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Dictatorship in the workplace?

Imagine workplaces so oppressive they have come to the renewed attention of alarmed philosophers. Author Elizabeth Anderson of the U. of Michigan, an old instructor and cross-disciplinary colleague of mine–and other scholarly contributors–document the trend in Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It), a new book from Princeton University Press. (Disclaimer: Anderson long ago wrote a letter of recommendation on my behalf.) Anderson has an interesting oeuvre in the field known as applied philosophy. For a partial list, with abstracts, see this page at her academic website. Much of Anderson’s work addresses major issues in public policy and jurisprudence that are also of interest to many economists. From the publishers’ book page, I quote the following blurb, which appears above rave reviews from The New Republic, philosopher Alan Ryan of Oxford, and others.

Why our workplaces are authoritarian private governments—and why we can’t see it

One in four American workers says their workplace is a “dictatorship.” Yet that number probably would be even higher if we recognized most employers for what they are—private governments with sweeping authoritarian power over our lives, on duty and off. We normally think of government as something only the state does, yet many of us are governed far more—and far more obtrusively—by the private government of the workplace. In this provocative and compelling book, Elizabeth Anderson argues that the failure to see this stems from long-standing confusions. These confusions explain why, despite all evidence to the contrary, we still talk as if free markets make workers free—and why so many employers advocate less government even while they act as dictators in their businesses.

In many workplaces, employers minutely regulate workers’ speech, clothing, and manners, leaving them with little privacy and few other rights. And employers often extend their authority to workers’ off-duty lives. Workers can be fired for their political speech, recreational activities, diet, and almost anything else employers care to govern. Yet we continue to talk as if early advocates of market society—from John Locke and Adam Smith to Thomas Paine and Abraham Lincoln—were right when they argued that it would free workers from oppressive authorities. That dream was shattered by the Industrial Revolution, but the myth endures.

Private Government offers a better way to talk about the workplace, opening up space for discovering how workers can enjoy real freedom.

Based on the prestigious Tanner Lectures delivered at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values, Private Government is edited and introduced by Stephen Macedo and includes commentary by cultural critic David Bromwich, economist Tyler Cowen, historian Ann Hughes, and philosopher Niko Kolodny.

Elizabeth Anderson is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Imperative of Integration (Princeton) and Value in Ethics and Economics. She lives in Ann Arbor.

The  book’s introduction can be downloaded for free directly from this link on the same webpage. Political economists and heterodox economists of all persuasions will no doubt find the book of special interest. Thanks go to a college classmate and friend who alerted me to the book’s release, sending along the link.


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