Workplace coercion and the capability approach

I wrote about the recent blog battle concerning workplace coercion and libertarianism in a prior post. My take is that all discussions of procedural liberty devolve into meaninglessness up against the reality of scarcity. So long as scarcity is real — and it is — liberty-infringing coercion is literally impossible to avoid. Therefore, those who claim to favor their chosen political ideology because it best avoids procedural liberty infringements are either mistaken, delusional, or both.

In a way, I think libertarians must realize this. While they drone on abut negative liberty and process, those discussions always strike me as a cover for a standard just deserts position. That is, they favor their political prescriptions, not out of any concern for some incoherent concept of liberty, but because they think those prescriptions result in outcomes that give each person what they deserve. The rich are producers; the poor are parasites. Inequality tracks skill, productivity, and effort. This is after all the Randian position, and it was the recognition that libertarianism does not track desert that drove Robert Nozick to walk back some of his views later in life.

I’ve written before about the ways in which capitalism does not track desert, so I wont pursue it here. Panning procedural liberty as meaningless and impossible does however call for the establishment of some alternative. My preferred alternative is Amartya Sen’s capability approach.

The capability approach is a few things. First and foremost, it is a way of identifying the fundamental unit of distributive justice. When we are trying to determine how to distribute things in society, we first must determine what it is we are even trying to distribute. Is it income, wealth, utility, primary goods, burdens, benefits, or something else? The capability approach identifies the fundamental distributive unit as capabilities. That is, two people are distributively equal when they have the same capabilities. Importantly that is not the same thing as having the same amount of income or resources. Some people — the disabled for instance — require more resources to have the same capabilities.

Under this approach, a person possesses a capability when they have the real, genuine opportunity to act out some particular functioning. For example, someone has the capability to move around if they genuinely can elect to do so, and make it happen. Importantly, the absence of external physical restraint does not necessarily translate into the capability to move around. Someone who requires a wheelchair to move around does not have the capability to do so without a wheelchair. Someone who is too afraid to move around because doing so may result in physical or emotional abuse from a partner does not have the capability to move around either. So, possessing a capability requires, not just the absence of active physical restraint, but also the existence of the background conditions necessary to allow some functioning to happen.

Although the workplace coercion debate was fought on liberty grounds, it makes more sense to fight it on capability grounds. In the post, the authors bring up examples of the liberty-infringing nature of terminating people for what they say and wear (on and off of work), searching their belongings, preventing them or commanding them to urinate, and so on. Instead of casting these as liberty infringements and getting ourselves into the total mess that is arguments about liberty, we should cast them as capability inhibitors.

For a worker to have the capability to do a particular thing, a worker must be protected from employer retaliation. There is no genuine and real opportunity to carry out a functioning when a consequence of doing so is losing one’s livelihood. Because we value certain capabilities and want everyone to have them, that means the power of bosses must be checked, not because that power is hostile to procedural liberty (an impossible concept, I maintain), but because that power is hostile to the realization of certain important capabilities, e.g. self-expression.

The capability approach is very robust, allows for basically all of the usual left conclusions, and does so without getting involved in the grand feats of redefinition that usually characterize discussions of liberty. More importantly, I think the capability approach tracks what we actually care about and what we are getting at when we have these discussions. People, I maintain, do not care about technically-existing liberty under this or that definition. They care about their ability to realize capabilities in their lives. If I am right in saying that, then we should talk about those capabilities directly, not through a shell battle about liberty.