My Tanner lecture comment on Elizabeth Anderson

I was pleased to have been invited to deliver one of the comments at Elizabeth Anderson’s Tanner lectures at Princeton a few weeks ago.  I have put the comment on my home page here.  I introduce the topic in this manner:

I won’t summarize her views, but I will pull out one sentence to indicate her stance: “Here most of us are, toiling under the authority of communist dictators, and we don’t see the reality for what it is.” These communist dictators are, in her account, private business firms. That description may be deliberately hyperbolic, but nonetheless it reflects her attitude that capitalist companies exercise a kind of unaccountable, non-democratic power over the lives of their workers, in a manner which she thinks is deserving of moral outrage.

Here is one bit from my response:

This may sound counterintuitive or even horrible to many people, but the economist will ask whether workers might not enjoy “too much” tolerance and freedom in the workplace, at least relative to feasible alternatives. For every benefit there is a trade-off, and the broader employment offer as a whole might involve too little cash and too much freedom and tolerance. To oversimplify a bit, at the margin an employer can pay workers more either with money or with freedom and tolerance, which we more generally can label as perks. Money is taxed, often at fairly high rates, whereas the workplace perks are not; that’s one reason why a lot of Swedish offices are pretty nice. It’s simple economics to see that, as a result, the job ends up with too many perks and not enough pay, relative to a social optimum. I doubt if our response to this distorting tax wedge, which can be significant, should be to increase the perks of the workers rather than focusing on their pay.


In fact there are some reasons why labor-managed firms may give their workers less personal freedom. The old-style investment banking and legal partnerships expected their owner-members to adhere to some fairly strict social and professional codes, even outside the workplace. More generally, when workers are motivated to monitor each other, through the holding of equity shares, monitoring becomes easier and so corporations engage in more of it. Again, the main issue is not controlling bosses vs. freedom-seeking workers.

Do read the whole thing.


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