Over at Crooked Timber Chris Bertram, Corey Robin and Alex Gourevitch are upset about what they call lack of freedom in the workplace. (Tyler offers his excellent comments immediately below.) They give a grab bag of peculiar examples such as workers can be fired for donating a kidney to their boss, carrying on extramarital affairs, participating in group sex at home, cross-dressing, and more. They seem especially incensed that workers can be commanded to pee or be forbidden to pee. (I will put aside that mandatory drug tests are greatly encouraged by the war on drugs.)
In other words, the CTrs have discovered that the most basic US employment law is at-will employment which means that workers can be fired for just about any reason, outside of a few protected categories such as race, sex, and age. Simply put, an employer can fire you if she doesn’t like you. This is a surprise? No one has a right to a job, a job is an agreement to exchange services for cash and compensation and both parties must agree to the exchange to make it legitimate.
The CTrs do not adequately acknowledge that workers have the same rights as employers. Workers can quit for any reason and they can refuse to work for any employer. If you don’t like the politics of Monsanto, or the NRA or Georgia-Pacific you don’t have to work or even apply for those jobs. Indeed, workers have more rights than employers since workers are not subject to anti-discrimination law; that is, employers are prohibited from discriminating against African American workers but workers are not prohibited from discriminating against African American employers.
If you think that the freedom to quit is without value bear in mind that under feudalism and into the early 19th century in the U.S. and a bit later in Britain employers and even potential employers could prevent workers from quitting and from moving. The freedom to quit was hard won. We should not disparage the liberation brought by a free market in labor.
Turning to the economics, the CTrs are so outraged by an employer’s legal possibilities that they fail to notice that most employers do not in fact fire their workers for having extra-marital affairs. Why not? The reason is that these rights are often more valuable to the employee than to the employer and thus both employee and employer can be made better off if the employee keeps the rights. If the employer values the right more than employee then the employer buys the right with a higher wage. If the employee values the right more than the employer then the employee retains the right at an otherwise lower wage. The employer gets the right only when the employer pays. The same thing is true of control rights, residual rights not explicitly noted in the contract (because of complexity and unforeseen events). The employer buys these rights from the worker when doing so maximizes the total value of the exchange. This is not to say that abuses do not occur, they do, as in all relationships and on both sides, but the CTrs lump abuses and mutually profitable exchanges together–that’s dangerous because in regulating abuses it is very easy to do away with mutually profitable exchanges.
The greater the productivity of workers and the higher their incomes the less workers will be willing to sell rights for higher wages (i.e. the more willing they will be to pay for better working conditions with lower wages). Workers gain more autonomy as they and their society become more productive. Thus, the best protector of worker autonomy is high productivity and economic growth. (The best protector not the only protector, unions can also serve a useful purpose in this regard as can shareholders and human resource departments.)
If the CTrs were merely arguing for greater economic growth there would be little with which to argue –who doesn’t want bigger televisions and better working conditions? The CTrs, however, confuse wealth and political freedom. Bigger televisions don’t make you more free and neither do better working conditions, even though both goods are desirable.
A job is an exchange with mutual consent and benefits on both sides of the bargain. The freedom is in the right to exchange not in the price at which the exchange occurs. A worker who is paid for 8 hours of work is not a serf 1/3rd of the day. We all sell our labor and we would all like to sell at a higher price but that does not make any of us serfs. From the minimum wage waiter to the highly-paid sports superstar there is dignity in work freely chosen.
To understand freedom and true coercion let us remember that American workers have the freedom to bargain and exchange with American employers, a freedom that gun, barbed wire and electrified fence deny to many millions of less fortunate workers from around the world.