The U. of Michigan prof joins us to discuss Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It) (2017) and “What Is the Point of Equality?” (1999).
What is government? Liz points to the historical use of the term to refer to not just the state, but any organized power relations, including the relation between a firm and its employees. What is it for something to be private? The term is relative, meaning that something is not private in itself but private with regard to some people: it’s not their concern. A state can be a public government if it’s nominally responsive to the concerns of the people, i.e., if it’s representative. A tyranny would be a private government.
With these terms in place, Liz wants to describe companies as private governments, and hence we should use the scholarship of political science to evaluate them and try to make them more just, more accountable to the people whose lives they affect.
The employer-employee relationship is defined by law as by default “at will” employment. The workers have no right to determine anything what they do within the workplace or how they do it, and even outside of work hours, employers can restrict employee speech or other activities, even if these restrictions don’t have a work-related rationale.
The book is thus a critique of the libertarian ethos driving contemporary political discussions that resents government power but fails to recognize that most of us are living under private dictatorships, that our employers have a much greater day-to-day influence over our lives than the state, and we should be just as defensive of our autonomy against that type of power.
We think of employment relations as voluntary due to the right of exit (you can always quit), but our relationship to our employers is very different from our relationship to a vendor we shop from. Since virtually all employers are private dictatorships (and Liz includes working within a government agency within this description), the chance to choose among these hardly constitutes freedom. And realistically, for most workers, the power imbalance is such that the worst that a worker can do (quit), is more of a hardship for the worker than for the employer.
The book goes into historical depth about Adam Smith, Thomas Paine and others who were champions of economic liberty and saw this as liberating in what we would now consider a “leftist” manner. Smith, for instance, thought that breaking up the guild system and getting rid of tariffs and other barriers to economic activity would result in nearly everyone being his or her own boss. He just didn’t know about the impending industrial revolution and how that would drive economic power to centralize in large firms. Smith argued for universal public education, and Paine argued for a universal social insurance.
Liz stresses that this book is about the philosophical task of uncovering the concepts involved here and why our current ideology makes us blind to both problems and solutions. She is not herself making concrete policy proposals. But still, you can see in a general way what sort of solutions are possible here: More representation of workers’ interests within company decision-making, a change in the legislation that currently establishes the relationship as “at will” by default (i.e., this is not a matter of government intervention in a heretofore private relationship; the relationship is already constituted by law, and Liz just wants that law to improve), removing health care from the responsibility of employers through a public program, potentially other measures to increase the feasibility of exit from a bad employment situation for low-skilled workers like a universal basic income, and measures such as campaign finance reform to keep the rich from exerting undue political power and so corrupting public decision-making in their favor.
Liz claims that the argument (represented within Liz’s book itself by a response essay by economist Tyler Cowen) that moving power in these ways more into the hands of workers will doom economic growth and hence be bad for utilitarian reasons over the long term, is simply not supported by empirical evidence. You can hear Liz being grilled by libertarian-leaning economist Russ Roberts in this episode of EconTalk.
Buy the book, and read “What Is the Point of Equality” online. See Liz’s page for links to many of her articles and talks, or look for her on YouTube for her many talks (she’s even been on Fox News!).