Envisioning Worker Voice in the Private Government(s) of the Twenty-First Century

This post is part of a symposium on Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It). Read the complete symposium here.

Amanda Jaret –

anderson book cover

For those of us who are interested in law and political economy, seeing a political philosopher of Elizabeth Anderson’s stature dedicate her Tanner Lectures to labor issues is deeply gratifying. In the lectures, Anderson forcefully argues that the state plays a constitutive role in shaping the “private government” of the workplace by establishing rules that preserve space for employers’ exercise of “private, arbitrary, unaccountable” power over workers. As a participant in the “marginalized academic subfields” of labor law and labor history—which Anderson notes are among the only disciplines which consistently raise questions about the normative implications of power disparities in the workplace—I think she is to be commended for addressing the curious invisibility of employers’ regulatory authority over workers’ lives and its broader implications for those who share Anderson’s egalitarian commitments. Nevertheless, I worry that Anderson’s analysis ultimately misses the mark, because it pays insufficient heed to structural economic changes that have transformed “private government” in the past few decades, with consequences that threaten the viability of her vision of ensuring worker voice in the governance of private firms.

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On Reuniting Legal Realism with Moral Pragmatism

This post is part of a symposium on Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It). Read the complete symposium here.

Luke Herrine 

anderson book cover

In 1987 Robert Gordon recounted finding among those “in the center or left of American liberalism…this paralysis, founded in their sense that legal and social realities are frozen, that we have reached the end of history and that the possibility of fundamental change is now forever closed to us.” Gordon’s experience is not unique, of course. The critical project of “unfreezing legal reality” to make it more pliable for egalitarian restructuring has had to confront not only the legal system’s own defense mechanisms but a set of discourses that make it hard to think outside the current system.

As many members of this blog have noted, neoclassical economics has been the most powerful such discourse, but moral philosophy—even that produced by egalitarians—has been similarly unforgiving. Most debates in Anglo-American moral and political philosophy have taken place in the realm of the ideal. Political morality amounts to articulating the constitution reasonable persons would agree to ideal conditions. Legal reasoning requires “rational reconstruction” of existing institutions to understand their moral structure. Egalitarianism is about figuring out how to set up idealized (read: using neoclassical assumptions) insurance markets to correct for inequalities of luck while maintaining room for agency. The idealizations of the debates tend to vacillate between being so unlike our actual world as to be difficult to make sense of or so like our actual world as to “freeze” it by moralizing existing institutions. They may help clear up some of our ideas, but they do not give us much to work with in the project of dismantling oppressive institutions and building democratic ones in their place.

Many critical legal theorists sought alternatives in deconstructive theories, which more often than not were so totalizing that they left little sense that one anybody (except perhaps judges) could do anything productive to reshape society.

Elizabeth Anderson has been the foremost advocate of a pragmatic alternative that treats moral theory like realists treat law: as a going concern. Following a venerable American tradition starting with Peirce, James, and Dewey, she understands moral debate as happening in media res, between socially and historically situated actors attempting to make sense of their attitudes about the world in the process of acting on it. Concepts like “freedom”, “equality”, and “exploitation” evolve out of historically embedded attempts to express attitudes about certain institutional arrangement; they necessarily evolve as arrangements change and as we reflect on what we really ought to care about regarding them. Moral philosophy is merely an extension of everyday reflective and discursive practices, and, if it strays too far from those practices, it results in concepts and arguments that have little or confused relevance to the real world. The process of deciding on ends is not separated from the evaluation of available means in any given context, and both are tied to our evolving understandings of how the world works. It is a process of ongoing recalibration.

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Free Trade Free for All: Market Romanticism Versus Reality

Jamee K. Moudud – 

The drama surrounding President Trump’s decision to impose import tariffs on steel and aluminum has roiled the Republican Party and wide swathes of the corporate elite. The tariff decision comes on the heels of political bluster about the US being treated “unfairly” by other countries. This accusation of “unfairness” when it comes to US trade deficits is well worn. In a previous era, Japan was the alleged culprit of “unfair” trade practices because of its persistent trade surpluses with the U.S.

This type of political theater draws on a romanticized view of international trade and its persistent conflict with empirical reality. As an explanation of global trade relations,  the Heckscher-Ohlin-Samuelson (HOS) model of foreign trade relies on both of the standard neoclassical assumptions about “efficient” markets. First, it assumes perfectly competitive markets, composed of many, small firms, each without any  ability to set prices. Second, it assumes that there are zero externalities to economic transactions, meaning that transactions do not have any un-priced, third-party effects. And of course, the model assumes the economy  is fundamentally based on barter, according  no roles for money, credit, and effective demand. The absence of money implies that there is no possibility of an increase in liquidity preference (a term coined by Keynes to describe the desire to hold cash rather than illiquid assets) in uncertain times and thus no possibility of shortfalls of effective demand. Together, these propositions of the HOS model predict that a legal framework of “free trade” will produce balanced trading relationships on the international level and full employment in each domestic economy. Significantly, assuming that there is perfect competition implies that firms in each country, regardless of its level of industrialization, have access to the same technology needed to produce goods for the international market. Perfect competition implies that no firm injures others, a point of view that has been challenged by many authors. (See the edited volume by Moudud, Bina, and Mason Alternative Theories of Competition: Challenges to the Orthodoxy). The core aspect of the broad alternative perspectives is that firms do seek to damage each other by attempting to take away market shares via price-setting and cost-adjusting processes. This has nothing to do with either “perfect” or “imperfect” markets.

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State Power and the Construction of Contractual Freedom: Labor and Coercion in Bailey v. Alabama

Noah Zatz – 

If forced to choose, I might pick Bailey v. Alabama as my favorite contract law case. That is, if it even counts as one. Which is pretty much my point. Decided in 1911, Bailey is a criminal case – Lonzo Bailey was convicted for fraud.  It is also a constitutional case – the Supreme Court struck down the conviction as violating the Thirteenth Amendment’s prohibition of involuntary servitude. A labor case, too – the criminal statute specifically targeted workers who took advances on wages and then later quit before paying the debt. And a race case, though the Court denied it – Alabama’s “false pretenses” statute was one cog in the wheel of Jim Crow neoslavery. But yes, also a contracts case (in a libertarian’s casebook, no less!) because the Court used the case to erect a boundary between criminal and civil consequences for breach of contract.

This overflowing of conventional doctrinal boundaries makes Bailey the perfect vehicle to deliver key insights of a Law & Political Economy approach. So much so that I will do it over multiple posts.

In this first installment, Bailey punctures the ubiquitous conceit that there is or could be an autonomous sphere of economic life – “the free market” – that stands apart from politics, from contests over whether and when to authorize the coercive exercise of governmental power. That contrast between economic freedom and political power is ubiquitous, as in the language contrasting “private” law with government “intervention” in the market (via “public” law). This conceit renders unremarkable what might seem contradictory: a ubiquitous politics that abhors government regulation (of “the economy”) yet thirsts for a state that is “tough on crime.” Continue reading

Law, Political Economy, and the Legal Realist Tradition Revisited

K. Sabeel Rahman — 

As David, Amy, and Jed note in their opening post, the economic, social, political, and ecological crises of the current moment are helping fuel an exciting wave of legal scholarship. This emerging trend, the “law and political economy” (LPE) approach, interrogates the relationships between law, politics, and economics, exploring issues of power, inequality, democracy, and social change. As we explore what this approach might mean and what its implications might be, it is important to situate these inquiries in a larger history of legal scholarship and reform politics. This is not the first time that a similar moment of crisis has helped spur creative new thinking about the relationships between law, capitalism, and democracy—and it won’t be the last. In this post, I want to sketch a particular aspect of this trajectory: the long legacy of legal realism and its relationship to our current debates around law and political economy.

This legacy is important for two reasons. First, now, as then, we face a similar period of socioeconomic upheaval and political conflict, prompting us to rethink our legal structures. As a result, the substantive insights of legal realism remain valuable for an LPE approach today. Second, recalling the trajectory of legal realism and its successor intellectual movements is helpful in highlighting the kinds of tensions and questions that an LPE approach will have to continue to address.

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