Elizabeth Anderson joins us to talk about her new book, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It).
How has the nature of employment changed throughout history? Is the typical American workplace a dictatorship? Do we need a worker’s bill of rights?
Show Notes and Further Reading
Anderson’s book is available here.
Here’s our previous episode with Prof. Anderson, on egalitarianism and the distribution of resources in a society.
Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts, I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Powell: Joining us today is Elizabeth Anderson. She’s the Arthur F. Thurnau professor and John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. She was, I believe, one of the earliest guests on this show.
Trevor Burrus: Definitely the first 30 or so, I would say.
Aaron Powell: Yeah, so welcome back to Free Thoughts, Professor Anderson.
Elizabeth Anderson: [00:00:30] It’s great to be back.
Aaron Powell: So today, we’re talking about your newest book, Private Government, How Employers Rule Our Lives and Why We Don’t Talk About It. I think this is a book, it’s to some extent written to libertarians, arguing that libertarians are missing an important aspect of the way that power plays out in society and one that we used to be concerned about, but seem to have lost interest in, I guess. [00:01:00] But you start at the beginning of the book, you start by saying that your focus is on specifically ideology. So maybe start by defining that term, what do you mean by ideology?
Elizabeth Anderson: Yes, so there’s two senses of the word ideology. One is neutral, and the other is pejoratives. First let me tell you about the neutral sense of the word, ideology, all [00:01:30] it means is that we all operate with a general picture of our social world, and how it works, what the basic institutions are, how people interact in our society, and we need these large scale pictures to navigate the world, and orient ourselves politically, to have … Take positions on what we favor or disfavor. I think [00:02:00] we need ideology because we don’t have direct contact or experience with the entire social world. We only are like little ants in a big colony. We don’t … We need a bigger picture, we don’t have direct access to that, and ideology gives us a picture, the meaning of a lot of our local activities by situating it in a larger understanding of how society works.
Now ideology could also [00:02:30] be negative though, if it leaves out important institutions and doesn’t allow us to understand what’s really going on, misrepresents how they’re actually operating, misrepresents potentials for change or other ways of organizing society, misrepresents causal connections in a way that justify institutions that aren’t really working out well [00:03:00] for people. Then we say that somethings ideological in a pejorative sense that is it’s distorting our understandings in a way that legitimates some unjust institution.
Trevor Burrus: That one in particular, you think that there’s a distinct problem with the way that bosses … Workers are dominated by their bosses and that’s [00:03:30] being ignored by ideology to some extent.
Elizabeth Anderson: Yes, that’s correct. In my book, I discuss a number of cases, which I think should outrage people who read the book. I’ve gotten outrage reactions from libertarians, just give you an example. Most workers in poultry slaughter houses are not allowed to use the bathroom for their entire eight hour shift. When [00:04:00] they’re … When they complain that they can’t hold it in for eight hours, their boss just tells them to urinate in their pants, or wear a diaper. Apple warehouse workers, or Apple retail workers have to stand in line for a half an hour unpaid every day while their persons and affects are searched. They don’t get paid for that, it’s half hour of their day wasted. [00:04:30] 90% of restaurant workers experience sexual harassment on the job. Even if we look at professional managerial, upper middle class workers, enormous numbers of them, millions of them get pressured by their boss to make a political contribution to their favorite political action committee or to show up in support for the boss’s [00:05:00] political candidate.
I could go on and on, there’s lots of cases where I think it’s pretty clear that managers are exercising extreme and unjust authority, oppressive authority over their workers. For the most part, this is legal, or if it’s not legal as in the case of sexual harassment, workers in practice have very little recourse.
Aaron Powell: I wanna then take a step back [00:05:30] because much of your book is about that world that you just described, and how we got there, and how we ought to think about it. But you begin with I think a claim that might be rather surprising to a lot of our audience.
Trevor Burrus: Or more surprising to actually the left.
Aaron Powell: Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: I don’t know how much of our audience, our audience might know.
Aaron Powell: Our audience might, but I think yeah … To the left, it’ll certainly be surprising left too. So you say you [00:06:00] write from a historical perspective, you said the ideal of a free market society used to be a cause of the left. Can you unpack that a bit for us?
Elizabeth Anderson: Yes.
Aaron Powell: Give us this historical picture?
Elizabeth Anderson: I’m defining the left as committed to an egalitarian society, a society in which human beings interact with each other on terms of equality. What I mean by that, by the society of equals [00:06:30] is best understood by contrast with the opposite of an egalitarian society, mainly a hierarchical society. Hierarchy, social hierarchy has three dimensions to it. You have hierarchies of authority, that’s where some people get to order other people around in a fairly unaccountable way. There are hierarchies of esteem, in which some people are honored and other people despised, [00:07:00] and the inferior people have to bow and scrape and humiliate themselves before the superior people. Then we have hierarchies of standing, and that has to do with whose interest counts when third parties are making decisions about them. This could be policy makers in the government, or it could just be ordinary people in civil society.
Aaron Powell: Can you give us an example of that, just to make it a little bit more concrete?
Elizabeth Anderson: [00:07:30] If you have … If Congress is considering some law, are they only considering the rich and the powerful, and their interests in passing that law, or are they considering the interests of everyone? That would be a hierarchy of standing if it’s just taken for granted that only some people count. According to some political scientists, the opinions and interests [00:08:00] of the bottom third of the population are pretty much ignored by Congress and really only the top third get any attention in contemporary legislation.
So an egalitarian society in which is a society of which people interact on terms of equal standing, everyone counts equally, their interests all count in the eyes of others. Equality of esteem, you don’t have any [00:08:30] group stigmatization or honor of other groups like aristocrats. Equality of authority, you don’t have anybody entitled to order somebody else around arbitrarily or with impunity.
Trevor Burrus: So it seems like as you point out a free market … If you’re thinking about the world of 1650, which is full of a bunch of unequal situations as you described, then a free market [00:09:00] is actually a step up from that.
Elizabeth Anderson: Absolutely, and I think I go back to the levelers in the English Civil War who were also free marketeers. They wanted to trade freely, and put petitions before Parliament to get that right, and they were arguing its monopoly. At the time, manufacturing was controlled by monopoly and [00:09:30] lands was locked up in monopolies of a tiny number of aristocratic landholders. The laws of inheritance were written in such a way that it was actually illegal for a landlord or a great aristocrat to break up his estate and sell it off into small pieces. The entire estate had to be inherited intact by the first born son. So all the land was captured and monopolized [00:10:00] by a tiny class of people. Manufacturing was monopolized by the great manufacturers and small craftsmen had to obey the rules that were laid down to them by the big manufacturers who ran the guilds.
Ordinary people really didn’t have many opportunities, so the levelers said, “We wanna get rid of this, we wanna get rid of aristocratic privilege.” They wanted to abolish the House of [00:10:30] Lords, they wanted free markets and lands. Abolition of monopoly, so anyone was free to trade with anyone they wanted. Get rid of all these oppressive regulations that determined the hours and places of trade. Why not allow any town to be open to trade? In those days, there were specific market places, and certain towns had a monopoly on those. So if you didn’t live in those towns, you had much lower opportunity.
[00:11:00] The levelers, of course, were completely right about this, and what they predicted was if you broke up the monopolies, opportunities would dramatically expand for ordinary people to be able to make money, and also practice their religion freely. They wouldn’t have to pay taxes to the Church of England, they could publish and print what they wanted, instead of having to submit to the censorship [00:11:30] of the Church of England. They could manufacture what they wanted without having to submit to the courts of the guilds, which were all run by the big manufacturers.
People would be both much more free, and also much more equal. People would be able to interact on a plane of equality, they wouldn’t have to bow and scrape before lords and they wouldn’t be subject to the arbitrary authority of the guild, the lords, [00:12:00] and all these other oppressive big wigs.
Trevor Burrus: Even Adam Smith who I have … I’m a big fan of, and I sometimes will get attacked as being some proponent of Adam Smith, that selfish capitalist guy didn’t care about the common man. But as you point out, Adam Smith was in the same boat as the levelers.
Elizabeth Anderson: Absolutely. In fact, the image of Adam Smith that is in the popular imagination is almost the opposite [00:12:30] of what he actually was.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, we say that all the time, but it’s really good to hear you say that.
Elizabeth Anderson: Yeah. Look, I’m an endless admirer of Adam Smith, his theory of moral sentiments is one of the greatest works of moral psychology ever written. It’s packed dense with empirically testable hypotheses, there’s actually a fellow here at University of Michigan, Ethan Cross, who is testing some of Smith’s hypotheses and [00:13:00] coming up with favorable empirical evidence for them.
Trevor Burrus: Cool.
Elizabeth Anderson: Smith was the great advocate of sympathy as the foundation of morality, and he argued that the market was also deeply based on sympathy. This is really important, he didn’t think that market interactions were based on selfishness. [00:13:30] His whole model of how successful market interactions arise is that each party needs a healthy appreciation of the interests of the other party that they’re transacting with. If you have no idea what the other person wants, or you don’t appeal to their interests, you’re not gonna get a successful negotiation. So on Smith’s view, it was … The market actually promotes sympathy [00:14:00] between individuals because it makes them more vividly aware of other people’s interests, and in a well functioning market with the rule of law, people realize that they have to appeal to other people’s interests to get their own interest satisfied. So the market for him was a great sphere in which people would learn to pay [00:14:30] regard to other people’s interests, wasn’t a selfish realm at all.
Aaron Powell: Then you say step … Stepping forward historically, you then make the claim that this Smith-ian vision of the market was in effect the original version of the American Dream?
Elizabeth Anderson: Absolutely, yes. The real place where this vision gets picked up is America, in particular, [00:15:00] the United States. The reason for this is, the historically unique position of the United States, perhaps in all of world history, you had extraordinarily high rates of self employment among the free population of the United States at the time Smith was writing at the of the American Revolution. [00:15:30] Perhaps about 90% of the free workers of the United States were self employed, that is they owned their own farm, or their little shop. That’s really astonishing because around 1776, if you look at the world population, probably around 95% of them were submitted to some kind of unfree labor. If it wasn’t slavery, it was indentured servitude or apprenticeship, some kind of debt [00:16:00] bondage, all kinds of involuntary servitude. In America, of course, there was slavery and that was a great stain on America’s claim to be promoting freedom, but among the free workers, those workers enjoyed astonishing levels of freedom and autonomy at work because they were their own bosses.
So Smith’s vision of how liberating free markets could be was really picked [00:16:30] up in the United States in a huge, huge way, and the great advocate of free market society was Tom Paine, who was also of course the most influential revolutionary pamphleteer. What made Paine important from a philosophical point of view is that he advocated the revolution not only because no taxation without representation, it wasn’t just [00:17:00] a complaint about how England was excessively taxing Americans, it was much more that if America could break free, it could setup a society, a free society of equals and that would be a model for the rest of the world of how to organize society on a non-aristocratic, non-hierarchical basis [00:17:30] that would bring prosperity and freedom to everyone.
Aaron Powell: Okay, so I’m gonna say let’s … Enough then now with the … This relentless optimism.
Elizabeth Anderson: Yeah.
Aaron Powell: So you then say though that, “What began as a hopeful inspiring egalitarian vision in the United States self-destructed in three ways.” Sorry, what were the three ways that this all went very wrong?
Elizabeth Anderson: Yeah. We see Paine’s vision, that free markets are gonna bring universal [00:18:00] self employment along with the United States, right up to the Civil War, Lincoln campaigned on it, his 1860 stump speech, which you can find on the web, his address to the Wisconsin Agricultural Society lays it out explicitly. The problem is the Civil War brought it all down, even though the Civil War was actually fought largely over slavery, that is Lincoln wanted to strangle slavery [00:18:30] and the slave states rebelled. The Civil War ended up propelling the Industrial Revolution in the United States.
The Industrial Revolution was the absolute key to the collapse of this older vision from the levelers through Paine, and Smith, and Lincoln of how free markets would lead to a free society of equals with everyone self [00:19:00] employed. The key issue with the Industrial Revolution is that it created enormous economies of scale. Large scale factories arise with huge concentrations of capital, railroads, these are really huge concentrations of capital. They can’t be worked by just one hand or the hand of a family, they have to be worked by dozens, hundreds of [00:19:30] people, in some cases thousands. Once you get that, you get the employment relationship. People are no longer their own boss, now they have a boss who tells them what to do often in arbitrary and oppressive ways. That was really the key turning point, was the Industrial Revolution and that was the point at which the left, the egalitarians, turned against free markets [00:20:00] because what they’re fundamentally against wasn’t markets in general, it was actually labor markets. What they were opposed to was the oppression of factory labor and the oppression of workers under the thumbs of their bosses.
Trevor Burrus: You have a job of putting out something that a lot of people aren’t aware of that there were … You could be a very big Adam Smith fan, [00:20:30] and then also be into free markets, the general concept, but also be into high levels of worker protections. Of course, Marx didn’t, he didn’t disregard Adam Smith and think that he was dumb, he thought it was just a different kind of situation than before. Then there are people, who libertarians … We have Thomas Hodgkin, for example, who was a very big free market guy, and a really big labor rights, labor unions guy. Something that seems incompatible today, but it’s much more of a continuum and [00:21:00] as you pointed out, that Industrial Revolution and the situation of the workers is what changes everything. It does even bring about the Marxian critique.
Elizabeth Anderson: That’s exactly right, yes. Once you get the Industrial Revolution, and there is something ironic about this because if you look at who the most radical workers were during the Industrial Revolution, it wasn’t actually the factory workers. Marx was wrong about that, the most radical workers were the craftsmen, [00:21:30] and the reason is the craftsmen were getting wiped out. The Industrial Revolution just bankrupted them all, whereas the factory workers, that was everything they knew, was working in the factory, so they were actually had more of a stake of working within the system rather than toppling it over. That’s why they organized into labor unions, it wasn’t to destroy the system, it was rather just to get more of the fruits of the massively higher productivity that the Industrial Revolution was bringing [00:22:00] about. So ironically the labor movement far from being a revolutionary movement, was really working within the system much more than the craftsmen, who saw they were doomed if they didn’t topple it all together.
Aaron Powell: You make the … You use the provocative phrase when you’re talking about the structure we find ourselves in now with people employed in large firms, this post-Industrial Revolution world. You [00:22:30] say that we … Well basically all work for a whole bunch of communist dictatorships, so how is most of us … We live in the United States, we don’t live under communism, we like to think we live in a free country, and we don’t go to work thinking of it as a [crosstalk 00:22:50], I’m headed across the iron curtain.
Elizabeth Anderson: Right.
Aaron Powell: How is the typical American large [00:23:00] firm a communistic dictatorship?
Elizabeth Anderson: Okay, well first of all, let’s just get clear, it is a government, it’s a form of government. Okay, and it’s a form of government because you have government wherever you have some people giving orders to others that they’re able to back up with sanctions. Certainly employers are able to do that, they give orders to their subordinates, and if you don’t obey those orders, you could be fired or demoted or your pay could be cut, [00:23:30] or they could just yell at you and harass you and so forth. There’s all kinds of sanctions that are available to bosses.
Trevor Burrus: I just wanna stop. Would that include, just to make sure we’re clear on this, a club, the benevolent order of elks?
Elizabeth Anderson: Correct. There’s all kinds of governments, and my view government is absolutely pervasive. We’re not talking about the state, right? The state is just one form of governments, which asserts a monopoly on religion to make use of force. But there’s all kinds of other governments, [00:24:00] right, so clubs have to be governed, churches, all kinds of things have a government. Then the question is how does the government relate to the governed, to those people who have to take the orders? Here I draw distinction between public government and private government.
If something is kept private from you, it means it’s none of your business, you’re not allowed to know about it, you don’t have any [00:24:30] standing to insist that, that thing be organized for your interests. If it’s private to you, then it is your business, and you’re allowed to keep other people out from meddling with it.
If something is a public thing, if a government is public, what it means is all the governed, everyone who is governed under that government, gets standing. They have a say in how the [00:25:00] government is run, they get to know everything about its operations, right then, the government is a public thing. So it turns out though that the vast majority of workplaces are private governments in the sense that management can keep all kinds of vital information secret from the workers, the workers don’t necessarily know even if their job is gonna be around next week. They can just get [00:25:30] notice overnight, means they can’t plan ahead for that catastrophe. Workers don’t get to elect their managers, managers can issue orders, and workers really just have to suck up and obey.
The form of government is a private government and basically it’s a dictatorship, the constitution of the typical workplace is a dictatorship because the workers can’t elect [00:26:00] their managers and don’t really have any say over the orders that are issued to them. Now there are exceptions with if you have … If you’re represented by a labor union, but not many workers are represented by unions anymore.
Trevor Burrus: Now on some of that could be … But what you’re saying could be really interesting. On some level it could be mundane a listen, so is a private house a dictatorship? I could walk in and say I’m not gonna take my shoes off, and I’m gonna wipe [00:26:30] my mouth on your tablecloth and all this stuff, and you can make arbitrary rules if you’re there and say get out, and I don’t have any say in that if I go into that private house. So would that be a dictatorship too or is it not? Is there in … If it is then why can’t private workplaces also be dictatorships?
Elizabeth Anderson: Yeah. In my view a government has to cover a domain of life, so if you’re just a guest in somebody’s house, sure they can lay down the rules, [00:27:00] but that’s not a whole domain of your life because you’re just gonna be there, right, for a couple of hours having dinner with them or something. It’s when … Government exists over domains of your life like work or your capacity as a citizen or subject of a state.
Trevor Burrus: Well depends on how you define it though.
Elizabeth Anderson: Now of course, there is a government of the family, and kids definitely, right? [00:27:30] They’re living under a dictatorship, and there are reasons for that. Mainly that they can’t … They’re not capable of self government. Of course, we hope that the dictatorship is benevolent, that parents love their children, so they’re not gonna be oppressive to them. There’s probably no other way to run parenting other than some kind of dictatorship. But in the workplace, we have other options. Here we’re talking [00:28:00] about autonomous adults should have standing in a major domain of their lives, where they’re spending about a third of their life as adults, of their waking hours at work.
Trevor Burrus: But in work, that’s not necessarily a dictatorship. You could … I … Whereas you said you’ve just … Going over someone’s house to eat. But still in a private domain, my house, my rules and everyone is okay with that, or they don’t go there. It seems like [00:28:30] there’s not a categorical distinction you’re making, it’s just actually how much of your life is there, and work is not necessarily a dictatorship, correct?
Elizabeth Anderson: Well, let’s put it this way, the default constitution of the workplace is a dictatorship. That’s just as legal point of view, we have employment at will, that’s a default regime, and that means that the employer can [00:29:00] hire, fire you for any or no reason. So there’s a level of arbitrariness there, the people can be fired, demoted, their pay cut for any or no reason, it’s arbitrary. It’s unaccountable, and that’s what makes it in my words, a private government.
Trevor Burrus: You could also quit for no reason, though.
Elizabeth Anderson: That’s right, but quitting carries enormous costs-
Trevor Burrus: [00:29:30] Often to the business.
Elizabeth Anderson: For the workers.
Trevor Burrus: Often to the business too though.
Elizabeth Anderson: Sometimes, or sometimes not. It depends on how many people are lined up, certainly in times of high employment or in regions of high employment. Employers don’t really care that much about turnover and you could … You see a lot of workplaces with pretty high turnover where it shows how little regard they actually have for the workers.
Aaron Powell: Then this is why you would reject into the … A … Call it typical libertarian response to the claim that [00:30:00] the firm is a communist dictatorship as another form of government is to say look, I always have that option to exit. That when I’m living within the bounds of a country, I’m subject to its laws unless I’m gonna leave and leaving … If I wanted to immigrate from the United States, it would be incredibly costly and might be impossible, but if I wanted to jump ship to another [00:30:30] think tank that would be, if not easy, at least easier than moving to Europe.
That possibility of exit then gives us not only a greater degree of freedom because we can always just say, “Screw it, I’m going elsewhere,” but also gives us some check because even if an employer isn’t extraordinarily harmed by a single employee [00:31:00] leaving, if they have an environment. You’re creating an environment where all of your employees are unhappy, or where employees … you can’t build up any human capital in the firm because employees leave … Really rapidly is not a good way to become successful in the marketplace, but you don’t think that, that’s a persuasive counter?
Elizabeth Anderson: Well, there are a couple things to say here. Certainly the freedom of exit is a very important freedom for workers, [00:31:30] and it ought to be enhanced. It’s worth keeping in mind that in recent years, there’s been a dramatic increase in labor contracts where workers are forced to leave their human capital behind if they quit the firm. Their non-compete clauses that say you can’t work in the same industry for a number of years if you work for us.
Trevor Burrus: No, most libertarians are against those.
Elizabeth Anderson: People have to sign that. I [00:32:00] find that pretty outrageously unjust-
Trevor Burrus: So do we.
Elizabeth Anderson: Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: Most libertarians are against those.
Elizabeth Anderson: Well and good for libertarians, you ought to be against them. It used to be it’s only a tiny number of knowledge workers who are subject to those things, now you’ve got Jimmy John sandwich maker who can’t jump over to Subway. But one of the difficulties with relying on exit alone to deal with these problems [00:32:30] is that what do people have … What jobs can they exit to? What jobs can they enter? It’s just another dictatorship. I have a big problem with that. As we see in environments where workers don’t have much bargaining power, their options are even worse. There are whole regions of the country with chronically high unemployment. We have business cycles [00:33:00] with … Where you have people go for years with high unemployment. Right, they really … The exit option isn’t really working very well for people like that.
Trevor Burrus: It seems odd that your … It sounds like you’re defining all at will employment relationships at dictatorships, which it seems like you need more for a dictatorship than an at will employment relationship because as again, it does empower workers to some. But you seem like you would need oppressive bosses and you’ve mentioned [00:33:30] horrible things that I don’t doubt exist. It would be astounding to me if there weren’t horrible bosses.
The thing that you’re trying to do though is empower workers to be able to move around and increase their wellbeing, and that’s what strikes me as interesting in your book because you think of farming for example.
We’re going back to the story we were telling about Adam Smith, so farming sucks, right? Even though it’s self sufficient, there’s a lot of really bad things about farming, especially your wellbeing is very much tied to the weather [00:34:00] and you have to be the one who works, so even moving into that industrial life in say like Lowell, Massachusetts with the women going to work in the garment factories there. So yeah, they were under a dictatorship. They probably were leaving a dictatorship of their families on the farm, but they got one day a week off, and they had a library, and they got wages that were guaranteed to them and didn’t move with the weather, and that was a trade off they’re willing to make. Sometimes it seems like that’s … Self sufficiency is great, but that also means uncertainty in the possibility of extreme loss. That means that [00:34:30] today, if you wanna start a business, you trade that off to security of a salary that you’re contractually obligated to pay someone, but less freedom in other regards, so why is it okay that some workers make that decision? Not everyone can be an entrepreneur.
Elizabeth Anderson: That’s quite right. In fact, I don’t think that the ideal economy would be one of universal self employment especially in modern conditions, they’re a lot better [00:35:00] than they are in the Industrial Revolution, they’re a lot less polluted. Here I’m talking about in the advance countries, obviously if you go to El Salvador you’re gonna see horrible sweatshops that aren’t much different from what they had in the Industrial Revolution. Even in the United States, there are sweatshops and garment factories and so forth, that are pretty horrible and often staffed by undocumented immigrants who don’t really have any effective power or rights in society.
[00:35:30] My point isn’t that there shouldn’t be government at work. I think any large scale organization is going to need some kind of government that’s gonna involve authority relations, some kind of hierarchy of offices in which some people are giving orders to others. The theory of the firm and economics explains why efficient production on a large scale typically requires some kind of hierarchy that is a government [00:36:00] at work.
My objection isn’t to authority at work or government at work, my objection is to arbitrary unaccountable authority, that’s what private government is. I think that workers being subject to dictatorship should have some remedies to that, and [standardly 00:36:22] in political philosophy, right? If we look at dictatorship, it’s got a lot of problems, dictators have tendencies to abuse their [00:36:30] underlings. We’ve devised remedies, you get a bill of rights, and you get some voice. You make that government in some way a public thing that’s accountable to the governed.
Aaron Powell: I’m curious about the work that the word, arbitrary, is doing here, and what you mean by that, and what you mean by unaccountable because it seems like the objection as I understand it, is not [00:37:00] necessary … Is not, as you said, to the fact that there are people who have authority in workplace, or even … In necessarily, the fact that they’re unaccountable because if I’m an entrepreneur leading the business, and I say … As they say in Silicon Valley, we need to pivot our business, so we’re gonna switch from being an instant messaging app to a social payments app. [00:37:30] The … It makes sense that I as the head of the firm, get to make that decision, and that the engineers employed for me can’t say, “No, no, no,” because that’s the nature of entrepreneurial-ship and having someone who’s in charge of the product. That’s unaccountable in a certain way, it could also potentially be arbitrary because I might not have good reasons for switching from an instant messaging app to a social payments app. But that’s not necessarily as much the problem as the particular uses like what you object to.
So when you [00:38:00] talk about the abuses, it’s the forcing employees to urinate on themselves, or dictating what sorts of stuff they can do in their home life, those kinds of much more almost authoritarian uses of it. So is it … Do you think that … Do we need to get rid of the unaccountability and the arbitrariness simply because it enables these other things, no matter what other benefits it might have, or … [00:38:30] So there’s … Or do you think there’s just something inherently wrong with the very notion of someone at a firm being in a position where they can dictate what the firm does and the employees can’t override them?
Elizabeth Anderson: Right. First of all, I’ve great respect for entrepreneurs and often it takes somebody with a big vision to really bring about some dramatic innovation. [00:39:00] For the most part, workers don’t have any complaints if say some dramatic new product is the new vision for this company, workers don’t really complain about that because they’re still gonna be doing basically the same kind of labor, it’s just now on a new project. You direct your software engineers to build this new cool software, and they’re okay with that. It’s [00:39:30] not really … The complaint isn’t about the entrepreneurial vision, and the people at the top being able to direct the larger course, the strategy of the company, it’s more about the complaints are more focused on the character of the managerial relation, and in particular how it is restraining choices by [00:40:00] workers that they really ought to have.
So one clear boundary is between what you do at work, and what you do off duty in your private life. Under employment at will, those boundaries are effaced, and that’s really problematic. So just to give an example that I think should be of interest to libertarians, about half of all workers get [00:40:30] drug tested. I’m not a fan of drug addiction, or recreational drugs, but if you want to do that on the weekends, I don’t think your boss has any business firing you at work. Now if you come to work high, and your work is incompatible with being high, then of course, sure, you can be fired. But of course, drugs, drug tests test drugs that were [00:41:00] only consumed over the weekends, or on vacation. It seems to me that boss … It’s really none of boss’s business to trample on people’s private recreational choices.
Aaron Powell: Well let me ask about that because so … God, was it a couple few years ago the “Has Justine Landed Yet,” hashtag thing on Twitter, where a woman who worked for, I think it was a PR agency maybe, I don’t remember, or she was in PR for her firm, [00:41:30] hopped on a plane to Africa. Right before getting on the plane, so being without internet, she made a joke-
Elizabeth Anderson: Right.
Aaron Powell: An extremely racist-
Elizabeth Anderson: Yes.
Aaron Powell: Joke, or at least an extremely racially insensitive joke, in very poor taste, and it trended, so the “Justine … Has Justine Landed Yet” hashtag was everyone knew she was gonna get fired the moment she landed. So that was … [00:42:00] She was … I don’t know that she was traveling on her … I think it was a vacation, so this was her own time, but this was an instance where a firm … It seems like the only option the firm had was to fire her because it would’ve been-
Elizabeth Anderson: So, let’s be clear about this-
Aaron Powell: Extremely damaging to their business.
Elizabeth Anderson: Yeah, I actually think in this case, look, it’s an outrageous internet pile on, sure she said something that was really stupid and offensive, [00:42:30] but please, the idea that you should lose your job over something like this I think is really crazy.
Aaron Powell: Well I … No I agree that pile ons-
Elizabeth Anderson: Heres a way to wit … Now there are certain cases, if you have the spokespers … Somebody who’s acting for the firm in the capacity of a spokesperson like the leading executives or maybe even official PR person, then there is legitimate expectation that what they say [00:43:00] is in some sense speaking for the firm and their attitudes even off duty have implications for the firm. I think a small number of workers at the higher ranks and official spokespeople, then I think it is proper for the firms to say, “We’re gonna distance ourselves.” But if it’s just some ordinary low level person, I think they should be entitled to freedom of speech.
There’s a way to protect [00:43:30] workers in this way, and simultaneously protect the firm. If workers had something equivalent to first amendment rights against their employer, free speech rights so that they couldn’t be fired for this, then the employer would have a perfect excuse, why didn’t they fire them, because they’re not allowed to. This is the usefulness of a bill of rights, it would secure the freedom of speech of workers, [00:44:00] but also secure the firm against any backlash on account of that because the firm has a great excuse, “We’re just not allowed to fire people for saying stuff like this. They have their private life, they have their independent rights, and we can’t fire them for saying something stupid on Twitter or whatever.”
Trevor Burrus: As the practicing lawyer in the room, I have to point out that this is … There’s an irony about what you’re saying about the thesis of your whole book, a lot of what these businesses are doing when they fire someone for a Facebook post [00:44:30] or Twitter post, is just been created by government involvement through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The ability to sue on discrimination and desperate impact claims, which is the government has created, so the firms have to be hyper vigilant that they can’t get a claim against them for a racially biased say serving … If you’re Chick Fil-A and you have someone who’s tweeting this stuff out, your lawyers will tell you because of the government’s ability to authorize suits against you to fire [00:45:00] those people immediately ‘cause everyone of those people, if they’re sexist, if they make these comments, they’re a liability to the company, and they can create a hostile work environment lawsuit against you. That’s what I would tell any employer on the planet, and that’s interesting.
Elizabeth Anderson: What I would say is-
Trevor Burrus: The government has made them less-
Elizabeth Anderson: There’s a difference between what you say at work and what you say off duty.
Trevor Burrus: I wouldn’t say that. Knowing the law, I would say that they’re going to find those employees, they’re going to find their racists, and they’re going to [00:45:30] say, “Do you really think this employee at your company didn’t treat black people differently and create an environment that is now we’re going to sue you for billions of dollars?” I’m just saying that, that is why they do it.
Elizabeth Anderson: Well right but-
Trevor Burrus: It’s coming from the government-government.
Elizabeth Anderson: You could rework the law. I don’t think that what somebody says off duty, they’re not addressing their fellow workers. People can have all kinds of obnoxious opinions off work.
Trevor Burrus: The irony is this-
Elizabeth Anderson: [00:46:00] You can insulate that from how they behave at work.
Trevor Burrus: I find it just ironic because a lot of these policies, so sexual harassment and things like this, which you mentioned previously, the change in the law in this originated with people who are afraid of the things that you’re talking about in this book. They were trying to change the workplace for domination and they were trying to make it more hospitable to people of color and people indifferent, and less sexual harassment claims.
[00:46:30] So in doing that, they created an extremely hostile to free speech regime, and this is interesting because in some of your prescriptions, I think that we should … If you do instantiate more workplace voice, and more labor union rights and stuff, we have to ask the question, are we going to have a backlash where it’s impossible for workers to get hired because of the extreme cost? There are a bunch of things that are unintended consequences. I’m sayin’ this an unintended consequence of what you’re talking about is the worker free speech problem that you highlight in your book.
Elizabeth Anderson: [00:47:00] Well I think it wouldn’t be hard to legally define the workplace narrowly in terms of how this worker is interacting with coworkers and setting aside how the worker interacts with random people off duty.
Aaron Powell: I had a quest-
Elizabeth Anderson: You can just bar the introduction of [00:47:30] some stupid Twitter remark or whatever into a sexual harassment trial.
Aaron Powell: I wanted to ask about … One way that you’re saying we could address these issues is through changing the legal regime, worker bill of rights, basically changing the relationship that the law enables or allows within the firm. But I wanted to ask about [00:48:00] other sorts of changes and how they might impact the concerns that you raise in the book because to some extent, the system as you describe it now is a result of technological changes. Like the Industrial Revolution was a set of technological changes that enabled new kinds of businesses to operate and to operate at scales that made it … That made other arrangements less profitable, or unable to compete. That we [00:48:30] invented manufacturing in certain ways, but that because of the way that the tech worked, it was easiest to do that in these concentrated firms. But we have a lot of technological changes now that I wonder if those push back in the other direction.
So for one, it would seem like you would be something of a fan of the gig economy, especially if people are able to earn a living [00:49:00] within the gig economy, where everyone … ‘Cause you talk in the book about everyone being effectively a freelancer. Do you think that the gig economy is a step in the right direction? Then do you think that … I had emailed you … Yesterday, I had come across some research for a prior podcast, the decentralized organization building system online that would let everyone have stakes and [00:49:30] vote and have contracted payment and stuff, but it’s done without a central authority and it’s done without arbitrary control. These are the kinds of things that simply from a communications’ technology and a financial technology stand point would not have been possible even five or 10 years ago. So do you think that even in the absence of perhaps legal changes, we may see a move back to the kind of world that Adam Smith envisioned simply because the tech is allowing us to?
Elizabeth Anderson: [00:50:00] That’s really interesting. There are a lot of people for whom the gig economy works. The downside of the gig economy is precarity, right? It’s very hard to cobble together an actual living, and on top of that too, for people who want to look back on their working life as something, which really adds up to something, right? There are a lot of people who [00:50:30] have ambitions for a career, right? They want to actually build on their skills and be able to produce something bigger than just a million random tasks that they fulfilled. I don’t think that the … The gig economy definitely works for some people, and that’s a great option for them.
But for most people, I think it has too much precariousness to it, and for a lot of people, it just doesn’t carry [00:51:00] the same kind of meaningfulness as a career, which you build your skills and work on some larger projects with other people that add up to something big. That’s why maybe this alternative, this kind of non-hierarchical networking kind of economy, where groups of people can work together and produce something big, but on a plane of equality, I think that’s an incredibly interesting idea whether networking will be able [00:51:30] to deliver the productivity and the high degree of coordination that the modern workplace under hierarchical management does. I think I’m all in favor of experimentation along those lines, and let’s see where it takes us.
Trevor Burrus: But for right now, your biggest concern as you’ve said in the book, it’s not that you’re against exit, and it’s not that you’re against markets and things like this. But your biggest concern [00:52:00] is highlighting the abuses that the workers are experiencing. Toward the fixing that, you basically you have focused on is your best solution but you don’t actually lay it out. But your book is first just an argument for explaining what the problem is, but is giving greater voice to workers. Can you talked a little bit about that?
Elizabeth Anderson: Yes, right. If we look at traditional firms, not these high tech network things. What I argue is, we [00:52:30] should really be looking at the German example of co-determination, it’s an alternative to labor unions. Under co-determination, workers work jointly with capital honors to manage the workplace, both at the factory floor level or the shop floor level, and even some of the larger strategic decisions is having to do with things like plant closings. [00:53:00] Germany’s very prosperous, you don’t see high unemployment in Germany, looks like you don’t have a lot of negative side effects, workers have a genuine voice in that system. Obviously it’s not the same as a pure socialist workers cooperative. It’d be fun to explore that option too, I don’t think that’s really viable for most workers ‘cause they can’t scrape up enough capital to actually own the firm. So I think this an interesting middle position [00:53:30] that ought to be explored for American workers.
Aaron Powell: That’s for listening. This episode of Free Thoughts was produced by Tess Terrible and Evan Banks. To learn more, visit us at www.libertarianism.org.