There's a lot of discussion on the workplace as a site for private coercion building out of the epic Crooked Timber post Let It Bleed: Libertarianism and the Workplace, by Chris Bertram, Corey Robin and Alex Gourevitch (BRG). They are responding to the worldview of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians (BHL).
There's a lot of discussion on the workplace as a site for private coercion building out of the epic Crooked Timber post Let It Bleed: Libertarianism and the Workplace, by Chris Bertram, Corey Robin and Alex Gourevitch (BRG). They are responding to the worldview of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians (BHL). Corey has two posts (I, II) collecting a wide variety of great responses. I'd like to make three quick points I haven't seen others mention.
I - Over 38 Million Quits Missing
If we view individuals quitting their job as a check on private coercion, which I believe the BHL crew thinks, then there's been a massive increase in private forms of coercion in the past several years. Here's JOLTS data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on the number of quits that are happening in the labor force:
There are, roughly, 38.4 million quits that should have occurred that didn't since the economy went into recession. I'm assuming nobody believes that employers decided to become very nice all of a sudden in December 2007, but that instead the economy went into a deep recession. As a result of this recession, where the number of unemployed versus job openings has skyrocketed (because both the unemployed have increased and job openings shrunk), it is very difficult to find a job. This translates into declining labor share of income, as workers are left with little bargaining power in the Great Recession. If one assumes that labor management techniques are sticky, or that hysteresis creates the conditions where people who have lived through bad economic times have weaker bargaining power, this coercion is likely to cement and be long-lasting.
The academic unemployment literature goes far beyond the Economics 101 idea that wages are simply equal to contribution (marginal product). That literature now looks to bargaining over surpluses/rents that come out of the labor contract as the crucial issue for how wages are determined. If you look to Chris Pissarides' Equilibrium Unemployment Theory (a textbook summarizing the work that just won him the Nobel Prize), you see arguments such as, "We assume that the monopoly rent is shared according to the Nash solution to a bargaining problem...The way that market tightness enters the wage equation in our model is through the bargaining power that each party has...The worker's bargaining strength is then higher and the firm's lower, and this leads to a higher wage rate." Tight labor markets mean more of the surplus is captured by labor through wages. If you view workplace conditions as an extension of the wage equation, then full employment makes a giant difference even under neoclassical economic assumptions.
BHL is not an economics blog, but I find it weird that they aren't ringing the alarm as much as possible on this. They should be willing to go to some great lengths to keep the labor market at full employment as a "free market" way of mitigating abuses, which would involve accepting mass job creation programs, larger government deficits, unorthodox monetary policy, putting losses on creditors instead of debtors, and so on. For many libertarians these solutions are the real "abuses."
Macroeconomic stability, everyone having a right to employment, and labor capturing their fair share of the pie aren't the passive results of "economic liberty" or of economic contracting. They are the result of an interventionist government focused on managing the macroeconomy, one whose political compass is set by groups organized to protect the interests of workers, of which organized labor are the leaders.
II - Freedom to Quit Was Forged in Political Battle, Not Markets
Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolutions wrote this: "If you think that the freedom to quit is without value bear in mind that under feudalism and into the early 19th century in the U.S. and a bit later in Britain employers and even potential employers could prevent workers from quitting and from moving. The freedom to quit was hard won. We should not disparage the liberation brought by a free market in labor."
Early 19th century? British Master and Servant law made employee contract breach a criminal offense until 1875. Anti-enticement laws, where employers would be fined if they hired someone who was currently under contract, were popular in the sharecropping American south into the early 20th century, and upheld in courts as late as 1923.
Tabarrok draws on Robert Steinfeld's excellent work in that link, but a crucial thing to draw from that literature is that laissez-faire "economic liberty" and "freedom of contract" movements were the enemies to building the modern freedom to quit one's job. Employees faced criminal penalties for quitting and the loss of back pay if they did quit, and the common law of the time made it impossible for workers to end this. Laissez-faire advocates fought for this and against organized labor's efforts to dismantle it.
It seems like people are discussing the right to quit as if was something that just emerged out of our rich society, and something that "naturally" came out of extensive, individual, economic bargaining, when that couldn't be further from the truth. Only through the concentrated efforts of organized labor, a bloody, ugly fight, was this modern freedom able to be built. Karen Orren's book Belated Feudalism places the end of this old regime Tabarrok alludes to at the New Deal's 1935 Wagner Act, which comes after decades of union organizing and battling. Who will build the next set of contractual labor frameworks we'll take for granted, given that the freedom to quit was a political battle that never emerged from the labor market on its own?
III - How Much Does a UBI Cost, and Should We Replace the Government With Cash?
There's also a question of how much a Universal Basic Income (UBI) would cost. BRG suggested it would be 20 percent of GDP, added to the roughly 20 percent baseline of taxation that already exists to provide current government services, for a total of 40 percent. This is correct. Our GDP per capita is roughly $50,000. If you want to give everyone $10,000, that will require taxing 20 percent of GDP.
A lot of people suggested that was too high. Those people are usually, almost by definition, doing one of a few things. They are excluding some populations from the UBI (such as giving children nothing or much less), they are really discussing a negative income tax (a means-tested UBI done through the tax code), they are also removing current government services (such as unemployment insurance, or food stamps), or they are redefining "cost" to just focus on the redistribution element (associated with the negative income tax). Changing those numbers would change the final result.
Some means-test the UBI as a negative income tax, which would have significantly less cost. This has the normal "submerged state" problems any tax code program has, where people wouldn't see it as a government program. The means-tested part makes it not universal in basic sense. The negative income tax wouldn't avoid stigmatization as not everyone would receive it, and could still create poverty traps, two issues the UBI is meant to overcome. Indeed a negative income tax with a work requirement, the EITC, is ground zero for the accusation that too many people pay nothing in taxes but receive government services.
Charles Murray essentially dismantles the welfare state and the government and replaces it with a UBI in his argument. He segments 30 percent or so of the UBI to be mandated (!) for purchasing catastrophic health insurance though.
If one is going to dismantle the government to provide a UBI what parts will be left should be discussed. As many have pointed out (Anderson, Scanlon), just because you would prefer X over something Y that we believe everyone should have doesn't obligate us to provide X. If you are a rational person who would prefer to trade in your right to a fair trial for $100 to buy a fancy hat, that doesn't mean society owes you the hat over the trial, even if that right to a fair trial costs society over $100.
There are also goods where the needs are disproportionately varied and we actually need the insurance component of social insurance for risk-sharing (e.g. health care). And there are also a variety of functions through which the government can make sure a baseline of demand is met for all who need them, if the private market is unable to provide or will insufficiently allocate them (e.g. education). It's not clear that disbanding these functions and giving away a coupon is a smart idea.