Voice Beyond Recourse and Rights (Workplace Domination Part Four)

I’ve been putting off finishing my series on the Bleeding Hearts/Crooked Timber debates, because Chris Bertram had suggested that there might be a reply to critics. Now he says it might be a while longer, so I’m going to finish up.

In my last post, I suggested that none of the methods proposed by the Crooked Timber bloggers could actually guarantee “voice” instead of merely reciprocal power. Most of their proposed solutions, like workplace regulations, offer only rights and institutional recourse. But “voice” is special, and especially central to our conceptions of positive, active liberty: in the political sphere we contrast the ability to seek redress of rights-infractions in a court of law with the ability to protest and deliberate about what rights we should have and how our society should be organized. Even voting for representatives isn’t enough to guarantee “voice” if the choice offered to citizens forecloses some options they would like to consider, as Kenneth Arrow has proven it must.

Following Jim Bohman and Hannah Arendt, I’d suggest that the ultimate source of “voice” lies in issue selection, the capacity to initiate deliberation rather than simply responding to choices offered by bureaucrats. Neither unions nor regulators can offer this opportunity: as they grow in size and complexity, it becomes more and more difficult for an ordinary worker to offer a unique solution and to have that opinion heard. This is why Arendt called bureaucracy “the rule of No Man,” critically echoing the self-satisfied pronouncements of the Federalists that democracy requires “the rule of laws, and not the rule of men.” Perhaps I cannot be dominated (arbitrarily interfered with) by a law, a rule, or a procedure, but neither can I exercise the important human capacity to engage fully in the constitution of our shared world.

How, then, can we guarantee voice? I have three suggestions: the No Asshole Rule, Workplace Democracy, and Syndicalism.

The No Asshole Rule is a book by Richard Sutton that I often recommend. It’s a great mix of Harvard Business Review cases studies and common sense advice, but the punchline is simple: assholes are bad for business, so identify them, put them on notice, and if they don’t shape up, get rid of them. (This is precisely the kind of soft evaluation that strict union rules make impossible.)

Workplace Democracy: Have you ever thought that your workplace was overly political, too dominated by gossip and loyalties? Well, you were wrong: the truth is, your workplace is not political enough. Workers can and have deliberated and voted on matters as diverse as pay and management, workplace safety, and hiring and firing. Of course, as an introvert I know that this can seem a daunting task: too many meetings, too much social coordination, too many opportunities for status and exclusion games. It’s exhausting, and I can readily see the ways in which the ultimate recourse to group decision-making removes many of the safeguards supplied by constitional provisions that guarantee procedural justice. But if you want voice, this is how to get it. If you don’t like the idea of workplace democracy, then perhaps these objections point to a problem with voice.

Syndicalism: This term has a long and variegated history, but syndicalism basically just means worker ownership of the firm. The real problem with instituting no asshole rules and more democratic procedures in the workplace is that it pits workers against shareholders. Yet there are already corporate forms, like partnerships, where workers participate in decision-making because they are part-owners of the company. If they make good decisions, they receive dividends; if they make bad decisions, they may have to give up some of their salary or even go out of business.

Of course, part of the special history of syndicalism is the forceful expropriation of currently existing physical plant and machinery by the workers. But pacifist syndicalism is also possible, and many community development corporations are organized in basically this way. The real problem for syndicalism is how to allocate savings and manage reinvestment: a successful industry will produce profits in excess of what should be reinvested in the same industry. If those profits are invested in another industry, the workers in the first industry becomes owners of the capital and physical plant used by workers in the second industry. This problem is probably insurmountable: savings equals investment and investment creates inequality. That’s probably okay because investment also produces increased productivity, i.e. a bigger pie to divide less evenly.

One solution is to conclude that it is better to forgo voice in the workplace and simply to advocate for a generous welfare state and a Basic Income Guarantee so that each worker has adequate exit options. This is what Tyler Cowen and Matt Yglesias conclude, and I can’t help thinking that their critics at Crooked Timber were unwilling to recognize that they might have good reason for coming to that conclusion because the critics are so excited to paint libertarians as heartless.

Another solution is to advocate for “property-owning democracy,” fully cognizant that this may create a smaller savings rate and leave future generations worse off, as Rawls did. But if this is your stance, you shouldn’t be satisfied with regulations and unions: you should advocate for a fuller reorganization of the political economy beyond simple workplace antagonism. This the Crooked Timber bloggers have not done.

5 thoughts on “Voice Beyond Recourse and Rights (Workplace Domination Part Four)”

  1. Could you satisfy voice-as-agenda-control through a fourth method, exit+entrepreneurship? I could leave any arrangement I didn't like, and have freedom to propose any new arrangement I think would be good, subject only to how many people I could get to go along.

    This would be a sort of idealized capitalism in the economic realm, Millianism in the social realm, and a kind of Schumpeterian market for votes in the political realm.

    1. In general that sounds good, in a world of abundance. But it may be *too* horizontal: the moment I see that my boss is getting old and tired, I can quit, start a new business that directly competes with his, and drive him into bankruptcy. This is a real concern when you're dealing with highly mobile IT professionals. I'm not sure that world is worse, but the logistics seem a bit hard to work out: how many businesses can I start? Do I have a constantly replenishing supply of capital? What if I'm a really good worker but a really bad manager? If I've left other firms and driven them out of business, can a new employer hold that against me?

      This is more Shock material than public policy, sadly.

      1. I'm going to suggest that it's not much *less* likely to be impemented than Syndicalism. 🙂

        I don't think you necessarily need to go as far as you imagine to make this work. Remember that "voice" isn't the same thing as always getting what I want. So what's required is that I be able to have something like a "fair shot" at making a go of my competing company (or cult or political movement), not that I be able to actually drive my old employer out of business.

        And I don't think the fact that I might be a good worker but not a good manager is any more relevant than the fact that, say, if we had a syndicate I might have great ideas but not be good at expressing them at the meetings. Or that the business I *like* may not be a *successful* one, even. Making use of your "voice" is always going to require *some* skill.

        What strikes me as standing in the way of our current system living up to this ideal is not that lots of businesses fail, or even that capital is limited, but that there's differential access to capital based on factors other than how good my business idea is.

        1. I've been rethinking my response, actually. I think that would be a pretty great world, but it may not satisfy stringent voice requirements. You're basically saying that there's a way to make "exit" mimic the good systemic effects of "voice." So beyond any pragmatic implementation problems, it undermines loyalty and the gradual accrual of social trust.

          Consider the analogous nation-state system, where you can easily leave your country and start a new one. The value of patriotism in such a system is low. (Or, actually, it's highly valued because it is rare and hard to effectively and honestly signal.) Plus, it assumes the wrong kind of abundance: something like a continually available frontier, or life in the asteroid belt with millions of tiny city-state political economy experiments. Basically, Stephenson's Snow Crash or Sterling's Schismatrix, which is why I mention Shock. Because of the attendant difficulties in earning and signaling loyalty, this Exit-Plus might actually hamper the production of some of the important beings and doings in a manner akin to Sandel's "unencumbered individual" critique of liberalism.

          1. Fair enough. As you might guess, this sort of idealized market system isn’t one I’m actually terribly inclined to endorse (in part because the lack of the relevant “frontiers” that you point out means access to the resources entrepreneurs would need are under legacy control).

            But I think the discussion points up another element of voice besides the agenda-setting aspect you make central to it in the original post. In some way, it’s not just that I want to be able to part of _a_ group where I can influence the agenda, I want to be part of _this_ group. I’d hazard the hypothesis that voice is particularly important in contexts where the group tends to have an identity-constituting function (maybe the dissatisfaction you noted elsewhere with voice in the workplace has to do with the way that so many modern workplaces have replaced work with labor?).

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