On libertarianism, workplace coercion, and scarcity

A three-author piece on libertarianism and workplace coercion has been ripping through the popular political blogs in the last few days. The piece is long, and its points are varied, but the biggest one is that laissez-faire capitalism — the favored economic form of libertarianism — generates conditions of coercion that violate the very liberty that libertarians claim to treasure. The libertarian focus on government power ignores the very substantial amount of private power held by those who control the gates of employment, i.e. bosses.

At any moment, bosses can terminate at-will employees for no reason at all, thereby eliminating those employees’ access to food, clothing, housing, and any other basic necessity that requires an income. It is not hard to imagine then how the constant threat of termination can coerce employees to do what the boss wants. The choice between doing what the boss says or having your kids go hungry is not really a choice at all. You do what the boss says. If the boss is a conservative willing to fire anyone who speaks out against the war for instance, an employee has to consider that when she decides whether to attend an anti-war rally. That is, she must decide whether to exercise her freedom of speech or not. The consequence of doing so will be employer retaliation instead of state retaliation, but that seems to many to be a distinction without a difference.

At one point in time, I spent an incredible amount of time studying libertarian theory: years and years of straight libertarian text after libertarian text. I also spent a pretty serious amount of time reading anarchist texts. Both have this real obsessive focus with procedural liberty, and both try to put forward a system that they claim achieves it. After negotiating that back and forth, something hit me: the sort of procedural liberty so emphasized by these camps is actually impossible. It is not impossible because of human nature or anything like that. No, it is impossible because of scarcity.

Fundamentally, if I have something, that means you do not have it. Commodification obscures that basic fact somewhat. For instance, it seems like we both can have iPhones at the same time. And while that is true, we can’t both have the same exact iPhone at the same exact time. Or to put it more meaningfully: to possess the resources packed into an iPhone necessarily entails excluding everyone else in the world from those very same resources. Once one truly understands the consequences of that reality, it becomes clear that procedural liberty is impossible to achieve.

If I object to some usage of resources in the world, one of two things will happen. Either I will be able to stop that use from happening, thereby applying coercion to those who want it to happen. Or coercion will be applied to me, and I will be unable to stop it from happening. There is no non-liberty-infringing way forward. Any disagreement about resource use necessarily results in coercion of somebody. Against that backdrop, I have a hard time taking discussions of procedural liberty seriously.

Imagine for instance a socialist model of economic democracy in the workplace. This, it is held, will eliminate workplace coercion and protect liberty. Really? If a person in the workplace disagrees with the majority, what will happen to that person? Either he will find some way to strong arm his preferences into existence, coercing the others. Or others will prevent him from doing so, also through coercion.

More than that, what if someone wants to come into the factory and start working, but the people who work there presently say that they cannot have any more employees? Suppose for instance, there is a 50-person factory run democratically. The next day, 50 unemployed people show up and start running it, occupying all the machines. What happens? Either the new bunch somehow pulls it off, and the old bunch is kept out through coercion. Or the old bunch uses coercion to keep the new bunch from taking the place over. Again, the coercion fork.

Consider one more case. Suppose there is a person at work that the majority of people do not like. Suppose also there is a person that the majority does like who does not work there but wants to. The democratic thing to do is replace the person. That would involve coercion, forcing the person out of a job. But even the non-democratic thing to do involves coercion. If the person who does not work there shows up to work, someone is going to have to use coercion to keep her out, and allow the incumbent person to remain. Now suppose all of this is happening because the person is an anti-war activist, and most the workers are conservative.

No matter what you do, you always get a huge coercive, liberty-infringing mess. It is present everywhere and all the time. And the reason why it wont go away is always the same: scarcity. If we could just invent infinite workplaces and infinite resources, procedural liberty would be possible to achieve. But we cannot do that.

At the risk of running this post too long, this applies outside of the workplace as well. Matt Yglesias had a post in this debate where he originally commented that nobody cares about freedom, and that real defenders of liberty would bemoan traffic lights and lanes. The reason we don’t do that, I maintain, is because of scarcity. As it stands, road space is scarce and two cars cannot occupy the same piece of road simultaneously. When they do, it is called an accident. Imagine that they could though. Would we need traffic lights and lanes then? No. So once again, it is scarcity that makes liberty infringements impossible to avoid.

I will save my preferred solution to this whole misguided discussion of liberty for the next post, but I will just tease here: it involves my old buddy the capability approach.