Sunday, July 03, 2005

Forced Labour

Are workers forced to labour for capitalists, or does wage labour involve a genuinely voluntary exchange? An intuitive conception of freedom is the "reasonable alternatives" view, according to which one is forced into an option if one has no reasonable alternatives. If my only options are to work or starve, then I am forced to work. (That may or may not be a bad thing, depending on how highly we value freedom relative to other values such as utility.) That is one of my arguments in favour of an unconditional basic income: it would give workers more freedom, thus yielding a genuinely free market.

But some people reject the 'reasonable alternatives' view of freedom. They want to hold that workers do indeed voluntarily consent to their labour. Funnily enough, they also want to hold that taxation is forced. I argue that this combination of views is inconsistent:

In making a market transaction, you consent to the conditions of that transaction -- one of which is taxation. Presumably one could avoid taxation altogether by refraining from participation in the market economy, never acquiring possessions, and so forth. This is a "choice" on the order of "choosing" to starve rather than work. If you believe the latter to be an uncoerced choice, I'm not sure on what basis you deny the same status to the former.

Indeed, they might even come down to the very same choice. Let us imagine a man with no possessions, and two broad options:
(1) work at a taxed wage
or (2) starve.

Let us suppose he ends up doing #1. Is it an uncoerced choice? If so, he chose to be taxed. If not, he was forced to work. Take your pick.

Jason then responded:
I believe that starving rather than working is an uncoerced choice. Coercion is something that humans do to one another; it is not something that nature does to us.

The man who chooses to work at a taxed wage rather than starve may, if given only these two alternatives, prefer to work at a taxed wage, but this in no way means that the taxes -- apart from the wage itself -- were at all a voluntary contribution on his part.

To which I in turn replied:
I'm still not convinced you're being consistent here. Compare:

The man who chooses to work at a taxed wage rather than starve may, if given only these two alternatives, prefer to work at a taxed wage, but this in no way means that the work -- apart from the wage itself -- was at all a voluntary contribution on his part.

Now, I do think Jason is quite right that taxation isn't really voluntary. We have no reasonable alternatives: if we want to live in modern society, then we're forced to pay taxes. But the same is true of the proletariat's work. If he wants to live in modern society then he is forced to labour. It's no different, and the consistent libertarian ought to concede this.

Some libertarians (e.g. Nozick) adopt a moralized conception of freedom, whereby you are free if and only if nobody has violated your rights. This analysis of freedom is very implausible. It implies that the justly imprisoned criminal remains free (since none of his rights are violated), when surely imprisonment is a paradigm case of unfreedom. (I mention some other objections to this view here.)

But even this desperate move might not save the libertarian from my current argument. The moralized conception may indeed imply that the worker "freely" chooses to labour. But, by parity of reasoning, he also "freely" agrees to pay tax. That was the point of my earlier exposition on how the market agent "consent[s] to the conditions of th[e] transaction". One of those conditions is that the proletariat performs manual labour. Another condition of the transaction is that his wage will be taxed. It isn't clear what grounds there are for treating these conditions differently, for thinking that one but not the other is a violation of the worker's rights. Any suggestions?


  1. Workers could get together, pool their funds, and start a business where every worker has an equal share in the ownership and decision making.

    Lack of funds does not prevent this, in fact much investment capital is money that workers have voluntarily given to capitalists via investment in insurance or superannuation.

    What prevents it is that the resulting company would be badly run and would lack the proper incentives to engage in productive activity. The company would fail and the workers/investors would lose their money and their jobs.

    In a capitalist system there is nothing stopping a group of people creating their own little pocket of socialism, expect that it would be horribly inefficient and people would leave.

    In a socialist system, however, a group of capitalists could not just do their own thing because the socialists would beat them up and take their stuff.

    That is the difference.

  2. Whenever I see people associating work and freedom I think of the contradictory slogans in 1984. It makes about as much sense as chanting "war is peace." And I'm also reminded of the slogan over the main gate at Auschwitz "Arbeit mak vrei"

  3. BTW If you haven't already read these I'd recommend

    7 Myths about Work by Molly Scott Cato


    Selling the Work Ethic: from puritan pulpit to corporate PR by Sharon Beder

  4. Nope, I've not come across them before. Thanks for the pointer.

    Nigel - I'm not sure your comment has much bearing on the example in question. Perhaps workers can, in time, come to earn enough capital to make investments and such. But my example involved a man who has no capital, and asks about the status of his freedom to begin with. Perhaps in a few years time he will have earned enough that he has genuine alternatives, and so his choice to continue working really is a voluntary one. But I'm asking about his situation now, not in a few years time. Ex hypothesi, he has no other options and is forced to work or die.

  5. (Like how some slaves in the ancient world would be allowed by their masters to keep some earnings, and eventually some would manage to buy their own freedom.)

  6. A person can start a business on baisically no capital and become a millionare or whatever what is stopping people is their traits - being less intelligent, less motivated, more risk adverse or whatever.

    But these barriers are as real as government made barriers (in fact much more so). afterall it is nonsense to go to someone and demand they become 40 IQ points smarter or demand they become huge risk takers.

    the argument that htey are nessercary (which can be made and may be correct) is seperate from the fact that they combined with circumstance deny freedom.

  7. I think you'll need to bring in the idea of property in order to get a workable distinction between the two cases.

    Presumably, the employer has not (and will not) "do anything to" my property without my explicit permission. The government, however, has (or will) do something to my property without my explicit permission (that is, the government will take part of my money, which is supposed to be part of my property). This, I think, is thought to be what makes my relationship with my employer consensual and my relationship with my government non-consensual.

  8. I believe that starving rather than working is an uncoerced choice. Coercion is something that humans do to one another; it is not something that nature does to us.

    While I don't agree with this, of course, there may be something to it that you didn't address in your response: a distinction between nature and human agency. Specifically we could argue that 'coercion' proper is only the result of human agency, and that thus choices forced upon us by nature are not coercive.

    For example: we could say that when faced with a situation where, due to natural events - a hurricane, say, trapping you in an office building - you might have to decide to either kill and eat the person next to you or die. But since this happened as a result of (as stipulated) purely natural events it would not make sense along these lines to argue that you were coerced into (say) killing and eating that person. (Who coerced you?)

    On the other hand, if I simply burst into the room and put a gun to your head, threatening to shoot you if you didn't immediately kill and eat the person next to you then that would count as coercion.

    Along these lines then we might argue that working is something forced upon us by our nature (which requires sustenance), but being taxed is forced upon us by other people and thus is coercive.

    Of course, this still displays the lack of imagination I take to be foundational to much conservative political theory - nature can't be said to force us to labor in unless the current economic structures we have now are also the only ones possible. Once we admit that the current choice being offered is a contingent one then the link between working at a job and working for sustenance (as a result purely of biological nature) becomes tenuous enough that I don't know how it could be supported. Still, I think there's at least something to distinguish between the two cases, at least initially.

  9. I'm not disputing that there is an element of necessity in both these two choices, work-or-starve and pay-taxes-or-starve.

    What I am disputing is that they are of the same moral or political status. They are not, as one belongs to the realm of physiology alone (note that even if you hope to get by on charity, someone must do the work for you). The other, pay-taxes-or-starve, is a product of human choices and actions.

    I do hope I've not been taken to have made any stronger claims than that. While I do consider myself a libertarian, I find taxes justifiable nonetheles. (I also admire Nigel's comment about workers forming their own business...)

  10. That’s a lot of questions and concepts all rolled together Richard.
    I see others have written while I pondered but i add the following for interest anway.

    The requirement for work to avoid starvation has always been there, whether one labours for others, or for oneself, or employs others. ( or just ‘hunts and gathers’ in the original wilderness) . It’s not just a question of being an employee.
    Since humans innately strive to survive it’s hardly a free choice .. except in so so far as, in practice, it does involve a sense of making a choice in accord with one’s basic need. ( and it is possible to just turn your back on the world and give up. Oh yes it is.)

    Perhaps those who say working for wages is a voluntary choice have behind their thinking some such concept as I just stated. And one suspects are also really thinking > “ There is the same choice there has always been. If you think those possibilitites are too limited, it’s up to YOU to make more possibilities by effort and skill. Don’t expect or demand anything from others. “

    Which indicates that the important question is > “how limited is the alternative to starvation ?”
    Some limits are in the individual, as Genius points out.
    Then, does the presence and actions of the rest of the community improve or limit the alternatives? Does it alter the market value of what you receive for this ‘voluntary’ work? How many pages on those would you like ?
    Then, is tax forced or voluntary? Well, as you state, it’s forced, ( as one might judge by the resentment with which many pay it. But usually with a grumbling acknowledgment that it is necessary to provide many things vital to the continued operation of the community. )

    But as to there being a logical contradiction as in the original topic ?? … I can’t quite see it. There is a consistent claim behind the ‘wages are voluntary’ and ‘taxes are forced” approach, .. namely the attitude towards claims of ownership. Take a strict, libertarian style, approach on that and the other claims follow.

    One can fault the approach in each separate case, (at least, I do ) but they are not a LOGICAL problem .. er .. are they ??

    By the way .. Quote Nigel . “ What prevents it is that the resulting company would be badly run and would lack the proper incentives to engage in productive activity. The company would fail and the workers/investors would lose their money and their jobs.”
    That’s not really true. A massive earner of wealth in New Zealand ( the dairy industry) was for many years, run in the form of co-operatives. With time they hired managers and amalagmated and nowadays the farmers ( around here anyway) regard themselves a little more then powerless shareholders. But the principle of co-operation itself worked well.


  11. Okay, we can grant that on a collective level, circumstances will force at least some humans to work (if any are to survive), whereas human society would still be possible without taxation. However, I don't see that this affects my present argument. For my argument is on the individual, not collective, level. I am considering the freedoms of a particular individual, not of humanity-at-large.

    So, my specific responses:

    Dr Pretorius - For a given individual (say the guy in my 2-choices example), taxation and work are "forced" upon him to exactly the same degree. They come down to exactly the same choice (#1).

    His circumstances involve more than just "nature" - if the social conditions were different (say, if there were adequate welfare schemes or an Unconditional Basic Income) then he might not have to work at all. Or his poverty might be the result of actions by other people, or interactions within the broader social-economic system, etc. It's a terrible oversimplification to put all such circumstances down to "nature". Especially if the radical libertarian then uses this as an excuse to do nothing about it.

    Conversely for tax: like I suggested in the main post (and more here), taxation could be understood holistically as simply part of the social-economic system, rather than some "artificial external imposition" upon a "natural economic order" (as if there were any such thing!). The individual is not "coerced" into paying tax any more than he is "coerced" into labouring. Both are merely conditions that he consents to as part of the market transaction. From the perspective of my individual within the existing social-economic framework, there are no grounds for treating these conditions any differently. He consents to both or neither together.

    Jason - my response to you is similar. It is not "physiology alone" that forces an individual to work. Like you say, somebody else could provide for him instead. The social system has much influence here. (But I do appreciate that you are a more moderate libertarian than many.)

    David - I don't think appealing to property will help here. My idea is that if you trace back your acquisition of property through market transactions, one of the conditions of each transaction is that it would be taxed. In agreeing to the transaction, you agreed to this condition. You consented to the taxation when you consented to labour for a taxed wage. (Assuming you were in a position to give voluntary consent for any of it.)

  12. To clarify: the "David" I refer to in the previous comment is the one who commented above Dr. Pretorius.

    I hope the responses made also help to answer David L's doubts about the inconsistency involved (which, I think, is a broader form of inconsistency than a strict logical contradiction).

  13. Richard - as I indicated in my first comment I do agree with you that the distinction is a meaningless one (which is what I was trying to get at with my last paragraph, though, I suspect, not very coherently).

    Consider the following four cases:
    1. One is trapped in the wilderness and has to choose between eating a lizard and not eating.
    2. One is living in a city and has to choose between taking a job and not eating.
    3. One is living in a city and has to choose between paying taxes or being put in jail.
    4. One is living in a city and has to choose between giving a strange man one's wallet or being shot.

    Now, in all these cass the choice is for all intents and purposes a purely formal one. But I think it's fair to say that (1) does not constitute a case in which one is being coerced into eating a lizard, and (4) does constitute a case where one is being coerced into giving a strange man one's wallet.

    The main question, then, is where the line gets drawn - with Richard arguing that it gets drawn between (1) and (2), and Jason arguing that it gets drawn between (2) and (3). The problem as I see it is that if we do really want to tie coercion to human agency the only way we could sensibly draw the line in question between cases (2) and (3) would be to deny that human agency (in any strong sense) is responsible for our current culture/economic system/etc. That shouldn't sound quite as crazy at it did there - we need only grant that the rules according to which our society and economy operate at the moment are equivalent to laws of nature for all intents and purposes (though, for whatever reason, excluding tax laws - possibly because it's very easy to just imagine the absence of a government, and possibly because they really do seem added on after the fact in many ways). Once we do that cases (1) and (2) come to look very similar (though of course not identical), and both look somewhat different indeed from case (3) in which one can actually point at someone in particular as taking money from us (the taxman). Specifically what the premise allows us to do is identify a sort of generic sense of 'work' which we might say is a natural necessity (like, for example, catching the lizard in (1)) with what we generally do specifically mean by 'work' in this case - namely wage labor. And if there's no distinction between "work" meaning "getting stuff" and "work" in the rather specific sense we use nowadays given our cultural and economic context then there's similarly very little distinction between (1) and (2).

    Of course, this premise is deeply false - but I suspect it's the sort of premise which is quite intuitive right up until someone just goes ahead and states it. Once we go ahead and identify the various structures of our society and economy, and so on as the results of human agency, though, it strikes me that the line pretty much has to be drawn between (1) and (2), putting both (2) and (3) in the same catagory (which was, I think, what you were after, Richard - wasn't it?).

  14. Okay, yeah I guess that sounds good to me. Though I have no problem saying that in your case (1) the man is forced to eat a lizard. Even if the word "coercion" is arbitrarily restricted to mean that human agency was involved, I think that one can be "forced" to do something by circumstances. Human agency is just one form of constraint upon our freedom. But I suppose the libertarian simply disagrees with us here, which is where my other argument (about wage-labour and taxes being equally part of the socio-economic system) kicks in.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)