In a forthcoming book this spring, the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson has advanced a critique of “private government,” the concept used to express the power wielded by large corporations in the labor market. For many workers, the force that most actively restricts their liberty is not government regulations but their employer’s rules; even gig economy laborers such as Uber drivers, who unlike traditional employees have the flexibility to set their own hours, risk being put out of a job for committing relatively innocuous sins such as canceling too many rides, driving with a car other than the one registered to you, or complaining about Uber on social media. There is little doubt that modern technology allows employers enhanced surveillance power, but hypothetically, the voluntary nature of employment should limit the abuse of this power; mistreated workers can always exercise their right to “exit” the employment relationship and get another job.
This works great if you’re a superstar athlete or hotshot coder; employers need you as much as you need them, and you can always take your talents to South Beach and/or Facebook (they’re hiring!). But contemporary conditions make simply up and quitting unfeasible for a significant slice of the population — namely, those who are already the most vulnerable. If you need a job as a condition of probation, or if your visa is tied to your employer, or if you’re an immigrant working without documentation, “exit” is impossible without imprisonment or exile. Even the average low-income worker might not have the savings to ride out a short gap in employment without getting evicted or going hungry. The frictions in the employment marketplace force many of us to put up with terrible treatment by giving bosses the leverage that knows that we can’t afford to just walk out.
Kevin Munger on whose rules.