Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Workplace Coercion and the Public / Private Divide

with 2 comments

If you haven’t been following it I can’t recommend enough catching up with a series of posts that began with Chris Bertram, Corey Robin and Alex Gourevitch (BRG) launching a broadside against the Bleeding Heart Libertarians (BHL) concerning coercion in the workplace. I described the larger conversation as “the best thing on the internet”.  The central point is that the workplace is an arena of considerable coercion where employees have vastly fewer rights than they do in relation to the government, or for that matter, then most people probably realize.

Libertarianism is a philosophy of individual freedom. Or so its adherents claim. But with their single-minded defense of the rights of property and contract, libertarians cannot come to grips with the systemic denial of freedom in private regimes of power, particularly the workplace. When they do try to address that unfreedom, as a group of academic libertarians calling themselves “Bleeding Heart Libertarians” have done in recent months, they wind up traveling down one of two paths: Either they give up their exclusive focus on the state and become something like garden-variety liberals or they reveal that they are not the defenders of freedom they claim to be.

I’m less interested in discussing the critique of the BHL than I am in the issue of workplace coercion and the public  / private distinction that makes it difficult to see this in the first place.

By public / private distinction, I mean a deeply ingrained cultural narrative that opposes the private sphere / the natural world / the market / voluntariness  vs. the public sphere / interference / government / coercion.  Margaret Somers argues this idea has its origins in Locke, who was seeking to create a way of restraining the monarchy by elevating a pre-political, fundamental private sphere that could not be legitimately interfered with, since the primary threat of the time was a newly empowered absolutist monarch.  Somers argues these ideas distinguish what is considered reasonable from what is not, operating not as a premise in logical arguments but rather structuring how people perceive the world in the first place.

Ultimately, this doesn’t mean that people don’t know that the workplace is coercive, it means that this experience is often not politicized–in the sense that it’s experienced as a problem about individual companies or managers.  Or from a third-party stance, it is not something that poses a problem–for example the presumption that such coercion must have some economic rationale (and the implicit notion that profit-making would thereby justify it). Something becomes politicized when we tie our own fate to others, when we see this as about ‘work’, for example. as opposed to ‘this job’.

The difficulty here is that while libertarians tend to be the loudest critics of laws and regulations, it’s by no means limited to them. Neoliberals are also skeptical of labor regulations, and treat markets as presumptively legitimate. And conservatives who are openly hostile to civil libertarianism often take such positions as well.

This is the conversation the left needs to have, and it’s one we haven’t, in part because the right has been dominating the conversation, dictating the questions to be asked, etc.  In the end, the various answers to the question posed at the outset–can bosses demand that their employees to have sex with them or be fired–have been wanting.  Just raising these questions helps makes the underlying assumptions less obscure.  My sense is that they only hold their power because we don’t typically attend to them.

It would also be helpful if we were to raise questions about terms like the private sector, intervention, or market, all of which do more to obscure than to reveal.  But that is a subject for another post.

(Corey Robin has been rounding up the various responses to the original post. The latest one is here).

Advertisements

Written by David Kaib

July 13, 2012 at 11:44 pm

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I welcome the shift of attention onto the significance of the public-private divide as such, and away from BRG’s egregious framing of the discussion as an attack on the allegedly “cold heart” of Bleeding Heart Libertarianism. But please note that not only are there non-libertarians who make too much of this divide, there are also libertarians who recognize that it does not deserve the weight it has been given. For example, Elizabeth Anderson, writing on the BHL blog:

    Anderson, Elizabeth. Recharting the map of social and political theory: Where is government? Where is conservatism? Bleeding Heart Libertarians. 2012 Jun 12. Available from: http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/06/recharting-the-map-of-social-and-political-theory-where-is-government-where-is-conservatism/.

    Douglas D. Edwards

    July 14, 2012 at 12:03 am

    • Douglas, I object to your framing of BRG’s argument as framed on the supposed cold heart of BHL. (Boy, that was an awkward sentence). As I think I’ve said before, I think it’s more a stray line (responding to the implicit claim by BHL that they are bleeding hearts). The structure of the argument doesn’t rely on it at all. Regardless, I’m not inclined to put any weight on either BHL’s claims about their internal mental states or others claims about them – because I don’t have access to them and ultimately I don’t think they matter. Admittedly, this is an unusual position to take.

      I appreciate the link, which I think demonstrates BRG’s main point. The sort of libertarianism that embraces work place regulations, social insurance, and unions, as well as Rawls, is pretty hard to distinguish from garden variety modern liberalism (especially if you don’t make the assumption that liberals are not concerned with private enterprise and economic agency, which I think is mistaken). And they weren’t responding to that, but rather those who sought to avoid those things and find what I’ve called an escape hatch–some policy (however unlikely) that arguably could make their other preferred positions less coercive.

      What is interesting to me from Anderson’s piece is the shift to seeing authority in the workplace as about freedom to governance. In a lot of ways, this move is quite similar to the one BRG make –that if X is what the goal is, then Y is what one ought to believe. I’m all for Anderson pressing other self identified libertarians on this point, or everyone noting the convergence between this and the left (e.g. she cites Cory Robin on the whole preventing employees from urinating thing). If nothing else, I think we could all take better care to avoid saying ‘private’ when we mean corporate, for example, or ‘market’ for anything that’s not government. Anderson sounds a lot like the legal realists, who punctured these myths in the 30s the last time we had a truly serious economic crisis. I’d like to see more Hale and Cohen added to this whole thing–a lot of the intellectual work is already done for us.

      As for this, “But please note that not only are there non-libertarians who make too much of this divide, ”

      Perhaps I wasn’t being clear, but that is precisely what I meant to say here:

      “The difficulty here is that while libertarians tend to be the loudest critics of laws and regulations, it’s by no means limited to them. Neoliberals are also skeptical of labor regulations, and treat markets as presumptively legitimate. And conservatives who are openly hostile to civil libertarianism often take such positions as well.”

      This is why I suggested the importance of thinking about this through a cultural lens. In some ways, garden variety libertarianism simply takes what many others say to their logical conclusion.

      David Kaib

      July 14, 2012 at 3:23 pm


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: