Friday, July 27, 2012

further thoughts on workplace democracy: importance of law

While it has been immensely fruitful to have scholars from political science, economics, and philosophy contribute to the debate on workplace democracy, one field has been surprisingly absent from that conversation: law. A quick check over at the Workplace Prof blog, for example, does not give any evidence of the debate being discussed. The Legal History Blog has also not engaged.

That's really too bad, because I believe that law can shed a useful perspective on some of the misconceptions held by those on both the right and the left in this debate.

First, on the right, Tabarrok chimes in with his discussion of worker quits. I actually already replied to him in this post -- but allow me to briefly flesh out the idea more.

The big event in early 1800s labor law was the conscious choice of applying Master-Servant law to all contract labor, not just contracts of servitude (i.e. indentured servants). Master-Servant law, as you can imagine, is more than simply "free contract"! It permitted judges to assume a substantial degree of authority into the labor contract as a contract which implies a degree of obedience of the worker to the capitalist. Such a law is, as Karen Orren states, essentially feudal. But Master-Servant law was a conscious choice of the judges at this time! Talking about this aspect of labor law is, I think, more crucial for understanding how workplace democracy has been prohibited over the history of capitalism.

On the left, Konczal replies to Tabarrok on quits, choosing to fight Tabarrok on his own turf rather than direct the workplace democracy debate in a more fruitful direction. Even Corey Robin commits a similar error by talking about pee breaks.

In short, the point is not about freedom to exit or not to exit, the point of workplace democracy is to control the conditions of one's work -- rights over how production is actually managed. Quitting or peeing may be part of that question, but on a more fundamental level we must recognize a legal system which implicitly assumes a degree of obedience and master authority which has existed and still exists to this day.

It would be interesting to see what legal scholars have to say about the space for expanding workplace democracy, or the history of workplace democracy over time. Yes we know a lot about unions, but we don't know as much about other forms of participation as sanctioned (or not) in the law.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

tsk, tsk, alex tabarrok... tsk, tsk

In his laughable response to Crooked Timber bloggers' central claim that libertarians don't care an ounce for workplace democracy, Tabarrok makes the following comment:

If you think that the freedom to quit is without value bear in mind that under feudalism and into the early 19th century in the U.S. and a bit later in Britain employers and even potential employers could prevent workers from quitting and from moving. The freedom to quit was hard won. We should not disparage the liberation brought by a free market in labor.
This is not in fact true. Freedom to quit, even in the early 19th century, was exercised across New England. See Jonathan Prude's Coming of Industrial Order for numerous accounts of "French Leave", or the practice of workers coming and going from the factories as they felt convenient.

Tabarrok is about 20 years behind in his research on 19th century American labor law. In a recent (2010) account, Christopher L. Tomlins convincingly demonstrates the relative lack of institutional controls on adult white male workers as far back as the 17th century. In what is a practical overturning of Steinfeld's thesis, Tomlins demonstrates the relative continuity of labor law for adult white males even through the Revolution and into the 19th century.

So the right to quit never was a key element of workers' concerns -- rather, as Tomlins suggests, it is the grafting of Master-Servant law onto employment relations in the late 18th century which represents the real significant legal change. And indeed, that set of laws was hierarchical and undemocratic.

Why is this important? Because it shows that whatever the right to exit may mean in social relations, it certainly is not the main issue and certainly does not comprise what we mean by "workplace democracy". Workplace democracy means the right to control conditions of labor, and that's something which Master-Servant law has quite clearly shown to not exist in American law.

making path dependence history

Words to think about:
But there is another reason why the historians of the past should be taken seriously. A good knowledge of historiography—and the same could probably be said of the history of economics or the history of sociology—greatly diminishes the current practitioners’ claims to being innovative. When economists say that “history matters,” they invariably think of “path dependence,” the concept introduced by Paul David (1985) and often cited as if it was a Copernican revolution. This idea not only is not new but had already been shown to be unhistorical at least seventy years ago. In his The Historian’s Craft, published posthumously in 1949, Marc Bloch warned against the “idol of origins,” which leads to “confusing ancestry with explanation” (p. 27). Just as the seed from which it develops contains the destiny of a plant only to a minimum degree, so the history of social facts results from forces that are not found in the “initial conditions” to any great degree and whose effects are not propagated automatically.
From Boldizzoni's excellent The Poverty of Clio: Resurrecting Economic History, Princeton University Press, 2011.

The spectre of "path dependence" haunts a large amount of modern research on economic history. Perhaps that is due to its close association with physical sciences and mathematics (path dependence is, after all, really a concept derived from the science of particle motion).

But Bloch is ultimately correct -- ascribing the success of something today to a few determinist factors many, many years ago is not really history. At best, it is a convenient excuse to not talk about political power's influence on the success of a particular idea or institution. At worst, it's an apology for all the evils that allow an institution to persist.

So instead of making path dependence a part of economic history, let's make path dependence history, in the sense that we no longer fall back on it as an explanatory variable when in fact it is not one at all -- as Boldizzoni remarks, a multitude of other paths always exists, and seeing why others fail or succeed throughout history is the real task of economic historians.