Nothing left to lose

7 07 2012

I’m a lazy, lazy woman.

Sometimes this can lead to problems (especially when laziness is combined with or otherwise abets procrastination), sometimes it makes my life easier (as when a desire not to do things in a particular way leads to a better way to do those same things), and sometimes means someone else gets there (wherever “there” is) first.

Not getting there first is usually considered a bad thing, but in the case of laying out my objections to libertarianism, my laziness has meant that others have done the work—to which I will now simply link.

Libertarianism is a philosophy of individual freedom. Or so its adherents claim. But with their single-minded defense of the rights of property and contract, libertarians cannot come to grips with the systemic denial of freedom in private regimes of power, particularly the workplace. When they do try to address that unfreedom, as a group of academic libertarians calling themselves “Bleeding Heart Libertarians” have done in recent months, they wind up traveling down one of two paths: Either they give up their exclusive focus on the state and become something like garden-variety liberals or they reveal that they are not the defenders of freedom they claim to be.

That is what we are about to argue, but it is based on months of discussion with the Bleeding Hearts. The conversation was kicked off by the critique one of us—Corey Robin—offered of libertarian Julian Sanchez’s presignation letter to Cato, in which Sanchez inadvertently revealed the reality of workplace coercion.  [more]

That intro was written by some of the good folks at Crooked Timber, Corey Bertram, Corey Robin, and Alex Gourevitch, in a kickoff post on workplace coercion, Let It Bleed: Libertarianism and the Workplace. This was followed by Coercion vs. Freedom (taking on Tyler Cowen & Alex Tabarrok’s critical responses to the post) by John Holbo; Infringements on Worker’s Rights (where are the women in all of this?) by Belle Waring; Let Me Be the First To Second. . . (again on Cowen, and different schemas of coercion), by Henry Farrell; and, Henry again, Markets and Freedom (commenting on Matt Yglesias’s misunderstandings). I assume there will be more posts on CT about this, but this gets one satsifyingly into the weeds on workplace conditions.

To be honest, I would not have started my critique of libertarianism on these grounds—would have started with something even more basic, such as the misconception of the human condition on which libertarianism unavoidably rests—but another drawback to laziness+procrastination is those who get there first start where they want, not where I want.

More substantively, I think the CT critique, insofar as it is a liberal critique of libertarianism, fails fully to grasp the structure of workplace (or shall I say, labor? ) inequality and owner-domination—which is simply another way of stating that it is not a Marxist critique of labor relations.

Chris Hayes’s book, Twilight of the Elites, offers yet another perspective on this issue by taking on the notion of meritocracy. He notes

We hope that the talented children of the poor will ascend to positions of power and prestige while the mediocre sons of the wealthy will not be charged with life-and-death decisions. Over time, in other words, society will have mechanisms that act as a sort of pump, constantly ensuring that the talented and hardworking are propelled upward, while the mediocre trickle downward.

But this ideal, appealing as it may be, runs up against the reality of what I’ll call the Iron Law of Meritocracy. The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible. The Principle of Difference will come to overwhelm the Principle of Mobility. Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies, and kin to scramble up. In other words: “Whoever says meritocracy says oligarchy.” (via David Atkins)

Atkins notes that insofar as liberals and leftists focus on a merit-based politico-economic system, they miss the role of luck:

But to call Lloyd Blankfein “lucky”, or to say that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg were simply “fortunate”–that’s something altogether different. That’s revolutionary. It cuts against the dominant discourse of the institutional left and right to reorient the entire social contract. It challenges not only the ethic of equality of opportunity, but also the legitimacy of much of the inequality of outcomes.

No, not revolutionary, not even close, but a charge which may destabilize pat theories of merit-based systems. And, anyway, I think John Rawls addressed this forty years in his Theory of Justice: you need to set up a system wherein the luckless may still lead decent lives.

More to the point, for the theory of “luck” to be revolutionary, it would have to go beyond (as Atkins does not) the usual genuflection to “hard work” (Hard work is still a key to success, of course.—DA) to inquire into both the nature of said “work” and what counts as “hard”, as well as what role luck plays in determining the definitions themselves.

Consider lazy-based example: If I set up a scheme which allows me to do more with less effort or work, would that work still be hard? Add luck: What position would I have to be in to allow me to set up said scheme? How would I have gotten into that position? And what are the chances that the politico-economic system in which I lived would not only have and allow me access to the resources necessary for set-up, but would also recognize the scheme and its outcomes as desirable?

Shorter version: what counts as merit and merit-worthy varies, such that luck is itself at least partially a function of that variation.

I’m interested to read Hayes’s book because I wonder how far he goes in his critique of merit, and whether he thinks the concept should be altered or expanded or should instead be tossed. I don’t know where I stand on this beyond the sense that the morality of merit should be downgraded, but even that sense is merely a suspicion, not a full-fledged argument.

Perhaps that’s one place I could add something to the critique of libertarianism (and, for that matter, capitalism): the justness—to the extent they care about justice—rests on a naive definition of merit, such that those who have more deserve to have more and those who have less deserve to have less.

Or maybe I’ll have lucked (!) out again with my laziness, and Hayes will have gotten there first.








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