Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A conversation with Free Market Stephen about Organized Labor

I'm pretty sure I come off as a douche in this conversation, but that' probably just because I am. That's why I give myself the first and final word.


Does this mean you support unions in the private sector?

February 24 at 9:40pm · Like · Remove


It means that I am against unions in the public sector. But since you ask, I don't support private organized labor any more than I support the private managements who battle them. I would not take away anyones rights to organize and demand whatever they want...however, I would also not take away a manager's right to fire anyone who does it too. What bothers me is coercive actions on either side and that unions often claim to be acting some kind of a more moral cause...they aren't! They are just attempting to maximize profits the same way that managers are. The problem with the public sector is there are no profits to maximize...there are just politicians playing games with the public's money.

February 25 at 2:47pm · Like


i'm confused, so coercion ("on both sides") is wrong? yet you support the decision of a manager to fire someone for being a member of a union?

coercion is inevitable. some coercion is simply more tolerable than other forms.

this article points to the fact that organized labor has created the vast US middle class, along with humane working conditions, that we today take for granted.

so, if you agree with the article than i think you would agree that the coercion of the worker (which coerces management to recognize a 40 hour work-week, a decent living wage, safety protocols, etc.) is infinitely better than the coercion of the manager (who has an incentive to work people as hard as possible while paying them as little as possible). yes?

February 25 at 3:39pm · Like · Remove


The difference here is on our view of labor contracts. I see a job as a contract that must be mutually agreed to by both parties...where one party cannot rob the other under the guise of 'rights'. If you feel your rights are violated then you should quit and possibly pursue a legal suit for restitution. Both parties should have that right to terminate the contract at any time.

Also, bargaining and voluntary compromise are not coercion. Coercion is most often manifest in these disputes by the lockouts staged by unions and the use of the law to confiscate the property and the property rights of the managers.

The real question that I have for people that follow your line of reasoning is why do you have so much disdain for wealthy people? Why do you assume that their utility is secondary to the workers? Your use of interpersonal utility comparisons to say that a worker needs their share of the profit more than the manager does is completely impersonal and assumes that only workers have needs and desires that are worth fulfilling. Everyone is a unique individual with complex needs and desires. We need to stop assuming that poor people= depressed and needy while rich people= fulfilled and not needing of anything they produce. Only a non-coercive contract bargaining process can find the equilibrium that is suitable to both sides.

Yesterday at 10:38am · Like


coercion is just as common (probably more so) on the part of the employer than the employee (or even the union). i mean just think about a typical work situation, how often do you coerce your boss to do something versus how often your boss coerces you to do something. the dominance/subservience dynamic is pretty one-sided. furthermore, the system is already biased in favor of the property owner or manager and against the laborer who in modern capitalism gets very little use-value from his labor and is (almost) wholly dependent on the exchange-value of said labor.

if the laborer can't find a buyer for their labor they're sunk. he needs to work. this means they are in a fragile position in relation to the buyer.

you might say start a small business, but that assumes our laborer has a large store of capital or readily available credit.

furthermore, businesses often use coercive techniques to prevent workers from unionizing or joining previously established unions.

finally, strikes are actually quite uncommon. have you ever even worked at a company where workers went on strike? to say that this is the most common form of coercion in the US workplace seems terrible naive to me.

now, coercion is inevitable - even if the coercion is as soft as peer pressure. to get people to work together coercion is going to happen in society. you even concede this when you talk about legal remedies necessary to enforce contractual obligations (legal suits for restitution are coercive ya know).

now, do i think "rich people" are the evil? no. they're good people, i'm sure. or at least they are regular people. they are going to pursue they're interest just like the worker is going to pursue her interest. the problem is that these interests are often at odds with one another. as i stated earlier the company owners/shareholders are going to try and reserve as much of the company profits for themselves as possible - it is in their interest to do so and the law protects their right to these profits. this often comes at the expense of the worker because one of the chief ways of increasing profits is by increasing productivity - meaning longer, harder work for the laborer - or else by cutting costs - meaning lower wages for the worker - or even by increasing efficiency - potentially resulting in less safe work conditions.

now, to talk about utility there is diminishing returns for the utility of each extra dollar/unit of wealth. giving a hundred dollars to a single mother who is - in the words of G-dub - "struggling to put food on their family" is going to give her much more utility than if you were to give that same hundred to bill gates. the single mother is going to be elated, bill gates is going to be like "whatever," i don't care one bit.

therefore, all things considered, i can get away with caring more about the wealth of people at the bottom of the food chain, without "disdaining" wealthy people or "assuming that their utility is secondary to workers."

So now, what's you're argument as to why I should worry so much about the wealthy and spend my time defending their right to exorbitant wealth, even at the expense of common workers?

20 hours ago · Like · Remove


I still assert that bargaining and voluntary compromise are not coercion. To me, coercion is the use of real (property rights violating) force e.g. taking over a building that doesn't belong to you as a part of a strike, or enslaving a worker (literally removing the option to not work there anymore). The right to contract for/with ones labor doesn't include a right to coerce the other.

Your professed utility calculations also astound me. How is it that you can possibly know at what point the utility returns of money can start diminishing for someone? The only way that I could even start to make those kind of calculations is to have them voluntarily bargain and contract and reveal that information. You premise that the workers are fighting a more moral fight in their pursuits of further profits is based on your bias towards them and your assumed diminishing marginal utility of dollars for wealthier people. I cannot buy into that because I have seen too many examples of people who have utility functions that I can not even begin to understand. People are people to me...they are an end in themselves and I cannot think that wealthier people are somehow to not entitled to their property and rights.

Also, in response to your last question, I have to recall what I have pointed out to you in the past: the gathering of wealth is not a zero sum game. Just because someone is wealthy does not mean that have taken that wealth at the expense of anyone else...in fact, in most cases it is quite the opposite. Most people have to enrich others in order to obtain wealth.

6 hours ago · Like


hahaha. you're funny steve.

1. just because you don't "believe" that coercion doesn't exist in you're ideologically driven dream of a free-market society is not to say that it wouldn't exist. coercion is still necessary to ensure that people fulfill their contractual obligations, regardless of whether they entered into them voluntarily. you've already conceded this point. so at the point that you concede that coercion is unavoidable the discussion than turns to what types of coercion are preferable. and i think i'm winning that my coercion is preferable to yours.

2. You're right. I can't know anything about anyone. I'm trapped in my own subjective universe, just like you are. However, that doesn't mean I can't speculate. So, even if a rich person values a hundred dollars the same as a struggling single-mother (as you suggest) that doesn't mean they have any reason to value it more. Rationally it makes no sense. From the perspective of psychology, behaviorally it makes no sense. The mother has much more fundamental concerns (given Maslow's hiearchy) that can be addressed with an extra hundred dollars compared to the rich guy who is just going to spend his on more self-actualization (possibly by investing it yes, but how satisfying is upping your portfolio from one hundred million to a hundred million plus one-hundred?)

And again, you keep accusing me of silly things, "people are people to me". As though they're not to me. As though I'm somehow dehumanizing people by speculating on the utility they get from an extra hundred bucks. You need to add a warrant to this argument before you say that I'm not treating people as people.

Furthermore, do you have access to the form of peopleness? Cuz apparently you percieve people perfectly as "people". In which case who is being presumptuous about they're understanding of people? At least I offer arguments for believing the way I do, you on the other had simply state that rich people might gain just as much utility from extra dollars and therefore conclude that they do gain equal utility. That's such a bogus argument. Just because they might gain the same utility, doesn't mean they do, and you're offering no argument as to why I should believe they do receive the same utility.

"People are people" to me too, so please don't be so condescending, and I cannot think people are not entitled to a decent standard of living - like food for instance - whether or not it tramples on some people's supposed "property rights." Especially when defending "property rights" far too often translates to defense of an unmitigated right to enrich themselves through socially irresponsible practices. e.g. financial speculation culminating in a general collapse, environmental degradation, or through manipulating labor as to squeeze as much profit as possible from people with the least possible cost.

3. In response to your response. I understand the logic of wealth creation. However, in order to grow, a commodity-based capitalist economy (like ours) needs a strong middle class of consumers in order to soak-up all the production. If wages are stagnant or dip, then there is less activity in the economy because those who would be spending money to buy products don't have access to said money. Rich people tend to put money either into savings or else into producing more stuff (as is the case in investment).

So weak wages, and high wealth inequality, creates a poisonous cycle in which there is less money in the hands of consumers for buying stuff, and more money in the hands of producers for re-investing in production. this results in a surplus of stuff. next the market responds rationally and constricts, resulting in layoffs, this then results in less disposable income for the middle and lower class which results in further constriction of industry and more layoffs, which further constricts the economy, and so on, and so on, and so on, until you get the Great Depression.

The power of wealth creation is severely hindered when corporations, businesses, and wealthy individuals aren't compelled to distribute the wealth being created in a more equitable fashion in the form of higher wages. Furthermore, organized labor is one of the less coercive methods of bringing about this end of higher wages necessary to stimulate economic growth. Or do you prefer government mandates regarding industry wages?

Until you respond to my argument (also aforementioned) you can't just glibly state "wealth creation solves" without further explaining how. "Wealth creation" is another way of talking about economic growth, and without a strong middle class of consumers you can't have economic growth.


Ultimately you're right about people having to enrich others in order to enrich themselves. Producers do need to enrich working class consumers in order to feed the system which in turn enriches them.

But this isn't immediately apparent to producers who often suffer from narrow-minded, short-term, cognitive thinking errors, and who often operate as though they'd rather enrich themselves now, regardless of the overall health of the system down the line. This problem endemic to humanity is, as you know, also known as the tragedy of the commons.

So without organized labor, and strikes and sit-ins and everything else, how do you ensure that wealth inequality doesn't get out of control leading to a general collapse?

Especially considering that wealth inequality is currently at the highest point in US history, except for the period directly prior to the Great Depression.


I wish that I was humored by you in the same way that you apparently are by me. I do enjoy discussing our different “subjective universe(s)” though. Excuse me for not explaining myself more clearly in some of my assertions. Let me briefly t...ry and clarify:

1. I do not draw any assumptions about any individual’s utility functions; be they rich or poor. You attack me as if I make the same assumptions as you do only in the converse. As a part of my ‘treating people as people’ ideology (which I hope to clarify for you) I simply allow people to act out what their preferences are. Period. You should try it sometime…it relieves the tremendous burden of knowing what is best for everyone else.
2. You still misunderstand my view of coercion and its difference from voluntary interactions. I do not know how to further explain this in a way that will produce a different result from my previous attempts so I will cease trying.
3. On the creation of wealth in an economy, I must disagree with your claim that: “in order to grow, a commodity-based capitalist economy (like ours) needs a strong middle class of consumers in order to soak-up all the production.” In order to grow, an economy merely needs demand to meet supply at some semi-equilibrium. Supply does not discriminate and ask only for middle class consumers. In the long run, supply will shift to supplying what the demand asks for. For example, Sierra Leone does a large amount of their trade with China…certainly not because Sierra Leone represents a nice vein of middle class consumers to tap, but because they represent some demand. The idea that a strong middle class is vital to the health of an economy is rooted more in egalitarian philosophy than economic theory.
4. Finally, let me try to explain what it means to me to ‘treat people as people’. I am sure you recognize the Kant-iness of that line. It is founded on the belief that people are an end in and of themselves and they should not be used as a means to anyone else’s ends. If you see people as people, then you do not treat people differently from each other on the basic level. All people have basic human rights…and even if you wish it didn’t, thousands of years of jurisprudence around the world include property rights as a basic human right. My clothes are just as much mine as my arm and bank account are mine. Those property rights stand in place unless someone can formulate a legitimate lawsuit and prove that I have obtained my property through illegitimate means. When someone formulates a system that is designed to strip people of their property and rights by means of coercion in the name of fairness and charity, I see dehumanization. I see people viewing other people as worthy of being sacrificed for others. I see the deep seeded envy and distain in some people blossoming into a sense of entitlement and moral superiority. So, sorry if you felt like I was being condescending towards you, but I was trying to point out that making assumptions about what rich people should want is treating them as a means to enriching others who you find more championable. In my mind that is dehumanizing them.
5. I am sure we haven’t changed each others minds at all; we never do. But may I suggest that we seriously read one book that we recommend to each other to at least give an effort to understanding the other’s theories? I know I have certainly not expounded my philosophy very clearly, and don’t get me wrong Zach, you have done a good job trying to explain things to me, but I would like a little more footnote and a bit less ‘haha you’re funny’. What do you say?

See More about an hour ago · LikeUnlike

Zach Myers

sorry if i was condescending, because i was, which was rude.

but i did generally laugh a couple times while i was reading you're post. particularly funny is you're whole, "my contractual philosophy is free of coercion" thing, when in fact contracts are by design coercive. If coercion wasn't necessary why would you bother drawing up a contract? Why else but to develop mechanisms for punitive measures in case of breach? Hence contract "law".

Even if the only reason to have a contract in writing is to shame your partner when they don't live up to their end of the bargain, that shaming is still a form of coercion.


1. First, You have to assume that I'm wrong about the way I conceptualize utility; therefore, you are guilty of making assumptions about utility - that's its unpredictable. Second, I'm not assuming, so much as making rational arguments as to why there are diminishing returns on utility.

2. I understand you're view of coercion. I simply disagree and offer arguments as to why its wrong.

3. To say that Sierra Leone's richest people can trade with China is not to say that they have an admirable economic system. An economy can be quite strong on paper, and yet the people in that country can still have on average really crappy standard of living. The disparity between rich and poor in Sierra Leone and many developing countries is an example.

I also note that you've essentially conceded that the middle class is eroding. You're counter-argument only goes so far as to say that it's OK if there is no middle class because the richest echelon can continue trading and keeping the economy moving.

I still stand by my argument that the healthiest most sustainable economic growth comes from having a strong middle class. (As was the case after WWII.) Versus growth that is based on deepening wealth inequality. (As was the case immediately prior to the Great Depression.) Furthermore, I think history is on my side on this one.

4. Yes people are people. So is that all we can say about them? You go from saying, "people are people," therefore you can't reason about human behavior to then contradicting yourself by doing exactly what you decry and reasoning about people.

Do you want to end the conversation at "people are people"? Cuz it seems to me that you want to say much more about them. "Such as people are rational and will pursue their perceived interest, and in so doing will make contracts that benefit not just themselves but others in their pursuit of rational self interest, and therefore we shouldn't interfere in this rational enterprise" and so on, and so on, and so on.

Why should I consider your shirt as much a part of you as your arm? Your argument is on face ridiculous and you present no warrants as to why "property rights" are so essential to "peopleness" or humanity. Honestly some of the most humane people I can think of decried the violence of "property" and spent their lives trying to free themselves (and others) from systems obsessed with the idea - Jesus, Ghandi, Mother Theresa.

Furthermore, entire cultures did just fine without the concept of "property" we Westerners carry about. Certain American Indian cultures, for example, believed everything was owned in common and there could be no "ownership" of what belonged to the spirit of the Earth. You're idea of what is essential to peopleness (i.e. property rights) is incredibly anthropocentric, bordering on racist. Were these American Indians not people because they didn't have property rights?

Therefore, you're reified concept "property" is not essential to humanity and I do not dehumanize by suggesting that the wealth in this nation should be distributed more equally. So quit harping on this.

Furthermore, my arguments argument in favor of equitable wages is not redistribution. There is no taking from the rich or whatever. So your argument doesn't apply.

In fact organized labor is merely a check against the coercive power of the owners of the means of production. When Unions negotiate hire wages, they're not stealing by any means, they're still selling their labor - which is well within your concept of property rights. I advocate siding with the Union, even in the case of a strike, or sit-in, or possibly even in the case of sabotage, not only equitable and just, but also because it produces better economic results.

Add to that, you conceded my argument that bosses are coercive, so again we're discussing relative levels of coercion. You keep trying to turn this into "coercion versus not-coercion" which is 1. just silly and 2. ignores my arguments.

5. Umm... maybe. I feel like you've got some catching up to do on my perspective before I should have to read more drivel from your perspective. (Haha, I mean drivel in the most complimentary way possible you of course understand.) I'm already pretty well read on free-market ideology as a result of Koch Scholars and classes with Simmons and Herzberg.

What would you suggest for me?

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