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The Liberty to Work under Tough Bosses

The New York Times has recently portrayed Amazon as a workplace somewhere between the first circle of hell and a bad section of purgatory, with harsh supervisors and backbiting colleagues that are the inevitable consequence of the company’s management practices. I did not need Jeff Bezos’s demurral to doubt the accuracy of portrait. In a company this large, there will always be bad supervisors, intriguing colleagues and disgruntled employees that can support a lot of wild anecdotes. And the New York Times, a newspaper that even a former ombudsman has admitted is on the left, has an agenda of attacking business the better to justify an intrusive state.

But let us suppose for moment that the Times portrait is more accurate than Bezos’s denial that overall these anecdotes capture the reality of the company.  Is it really any cause for concern? The employees chose to work there and can leave at any time: it is not a case of indentured servitude. The white collar jobs portrayed here pay good wages. And most important of all, we have a competitive labor market that serves the needs of employees and consumers alike. Even the Times’ description shows that many employees find the culture empowering and thrilling. Some employees stay for a long period. Others use the skills they learn to start their own businesses. It may well make perfect sense for some people to endure upfront unpleasantness—even of the kind that leads to occasional tears—to gain discipline and knowledge that will later stand them in good stead.

And the result is excellent for consumers. I am sure I am not alone in finding Amazon to be the emporium of dreams. Almost anything I want can be found at the click of a mouse. Its crowd-sourced reviews help me improve my choices. And its on-time delivery service has never failed in hundreds, if not thousands, of uses. It may well be that a pretty demanding corporate culture has been necessary to create so much consumer surplus.

What then is the danger to society? It is certainly not that every business will adopt Amazon’s practices so as to leave employees no choice. Google and other tech companies are famous for pampering their employees. And just as the market for goods caters to different tastes, the market for employees will satisfy workers with different objectives in the workplace. Companies gain by providing a workplace that attracts the kind of employees that will make their business thrive.

Nor is it likely that Amazon even as described will make its employees bad citizens. If we have a good constitution of civic freedom,  our social fabric can handle diverse business practices voluntarily undertaken.   And, in any event, it is not all clear that Amazon shapes its employees’ characters so much as it chooses characters already tolerant of the culture that fits its business.

I may well not be cut out to be an Amazon employee. But we should not force our employment preference on others, because we do not know those others nearly as well as we know ourselves.

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