Shots fired on Bleeding Heart Libertarians by lefties over at Crooked Timber. Everyone piled on. Cowen has a few thoughts, as does Tabarrok. Wilkinson throws his hat in, sort of. Noah Smith has something to say as well. That’s not even all. And there are REPLIES. Seriously, this is great stuff.
There’s so much ground covered by these folks, there’s not much for me to say. But I did have a few supplemental thoughts.
1. The Crooked Timber piece is chock full of links to ridiculous types of abuses in the workplace. I agree with Cowen though — because something does happen doesn’t mean it’s a pervasive problem. I’m glad Corey Robin has been keeping a list of absurd abuses about people pissing their pants, but empirics 101 demands more. There’s maybe 100 solid links in this piece. But there’s 300 million Americans.
2. Weird rebuttal of the Universal Basic Income:
Let’s say we decided that our freedom threshold would be met by ensuring that someone who didn’t work wouldn’t fall into poverty. The current, rather miserly, poverty line for a single person in the United States is $11,170. Providing a UBI of $11,170 would require taxing roughly 40 percent of current GDP. Tax revenues now consume 20% of GDP, so tax rates would have to double—or we could simply expropriate the top 1%, who command roughly 20% of national income. A UBI guaranteeing the equivalent of the annual minimum wage—$15,080—would require taxing roughly 50% of current GDP.
Where’s that coming from? No one wants to just tack that on to the awful welfare state we have now, and surely not EVERY American will require a payout. Jessica Flannagan at BHL called bullshit on this for good reason.
3. Libertarianism does need a better theory of private power. Yes, there are power asymmetries in the workplace. This is probably not generally a problem. Where it is a problem is in places that are poor and that there are not a large variety of employment opportunities. Big surprise: those tend to be THE SAME PLACES. Now, do you think a real solution for people in these places is to make it harder for them to get fired? The answer is no. These people don’t need security in their shit jobs. They need better job opportunities to they can tell their shit employers to fuck themselves. Not trying to be vulgar, but this seems absurdly obvious to me. More workplace regulation that simply makes inadequate labor markets more rigid will not help anyone.
4. This goes along with 3 but I want to break it out: workers who hate their jobs but feel like they can’t leave for lack of opportunity don’t need job protection, they need viable alternatives.
5. This is not meant to be cheeky or to suggest at all that the authors of all of these pieces are incapable of studying this issue, but I am curious as to how many of the authors of these pieces have worked anywhere in their adult professional lives outside of academia.
6. I work for a financial institution. As part of my employment I work incredibly long hours doing tasks that are not always fun. But it’s not only that. Much of my job requires me to adhere to a number of compliance related restrictions that I think are entirely reasonable but that greatly circumscribe my freedom to engage in certain transactions and, at times, to even speak in public about certain subjects. These are not arbitrary acts of tyranny by my superiors. This is all relatively clear in my terms of employment, so I know this isn’t exactlywhat the CTers were criticizing, but it’s not NOT what they were against either. My point here is that I wonder if the authors have considered the extent to which proscribing certain worker liberties is essential for commerce to take place.
7. The theory of the firm is needed in this discussion. It’s a great mystery of market economies how centralized forms of corporate governance become so powerful when much of our economic intuition is based around the idea that bigness and centralization and inefficient. Corporations really are analogous to governments. That’s worth discussing. But it’s not like living in Nazi Germany, as the CTers suggest. No one asks to be born, much less born in a certain place. Government’s don’t ask for consent. We enter into contracts with employers. Hate on them, but it’s a fundamental distinction regardless.
This isn’t to say the CTers don’t have a point. Libertarians really really really need to discuss private power more. Some regulations are probably freedom enhancing. Libertarians should be prepared to give some ground, as should liberals. I see the CTers getting angry that the right beats up on unions for being coercive but gives employers a break (“On the flip side, libertarians often have little problem in finding the activities of unions to be coercive.”). But I don’t see them realizing that they are the mirror image. Both sides are clearly practicing some kind of hypocrisy.
But I can’t stress this enough. People who are made to pee on themselves by bosses who abuse them don’t need regulation. They need a way out. A basic income is a start. Better policies that more evenly promote economic growth are another. Eliminating bad land use regulations that lower the barriers to city living for the lower class would be another excellent way to help. These are far less controversial, are nowhere near as fraught with unintended adverse consequences, and would be infinitely more helpful.