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Freeway to Serfdom?

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Progressive commenters reeling from the “right to work” defeat in Michigan have in turns unmasked and (grudgingly) admired proponents of the new law. The unmasking is fairly easy. Michigan governor Rick Snyder actually unmasked himself. After claiming that he was a moderate who would avoid polarizing fights, he pounced on the opportunity to jam “right to work” through a lame duck legislative session. And the policy itself is not hard to expose. “Right to work” is portrayed by proponents as freeing unwilling workers from paying union dues. But as many critics have pointed out, its wealthy proponents’ main purpose is to hobble labor by allowing some workers not to pay for the representation and protection unions are legally obligated to provide them.

As for the admiration, well, there is much to be learned from the planning and persistence of the rich donors and think tanks for whom spreading “right to work” laws beyond the former Confederacy has long been an aspiration. In chronicling these groups’ long march, the focus tends to be on power and ruthless calculation. “Right to work” is a “snarling pit bull of a policy,” Rich Yeselson writes in a smart, sobering piece in the American Prospect. It is also one, he claims, with “no distinguished, abstract theoretical pedigree, no elevated standing in the mansion of Western political theory.”

But here, in the sharp separation of power politics from high theory, the telling of the story goes a bit wrong. Because “right to work” is not just a longstanding dream of business barons and well-paid policy wonks, a point best brought home by a look at Friedrich Hayek’s iconic 1960 book, The Constitution of Liberty.

Hayek is certainly an intellectual hero to the contemporary right. And there’s little doubt that The Constitution of Liberty, in particular, is canonical. Margaret Thatcher is said to have punctuated a Conservative party platform debate by slamming the book on a table and exclaiming “This is what we believe!” Unsure whether to stress the book’s intellectual seriousness or its cult status among right-wingers, the University of Chicago Press issued a “definitive” half-century anniversary edition in 2011, gushing in its online catalog about Glenn Beck’s regard for Hayek.

For progressives, what’s crucial is that Hayek’s arguments about unions illustrate not just the durability of the modern right’s practical goals but also one of its own primary ideological challenges, to portray empowerment as loss of freedom, and hierarchy and constraint as liberty. We can learn as much from analyzing how conservatives struggle with this challenge as we can from studying their organizational and tactical feats.

Theirs is often a two-part task. One part involves isolating a single choice – by a consumer, worker, or businessperson — and portraying it as all-important. The other challenge is separating that single choice from context: the structure of power and rights that really determines who is free to do what, when and how.

Certainly, Task One is evident in the substantial portion of a chapter Hayek devotes to “agency” fee arrangements requiring that all represented workers contribute to the costs of bargaining and representing those with grievances. If you succeed in making this the center of attention, you have won half the game. So Hayek’s argument comes back again and again to these agreements. He calls them “coercion of fellow workers,” making the “recalcitrant worker do his duty,” “the forcing of dissenters to obey their will” and, perhaps most horrifyingly to his readers, “restraint of trade.”

Of course, such a narrow focus evades the broader issues of freedom and constraint at work. You can insist that individual workers be allowed to make a choice – a choice to ride free — that undermines union power in the workplace. But one can only do this, first, by means of another infringement of choice: using state power to stop unions and employers from agreeing to certain contract provisions. And, more importantly, enabling this one choice comes, ultimately, at the cost of a drastic narrowing of other choices for workers – a significant reduction in their common ability to determine the kinds of choices available to them when it comes to compensation or working conditions. “Right to work” eliminates a required fee, but in the long run it leaves workers less self-determining, less free to contend with exploitive bosses and cost-chiseling corporations.

That’s why the best approach for proponents of “right to work” is, as much as possible, to keep the focus on the fee issue only. And this is what such proponents succeeded in doing in the truncated debate over the law in Michigan. It’s also Hayek’s overt strategy in the chapter on unions.

But Hayek is interesting because he understood, almost too well, the context of “right to work.” The Constitution of Liberty contains another chapter, earlier in the book, exploring how little freedom workers enjoy in a typical, hierarchical workplace.

Most people, Hayek notes, “work as employed members of large organizations… acting largely on the instructions given by others.” The employed person, he observes, “must devote his working life to the immediate tasks which are determined for him by others…to do the bidding of others.” For such a person, Hayek writes, “work is largely a matter of fitting himself into a given framework for a certain number of hours.” As a result, he concludes, “In the life of the employed certain exercises of freedom have little relevance.”

Now, of course, Hayek was not complaining about stultifying work or the coercive powers of bosses and corporations. All his discussion of the nature of “employment” was meant only to support the idea that it’s foolish to let “employed” people have too much political power. (It is better to leave policy to people conservatives now call “job creators.”)

Hayek was no democrat, and that’s a telling point in the history of conservatism, as well. But an unwitting reader could easily take Hayek’s analysis of workplace hierarchy and coercion as part of a case for unionization or workplace democracy. Hayek, you might say, succumbs to a weakness: He understands both sides of the issue — the choice not to pay a fee for services rendered, but also the workplace hierarchy, subordination and lack of choice such a decision essentially guarantees.

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