owners".

Why would it be wrong to create entities that lack capacity? Their autonomy isn't being suppressed, it just doesn't exist until majority -- if they lack capacity, they cannot be "forced" because that implies capacity is being suppressed.

Again with the starving. I don't know why there's this obsession with starvation on this topic, no one starves in America!

TallDave, the world doesn't just consist of the USA. And it is hardly the libertarians' accomplishment that there are not many starving children in the US.

Think about this: *Within the framework of libertarianism*, what would be morally wrong with the following scenario:

Poor people create as many children as they want, the children all starve to death. Rich people don't intervene or share their wealth, the police intervenes only insofar as it protects the property rights of the rich against thieves.

The children did not consent to being children, but since there never was any capacity that could be suppressed, they can all die in total agony, and all is just and fair. Right?

I can't see how a libertarian, given your logical conditions for capacity, could mandate any coercive intervention in the above scenario. You can't force the poor to stop having children, nor can you force the rich to share their wealth. That would be aggression. The non-consensual suffering of the children wouldn't count as aggression, because they have no capacity that anyone suppressed.

This seems to be the logical output of libertarianism. If it isn't, then please tell me the part where I'm wrong, because I currently can't see it.

Actually it is mostly because of libertarian notions that no one starves in America -- we became this productive through the work of free markets. In fact for the same reason, it's pretty rare today that anyone starves anywhere, unless the gov't makes it happen. Nobel Peace Prize nominee Rudy Rummel wrote a great book on this.

The rich don't need to be forced, they don't like to see people starve -- charity exists. It's just not a plausible scenario -- while otoh there are numerous instances of gov't using force to starve millions of people to death.

Free markets != libertarianism. For instance, you can have free markets and also a government-sanctioned tax-financed welfare system. There is no contradiction.

Charity exists, but starving children also exist. We can now argue whether this is a result of government violence that would go away if only all government went away. I'm not going to argue that point, and I have not claimed that governments can't cause active harm (they do all the time).

The problem is that your moral philosophy relies purely on the kindness of strangers in order to prevent something like starving children. If you *did* find yourself in a world of starving children and indifferent parents and rich people, you would still have to say, "My libertarianism tells me this is an ok world. I wish the rich or the parents cared more, but alas they don't, so the starving children are ok. It is not acceptable for me to use thievery of violence of any kind to prevent the suffering of these children." To me, this is a reductio. It implies that the moral philosophy is broken.

Parents need to take responsibility for the consequences of their reproductive choices. The rich need to take responsibility for the consequences of extreme wealth inequality in a world of physically limited resources (innovation can help expand those, but not infinitely much, especially not in finite time). A functional moral political philosophy needs to insist they they do, not just hope that they might.

Yes, but you can also have government-sanctioned tax-financed welfare system without free markets, which would run in opposition to libertarian principles. I think if we're going to hand out credit for productivity improvements by ideology, libertarianism (whatever its other supposed faults) has be at the head of the line.

Charity exists, but starving children also exist. We can now argue whether this is a result of government violence

Pick up Power Kills by Rummel -- Tyler's Second Law applies. Since 1900 or so, no free country has ever had experienced widespread starvation. Coercion is the only reason anyone need starve.

The problem is that your moral philosophy relies purely on the kindness of strangers in order to prevent something like starving children.

Why would they have to be strangers? At any rate, the evidence suggests we are much better off placing out trust in non-coercive measures.

If you *did* find yourself in a world of starving children and indifferent parents and rich people

You may imagine a world with unicorns and dragons, but it's hardly evidence for imposing dragon taxes or unicorn subsidies in this world.

A functional moral political philosophy needs to insist they they do, not just hope that they might.

The flaw in your reasoning is that you're trading hope that the rich might solve your problem for hope that the gov't might. The evidence suggests it's not such a great trade.

Ideological consistency can easily be confused with dogmatism.

The lack of it is fine if you have philosophy primarily concerned with outcome-maximization. It is not okay if your only justification for your positions is "because my philosophy says that approach is wrong". Libertarians are nothing if not dogmatic; rejecting our social structure in favor of intellectual purity... except when it becomes inconvenient.

Sigh...they'll never get it.

What makes you think you get to decide what is our consistency?

What makes you think you get to declare your ideas consistent regardless of outside criticism?

I get to define my own goals. If my goals are internally consistent, they don't have to be consistent with your goals.

The CTers claim us to be inconsistent because they equate contract unfreedom with political unfreedom. Do I want to introduce force to equalize a power imbalance? No, that would be inconsistent. That is wrong according to my definition and goals. So, it's fine for them to think it inconsistent to delineate the two, but I think it is consistent. And the main point is that they aren't just pointing out that it is inconsistent. It would be fine to say that it is inconsistent with their goals. They are saying that it is inconsistent therefore invalid because it is inconsistent with their definition.

This is just another bad faith Turing fail.

Most of the people who write at Crooked Timber are academics. It's important to remember a point that (I think) Bryan Caplan made: most people didn't or don't like school very much. This applies even to many people like me, with degrees from very fancy institutions. But people who go on to academic careers are mostly the unusual types who did like school.

It is fortunate, therefore, that academics have very little power, because having them serve as legislators for the rest of us would result in rules that would make most of us very unhappy.

Education is a monopolized commodity...a monodity.

It's certainly got the "odity" part down...

Oddly enough, the only place I felt I wasn't allowed to pee was in public school, and to a lesser extent in college.

It's pretty enjoyable seeing libertarians make fun of liberals for caring about liberty.

And then seeing posts like this that are pure us vs them spiteful glee. I used to think you were better than this, Tyler.

"liberals for caring about liberty"

That's what you think was going on there? It wasn't just them attempting to re-'us vs them' the olive branch libertarians? 'Cause that's what I got.

Inappropriate use of your imagination in interpreting this post, ac.

"Fire at will' is an abysmal employment policy which has no direct analogue in universities.

Trollbait is expected in your comments section. It's a little less expected in your blog posts.

Say what? I received an e-mail that said "x has stopped paying you." But, as a grad student I had the luxury of keeping working anyway.

What about "quit at will?" Also awful, or should you be forced to work if quitting harms your employer?

'“Fire at will’ is an abysmal employment policy which has no direct analogue in universities.'
Er, yes it does.
1) You can be expelled.
2) The school can drop the class you are currently enrolled in. (With no recourse).
3) If you stop paying the school can drop you from enrollment.

1) You cannot be expelled for no reason. 2) Not really analogous to being fired. 3) See point one.

Too broad, but the kernel of my experience: f*@# schooling; huzzah education. Tyler educates.

Actually, Chris Bertram has very explicitly analogized workplaces and schools as hierarchical institutions where coercion takes place only a few months ago on Crooked Timber. Corey Robin listed schools alongside other institutions, including workplaces, as venues for forms of privately-organized political repression in his paper "Fragmented State, Pluralist Society" in 2004. If you're going to stoop to this kind of irrelevant sniping, at least get your facts right.

Not in the way mentioned in the OP, he hasn't. Or at least not in your link.

Mr. Bertram's post deals largely with funding of universities and its effects on making university departments hierarchical. He doesn't address relations between students and professors in the classroom. A quick look at Mr. Robin's paper doesn't disclose much of relevance to relations between students and professors either. Robin is concerned with the effects of anti-Communist laws and regulations, such as loyalty oaths.

I have never felt so sorry for employers in all my life. Goodness, those poor things!

Boy, if only we could get union representation down below 10% of the workforce employers would finally be free to create jobs! Oh wait, we've already got that and the benefit has been exactly squat.

Boy if only we could get rid of all workplace safety, minimum wage, overtime, and debt-peonage regulations then workforce employers would finally be free to create jobs.

Yep. Until then? No jobs. None.

Thank goodness you and Alex are out there standing up for those poor benighted employers, Tyler. Against those nasty, thieving employees who think they have a right to donate kidneys without being fired!


Not to suggest that you, or Alex, or your "libertarian" ilk categorically stupid, because I know you're not. But you're either barkingly inexperienced in actual employer/employee situations or else you're calculatingly blind. You know what leverage an employer has over an employee that kind of levels the "you can't fire me I quit" playfield? It's called a reference. If you'd ever employed people you'd realize how much leverage that gives you in all but the very hottest labor markets. Now maybe you think that reputation counts only for grad students, tenure track professors, and maybe senior executives but down in the primal ooze of the minimum wage, when the "reserve army of the unemployed" is anywhere above maybe 5.5 to 6% a disgruntled employer is able to exert tremendous leverage over an exiting employee's future prospects with very minimal effort. In the 1970s when I was in fast-food management it was part of the training curriculum: by orders of magnitude it's more difficult for a manager to get a reputation for badmouthing past employees than for a past employee to overcome a bad reference.


Here's what's really bugging me about all this: I at least think you'd agree with me that actions undertaken by Vladimir Putin and his Duma's behaviors are viciously dictatorial, coercive, selfish, and liberty-curtailing. I certainly think so! But I get the feeling that if Putin were to incorporate Russia such that he became the CEO and the Duma its board of directors you'd start projectile vomiting apologias. Whereas my opposition would be unchanged. And no doubt you would argue, well, any disgruntled resident employees or renters of Russia, Inc., would be free to quit and/or take their business elsewhere. To which I'd say, sure, just like all residents of Russia non-Inc are "free" to do. Because, of course, in real life either way in all but the most ideal circumstances the exercise of "choice" by employees is no easier than it is for citizens. For this reason it makes as much sense to be wary of employers as it does to be wary of government. For this reason it makes as much sense to have checks and balances on employers (and employees!) as it does to have it on governments.

I stopped finding you entertaining some time around the time said that in economic terms it would be all for the best if poor people died for lack of healthcare simply because they're poor. Having been both very rich (top .01%) and very poor (annual income while homeless: ~75 dollars) that means of allocating healthcare made no sense to me. Now you've taken to bleating like a Berkeley liberal about the plight of the poor employer, pulling out tearjerker underclass-boss conditions that would have made Joan Baez or Pete Seeger blush. Having been both a minimum wage employee and employer as well as a high-tech employee and employer I similarly don't get it: in all but the worst circumstances it's orders of magnitude more preferable (and profitable!) to be an employer than an employee. And lopsided Cato-Institute bawling notwithstanding, given the amazing infrastructure of laws, regulations, tax breaks, legal biases, social opportunities, and legislative sympathies this is not the worst of times to be an employer. It's just not.


Before you start talking about how 3rd-world-cuisine tourists have it hard because, ew, poor people can spoil the appetite I think I'll just wish you the best of luck getting into Heaven after a ripe old age of standing up for the 1%.

Ciao, baby.


You know what leverage an employer has over an employee that kind of levels the “you can’t fire me I quit” playfield? It’s called a reference.

Dispatch from an "actual employer/employee situation": I've quit two jobs. Didn't stop me from subsequently finding more satisfying employment on both occasions.

Got any actual assertions like "that is unheard of in academia" that I can refute in 2 seconds because it happened with 100% frequency to me?

Thinking about it now, I've been "right to worked" out of more jobs (let go by advisors) in academia than I have regular jobs. That's pretty remarkable actually.

For me its 50-50. Andrew.
The typical grad student has less recourse than the typical employee.

It's as hard to change jobs as it is to change citizenship? Shazam! are you hanging your worldview on that zinger?
And why aren't people flocking to be employers, since the gig is so good? It's a quandary!

" in all but the worst circumstances it’s orders of magnitude more preferable (and profitable"

Well, the parenthetical is obviously the most insane thing anyone will write in this thread.

This is very weak, especially for Tyler. The answer is that of course schools are coercive and hierarchical. That coercion/hierarchy may be justified -- as may the hierarchy and coercion of the workplace -- but the non-libertarian view would be that the mere possibility of exit (which exists for states too) doesn't justify every excercise of that coercion.

Now you could still argue that the only thing the state should ever do is ensure an exit option. That's what we do with religous groups and that's where the word "hierarchy" comes from. But what you can't really do is say that because exit is possible, the institution is a paradise of liberty.

" the non-libertarian view would be that the mere possibility of exit (which exists for states too) doesn’t justify every excercise of that coercion."

I suppose if you'd written " the view of everyone would be that the mere possibility of exit (which exists for states too) doesn’t justify every excercise of that coercion" you'd have realized it was silly pointing it out and deleted it.

If there is free exit and plentiful alternative jobs, then where is the coercion?

There is none.

So, we are back to "where are the plentiful alternative jobs"?

I have a hint...

Nebraska, North Dakota, and Texas.

Did you know Wyoming -- Wyoming!! -- has become the 2nd or 3rd richest U.S. state? This was not the case in 2000.


You should go work there, by the way. I hear it's a real worker's paradise what with the lack of OSHA and all.

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Since even with his onerous travel obligations I assume by now Cowen has had a chance to actually read the Crooked Timber post, it's reasonable to assume that this irrelevant bit of nonsense (his second!) is an admission that he has no reasoned response.


The flip responses reflect the opinion that those at Crooked Timber don't seem to grasp the issue. Let me be specific.

It is pretty easy to find instances of employer abuse of employees. However, it does not necessarily follow that anyone would be better with regulations that prohibit every possible abuse. Regulations can have unintended consequences and unseen effects that stifle economic dynamism. It is entirely possible that the employees themselves would be worse off in total with such regulations. Before we introduce third party contractual constraints to save the world, could you please do a bit of empirical work on the pros and cons of the issue from the prospective of employees, consumers and society in general? Otherwise you are just giving anecdotes that the world is less than perfect.

May I suggest a better alternative? After your empirical research on the issue, if it really is even a net problem, can you consider non coercive solutions where applicable? For example, why don't you establish a UL type of rating system that evaluates employer fairness and publish it for those that care? And if the topic really is important, maybe someone will even pay you for your service?

However, it does not necessarily follow that anyone would be better with regulations that prohibit every possible abuse.
Regulations can have unintended consequences and unseen effects that stifle economic dynamism. It is entirely possible that the employees themselves would be worse off in total with such regulations.
I'll be shocked if you can find anyone who disagrees with either of these statements. Why do persist in arguing as if liberals believe regulation is always the answer?

Then what are you arguing?

That we should be looking under every bed for evil robber barons like you guys?

Is your/their point that we aren't irritated by corporations?

Have you read anything here? Anything at all by me?

I was going to respond, but I can't compete with Roger's comment. I bow before you, sir.

it does not necessarily follow that anyone would be better with regulations that prohibit every possible abuse. Regulations can have unintended consequences and unseen effects that stifle economic dynamism.

Neither does it follow that regulations are always undesirable.

More interesting, I find it very strange to hear libertarians suggesting that others are dogmatic in their views on this question.


You've shifted the debate from workplace regulations to the pros and cons of anarchism. All I have said is that before we do a knee jerk regulation, we should first do empirical studies of whether the regulation alone and in concert with other regulations will on net help or hinder workers and society. If the answer really is that it will help, then I suggest first trying to accomplish it via non coercive, non permanent ways such as competing agencies of transparency.

I am not suggesting dogma, I am suggesting we work toward our goals in an empirical and experimental manner.

For example, why don’t you establish a UL type of rating system that evaluates employer fairness and publish it for those that care?

The problem with workplace coercion is most pronounced by workers who do not have a practical means of exit or choice. Knowing that an employer isn't a good one when you've got 10-100 people applying for the single position open in town is not going to be of much help.

To me, a simple regulation that a worker may not be fired for circumstances unrelated to the performance of their job would be a pretty major step, but more explicit to the point of the CT post, any regulation of workplace means a loss of freedom to contract, a violation of one of the primary Libertarian tenets.

The problem with workplace coercion is most pronounced by workers who do not have a practical means of exit or choice. Knowing that an employer isn’t a good one when you’ve got 10-100 people applying for the single position open in town is not going to be of much help.

This is why the best regulation/check on corporate power is the most dynamic economy possible with the greatest competition by employers for labor. If you want to help labor and check abuses, we should seek policies that foster thriving markets.

Plus -- and this is really, really important in the long run -- the associated productivity increases mean everyone gets richer.

A lot of people seem to have the mistaken impression the labor regulation and redistribution we have today are the main reason why most people's lives are better today than in the early 1900s. Such laws would have been ruinously expensive at our levels of productivity then, and the accumulated effects of free markets are the primary reason we are productive enough to afford them now.

Adding on to Collin and Dave's responses...

Why would a worker take a job at a company that is widely known to treat its workers terribly? The answer is because he is using his judgment to discern that the pros outweigh the cons. In general, greater transparency on employer fairness would lead to some combo of higher wages, better practices or self selection by workers who are less concerned with that type of thing.

I am not arguing based upon libertarian tenets. I am arguing that we should build social solutions which actually solve the problem best with minimal adverse side effects. You are arguing for good intentions and dismissing actual effects.

Let me be really clear. If the best way to solve an employer abuse issue was clearly to pass a regulation which had little or no adverse secondary effects, and we couldn't solve it as well or better noncoercively, then I would support it.

Good intentions are not sufficient in a complex world. Indeed they are dangerous.

"Knowing that an employer isn’t a good one when you’ve got 10-100 people applying for the single position open in town is not going to be of much help."

Sick of hearing this. People trotting out the "10-100 people applying for a position" which would imply 90-99% unemployment. What's more likely is that you have 10-100 people applying for the same 10-100 positions, thanks to advances in communications technology. But if you're trying to create an insanely misleading portrait of reality, you portray it as 10-100 people applying for one single PRECIOUS job. If this reality was accurate, we'd be looking at 90+% unemployment. Instead, you just confuse the weakminded and disgust those of us who can see.

Without having read either piece, I can tell immediately that you are speaking past each other. I'm sure that "Bertram" did not talk about coercion in the workplace as a means of denigrating the workplace environment, compared to say the classroom environment (or the home environment, or any other). I'd suppose he talked about coercion in the workplace to illustrate that the libertarian ideal is a phantom: people always, necessarily submit to various forms of coercion.

So I'd suppose "Bertram" and his friends would agree that the academic environment contains elements of coercion, just like all the other environments. The point is to accept this and move on to more a productive discussion.

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I just love how libertarians talk about the employer/employee power divide as if we live in an age before corporate personhood, limited liability laws, etc., and all sorts of state action that shore up corporate power.

That would be the Gilded Age, wouldn't it?

That's right, Jason - libertarians never discuss the ways corporate and political power interact. You know this because you've read them.

"people always, necessarily submit to various forms of coercion."

Except when they don't? Is that new?

No. There's no there there.
Here is all it is.
CT power mismatch
L: open entry

If someone wants to make a point about it rather than saying "you haven't actually read it" then go for it. First of all, it's not coercion. Use a different word or phrase. Maybe "power mismatch" or "superior bargaining position."

If someone said "fuck me or you're fired" I would say "Okay, fuck you."

"Libertarianism is a philosophy of individual freedom."

First line: Wrong. Libertarianism is a political philosophy of self-ownership. That is, by definition of many of its adherents solely a philosophy of the self-owner's relationship to The State.

Shall I continue?

"But with their single-minded defense of the rights of property and contract, "

That is libertarianism (not really), not libertarians. Libertarians can be Austrian economists, or not. They can be just about anything if their views on the relationship to The State aspire to libertarianism.

"libertarians cannot come to grips with the systemic denial of freedom in private regimes of power, particularly the workplace."

There is no systemic denial of freedom. There are anecdotal cases. And these are best dealt with on a case-by-case basis in any way consistent with libertarianism. E.g. Unionization is (I'd guess) fine (if used for what it should do, defend the individual, else they are non-economic, different from non-libertarian), as long as it isn't encoded into law (which it usually is because it isn't used for what it should be but for group power).

So, in practice, unionization sometimes just replaces one problem with an even worse problem. The individual now has two powerful organizations to contend with, not to mention those two fighting over the government power.

The problem they use a Marxist definition of freedom under which I lack freedom because I am denied my optimal career choice of being paid millions of dollars for sleeping with beautiful women. When you start defining freedom in terms of the things you're prevented from doing because of a lack of choices rather than in terms of being free from harm you come to the kinds of nonsensical conclusions that explain why Marxist regimes have such an unblemished record of failure. The more interesting questions here are what more Marxism could possibly do at this point to further discredit itself empirically, and why anyone still pays attention to such arguments.

Yeah, that's the problem.

You continue to show astounding disingenuous takes on topics far and wide. Though, there's something to be said for consistency.

Let's be clear - nobody said anything about wanting more regulation. The point is rather simple: that the employer-employee relationship is asymmetrical and to the point where in some cases, certain employee freedoms are curtailed (and in some cases for seemingly poor reasons). To deny that is to be adversarial for the sake of being adversarial.

The question to libertarians is: how much does that bother you?

The answer seems to be: "Eff off, I'll let you know when the curtailing of my liberties bothers me, and these days most of it has to do with death panels, and the EPA and OSHA horning in on my right to drink polluted water and operate faulty heavy machinery at work."

In which case, like the CT folks, the question becomes: about how ersatz is the supposed libertarian love of liberty when stacked up against corporatism?

How familiar are you with OSHA and EPA regulations?

I'm in a different jurisdiction, but to illustrate. I got notice of a discussion which will lead to rules where on a work site to what level am I responsible for the safety of other workers. Not 'don't do things that would hurt others', which is would be expected. But rather 'if other workers are doing things in ways that is unsafe', I am to be responsible for them by being there. If someone who doesn't work for me is hurt due to their carelessness or their employers carelessness, I become responsible. Responsible in this context means that I personally am criminally liable.

I find it funny that there seems to be a comparison of some utopian libertarian dream with what ignorant people imagine things to be.

"The question to libertarians is: how much does that bother you?"

And the answer is very simple. The things forced upon me where I have no choice bother me much more than the things pushed on me where I have some choice.

And since the latter things are dealt with personally and the former are dealt with politically, I reserve my political dry powder for the former.

Seemingly silly but relevant question: Do you think women should be free to sell sexual services?

Bluntly, is there a special case where "screw me or you don't get paid" is an individual freedom?

Thanks for once again illustrating how personal attacks tend to indicate weakness of argument and unsound thinking.

The point is rather simple: that the employer-employee relationship is asymmetrical

And the simple counterargument is that asymmetrical relationships aren't an excuse to curtail liberty. Berman argues this is wrong, because he defines "freedom" in Marxist terms in which freedom is maximized by reducing asymmetries -- so, yes, that is in fact the problem; his entire argument rests on this flawed premise.


Libertarians generally oppose corporatism as an unhelpful form of gov't intervention.

Please let us know if you have any other fish for the barrel.

certain employee freedoms are curtailed

This is the part that really seems to confuse people -- employers cannot reduce employee liberties, they have absolutely zero power to compel any employee to do anything, they can only contract for certain behavior. Since employees are always free to not contract, there is no question of liberty here.

That's where the Marxist definition of freedom comes in -- if "freedom" merely means being free from harm, then it's obvious the employer cannot affect your freedom merely by offering employment terms employees do not like, as long as those terms aren't actually harmful. It's only by defining freedom the way Marxists like G.A. Cohen do -- as the availability of choices -- that one can arrive at these conclusions.

I agree that the main problem with the argument is the construction and in particular the definition of freedom and coercion. I would add though its not really a "Marxist" definition so much as in the tradition of Rousseau. And to be honest, that is what really irks me about the TC blog post. It's like Betram (who is a Rousseau schoolar) purposely omits Rouseau's discussions on the gap between language and truth. Their definition for coercion and freedom is kept purposely vague and nebulous so as to falsely equate different types of coercion. This rhetorical trick allows them to keep a distanced and non-nuanced view of the labor contract that precludes real discussion on the types of coercion and the mechanism of their action.

Rousseau believes that the development of private property necessarily entails coercion in any agreement in which a transfer takes place. Its unavoidable to him. This is why his "golden" era is the noble savage; at lease then there was an immediacy to possession and ignorance of ownership. The only coercion was completely natural instead of social.

By the framing of their argument, the authors are able to point at the company and their control the tools to access money which in turn controls the access to the necessities of life. As with Rousseau, the very existence of the companies engender coercion towards the employees since they are preventing them from the immediacy of the tools. Furthermore, the companies are institutions; not individuals.

A more detailed and nuanced discussion of coercision that acknowledges that coercion can occur both towards the company and employee would ultimately be very different. Clearly, the authors do not view the coercion of the company as important (probably because its coercion of the ownership is removed/ distant rather than immediate) as that of the employee. The structure of their argument precludes seems to preclude them from seriously analyzing this point. Acknowledging that coercion occurs on both sides due to costs inherent in hiring and firing and the value add of certain employees leads to a very different discussion. The real issue is the fact that a certain part of the population adds no value being employed. This in turn of course forces society to face very difficult questions about the redistribution of property rights with the coercion of individual rights occurring on both sides. There is no good answer to avoid coercion that engenders freedom; Rousseau went mad.

Interesting points, thanks for sharing them.

The uber-leftist schools I can think of, Hampshire and Olin, both avoid this issue in part by having students both design majors themselves and collaborate on the construction of the over-all curriculum in concert with the faculty.

Good point.

Design your own major, or major by consensus?

Again, if any other sector were doing what education is doing (including saddling teenagers with nondischargeable six-figure debt in exchange for services of often dubious value), there would be talk of criminal charges...

This is probably the largest valid point. In agregate schools are worse than employers.

I much prefer Jan Lester's reformulation of liberty as the absence of imposed cost to the talk I generally see online. The "Pre-Propertarian" theory he developed seems like a massive improvement over Rothbard and natural rights theorizing. His unfortunately titled "Escape From Leviathan" was just re-published by Buckingham Press at a much better price than its original edition. Anthony de Jasay seems under-read as well. "Choice, Contract, Consent", and "Freedom From a Mainly Logical Perspective" are two of my favorite pieces in political theory.

Jobs pay you; you pay for university.

This string of posts has a disappointing "gotcha" nature to it. I am puzzled by the attempts to identify or disregard examples of coercion in different settings. There are many places with unequal power and surprise that power can corrupt. It leads to patterns or at least cases of coercion. And yet power also reins in chaos and creates predictability. It seems to me that this debate boils to where (or by whom) you are comfortable with power being exerted over you. Some people don't get bothered by a dippy employee uniform, but fly in rage over the forced savings in Social Security (and vice versa). We trust (or at least tolerate) power over us more in some places than others. And that ordering differs across reasonable people. No one enjoys full personal liberty from cradle to grave. We all balance the tradeoffs of ceding or defending our personal power.

Are we not all coerced by our underlying wants and needs (individual utility function)? This is what drives us and underlies all of our decisions. Thus coercion in the work places is but a function of self coercion, for beyond the basic needs for life a person's wants drive all other pursuits.

I also find it interesting that in the CT post which begins with the following quote: “In the general course of human nature, a power over a man’s subsistence amounts to a power over his will.”—Alexander Hamilton, they fail to take into account that the employer is also at the will of the workers and in many aspects they have power of his will.

In the end it is self-coercion which lead to all other coercion be it in the classroom or any other setting.

There's lots of bad and evil in the world. The state also does lots of bad and evil things. Liberals do not mark to market in their accounting, in their view the state is filled with goodwill that offsets all the liabilities. Libertarians mark-to-market.

Liberals almost always want to get the state involved. If a liberal asked me if torturing kittens was bad, I would assume they already have prepared a federal Anti-Kitten Torturing bill (The AKT Act) in Congress, with several billion dollars appropriated for federally subsidized animal shelters and pet education campaigns.

Organizations are socially conservative by definition. The objective function is the maximization of the profits of the organization as a whole, and the allocation of these among the members of the organization. Leadership must allocate risk, reward and effort according to agency templates ("We expect assistants to be at work by 8 am, Ms. Smith.")

In the assumption of agency, principals are expected to subsume their individual proclivities to their agency role as defined. Such agency is determined not only by written contract (a liberal concept), but more broadly by agency as defined within the company ("investment banking analysts stay late"--don't expect to find that in your contract) and those determined by broader society (no facial tatoos). Thus, working for an employer is belonging to a group and subsuming the individual to the formal and informal norms of the group.

The rights of decision makers and obligations of employees are circumscribed by corporate culture (established practice), societal culture, and law. This varies from place to place and time to time, the most important determinant of which is income. Due to decreasing marginal utility of wealth and income, the ability of a given manager to commandeer the organization for personal benefit (yet another principal agent problem) is a function of the employment--and indeed, survival--alternatives available to a given subordinate. The CEO fo Microsoft has much less ability to coerce a lead programmer than a middle class Saudi does a Phillippino maid.

So, we can carp all we like about work, but it's called work for a reason. It is not a liberal institution in the organizational sense, as the objective function is the optimization of group--not individual--results, and this creates a corresponding need to allocate effort, risk and reward.

This is the heart of socially conservative theory.

Schools are just the tip of the iceberg. How about the tyranny of friendship? Here you can be dropped without warning for spouting unacceptable politics, or for *failing* to spout the desired political opinions. And let's not even get into the ramifications of having an affair with a third party...

It's almost as though a mutually advantageous relationship gives each party "coercive" power over the other via the option to terminate the relationship.

There is a big difference between a college (which doesn't usually provide immediate income for living for the student) and work (which usually does). So there is a degree of difference in the coercion.. Plus, students have rights most workers do not have (for example, I can't drop a student on my class because he is homosexual, something that I could do as an employer. I could go on. Your analogy is more than a little suspect.

From (http://crookedtimber.org/2012/07/05/let-me-be-the-first-to-second-the-recommendation-for-compulsory-diaperization-of-the-gmu-economics-department/):

"and who knows – when Chris, Corey and Alex start advocating for students to be penalized for having (or not having) abortions, being monitored at home, making, or failing to make, the right political donations, supporting (which was far from a hypothetical question for Corey in his own graduate student experience – he notoriously was the victim of retaliation by one of his professors) or failing to support unionization drives or the like, it might actually become a gotcha. But in the universe that we inhabit at the moment, this continues an extended (and indeed rather ostentatiously extended) exercise in refusing to get the point, let alone addressing it."

Not sure why Tyler is changing the debate to schools. Intellectually,thats is not a good sign. The main issue is quite clear: individual liberty in the libertarian sense vs the liberal sense. One draws the line at government, the other at more general forms of coercion. As long as this gap remains, there will be disagreement. On the other hand introducing nonsequiters and false comparisons diminish an otherwise worthwhile debate.

I think we can all agree that some abridgement of freedom in the workplace at the discretion of the employer is okay, conditional on the employee choosing to work there. Similarly we can all agree that some abridgement of freedom by schools is okay, conditional on the student choosing to study there. But the real question is, why can we not agree that some abridgement of freedom by the government of a country (or state) is okay, conditional on people choosing to live in said country/state? Surely it's not because it's costly to immigrate, as it may be quite costly to drop out of school (in terms of lifetime income) or quit your job as well. Indeed in the first two cases libertarians often argue that these instances of coercion increase total welfare, even if they make some specific individuals worse off -- which is exactly what liberals often argue about government intervention.

Here's a question: if the costs of immigration fell, would libertarians be more accepting of government intrusion?

The CT critique needs to be analyzed more concretely. One offense they mention is that the First Amendment doesn't apply in the workplace. Let's unpack this. Currently, employers can offer two contracts, under which: (1) employees can be fired at will; or (2) employees can be fired for any reason other than exercise of free speech as construed by First Amendment caselaw. Courts are ready and able to enforce either contract. CT proposes, I assume, that if one truly believes in "freedom" or "liberty" or whatever, then one should support federal (not state, because that just creates another means of 'opting out') laws outlawing contract type #1. The underlying reasoning, it appears, is that "free speech" is more free than "unfree speech," therefore contracts under which parties allow themselves to have their free speech held against them by their employers must make those parties less free.

The lack of second-order reasoning here is astonishing. To start, the theoretical possibility that some consideration may be offered by employers to employees for moving to contract #2 (more free) from contract #1 (less free) is not explicitly considered. The empirical reality that, almost no one--no matter how powerful or well compensated or high skilled-- agrees to contract #2, is not considered either. Is the CT argument here any more sophisticated than the complaint that people oppose the ACA because "they don't want people to have healthcare"?

Now some, not Eli to be sure, might be concerned that much of this response is based on a category error, that those who oppress others in the workplace are the owners of the business. Except for the smallest of businesses management is not ownership and supervisors are not the ones to whom the business belongs. GMU professors do not own the university but pretending it is so allows them to claim to be job creators, or whatever is the flavor of the month.

Oppressive supervisors are just other employees who get their kicks from being mean bastards and raises from squeezing more out of the employees and students.

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