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.

Consider the Bathroom Break (Workplace Domination Part Three)

The virtue of the Crooked Timber bloggers’ objections to the Bleeding Heart Libertarians’ line is that it implicitly suggests the difference between liberal and republican conceptions of freedom. Libertarians have usually substituted theories of interference and coercion for a full-blown theory of domination. When Chris Bertram stopped by, he suggested that they wanted to avoid this theoretical debate, but I think it impoverishes the conversation a bit. I’ve written about this at length in the past, but for the purposes of navigating the Bleeding Hearts/Crooked Timber debates on workplace domination, here’s a quick primer on interference, coercion, and domination.

In the comments to my first post, Daniel Levine asked:

“Why, exactly, do you need the distinction between actual productivity-enhancing rules and dominating ones? If your target is domination, it doesn’t seem to matter if the domination enhances productivity, for two reasons.

1. Productivity is, at best, an indirect good for most workers (it may be more directly beneficial for academic workers, since we tend to be abnormally non-alienated from our work).

2. The fact that domination is “good for me” in terms of some of my interests does not generally make it any less domination or much less morally problematic. Part of the core insight, I think, of Pettit, is that domination is about whether my situation is responsive to my own agency and conception of my good, not just whether it maximizes my own interests.”

There’s a debate in the literature about this: one way of defining domination is as arbitrary interference. Arbitrariness generally means “choosing or not choosing at pleasure,” and this is the sense that I believe is correct. Philip Pettit has offered a defense of a stricter, more substantive sense of arbitrariness as “failure to track people’s interests according to their ideas,” but I think this is unworkable at the level of the firm. Certainly, in society as a whole we must avoid arbitrary interference with a person that is not in keeping with their conception of the good, but at the level of the firm it is appropriate to require that all workers set aside their conflicting conceptions of the good and join, for at least as long as they are on shift, with other workers whose efforts are bent toward a common good envisioned by the firm. I would argue that we should also set aside (or translate) our individualistic conceptions of the good when we enter the public sphere and act as citizens, but this is a long debate that is far afield.

Consider the bathroom break: on my view, an “arbitrary” interference would involve some non-principled way of awarding bathroom breaks, like the sweatshop practice of asking permission from pit bosses, who can play favorites or simply deny all requests. In such contexts, it is very demeaning to be denied the right to engage in basic bodily functions. You’ve got to pee when you’ve got to pee.

Yet things are a bit different on an assembly line, where if one person leaves the whole line has to stop. In general, the most non-arbitrary way to deal with this is to have a few extra relief workers available to swap places so that a worker with an urgent need can quickly head to the bathroom. A factory with such a system is simply more productive than one without it, but if everyone needs a break at once, someone may have to wait: this is not domination.

There are definitely domination violations in the sanitation arena, and these are policed by OSHA, which has pretty specific rules about bathrooms and sanitation. Yet they have never enforced a quantitative standard (i.e. four breaks per shift, at least one relief worker per twenty employees) because different industries and different people have different needs.

Instead, OSHA have chosen the famously legalistic “reasonableness” standard. And they actually cite and levy fines very infrequently, either because infractions are few and far between or because their enforcement is quite lax. Evidence suggests that former, but so does basic economics: this kind of domination is simply not productivity-enhancing.

Of course, even bathroom breaks are not always a matter of dignity: a traditional assembly line worker dealing with intestinal issues is going to seriously hamper the functioning of that assembly line, so it’s better for the company to let that worker call in sick (for pay, to avoid people showing up when they shouldn’t) and have replacements available. By way of analogy, consider that long haul buses don’t usually have bathrooms on them, so you have to wait until the next stop, which may be a few hours away. You’re not being “dominated” in that sense, it’s just that onboard bathrooms are too expensive. This may not correspond directly to a persons’ “interests according to their ideas.” Somebody with a chronic condition (IBS, say) might object that this prevents them from taking certain kinds of jobs. The ADA standard of “reasonable accommodation” seems pretty appropriate here: it’s a vague principle, but in practice and through judicial and agency interpretations it gets fleshed out in a pragmatic way that is aligned towards overall productivity.

Despite this slight departure, Pettit and I agree that “constitutional provision” is generally superior to “reciprocal power,” and indeed the Crooked Timber bloggers depend on this to be the case to defend voice over exit. The easiest way to enact “reciprocal power” is grant both worker and manager equal power to destroy the bond that joins them: managers command, but workers can quit. Thus, the manager can arbitrarily interfere with the worker, but the worker can do likewise by leaving, forcing the employer to search for new employees. No one enforces a “you can’t quit because your manager won’t sleep with you” rule, so (if the power is truly reciprocal) no one would need to enforce a “you can’t fire him because your worker won’t sleep with you” rule.

Of course, the power relations between workers and employers aren’t generally reciprocal! But this is not to say that they never are or cannot be: some high skill, high demand workers can negotiate these issues without help. It’s even possible to imagine some employees who have more power than their employers: consider doctors and lawyers, for instance, who we rarely speak of as “dominated” by their patients and clients.

What makes those professions powerful enough to escape arbitrary interference? One word: exit. Though the Crooked Timber bloggers contest this, I believe that generous unemployment benefits or a basic income guarantee are adequate to supply a kind of reciprocity. Part of this is tied to the “full employment” question: if there is a reserve army of unemployed than the protesting worker does not really have reciprocal power. BUT! The basic income guarantee militates in favor of full employment, which the CT bloggers gloss over in their analysis.

But that doesn’t mean that exit is sufficient. A firm made non-dominating merely by exit options and reciprocal power is one where only constant vigilance and threats deter resurgence of domination. In that sense, this would be a civil “war of all-against-all,” a Rawlsian modus vivendi. Both firms and employees should want more than that, and not just because of domination concerns.

The imposition of procedural rationality in the workplace limits both employer and employee arbitrariness in a way that benefits both. The principled restriction is that both are motivated by the same goal, of engaging in productive work. Most arbitrary interference is at odds with this goal. This is akin to “constitutional provision.”

What I mean by “constitutional provision” is a set of procedures for preventing arbitrary domination rather than for redressing it after the fact. (Rights not revenge.) In the political setting where a constitution limits the activities of the executive and legislative branches, we can say that the legislature is less free to make certain arbitrary interventions into the lives of its citizens. In the same way, constitutional provision in the workplace limits the range of restrictions that employers can place on employees.

Firms are an important part of the republic, and a republic that focuses on non-domination is going to want to prevent domination within the firm. One way to achieve this goal is to couple restrictions on the scope of arbitrary interference within the firm with adequate exit options. But none of this will grant “voice” alone. OSHA doesn’t give an employee “voice,” it gives employees recourse and an opportunity for reprisal after domination has taken place.

Let’s consider two paradigm cases of voice: an employee identifies favoritism, productivity-reducing arbitrary interference from a manager, and then brings attention to the manager’s superiors. This kind of voice benefits both the firm and the employee, but it requires that the employer create a protected channel of communication. If the only person the effected employees can complain to is the manager engaging in favoritism, the employees will be silenced by fear of reprisals. In this case, voice is aligned with the principle of productive collaboration rather than domination, and arbitrary interference results in lost productivity.

Now consider a productivity-reducing use of voice: employees protest automation because fewer workers will be needed to supply the same product. (I’ve recently been having this conversation with fellow academics about Coursera.) In aggregate, the world is better off if the same product (a car or an education) can be produced more cheaply. It doesn’t matter if the mission of a firm is to make widgets or mold young minds: ifa better technique comes along that uses fewer workers, than those workers can do something else. (Belief to the contrary is known as the “lump of labor” fallacy, but in any case these concerns are dispatched by the Basic Income Guarantee and full employment.) An effective exercise of employees’ voice in such a context would make the commonwealth poorer in order to serve the advantage of a few. Employees can certainly exercises voice in such circumstances, but the outcome of that exercise should be in favor of productivity gains. A firm that makes automation decisions does not dominate its employees, because the decision is guided by the principle of productivity, any more than an employee with a better job offer dominates his employer.

The CT bloggers argue that unions are a necessary component of such exercises of voice. Certainly one way to create a protected channel of communication is through a union representative or employee inclusion program. But this is not a necessary consequence of unions, and in fact union members are less likely to report that they have a meaningful role in decision-making than non-union members.

Of course, unions can enable voice: contract negotiations can become a space where labor and capital constructively engage with each other regarding all aspects of the firm. It’s just that they don’t tend to do that; large union bureaucracies don’t guarantee workplace democracy. They can supply other goods, like solidarity, opportunities for civic engagement, and protection from exploitation in our actually existing world of injustice. But in this sense they serve the “reciprocal power” goal by allowing periodic renegotiation and protection from reprisal. Yet a firm that is restricted by full employment considerations in the labor market and that enacts its own procedural approach to personnel matters will be able to prevent many forms of non-productive arbitrary interference with employees without a union.

Meanwhile, unions do enable one obvious form of interference: they enable the majority of workers in a shop to dictate working conditions and extract dues from the minority of workers. Even though closed shops are unconstitutional, agency shops that require non-union members to work under the collectively bargained contract and to pay dues for that privilege, which dues can then be spent on lobbying and advertising that does not conform to the some members of the minority’s “interests according to their own ideas.”

Is this domination? On my view, it is not, because it fails to be arbitrary: so long as the union does in fact work in a principled (non-arbitrary) way to advance the actual interests of the employee. But of course, there is no guarantee that this will take place. There is even risk of the arbitrary interference being reversed, and a particularly powerful union making unreasonable demands on a firm! Arguably, the public unions that have survived our long period of anti-union sentiment do just that, only the “firm” in this case is the republic itself: just remember that the only union that Scott Walker didn’t attack was the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, for whom citizens’ rights are simply “conditions of employment.”

The Fallacy Fallacy [sic] of Mood Affiliation (Workplace Domination Part Two)

In his initial response to the the Crooked Timber bloggers, Cowen also suggests that he doesn’t like the “mood affiliation” of the CT bloggers:

I am not comfortable with the mood affiliation of the piece.  How about a simple mention of the massive magnitude of employee theft in the United States, perhaps in the context of a boss wishing to search an employee?

Cowens’ “fallacy of mood affiliation” is an interesting and useful attempt to describe a kind of sophisticated motivated skepticism that occurs when we evaluate evidence that counters our basically optimistic or pessimistic views of the world. When he first introduced it, Cowen described mood affiliations that caused people to misrecognize particular evidence regarding innovations or environmental effects because the particular evidence fails to confirm their preferences for optimistic accounts of future growth and environmental improvements.

But to those clear examples of the optimism bias, he added two other examples that are only indirectly related:

3. People who see a political war against the interests of the poor and thus who are reluctant to present or digest analyses which blame some of the problems of the poor on…the poor themselves. (Try bringing up “predatory borrowing” in any discussion of “predatory lending” and see what happens.) There’s simply an urgent feeling that any negative or pessimistic or undeserving view of the poor needs to be countered.

4. People who see raising or lowering the relative status of Republicans (or some other group) as the main purpose of analysis, and thus who judge the dispassionate analysis of others, or for that matter the partisan analysis of others, by this standard. There’s simply an urgent feeling that any positive or optimistic or deserving view of the Republicans needs to be countered.

#4 is also clearly a bias where in-group solidarity blinds us to evidence, and Cowen has written about this well in the past. It is not, however, an obvious “mood affiliation” except by analogy, and it serves a pragmatic purpose: you can only call your friends our for being biased so often before they stop being your friends.

#3, though, is neither a mood affiliation nor an optimism bias. We might call it an “unjust-world fallacy,” if we really need a name for it. However, I’d suggest we might want to avoid prejudicing discussions of what makes people poor with attributions of fallacies and congitive biases until we’ve evaluated the evidence.

Since “what makes people poor” is a hotly debated academic question, there’s a lot of evidence, and it pushes in multiple directions. (My own money is on some version of Buddy Karelis’s book, The Persistence of Poverty (pdf) though there’s plenty of room for poverty traps and marginal tax rate arguments.) People affiliate around these positions in many of the same ways that they affiliate around political parties. But there’s a serious dispute in the literature and the question really, really matters, so let’s not glibly reduce our opponents to fallacy-mongers here.

This is relevant to blogging about the workplace only because, by analogy, we’re supposed to believe that employees might be partly to blame for their domination in the same way that poor people are partly to blame for their poverty. But note, there are particular actions the poor engage in that make them poor: failing to finish high school, committing crimes, and getting pregnant out of wedlock are individual actions that primarily harm the individual who enacts them by reducing lifetime wages. In the workplace example, there just aren’t particular actions that workers engage in that justify their being searched or filmed while going to the bathroom (except maybe being unwilling to quit, fight, or unionize). Invading my privacy because somebody else has been stealing doesn’t really fit the kind of personal responsibility motif that Cowen was pushing in the original discussion of poverty. Plus, employee theft costs our economy about $15 billion, which is 0.1% of GDP, and that’s including serious embezzlement in addition to retail “shrink,” so it’s not really so big a deal as Cowen makes it out to be.

Mood affiliation concerns don’t appear to be relevant to workplace domination issues, they threaten to resolve into ad hominem and fallacy fallacy [sic] issues, so let’s drop them and look at the data and the arguments.