You Need Rules

This piece about Google Guy from Michael Brendan Dougherty was filed a week ago, but I only now have enough time to respond to it. In the post, Dougherty vents his frustration with the argument that conservative labor market institutions are responsible for the termination of Google Guy.

The argument he criticizes goes like this: Google was only able to fire the guy because our employment laws give Google discretion to fire anyone for any reason or no reason at all. If we had a different set of laws that only permitted Google to fire someone for incompetence or economic redundancy, this could not have happened.

Dougherty’s response is to just say that, though it is true the laws give Google the power to make this kind of move, Google only made the move because of the pressure it received from liberals. If liberals had not pressured Google, then it would not have exercised its power to dismiss him.

Dougherty sees this as a rebuttal to the argument about labor market institutions, but it is perfectly compatible with that argument. Once Dougherty’s insight is added, the synthesized argument becomes: Google only fired the guy because 1) it had the legal power to do so and 2) it received pressure to do so. If either (1) or (2) is removed, the termination does not occur.

Given this understanding of the situation, what exactly are we supposed to conclude? If you think, as Dougherty does, that the termination was unjust, what would he actually have us do about it?

Presumably, he would want a state of affairs where Google retains the power to arbitrarily dismiss anyone but people just decide not to pressure them to use that power. Though this kind of posture makes great fodder for a blog post, it is completely ridiculous in reality.

For as long as Google has the power to do something others want them to do, those others will pressure Google to exercise it. This is true broadly. Whenever you allocate power to some person, at least some people will pressure that person to use it in the way they want to see it used. And this is not a left or right thing. It is true across the board and a lot of pressure to apply power in one way or another has nothing to do with anything remotely political.

If you really want to cut this kind of thing out, you need to replace dictator-like power with rules. Rules will strip Google of the power to act and give it an ironclad reason to refuse to act. When rules are in place, Google would turn to the pressure groups and say “sorry folks, our hands are tied.” And, once the rules are well-established, it wouldn’t even have to do that because nobody would bother to pressure them in the first place, knowing it was futile. By removing the power to fire, you remove the demands to fire, killing two birds with one stone.

I understand why libertarians and management types object to rules requiring a “just cause” for termination. But I can’t figure out why more economically squishy social conservatives like Dougherty object to them. From the outside, it seems like yet another instance of social conservatives being taken for a ride by the business wing of the conservative coalition.

  • eastbk

    I take your point, and I agree with the kind of rules you recommend here, but I take MBD’s point to be one, not about logical consistency, but about hypocrisy, and therefore moral consistency. I.e., if you think rules should exist that protect workers like Google Guy from arbitrary external pressure to fire him, then it isn’t consistent to apply such external pressure, regardless of the particular details of a case, even (or especially) if said rules are not in place at present. Because in that case you are claiming to want to protect workers from the kind of pressure that you yourself are applying, or at least that you are championing others applying, with results you say are bad enough that they require legal governmental protections.

  • Konrad_Lorenz

    That’s not a very good argument either. There’s not really anything hypocritical about playing by the rules of the status quo, even if you’d like to change them. The current rule-set will always have both advantages and disadvantages; someone who thinks that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages isn’t being hypocritical by still benefiting from the advantages.

    (E.g., should a chess player who thinks that stalemate ought to be a win instead of a draw always resign when stalemated?? It only makes sense if the opponent plays by that rule also.)

    Structurally this is the same horrible argument that says: if you want tax rates to increase, you should donate money to the federal government, otherwise you’re a hypocrite.

    “with results you say are bad enough that they require legal governmental protections.”

    The bad result is that all workers are subjected to this power. You don’t eliminate that bad result by refraining from using the power yourself for your own ends.

  • vintermann

    For an even odder example, of when you need rules, see Cloudflare firing Daily Stormer, but trying to argue that it doesn’t set a precedent and is just a whim of the CEO (really).