Blogs > Liberty and Power > Proletarian Blues

Nov 25, 2006 5:15 pm

Proletarian Blues

[cross-posted at Austro-Athenian Empire]

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, a book I’ve seldom seen libertarians mention without a sneer. But in fact it is a mostly excellent book.

Ehrenreich went “undercover” to document the lives of the working poor and the Kafkaesque maze of obstacles they face: the grindingly low wages; the desperate scramble to make ends meet; the perpetual uncertainty; the surreal, pseudo-scientific job application process; the arbitrary and humiliating petty chickenshit tyrannies of employers; the techniques of intimidation and normalisation; the mandatory time-wasting; the indifference to employee health; the unpredictably changing work schedules, making it impossible to hold a second job; etc., etc.

None of this was news to me; I’ve lived the life she describes, and she captures it quite well. But it might well be news to those on the right who heroise the managerial class and imagine that the main causes of poverty are laziness and welfare.

Of course the book has its flaws. One is the author’s attitude toward her “real” working-class colleagues, which sometimes struck me as rather patronising. The other – and this is what invokes the libertarians’ sneers – is her economically clueless, hopelessly statist diagnosis and proposed solutions. She thinks the problems she talks about are caused by “the market,” an entity concerning whose operations she has some strange ideas. (For example, she thinks the reason housing prices are so high is that both the rich and the poor need housing, and so the prevailing prices are determined by the budgets of the rich. She notes in passing that this effect doesn’t seem to apply to food prices – even though both the rich and the poor presumably need food too – but seems blissfully untroubled by the inconsistency in her theories.) And her suggestions for fixing the problem include a higher minimum wage (a “remedy” that would throw many of the objects of her compassion out of work) and more public assistance.

But Ehrenreich’s misguided diagnoses and prescriptions occupy at most a tenth of the book. The bulk of the book is devoted to a description of the problems, and there’s nothing sneerworthy about that. And libertarians will win few supporters so long as they continue to give the impression of regarding the problems Ehrenreich describes as unimportant or non-existent. If you’re desperately ill, and Physician A offers a snake-oil remedy while Physician B merely snaps, “stop whining!” and offers nothing, Physician A will win every time.

So if Ehrenreich’s solutions are the wrong ones, what are the right ones? Here I would name two.

First: eliminate state intervention, which predictably works to benefit the politically-connected, not the poor. As I like to say, libertarianism is the proletarian revolution. Without all the taxes, fees, licenses, and regulations that disproportionately burden the poor, it would be much easier for them to start their own businesses rather than working for others. As for those who do still work for others, in the dynamically expanding economy that a rollback of state violence would bring, employers would have to compete much more vigorously for workers, thus making it much harder for employers to treat workers like crap. Economic growth would also make much higher wages possible, while competition would make those higher wages necessary. There would be other benefits as well; for example, Ehrenreich complains about the transportation costs borne by the working poor as a result of suburbanisation and economic segregation, but she never wonders whether zoning laws, highway subsidies, and other such government policies have anything to do with those problems.

Second: build worker solidarity. On the one hand, this means formal organisation, including unionisation – but I’m not talking about the prevailing model of “business unions,” conspiring to exclude lower-wage workers and jockeying for partnership with the corporate/government elite, but real unions, the old-fashioned kind, committed to the working class and not just union members, and interested in worker autonomy, not government patronage. (See Paul Buhle’s Taking Care of Business for a history of how pseudo-unions crowded out real ones, with government help.) On the other hand, it means helping to build a broader culture of workers standing up for one another and refusing to submit to humiliating treatment.

These two solutions are of course complementary; an expanded economy, greater competition among employers, and fewer legal restrictions on workers makes building solidarity easier, while at the same time increased solidarity can and should be part of a political movement fighting the state.

That’s the left-libertarian movement I’d like to see. And people keep telling me it doesn’t exist. Good lord! I know it doesn’t exist; why else would I be urging that it be brought into existence?

Of course I’m also told that it can’t exist. Libertarians tell me it won’t work because leftists don’t care enough about liberty; leftists tell me it won’t work because libertarians don’t care enough about the poor and oppressed. In short, each side insists that it’s the other side that won’t play along.

Now the answer to this is that some will (and have) and some won’t – but that we should do what we can to increase the number who will. So here’s a general challenge.

If you’re a libertarian who thinks leftists don’t care about liberty, why not become a leftist who cares about liberty? That way there’ll be one more. Or if you’re a leftist who thinks libertarians don’t care about the poor and oppressed, why don’t you become a libertarian who cares about the poor and oppressed? Once again, that way there’ll be one more. And in both cases there’ll also be one fewer libertarian of the kind that alienates leftists by dismissing their concerns, and likewise one fewer leftist of the kind that alienates libertarians by dismissing their concerns.

This brings me to another issue I’ve been meaning to blog about.

Hayek famously argued that the concept of “social justice” was meaningless, because society is not a moral agent that could be guilty of injustice. But the concept of social justice need not imply that “society” in the abstract is responsible for anything. To condemn social injustice is simply to say that there are systematic patterns of exploitation and oppression in society, and that individuals are responsible either for unjustifiably contributing to this situation, or unjustifiably failing to combat it, or both.

But, the libertarian may object, are these problems really issues of justice?

Well, Aristotle distinguishes between “general” justice on the one hand and “special” or “particular” justice on the other. General justice is concerned with interpersonal moral claims in general: it’s the entire interpersonal dimension of morality, “the whole of virtue in relation to another.” Special justice is concerned with a particular sort of moral claim, the sort that nowadays we would call “rights”; Aristotle lists what one is owed in virtue of being a citizen under the constitution, what one is owed as a result of a contractual agreement, and what one is owed by a wrongdoer as a result of having been a victim of illegal injury, as examples of special justice.

Special justice obviously corresponds more or less to the realm of libertarian rights, while general justice corresponds to interpersonal morality more generally. Where libertarians most crucially depart from Aristotle is in regarding only special justice as legitimately enforceable, whereas Aristotle also regarded parts (not all) of general justice as legitimately enforceable. Still, even Aristotle agreed that some aspects of general justice (generosity, for example) are not properly enforceable, and that special justice was especially the concern of law.

Now it’s often assumed that libertarians can properly have no use for left-wing concepts of “economic justice” and “social justice.” But many of the concerns that left-wingers treat under these heads actually are, directly or indirectly, questions of libertarian rights, since many of the disadvantages that burden the poor, or women, or minorities, are indeed the result of systematic violence, definitely including (though not necessarily limited to) state violence. So many issues of “social justice” can be accepted by libertarians as part of special justice.

Now it may still be true that some issues of “social justice” go beyond libertarian rights and so beyond special justice. But these may still properly be regarded as issues of justice if they fall under general justice. Even in cases where treating one’s employees like crap violates no libertarian rights and so should not be legally actionable, for example, it still violates interpersonal moral claims and so may be regarded as in this broader sense an issue of justice. Thus there’s no reason whatever for libertarians to surrender the concept of social justice to the statist left, or to let the concept stand as an obstacle to cooperation with the not necessarily or not irretrievably statist left.

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Andrew D. Todd - 11/26/2006

Barbara Ehrenreich was not who she said she was. Her various employers did not agree to have someone come in and write a book about how they ran their businesses. She got jobs because her employers did not insist on knowing something about her background, because they were sloppy in their hiring practices. Independent small businessmen do not follow the same hiring practices as, say, IBM, but they have their own system. They hire someone from their church, or whatever, someone whom they are in a position to know something about. For example, if a housewife has no recent employment record, the church connection enables a prospective employer to discover if she is a good housewife. People know her children, and know whether they are properly brought-up. Pot-lucks give a fairly good estimate of her cooking skills. The effect of Ehrenreich's lack of candor would have been to lead the better employers to assume that she had been in jail, or something like that.

To take another example, taxicab drivers commonly attempt to escape the conditions of casual labor. They identify good prospects among their customers, and give these customers business cards with their cellphone numbers. In cities with "medallion" systems, taxicab drivers sometime go underground to get out from under the medallion owners' rent-seeking. When I lived in Philadelphia, back in the early 1990's there was a distinction between taxicabs and "Hacks." The latter were underground. When one went to the grocery store, a little boy would come up and ask: "need a Hack, mister?" The boy would make his arrangements, help load groceries, and get a dollar for his trouble, plus whatever the Hack driver kicked back. The taxicabs took radio calls and had cab ranks at the train stations. The cost of policing interlopers confined them to the high-end traffic. Hack drivers were uniformly self-employed, American-born, and Black. Taxi drivers were predominantly Asian immigrant employees, mostly Indian and Pakistani. A Hack was not by any means the same thing as the conventional notion of a "Gypsy" cab driver. What impressed me was the extent to which the Hacks in Philadelphia were, I suppose, institutionalized. They weren't out scrambling for rides at the airport-- they had simply taken over the specialized requirements of the neighborhoods. Apart from serving the supermarkets they tended to develop their own private clientele. I lived in a small apartment building in West Philadelphia, mostly students, but also two old-age-pensioners. The old-age pensioners had their regular Hack driver, who not only took them grocery shopping, but also took them to doctor's appointments and suchlike. When I got my groceries, I walked to the grocery store and took a hack home, and surprisingly often, I was driven by that same man. What it worked out to, I suspect, is that he had some kind of informally recognized territorial claim. Obviously, after the first ride or two, I had been identified as a member of a particular clan in an essentially tribal society, and the seven-or-eight-year-old Capo Del Tutti Hacks assumed that I would naturally be driven home by the retainer of my clan. At this level, the Hacks were much more of an established order of society than the taxicab drivers were.

Robert Higgs - 11/25/2006

"Social justice," as used by those on the left, seems to me to be almost always a code term for government redistribution of income or wealth in favor of groups the left favors (e.g., "the poor"), at the expense of groups the left despises (e.g., "the rich"). It has nothing to do with any defensible concept of justice; indeed, it is manifestly unjust on its face. Whereas a decent person seeks to treat everyone justly, the leftist seems to want to bring about some attribute of society viewed as an aggregate, such as "a more equal distribution of income." No wonder libertarians can't have a worthwhile discussion with such people.

With regard to your comments about the working poor, Roderick, I have great sympathy. My own family never quite made it up to the middle class, although my father worked "like a dog" all his life, and when I was in high school and college, I worked shoulder to shoulder with many of the "working poor" and had to endure the sorts of mistreatment they commonly receive (though probably not so often as your repeated mention of their employers' "treating them like crap" might suggest). The other side of this story, however, is that the working poor often treat their employers like crap: not uncommonly, they fail to report for work or to report on time, they come to work under the influence of alcohol or drugs, they fail to work hard, they steal from the employer, and so forth. In short, in all too many instances, the working poor are their own worst enemies. The Victorian distinction between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor contained more than a grain of truth. Leftists generally dismiss this distinction completely in their quest to have the welfare state bring every poor person above the line by means of the same formulas.

One of the ways in which the labor market works is by matching responsible employers and responsible employees. Those workplaces in which the irresponsible employers are matched with the irresponsible employees are the really ugly ones.