Economic Democracy vs. Organizational Pluralism

Like social clubs, churches, and universities, businesses are voluntary associations organized around a particular goal, or what Oakeshott called “enterprise associations.” Businesses influence the work experience of most people in society, and the identities they cultivate form distinctive communities (these communities often raise outsiders’ eyebrows, as the recent New York Times piece on Amazon’s corporate culture illustrates). Like other civil society groups, businesses have an ambivalent relationship to the state that’s both rivalrous and complementary.

Analyzing the firm as an intermediate group brings useful insights from the study of civil society to the study of business. In particular, one question that can benefit is the relationship between employee’s economic freedom and membership in a business. Is joining a hierarchically-organized firm an exercise of a worker’s economic freedom, or a restriction of it? This question looks awfully similar to one in the study of intermediate groups–whether groups’ internal rules can ever restrict freedom.

Jacob Levy’s Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom distinguishes two approaches liberals might take to the question of freedom in intermediate groups. On the “pure” theory, group membership is not an infringement on members’ freedom because individuals freely waive their rights against the group by associating with it. The pure theory relies on the principle of volenti non fit injuria–no failure of consent, no crime. Because individuals freely constitute the group by waiving their rights, and because they are free to exit the group at any time, the group cannot violate their freedom. The second theory, what Levy calls the “congruence” theory, the same norms that apply to states apply to groups. Groups can violate their members’ freedom, and members thus require the same protections against groups as against states.

The parallel to the case of business should be clear. The “pure” theory parallels the view (especially among libertarians) is that businesses cannot violate employees’ freedom so long as the employee freely consents to work. By contrast, the “congruence” theory parallels the view of leftists and left-liberals that businesses should be organized as “economic democracies,” with substantial constraints on management.

Levy persuasively argues that the pure theory is inadequate, for several reasons: groups can create local monopolies that trap members, groups’ secondary rules can violate the rule of law, and groups can possess forms of authority that raise political questions. But the congruence theory also fails, because it does not take freedom of association seriously. As Levy notes, a liberal society is committed to protecting the right of persons to form groups with thicker rules than a liberal state allows for itself. Individuals should be free to waive certain rights against groups by joining them, such as the right to evangelize heterodox beliefs.

The general implication of reconceptualizing the place of the firm within debates about civil society and intermediate groups is that a single theory of the justly organized firm is unsustainable. Just as liberals have come to understand the pluralist principle that a liberal society contains a variety of organizations, not all of which organize along liberal democratic norms, so liberals should understand that this pluralism protects firms as well.

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Autonomy and Attention

Matthew Crawford makes the following assertion in the introduction to The World Beyond Your Head:

But in fact, I think the experience of attending to something isn’t easily made sense of within the prevailing Western anthropology that takes autonomy as the central human good…. The paradox is that the ideal of autonomy seems to work against the development and flourishing of any rich ecology of attention–the sort in which minds may become powerful and achieve genuine independence.

Crawford argues that the pursuit of autonomy–the ideal of a life lived according to principles that I give to myself–undermines actual individuality or independence of mind. The direct pursuit of autonomy tends to defeat itself because it compromises our attention. While other critics have noticed the problems of emotional mediocrity and conformity produced by failures of attention, Crawford also gives us a theory of attention’s value. Attention cures us of a kind of moral and emotional solipsism by attuning us to an objective world inhabited by other people. Becoming an individual means becoming an active, contributing member in a shared world.

It’s a clever argument, and I agree with Crawford that a kind of anti-social individualism is pernicious to real individuality. Becoming an individual is an achievement rather than something to which we’re entitled. There are of course cultures and forms of life that inhibit individuality, and against which the familiar Millian argument against hidebound tradition applies. Crawford’s point, rather, is that many more traditions and practices are rich and diverse enough to give play for individual development than we believe.

Crawford is too hard on autonomy, however. In particular, an interpretation of autonomy that identifies it with a critical and reflective attitude towards one’s own culture fits nicely with Crawford’s conception of individuality. One important point of commonality such an interpretation of autonomy shares with Crawford’s individuality is concern for attention.

Stanley Benn writes that one feature of autonomy is self-awareness and awareness of dissonances in one’s beliefs. In circumstances where she must make a difficult choice, in which her deeply held beliefs pull her toward different options, an autonomous person has a sufficiently strong faculty of attention to notice these tensions and reason through them:

At certain critical junctures in our lives a novel situation can reveal that certain principles or evaluative beliefs that we had taken to be constitutive of our characters, because at the core of our belief system, and which make certain kinds of action “unthinkable,” commit us nevertheless to radically conflicting action or attitudes…. A person is, or is capable of becoming, autonomous to the extent that he is capable of making such discoveries and of reforming his belief structures to resolve such incoherences. The heteronomous person looks in his uncertainty to others for cues, to point a way to resolve his dilemma, or, too timid to recast his idea of himself or too vulnerable to social pressure to conform, he clings to the habitual self-image and suppresses the intrusive ideas, denying to himself that they are or ever were his. Like the akratic person, he suffers from a defect of attention, distracted from dissonant beliefs by the expectation that to contemplate them squarely would be painful to create an anxiety he does not know how to cope with. (A Theory of Freedom, p.180)

I find this account of autonomy entirely consistent with Crawford’s conception of individuality. One of the great virtues of Benn’s account is that it demystifies the concept of autonomy by describing it as an orientation towards one’s own beliefs, rather than a property of noumena. Autonomous persons do not simply act on their beliefs, they attend to them. They tend to be aware of inconsistencies and tensions in their beliefs, and try to resolve them. They are aware of when they face a choice that has real consequences for what they believe, rather than engage in self-deception.

A further point of convergence between Benn and Crawford is the democratic character of this excellence, whether we call it “autonomy” or “individuality.” Autonomy is still an achievement, but it’s not reserved to some elite or class of eccentrics. Autonomy is a practical ability to adjust and flourish in a world that often surprises us, not the sovereign rule of a “true self.” Crawford notes that such an ability requires other people and a set of learned attitudes and skills–what he calls a “cultural jig”–that’s both flexible and robust. It must be robust enough to generate reasons for action, but flexible enough for its users to be capable of “second thoughts” in Benn’s phrase. Recognizing when second thoughts are necessary, and thinking them through, is a function of virtues like honesty, courage, and attention. Not everyone achieves these virtues, of course, but they do not manifest only in a rarified few. They are “ordinary excellences,” both easier and harder than we imagine.

If Benn’s conception of autonomy is right, it invites liberals traditionally concerned with autonomy to read Crawford with a greater sense of urgency. Crawford is not only right that attention is a cultural problem, but it is also a threat to autonomy and  a form of freedom.

Markets in Everything, Disaster Relief Edition

Suppose a ship is sinking, and there aren’t enough lifeboats to get everyone off safely. How do we allocate spaces on the lifeboats? Most of us think it’s wrong to pay to get a spot on the lifeboat. Instead, spaces should go to people to those who most need it, or those who deserve it, or in a way that would be fair to everyone.

It also seems impermissible to pay, in advance, to reserve some spot on a lifeboat even if it’s never used. The point in time at which you pay doesn’t seem to be morally relevant.

That’s the intuition at play in this piece in WIRED on disaster insurance companies operating in crisis zones. These companies have a contractual obligation to rescue their clients–mountaineers and adventurers who tend to be much wealthier than the locals in the areas where these companies operate. However, if they divert resources such as expertise or capital from rescuing more vulnerable individuals, it seems that these companies have done something wrong. The objection is that they are allocating the right to be rescued on the basis of money rather than a principle like need. You can’t pay to reserve a spot on the lifeboat.

One point to make here is that the objection is distribution according to some principle other than need, not that people are buying the right to be rescued. It would also be wrong, according to the objection, for these companies to promise to rescue certain people than then rescue the promisees. In the lifeboat case, similarly, the captain could not allocate spots on the lifeboat to his friends, or family members, or people to whom he’d promised spots.

There’s also another possibility. Suppose that a group of people on the ship have paid a fee in advance to put a special lifeboat on it. This lifeboat is perhaps sturdier or better provisioned than the others supplied to the general passengers. If people can pay to put more lifeboats on the boat, we no longer have a fixed set of spaces to allocate. Different principles might apply to a case where we can increase opportunities for people to be rescued than one where the right to be rescued is rivalrous.

A world with disaster insurance companies might be like a world with AAA. AAA doesn’t directly send tow-trucks out to help the most needy drivers–it sends them only to its members and then allocates them through a queue. In each individual case, it might be true that there’s some more needy driver out there. But a world with AAA–where people are free to purchase the right to be rescued–might make drivers better off than one without it. The question is whether we have a lifeboat case with a fixed set of resources, or one where the set of resources is not fixed.