Sunday, February 27, 2011

Not So Fast, John Holbo!

I wanted to respond to some of the (alleged) contradictions which John Holbo identifies in his post on unions and "fair play". First off is this nugget:

Athletes are ruining sports! (So be it!) If that is an ethically acceptable outcome, then so is the following: Capitalism is ruining society! (So be it.) Wall Street is hurting the economy more than it is helping. (So be it!) I doubt very much that Joyner would be willing to accept that capitalism is ethically obligatory even if it ruins society, by Joyner’s lights, and by those of the vast majority of members of the society in question (let’s say). But if he does not credit the absolute right of capitalists to ruin society, by the aggregate exercise of their individual economic rights, why should he think athletes have an absolute right to ruin sports?

Er... well... no. Athletes, being individual actors, are capable of directly ruining a sport, though whether they are, in fact, doing so is a matter of interpretation. "Capitalism" and "Wall Street", on the other hand, are abstract concepts embodied in the actions of millions of people; it's nonsensical to assert that either of them are "ruining society". What you can meaningfully say, though this is again open to interpretation, is that the aggregate actions of millions of people living under a capitalist regime (or some select thousands working in finance) are ruining society. However, you must also demonstrate that the ruination result directly form the collective exercise of economic rights and not, as frequently seems to be the case, because of fraud/graft/cronyism/etc. The intuition that "So be it!" is an inappropriate or absurd response fails because its difficult to imagine what such a situation would actually entail.

Holbo also argues that libertarians, if they support certain positions vis-a-vis the management of corporate organization, they must necessarily take those same positions with respect to society at large:

The problem is that the likes of McArdle cannot make arguments of this form without undermining her own libertarian-conservative philosophy. Specifically, she hereby undermines her capacity to object, in principle, to competing positions that she wants to object to, in principle. She is basically making what we might call a ‘basic structure’ argument about organizations. That’s a Rawlsian term, and that’s the trouble. If it is permissible to manage a company with an eye to the patterns of distribution and activity that comprise its corporate structure – broadly speaking – why isn’t it permissible to do so with regard to society, politics, so forth? If management can look at the assembly-line and say, ‘too many humans, not enough robots’, why shouldn’t political management (pointy-headed technocrats, maybe; but, ultimately, voters) look at society and say: ‘too many millionaires, not enough members of the middle-class’? If you think the latter judgment should be blocked, in principle, by a philosophy of freedom that does not permit aiming at ‘patterned distributions’ (Nozickian term), how can you countenance a philosophy of management that can aim at efficient management – i.e. strategic disruption of the basic structure, for the sake of better basic structure – since that may, after all, come at the cost of individual rights. If workers can be fired and replaced by robots, for the sake of the good of the basic social structure (of the business), why can’t millionaires be replaced by members of the middle class (themselves, just with less money), for the sake of the good of the basic structure (of the society)? What is, in principle, wrong with the latter sort of move, if the former is not merely permissible but possibly obligatory?

McArdle might be making a "basic structure" argument, but one which is specific to the management of corporate entities (be they public or private). A manager in a private corporation in chartered (in theory at least) to run the corporation for the benefit of its owners. We can quibble about what, exactly, this entails, but I would argue that running things efficiently/correctly (i.e. making pie the right way) falls within the scope of eir duties. This argument can be extended, I think, to public corporations (and corporation-like bodies) without doing it too much violence; managers in such entities have reasonably well-defined goals which they are supposed to accomplish and should attempt to reach these goals in an efficient manager subject to the constraints of the entity's charter.

It does not follow from there, however, that if you support such activities at the level of individual corporations/firms you must necessarily support those same activities at a macro scale. The questions I would raise when confronted with such a suggestion are as follows:

  • What are you trying to accomplish?
  • By what means are you seeking to accomplish it?
  • Who would carry out these activities?
  • Are such activities part of that entity's charter?

To Holbo's conundrum regarding corporate management vs. public management I would answer as follows: "Establishing the appropriate person/robot ratio is a task which proceeds naturally from the managers' charter to run the company for the benefit (interpreted here as 'maximization of ROI') of the owners. However, there appears to be no one who has, as part of their remit, the task of establishing and maintaining a middle-class/millionaire ratio". This is, of course, where libertarians typically diverge from progressives when it comes to social policy: progressives think that government has (or should have) the power to make such determinations, libertarians do not.

Holbo, wise man that he is, anticipates this objection:

ou could say the workers can be fired because they don’t ultimately own the business. The owners do. The stockholders. But this is not very helpful, for purposes of arguing against ‘social management’, with an eye for basic structure in politics. Because, after all, society is either not owned by anyone, in which case the argument is a dud, or it is owned by everyone, in which case it backfires. The voters are the ultimate stockholders, or no one is. So, to repeat: if it would be ok for stockholders in a company to vote to fire some humans and replace them with robots, it ought to be ok for stockholders in a company that happens to be a society to vote to fire some millionaires and replace them with members of the middle-class, if that would help get the society back on track of realizing its normative goals of being a good society.

He's right in asserting that voters are analogous to stockholders. But, like stockholders, they rule not by fiat but rather have a set of rules by which they have collectively bound themselves. For example, voters may grant the Federal Government whatever power they desire, but it may be necessary to amend the Constitution to do so. So yes, society could fire the millionaires provided that they follow the proper procedure; libertarians simply disagree with progressives over what those procedures may be.

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