Is Having a Boss So Bad?

Last week I wrote on the arresting intersection of Corey Robin’s discussion of freedom and markets with an older, Jeffersonian conservative tradition that criticizes markets for making “wage slaves” of individuals. The tradition resurrects on the American right occasionally, as it has among 20th Century Agrarians, among some paleo-cons, and, today, in some of the conservative criticisms of globalization and liberalism (in its classical as well as modern forms) more generally. Today, however, I consider more directly Robin’s comparison of markets and socialism and their provision of liberty. Robin writes,

Under capitalism, we’re forced to enter the market just to live. The libertarian sees the market as synonymous with freedom. But socialists hear “the market” and think of the anxious parent, desperate not to offend the insurance representative on the phone, lest he decree that the policy she paid for doesn’t cover her child’s appendectomy. Under capitalism, we’re forced to submit to the boss. Terrified of getting on his bad side, we bow and scrape, flatter and flirt, or worse — just to get that raise or make sure we don’t get fired.

The socialist argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes us poor. It’s that it makes us unfree. When my well-being depends upon your whim, when the basic needs of life compel submission to the market and subjugation at work, we live not in freedom but in domination. Socialists want to end that domination: to establish freedom from rule by the boss, from the need to smile for the sake of a sale, from the obligation to sell for the sake of survival.

First, Robin’s treats subjection to markets as what’s bad about capitalism. Doing so raises a basic question of what form of socialism Robin advocates. At least since Oskar Lange and Fred M. Taylor’s classic book On the Economic Theory of Socialism, socialists recognized the fundamental need for integrating markets and the price system into socialist economies. To be sure, whether a centrally-controlled price mechanism in socialist markets can aggregate and signal information nearly as well as free markets is another matter. But socialists, serious socialists, at least, recognized the need for something like the market’s price system for a socialist economy to run even tolerably well. Even in this system, however, prices would be set to clear markets and efficiently signal information to consumers and producers, which prices do so well. This process, however, means submission to the market and all that implies, even in socialist systems. The alternative would need to be some form of Soviet- or Maoist-styled planning, both of which were humanitarian disasters.

So, too, Robin laments that “Under capitalism, we’re forced to enter the market just to live.” Again, though, what type of socialism does Robin conceive as an alternative? One in which able-bodied people don’t need to work? Even as a purely theoretical matter, as in Edward Bellamy’s classic utopian socialist novel, Looking Backwards, able-bodied individuals are forced to work. What would be the alternative in Robin’s socialist system?

Finally, Robin celebrates socialism as “freedom from rule by the boss.” But what is the blissful alternative? Being “ruled” by a boss who’s a bureaucrat instead of a boss who’s a capitalist?

Stipulating that most of us have to work to live no matter who owns the means of production, what are the options – the freedom – the market offers? First, the freedom to choose which vocation one wishes to pursue, as opposed to being directed by a central planning board. Secondly, if one does not like working for one boss, there are several alternatives. First, one can in fact quit and find another job. In practice this is not usually an easy thing to do. But there’s no reason it would be easier to do in a socialist system. Indeed, if the government is the monopoly employer, then the consequences of not putting up with an unreasonable boss can be even more harrowing.

Secondly, one can quit and become one’s own boss. This is not reserved for wealthy people only. Contractors, plumbers, barbers and beauticians, and many others, are often regular people who aspire to be their own boss and set up their own businesses. This path might be open to more who desire the freedom to be their own boss, particularly among less affluent folk, if overly onerous licensing requirements did not deter entry into many markets.

Finally, Robin suggests socialism will liberate us from “the need to smile for the sake of a sale.” To be sure, there is an expectation, at least outside of France, that individuals making sales be polite because transactions are voluntary. And, to be sure, the mechanical smiles on the other side of the counter can be cloying. (Although, to be sure, most of us try to be polite when purchasing as well.) But I’ll take, and offer, civil politeness relative to the socialist alternative: the often grim atmosphere of the bureaucratic office, particularly if the office holds a monopoly on a good or service. And, really, is the freedom to be boorish to one’s customers what Robin thinks true freedom is about?

Market systems may not be panaceas for all that ails us. But for goods and services markets provide, they’re usually as good at providing freedom, and often better, than bureaucratic systems. Markets provide freedom for workers as well as bosses. Bureaucracy stifles, and this goes double for those without connections in bureaucratic societies, the poor and the vulnerable in particular. This is an old lesson, as the Preacher observed almost 3,000 years:

If you see oppression of the poor and denial of justice and righteousness in the province, do not be shocked at the sight; for one official watches over another official, and there are higher officials over them.