Can employers wield dictatorial power over employees? Join us for a lively discussion between Mark Pennington (King’s College London) and Elizabeth Anderson (University of Michigan) on how power accumulates in the market, which institutions can ameliorate the problem, and how Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) as a discipline helps us understand the human condition.

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The Guest

Elizabeth Anderson is the John Dewey Distinguished University Professor; John Rawls Collegiate Professor; Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Department Chair in Philosophy at the University of Michigan.

Professor Elizabeth Anderson specializes in ethics, social and political philosophy, feminist theory, social epistemology, and the philosophy of economics and the social sciences. She is particularly interested in exploring the interactions of social science with moral and political theory, how we learn to improve our value judgments, the epistemic functions of emotions and democratic deliberation, and issues of race, gender, and equality. She is the author of Value in Ethics and EconomicsThe Imperative of Integration, and, most recently, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (And Why We Don’t Talk About It), as well as articles on value theory, the ethical limitations of markets, facts and values in social scientific research, feminist and social epistemology, racial integration and affirmative action, rational choice and social norms, democratic theory, egalitarianism, and the history of ethics (focusing on Kant, Mill, and Dewey).

Professor Anderson is currently working on a history of egalitarianism from the Levellers to the present. Professor Anderson is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and designed and was the first Director of the Program in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at UM.

Skip Ahead

1:10: How does it feel to be the recipient of a Genius award?

2:09: What is the ratio of women in major philosophy departments?

2:40: What do you plan to do with the MacArthur grant?

5:35: If I may, let’s discuss some of the things related to our work at the Centre, which is about governance arrangements, the relationship between formal and informal governance structures. And in your case you’ve done this interesting work on what I would describe as the governance of the employment relationship, and that work as I understand it really builds on your previous work thinking about what equality means or should mean.

9:05: You make some strong and provocative claims in the book arguing that some of the powers that employers have are equivalent to those you see in dictatorial regimes. I think at some point you say it’s almost as though the management of those firms resembles a communist dictatorship.

12:15: It really is challenging the way you list these kind of practices. Most people would have a gut reaction, that was certainly my sense when I read about this. But I was also thinking… how do you situate an understanding of the kind of abusive relationships that happen in these corporate environments with many other aspects of life? … I guess the argument would be, human beings aren’t always very humane. And this is true in all aspects of life. So if we’re thinking about the role of that private government plays in contributing to domination, we also need to have an understanding of the sources of domination outside of work. I didn’t feel you said all that much about that in the book.

16:39: Why on your account do you think that in this employment relationship we see these kinds of practices that lead to the domination of people?

19:25: Thinking about the arguments that economists would typically make in these situations, people would argue that if the employment relationship is really not working out for a worker or if there’s some kind of abuse… all that really matters is the existence of exit options. Is there competition operating in the labour market, etc.

24:35: Why do we not see greater movement to things like worker cooperatives?

27:27: Why do you take the argument that market forces themselves don’t lead to a sufficient treatment of workers? Is it basically that the labour market isn’t sufficiently competitive? Or is it a legal situation?

29:15: I think this is where you deliver a very powerful challenge to classical liberal or libertarian type arguments. Because people from that perspective are basically making arguments that we ought to focus on making constitutional limits on government power… but you’re actually saying that we should think about constitutional limitations on this private government power.

33:20: Do you see the solution just coming from the state itself through a democratic structure introducing regulation into these situations or do you see other vehicles?

37:22: How does co-determination address situations where part of the abuse is coming from other workers?

39:07: On the empirical side of this… you’re obviously quite sympathetic toward the German type co-determination model, but how do you compare the outcomes of that model with those of alternatives?

44:41: What I take from that is there isn’t a one size fits all model… this is very much a pragmatic search for a solution, and that there are multiple different types of approaches depending on the cultural context, which can interact with the functioning of the labour market.

45:46: It sounds like one reading of pragmatism could be an argument for a focus on quite decentralised arrangements to tackle these problems. One of the thinkers that inspires our work at this centre is Elinor Ostrom…. Although would the polycentric arrangements not be subject to some of the forms of domination you’re talking about?

47:22: So you’re not going to recommend that we roll out the German style model everywhere?

47:45: Do you think there are any insights from what you’re saying here about how we think about employment relationships outside the western context?

50:01: Thinking about your overall approach to political philosophy, what I really enjoy about your work is that you bring together insights from economics to inform political philosophy and vice versa. And that’s very much in what I would call a PPE tradition of research. Is that informing the kind of project you’ve been engaging with? How do you see the state of PPE research at this point in time?