Crippling the language of rights

Rhetoric in the public square often lacks integrity.  To me, nothing is more grating than calling coercion a right.  Unfortunately, this is done all the time (usually by those on the left).

An op-ed in the New York Times today is a classic example.  The headline is “Crippling the Right to Organize” by Stanford law professor, William B. Gould IV.  The essence of his argument is that “three decades of Republican resistance to [the FRLB constitutes] an unwillingness to recognize the fundamental right of workers to band together, if they wish, to seek better pay and working conditions.”

I would challenge Gould to come up with even a single example of a Republican politician who has ever challenged the right of workers (or anyone else) to organize and seek better pay (or whatever else they want).

You see, Gould is not talking about the rights of workers at all.  What he is talking about is the use of state powers to compel employers to participate in collective bargaining, whether they want to or not.  Indeed, most of federal labor law isn’t about rights, it is about coercion.  It is about the loss of freedom of contract, not a gain in anyone’s rights.

When I have a right it implies a duty of my fellow citizens.  My right to speak includes the duty of others not to prohibit my speaking when I do so in a way that respects others’ rights.  It doesn’t, however, obligate others to listen to me, to facilitate my speaking, to allow me to speak (or camp out out) on private property without permission, to obstruct public right-of-ways or in any other manner restrict the rights of others.  Many OWS folks have been to college but failed to learn anything in the process about rights—even as they are screaming about them.

Similarly, my right to organize and associate with whomever I wish for whatever cause I wish does not obligate anyone to pay attention to my organization.  If, for instance, I organize people who play fantasy football to get ESPN to change its options for fantasy leagues, this does not obligate ESPN to listen to my organization.  Of course, they may want to, just as firms may want to bargain collectively with workers.  But my Constitutional right of free association is not abridged because people don’t recognize my association.

[Incidentally, right-to-work laws that prohibit employers from reaching agreements that require union membership for employees are almost as as noxious as those that mandate collective bargaining with unions in the first place.  The firm should have the same right to hire only unionized workers as it does to hire non-unionized workers.]

Perhaps collective bargaining laws make sense on utilitarian grounds.  But those advocating such should be honest enough to admit it.  They should say, “I want to use coercive state power to force companies to bargain collectively because such a policy would be in the public interest.”

Of course this isn’t a good argument, but at least it is an intellectually honest one.  It doesn’t abuse the notion of rights in a way that cheapens the very meaning of the word.

4 thoughts on “Crippling the language of rights

  1. A really interesting post. I think you’re absolutely right about the language of rights masking various forms of coercion but the conflict can only really be understood when the coercion’s explained on both sides.

    Presumably on the other side of the coin large companies can use their power to coerce workers into accepting conditions and levels of pay that don’t reflect the work they do.

    Once you see the issue as two groups both trying to exert influence on each other, legislation becomes about trying to separate that kind of power play from considerations of fairness. If we presume we can roughly figure out what objectively fair pay and living conditions look like then we need to make sure that companies don’t have the power to coerce workers out of that due and workers don’t have the power to coerce companies to give them more than that due.

    1. Respectfully, I think the problem is that you misunderstand what coercion entails and what companies can do with their power. Power and coercion are not the same thing. Power is essentially the ability of A to get B to do what A would not otherwise have done. Coercion is essentially the threat or use of physical violence to achieve a given end/force an action. In the case you mention, a company (A) can use a favorable bargaining position to influence workers (B) to accept a deal they would not otherwise prefer. But given that our preference for remuneration are essentially limitless in a vacuum (I would like my employer to supply me with a Ford F150, the complete Loeb Classical Library, and a limitless account at the local bank), we always have to accept less than we would like. Thus bargaining will narrow the difference between what the company is willing to pay and what I’d ideally accept to closer to what I’m willing to take for my labor. A coercive outcome on the other hand would involve the company (or labor) threatening or using physical violence to force a particular “bargain.” Clearly the latter is worse given that it violates the rights of the coerced. The former might be uncomfortable to accept but will be Pareto optimal – all parties will be better off even if not perfectly happy – or by definition would not be concluded.

      1. Thanks for your reply! I think part of the problem comes from us using, slightly but meaningfully, different interpretations of some of the relevant words.

        I understand power to be the ability to do x. Coercion is the exercise of making somebody do x against their will. Violence is a mode of coercion thats expressly physical. That way of looking at things comes from Raymond Geuss who I’d really recommend as a particularly interesting philosopher in this area.

        That point is more semantic but I think it’s relevant because in the case of allowing workers to collectively bargain that we’re discussing neither side is really threatening physical violence but they’re both being coercive in the sense of coercion I’ve described.

        Without suggesting a specific policy of where the balance of power should lie, any outcome in which workers have to endure conditions and pay that definitely do not correspond with the work they do suggests successful coercion on behalf of one of the parties. I think what’s so successful about the first point of the post is that it shows how talking about the rights of one of the parties being violated isn’t appropriate to the power conflict that’s happening.

        I would suggest that ‘fairness’ is perhaps the appropriate virtue to discuss in these situations. If workers are being given too little or too much then we should adjust their level of power until they are not being forced to accept a bad deal or forcing companies to pay extortionate amounts.

      2. And remember that state power is fundamentally coercive. The state says play by these rules or we will deny you liberty and property, by force if necessary. Sometimes states also exercise persuasion, but they are able to do so only because the apparatus and employees of the state are funded by tax revenues, which are obtained through coercion.

        So, at the root, the state and the law coming out of it are coercive. This doesn’t mean that it is necessarily bad. Coercion can be used for unquestionable good (“if you hurt that child, we will lock you up”), but we just need to not forget the nature of state power.

        To say to an employer, “you must negotiate with this union or face legal penalties” is of course the state’s use of its coercive power. Now, such coercion might be morally legitimate (that would be another argument), but to deny the state this kind of power is not to deny workers their right to organize. To confuse these issues, as the left so frequently does, is to do violence to the very notion of rights–which are the things that protect us from the coercive power of the state!

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