Exploitation is not Freedom
By Sandra B. Latham
Freedom is a word that is used so often, and yet so rarely understood.
The most toxic of these misrepresentations are those which conflate freedom and liberty, the greatest of all values, with the perpetuation of exploitation and injustice. One of the most pernicious elements of this so-called freedom is the relationship between employers and employees.
To pay your employees what you wish, to treat them as you wish. To produce what you will, in whatever way you will, using the means and materials you prefer. To sell at whatever price you wish, to interact with the market as you please, to yield the greatest profit. These are the sorts of things that the “right” sets up as “freedoms.” And yet I never see the same attention given by those same “freedom-loving Americans” as the freedom to unionize, to strike and picket, and to make decisions within the workplace.
If the worker owns themselves and their own labor, surely they have the freedom to bargain with it; it is their own property after all.
I see two justifications for this: the freedom of association between employer and employee, and inequitable compensation for risk.
Regarding the freedom of association between employer and employee, this is another area in which “freedom” has a very deliberately obscured meaning. Because employees have a right to quit, the freedom to leave, they’re not slaves. The conclusion, then, is that the employer and employee have a relationship of free association.
These are ridiculous notions. In reality, those with capital and the capacity to offer employment have far more power than the individual employee. At the same time, individual wealth is distributed in such a way that the vast majority of people are reliant upon employment for survival. The individual employee has no right to a job – after all, that would be an “infringement on the employer’s freedom.” But the employee must always eat, must always have shelter, will at one time or another need health care. You would never allege that, were you to rob a man at gunpoint, that it was a free exchange because he had the “free choice” to keep his wallet and be shot or to give it up and be safe. And yet, when it comes to basic human survival, capitalism paints just such a picture.
Thus, “freedom of association” is only freedom when every citizen is guaranteed the right to shelter and food, either through resource distribution, universal basic income, robust social programs, regulations ensuring a living wage, or any of many other possible solutions.
If survival is not independent of work, then the working relationship cannot be considered truly free. And if the working relationship is not free, then it is exploitation.
And yet, most freedom-loving libertarians would balk at these solutions, as they so often revile regulations, price caps, minimum wages, laws against retaliation, and other legal protections. If you believe that the employer-employee relationship is a truly free association, then such outside interference is an immoral infringement on those freedoms. But as discussed, this is incongruent with the ever-present human need for the means of survival.
This is a separate rabbit hole I would like to examine in more depth in the future, but suffice to say at this point that I consider every living person entitled to the means of survival.
For those who acknowledge the imbalance of power between employers and employees, this is primarily excused by framing the greater power on the employer side as compensation for risk. To a limited extent, many people will agree the trade-off is fair: A guaranteed monthly salary, secure and consistent, can absolutely be less monetarily valuable than a risky business venture, which may result in nothing or may result in a large profit. An entrepreneur who uses an equity loan to start a small business has a lot more at stake than an employee of theirs, and it’s only fair that they reap a reward for the risk.
Most Americans accept some amount of wealth inequality as acceptable or even ideal, but as it stands the current level of inequality is staggering, far beyond what is warranted as compensation for different degrees of risk, hard work, and education. So while this argument has at least basis in sound logic, in practice we allege that the wealthiest Americans deserve to exploit workers and take literally all of the wealth for themselves. It’s not possible for me to believe that somebody at the top – even executives with schedules that leave no time to sleep and demanding responsibilities – can possibly contribute tens of thousands of times as much as a person on the ground running machines, taking orders, and cleaning toilets.
Furthermore, in addition to the wealth imbalance, there is a massive imbalance in authority that is socially ingrained but not economically necessary or socially positive. The ability to manage another person’s time and behavior, ultimately to play king within a set domain based on assets, is portrayed as a “freedom” when it serves no positive purpose in society except to use authority as a form of psychological compensation.
As a worker, I have zero interest in upholding the Freedom to Starve – whether it’s my supposed freedom to starve by walking away from exploitation or employers’ freedom to starve their employees.
Edited by: @theliberaltony