Religion & Liberty Online

Tyranny, Inc. and the Future of American Labor

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Do American workers find high-tech working conditions increasingly oppressive and intrusive? Are they finding it more difficult even to earn a living wage than workers did, say, 70 years ago? Compact editor Sohrab Ahmari’s new book examines what’s ailing American labor. But is the solution worse than the problem?

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Tyranny, Inc. is the best book yet published by a writer associated with the “postliberal” movement. Ahmari’s argument is focused and topical, he offers spirited critiques without ranting, and gives proper credit to the academic sources on which he draws. In these respects, Tyranny, Inc. stands out favorably in a literature inclined to oracular generalization. Most important, Ahmari largely avoids sweeping claims about modernity, the common good, and other abstractions. Instead, he focuses on a concrete problem: the exercise of intrusive control by ostensibly private entities, especially for-profit enterprises.

The problem begins at work. It’s nothing new or particularly shocking for employers to require workers to wear uniforms or regulate their use of time. But the pursuit of greater efficiency and increasing technological capacity encourage employers to impose ever more rigorous scrutiny of increasingly minute activities. According to a Brookings Institution report that Ahmari cites, the 21st century has seen an:

onslaught of intrusive workplace surveillance practices in the United States. Companies have the legal ability to use keylogger software on business computers, deploy video surveillance cameras, monitor worker attentiveness, track physical movements through geolocation software, compile lists of visited websites and applications, monitor emails, social media posts, and collaboration tools, and compile productivity data on how workers are spending their time and how long it takes them to finish particular tasks.

There’s something dystopian about these practices, which provide fodder for not-quite speculative fictions like Black Mirror and other technological horror stories. But the situation is even more frightening when managerial power extends beyond the working day. Ahmari catalogs situations in which workers have not only been surveilled in their political opinions but even compelled to engage in partisan political activity. Many such cases are related to DEI efforts that have received extensive attention from conservative (and some liberal) critics. But there are also examples on the right. In 2019, Ahmari notes, workers at a Royal Dutch Shell plant in Pennsylvania were warned that they would not be paid if they declined to attend a speech by then President Trump.

The late social theorist Albert Hirschman identified two possible responses to dissatisfaction with an organization’s performance: exit and voice. Exit means you can quit dealing with the organization that displeases you. Depending on the precise relationship, that could mean buying different products, taking another job, or even escaping altogether by moving to a different geographic region.

Voice means trying to maintain the relationship while improving performance by expressing grievances or promoting reform. In other words, you might complain to the manager, engage in a boycott, go on strike, or attempt to elect a government that will pursue appropriate regulation.

Because it involves free agents making their own decisions about the relationships they will accept, exit is associated with market behavior. Voice is a more conventionally political strategy. The categories overlap, though. Hirschman pointed out that governments sometimes try to reduce voice by encouraging dissenters to emigrate. On the other hand, legally granted monopolies make exits difficult even when they are in principle open to public criticism.

The core of Ahmari’s argument—and the source of his title—is that limits on the influence of ordinary people also apply in ostensible free markets. If you can’t afford the costs of moving, temporarily losing income, or acquiring new skills, it’s little comfort that you’re theoretically free to quit your job. When subject to noncompete clauses that have spread from the executive suite to the fast food kitchen, it may not even be legal to take a position with a competitor. And even if you have the wherewithal and permission to pursue alternatives, appropriate jobs may not be available. Extending a classic critique, Ahmari argues that the right of exit is merely formal when it does not acknowledge vast disparities of resources between the buyers and sellers of labor.

Political activism, including labor organization, is one response to this situation. But Ahmari contends that American politics not only makes it forbiddingly difficult to form a union but also forecloses regulations that might defend ordinary people from corporate encroachment. Even consumers, who might seem to enjoy more freedom than workers, can’t escape the grips of “tyranny, inc.” Think of voluminous Terms of Service agreements most of us accept without reading, even though we know that they give private companies access to vast data about our affairs—much of which is then resold to other enterprises for their own purposes. If you care deeply about privacy, you can refuse to use social media, do your banking in person, and rely on printed maps to guide your travels. But choices to opt out aren’t merely inconvenient. Taken consistently, they involve a withdrawal from major elements of modern life.

Ahmari is not the first writer to decry these conditions. Tyranny, Inc. draws heavily on the 2017 book Private Government by the University of Michigan philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, among other scholarly critics of so-called neoliberalism. But Ahmari excels in presenting real-life vignettes that bring academic concepts to life. The result is more engaging—and more genuinely challenging—than predictable fulminations about the corrupt origins of modernity or yet another interpretation of the American founding.

Tyranny, Inc. doesn’t fully escape the vices of its polemical genre, however. Among them is a penchant for exaggeration. Making the case that readers should worry about workplace surveillance as much as official censorship, for example, Ahmari claims that “private actors can imperil freedom just as much as overweening governments.”

Is that really true? Private actors impose burdens, sometimes heavy, on their dependents, employees, and even their customers. What they do not do—at least within the confines of the modern state—is wield legal authority to kill, imprison, or expropriate. The reason government has been the focus of arguments about freedom for the past few hundred years is that its powers are qualitatively distinct from private influence. Ahmari sometimes fails to acknowledge the difference between the use of force and the risk of economic costs, however severe.

In extreme cases, perhaps, the denial of certain goods is tantamount to violent coercion. It is not so different to be told to work at the barrel of a gun or under threat of starvation. Either way, refusal to comply means death. While theoretically and perhaps historically possible, though, Ahmari does not demonstrate or even attempt to argue that this is a realistic scenario today. Without minimizing the consequences of unemployment in the 21st century, actual starvation is unlikely to be among them.

Nor is this dilemma any discovery of recent critics of capitalism. On the contrary, it haunts the liberal tradition. In the First Treatise of Government, John Locke contends that

we know God hath not left one man so to the mercy of another, that he may starve him if he please. … As justice gives every man a title to the product of his honest industry, and the fair acquisitions of his ancestors descended to him; so charity gives every man a title to so much out of another’s plenty as will keep him from extreme want.

Locke’s point here is not only that the poor are entitled to the basic means of subsistence. It is also that failure to provide that minimum is not just deficient in humanitarian concern—it is a denial of freedom insofar as the starving man cannot be expected to refuse consent to any terms of subjection.

For Locke (as indeed Jefferson), the ultimate guarantee of self-sufficiency was the state of nature, which he conveniently located in the wilderness of America. For others in the broadly liberal tradition, the solution lay in measures to promote the widespread acquisition of property. There have been advocates of the harsh rule that he who does not work shall not eat and that the terms of work should be subject entirely to the whims of employers. But they are not the only voices—and are hardly dominant in the contemporary United States, which spends about 16% of GDP on social programs (only slightly less than ostensibly more generous European welfare states).

Successful as he in depicting the predicaments of workers with bad jobs they can’t afford to quit and don’t know how to improve, Ahmari is not a reliable guide to these complications. His depiction of the intellectual background avoids caricature by means of inconsistency. Hayek, for example, is initially described as an “arch laissez-faire theorist.” Several pages later, though, Ahmari correctly notes that Hayek forswore a “dogmatic laissez-faire attitude that rejected any intervention. … On the contrary, he saw a major role for government in promoting a competitive society.” One needn’t be a devotee of Hayek to see that these descriptions cannot be true at the same time.

More generally, Ahmari asserts that “classical” liberals “deem [government] illegitimate in all but a few narrow areas.” Yet he also acknowledges that “political liberalism—the tradition represented in sometimes-clashing ways by thinkers like Locke and Smith and practitioners like the American founders and Lincoln—still saw a legitimate domain for politics … securing self-determination and equality, rights that inhered in human beings by their nature.” If these figures don’t qualify as classical liberals, who does? If there is a legitimate target here, it might be someone like George Stigler, the University of Chicago economist who played a key role in boiling this rich and contradictory tradition of thought into a few textbook axioms. But that is a more limited, and controversial, position than Ahmari lets on.

Ahmari might respond that it does not matter what Smith wrote or what Lincoln did when it is the reductionist, economistic conception of social relations that dominates our politics. But is this really the case? Again, it’s not true that the United States is a laggard in providing social services—at least measured by public spending. Nor are taxes particularly low, once the full range of state and local levies is included. Despite Ahmari’s denunciations of laissez faire, moreover, most industries face a heavy and in many cases mounting burden of regulation. American rhetoric may have become more neoliberal or libertarian since the 1970s, but American reality hasn’t budged as much as Ahmari suggests.

There is also a serious econometric debate about whether overall conditions for American workers have deteriorated during that period. There have been periods of wage stagnation—but also periods of growth, including the past several years. Meanwhile, the prices of many goods and services have fallen. Not everything is rosy, of course. To mention just a few well-known challenges: men without college degrees have increasingly dropped out of the labor force; the cost of attending college has risen while growth of the earnings advantage linked to a degree has slowed; and housing in prosperous metro areas has gotten more expensive while less favored regions have deteriorated. But Ahmari does not consider or even really try to compare systematically the costs and benefits of the present dispensation (in a revealing finding, surveys show that Americans are more satisfied with their situation and optimistic about their own prospects than they are about the economy as a whole).

Nor does Ahmari take seriously the causes of the ostensible neoliberal turn in the 1970s. In a few paragraphs, he attributes the eclipse of the midcentury mixed economy primarily to free trade, although he briefly notes “a number of other factors,” including inflation, urban decay, and organizational sclerosis. Most economists would challenge the leading role Ahmari gives to international trade. But even in the most charitable interpretation, this seriously underplays the depths of the crisis that began to emerge in the late 1960s and continued until the early 1980s and, to different degrees, that enveloped most of Europe as well as the U.S.

Again, there’s a plausible response. Perhaps, as was the case 50 years ago (and half a century before that, in the 1930s), change is once again necessary for a combination of material factors and sheer public dissatisfaction. Ahmari returns to more solid ground when making the case for “politicization”—that is, enhancing voice. Even when the economic results are mixed, public criticism and collective action can enhance the sense of efficacy that is an important element of civic health. One reason that populism is a recurring feature of democratic politics is that citizens don’t only want comfort—they want to know that they matter.

But politicization is not a panacea. Ahmari insists that political economic outcomes are subject to social choices as well as impersonal market forces. But that doesn’t avoid the fact that these choices are subject to genuine dilemmas, and that it is impossible to have all the good things at the same time.

For example, Ahmari emphasizes the positive contribution of unions, which not only exercise countervailing power to employers but also cultivate genuine community among workers. But unions characteristically raise barriers to new entrants in order to increase wages. They also tend to lobby for regulations requiring enterprises to use more and more skilled labor than strictly necessary, raising consumer prices. When it comes to the essential good of housing, for example, there’s reason to think such policies discourage affordable construction and reduce overall supply. That’s not a dispositive case against organized labor, but it does reflect the genuine tradeoffs involved.

Ahmari also neglects opportunities to enhance exit. Although he praises the midcentury golden age of American capitalism, he neglects to mention the role of geographic mobility, which has been declining for years. The combination of high growth and low housing costs (among other factors) made it possible for workers to leave jobs, industries, and locations that dissatisfied them and to pursue better opportunities elsewhere—often in Sunbelt areas that boasted the very combination of less regulation, lower taxes, and lower union density that Ahmari blames for allowing private tyranny.

It may seem callous to encourage dissatisfied and dispirited Americans to pack up the U-Haul in pursuit of greener pastures. But successive waves of internal migration—from the original colonies to the frontier, from the farm to the city, and from the city to the suburbs—are Americans’ characteristic means of securing prosperity. It is frustrating to many progressives (and to a certain kind of conservative) that the thick local cultures and traditions of artisan production still discernible in Europe have much shallower roots here. Yet exit is a determining influence of American life—including the exit of the emigrants who left more static societies behind.

Ahmari provides an important reminder, though, that meaningful freedom is not just spontaneous. We need politics to reduce the barriers to building, mobility, innovation, and dissent that have settled over our lives. But that politics should focus on strengthening the possibilities for individuals and families to say no to relationships that don’t satisfy them rather than increasing the power of large institutions that ostensibly reflect their voices but usually end up subject to managers with their own agendas.

Samuel Goldman

Samuel Goldman is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University, where he is also executive director of the John L. Loeb, Jr. Institute for Religious Freedom and director of the Politics & Values Program. His most recent book, After Nationalism: Being American in a Divided Age was published by University of Pennsylvania Press in spring 2021. Goldman received his Ph.D. from Harvard, and taught at Harvard and Princeton before coming to GW. In addition to academic work, his writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is also an affiliate scholar for the Acton Institute.