Despotic Governance on “Free Thoughts” (Commentary on an Elizabeth Anderson Interview)

I’m actually fairly confident that plenty of people have talked about this. But you know. Whatever.


I’ve commented on Elizabeth S. Anderson’s views before with a mix of praise and criticism. This time around I’m more on her side than against it, but that’s because the hosts of Free Thoughts (a libertarian podcast) have some fairly banal positions when it comes to issues current working conditions.

In that vein, some of this article is more focused on the questions given to Anderson and some of the arguments against her responses. I’ll definitely have some criticisms for Anderson herself but especially as I don’t want to repeat myself (or at least not too much) I’ll try to keep that commentary secluded to new comments.


At the start of the interview Anderson mentions that ideology can be positive or a neutral. At its most fundamental level, an ideology is just a particular set of ideas that inform us about reality. But ideology, in the pejorative sense, can give us a distorted view of reality. This distortion can make us doubt certain things exist when in fact they do.

So it goes with libertarians and the oppression within workplaces. And by that I don’t just mean that bad bosses happen or that workers are sometimes mistreated. I have no doubt that most libertarians would accept that there are some crappy bosses out there and there have been times where workers were not treated in a dignified way.

Anderson gives some good examples that she thinks would appeal to such libertarians:

  • The ways in which Apple warehouse and retail workers have their things searched for 30 minutes (without pay)
  • How in the poultry industry, workers can be blocked from using the restroom for their entire shift
  • And the prevalence of sexual harassment and how it particularly relates to bosses

Taken together, Anderson believes these are fairly obvious problems that even libertarians would have to confront on some level. After all, when governments have public schools treat children like Apple workers, libertarians would be outraged. When teachers decide that students have to ask permission to relieve themselves, libertarians would be upset.

But when it happens privately in a business, libertarians are more likely to either be indifferent or even be suspicious of folks who think is a big deal. They may discount it by saying, “they can always leave!” or, “you agreed to the contract!” or they may even agree it’s a problem and should be addressed, but it isn’t a sign of a systematic issue.

Libertarians might say that in public schools, they are paying for that and since they don’t approve then they shouldn’t be forced to pay for such policies. But because no one is technically being forced to pay for the costs of implementing policies in a factory (fair or not) libertarians have less of a reason (a somewhat rational one I may add) to care.

And look, I’m not one of those leftists who thinks all libertarians eat babies or think that the poor should be weeded out with “positive eugenics”. But I think it’s striking that the second you make these polices more “private” and less “government” you typically see an immediate difference in tone from many libertarians.

Some are definitely better than others. But again, most that I’ve met would either downplay these issues or deny that they are issues at all. But is simply not paying for a policy to be implemented make it OK to happen?

It’s also worth noting that libertarians claim because it’s a private business that they’re free to introduce whatever policies they want. And whether people are under oppressive, unaccountable authority that works have, in practice, very little legal or economic recourse for, well, it’s just not a big deal, you know?


But for Anderson it is a big deal.

The fact that workers can often be fired at-will, that they cannot elect their managers, that they have very little say over the policies in the places that they spend huge amounts of time in their lives seems like a big deal to her. And I agree.

Importantly, Anderson recognizes that there are different kinds of hierarchy.

There are, for Anderson, three sorts:

  1. Hierarchy of esteem: A rule by popularity where there are superiors and inferiors and the “inferior” folks need to “bow and scrape” (as Anderson puts it) under the superiors.
  2. Hierarchy of authority: An unaccountable organization model where the individuals at the head can get away with doing just about anything and being threatened with little to no recourse.
  3. Hierarchy of standing: A hierarchy centered around whose support counts the most. And often it isn’t the workers who are actually working alongside the managers, but the stockholders.

In situations where esteem, authority and standing work against workers you have many of the situations that I’ve already mentioned from Anderson. You get exploitation of workers needs for wages through really shitty situations that they often do not have a good response to. Either because it’s too expense or what’s happening is in some way legal.

Leftists, usually, would take issue with all of this  Anderson makes some interesting historical notes that the “leftists” in question could actually involve folks like Thomas Paine, The Levellers and even Adam Smith. All of whom were calling for (in varying degrees) a more egalitarian society. One in which economic monopolies were abolished.

Monopolies such as land monopolies based on aristocracy as well as financial monopolies where certain industries were controlled by the bigger companies. And those companies often set the rules and groundwork for small independent crafts workers to toil under even if they did not agree to them or found them unfair..

This call for equality from leftists ended after the Civil War according to Anderson. The Industrial revolution had changed the technological world in America and elsewhere. In many places now people (including women) were employed with machines and processes that were helping products getting made faster. But this also required bigger organizations and hence more workers and more workers then “required” more bosses for them to be subservient to.

Anderson, Aaron Powell, and Trevor Burrus (the hosts of Free Thoughts) all agree that having bigger organizations is not inherently wrong. And they also all agree that these improvements were necessary for the US economy to get ahead.

But this kind of thinking dodges the important question of politics and how it meshes with technology. Later in the interview, Powell states that the tech made it natural for there to be most larger organizations as well as bosses, he doesn’t question for whom that tech was made to benefit to begin with.

The answer is that the industrial revolution wasn’t some sort of Christmas gift for the poor. It was an intentionally built system that was supposed to maximize profit as well as productivity. And to do that, many different things about firms were being restructured. And this was the case with the assembly line and the successes of people like Henry Ford.

The tech that was being built around that time wasn’t to the benefit of the poor and the working class, but was ultimately to the benefit of the people who owned the capital. And why wouldn’t it be? After all, they are the ones who own the means of production and the ones who have to deal with so many costs. Who else would it benefit?

Although I have not read it (yet), Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization from the passages I’ve read previously indicates that politics had much more to do with where we are now then just basic technological needs.


There are not just issues with Powell and Burrus but also Anderson’s analysis of “government”. For Anderson just about anything can be a government. If a certain group has a hierarchical organization and can legitimately impose sanctions on people who do not follow the rules, then by Anderson’s definition, this is a government.

In addition, Anderson thinks that the state and the government are two different things. The state is a specific type of government, one that claims a monopoly on the use of legitimate force. But outside of that, clubs can still be governments, family units can be governments and of course, the workplace can be a government.

More specifically Anderson thinks the modern day workplace is akin to a “communist dictatorship”. Although she doesn’t do a lot of the necessary legwork to give us any solid comparisons between a contemporary corporate manager and say, Lenin or Stalin, she does think the examples she’s given helps her case.

And up to a point I would agree that it helps. I’ve said before that I think all managers probably have a little bit of Stalin in them. But it seems a little too farfetched to not only have such a broad and vague understanding of what makes a “government” a government, but also what in particular makes the workplace government a communistic one.

Even then, it’s not just any kind of government but it’s also a dictatorship. This seems like a pretty extreme claim to me, even if I can certainly see some truth in it. Certainly workplaces have oppressive arrangements and some industries have petty tyrants in them. But generally speaking workers cannot be killed by managers or be made to “disappear”.

I’m not saying a manager has never killed an employee (and certainly the reverse has happened) but that in order to make this description of contemporary work less cheap, we need some better arguments than this.

It also seems odd that if we want to (as Anderson would like us to) highlight the problems of authority within work that we wouldn’t term “private governance” a sort of communism. Although I don’t think that’s necessarily incoherent it would certainly sound as much to many people. Perhaps that could be a good source of provocation though?

I’ve talked in my previously linked post about why the “private” vs. “public” governance dichotomy isn’t a very good one and how the public models of governance can be just as despotic if not far more. So just go check that out.


If I was wittier I would have labeled all of these numbers with titles.

But I’m not that witty and plus I’m lazy.

Still, I want you to know this next section would’ve totally been titled:

No Exit


One of the most frustrating parts of this interview is how Powell and Burrus both seem to not only repeat the standard libertarian lines I’ve mentioned earlier about supposed choice in this economy (just find another job!) but they seem to really believe in it as well. So I just want to briefly address that.

One thing that Powell (I believe) says is that if he wanted to leave the non-profit he works in, as opposed to trying to extradite himself from the country, it’d be far easier. It’d likely be pretty easy in general. And so this ease proves that being able to quit from a job gives the workers some kind of freedom from tyranny. Burrus chimes in and adds that not only is this sort of freedom crucial and located in many places but it also costs the manager money.

So what’s the problem?

The problem with this are many:

  • Just because something is easier than another thing, doesn’t make the other thing easy
  • Working in a non-profit and being able to sustain yourself is a privileged position not everyone has. Leaving from a non-profit to another might not be difficult for you, but that doesn’t mean it’s as easy for everyone else.
  • Not everyone has the same amount of utility in a given organization and thus some folks are more easily replaced
  • This replacement is likely to maker workers feel replaceable but employers don’t generally need to worry about the costs of replacing workers when you are a chain store. For example, the store I’ve been in for only under 2 years so far has seen many changes in employees and managers. That hasn’t slowed them down at all.
  • And even if this does make the workers feel bad, employers can just offload those costs with the helps of corporate subsidies that they receive from the government. You know, those things libertarians tend to criticize about the current economy (“cronyism”)
  • Anderson also makes the compelling point that the workers likely can’t go too many places vastly different. Are they just going to go to another retail store? Then they’re likely to face similar issues concerning authority.

Burrus makes a big deal out of the fact that libertarians also disagree with non-compete clauses which often keep workers locked into a given job or not moving around the industry. But Anderson’s central point isn’t concerned with whether libertarians agree or not with such a policy. Her point was that this policy impacts supposed “free choice”.

The “free choice” in this economy often comes down to McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s. Sometimes with a Sonic around or a Whataburger or whatever else. Pick your regional favorite. Whatever the case may be, the situation is such that corporations and national chains (and international ones) tend to dominate the scene.

And to say to workers that they can just leave when they are unhappy with the work conditions they are under, often misses the point. Often those very same working conditions can be found in another place right across the street. So exiting isn’t as easy as Powell or Burrus want to make it seem.


Anderson speaks of people being independent from feudal masters and being farmers, etc. This invokes a conversation about being a farmer vs. a worker in Lowell. But that’s not terribly interesting to me as it’s pretty obvious that farms became largely unsustainable as a venture via the industrial revolution, so there’s not much “choice” there.

In any case, although Anderson doesn’t want everyone to be an entrepreneur (and neither do I) I think that everyone in this conversation misses that being such would be a lot easier without government regulations. Without the permits that we supposedly needs or the zoning laws that make setting up your own business difficult, we could do better.

That doesn’t mean everyone would be their own boss, but I don’t think it would be quite as precarious as it is when it comes to the gig-economy. Anderson is pretty skeptical of it when she and the hosts of Free Thoughts talk about it. I generally agree with her sentiments and have discussed my thoughts elsewhere (here and here).

Further, with regard to self-employment, that lack of supply when it comes to workers means that employers would face a natural economic pressure to either shape up, or ship out. My estimate is that many wouldn’t be able to compete with the nimbleness of small-time business folks who had access to capital through things like mutual banks.

The point being that although Powell didn’t seem to think entrepreneurship could be X or Y because it’s always historically been Z underestimates some of the radical changes I think a market economy would go under because of a lack of government intervention. Being your own boss doesn’t need to mean the same thing now as it does in the future.


But OK, what does this all mean? What do unaccountable and arbitrary bits of authority even look like? Are they telling people to put on silly hats simply because you are in their house? Is giving unreasonable requests to a guest of your home on the same level as a worker who is given unreasonable demands from their boss?

As Anderson argues (and I’d agree), probably not.

Not only, as Anderson says, is the time spent at both significantly shorter, but it’s also worth noting that you have significantly more freedom in saying “no” to your host. I don’t depend on my friend for my wages, to pay my rent or to make sure I can keep living. Presumably we’re on fairly equal terms, as opposed to me and my boss.

When does a boss become unaccountable and arbitrary towards a worker? Anderson’s rough working (heh) definition is that it often involves restraining choices a worker should legitimately have. So, for example, at-will employment can be seen as unfair because workers are often dismissed with little notice or concern for their financial state.

And in addition, workers are fired with little to no explanation. This means that workers can hardly do anything towards preventing it happening again in the future. And as Anderson points out, it makes planning for tough economic times a little more difficult than it would already have been. All of these things are interweaving levels of hardships on workers.

Another example is drug testing. Anderson cites it as a case that libertarians would surely have an issue with. After all, what employees do in their own time should not be a concern for the business. If they want to smoke weed and get really high and then…listen to Pink Floyd, they should be able to do that without being concerned about getting fired.

Burrus, however, retorts that what about in a situation where employees aren’t necessarily smart about what they do outside of work. Anderson says she thinks it’s different is a PR person says something and then represents the firm in a bit more of a direct way. That may legitimately say something about the firm and be cause concern.

But when you’re a regular worker with little influence on the organization, it seems unnecessary to target you for an obscene point of view you may have. On the other hand, Burrus says that as a lawyer he knows that he’d immediately tell a company to let such a person go for both the publicity and that it could lead to a hostile work environment.

I’m ashamed to say that many years ago when the Justine Sacco story broke I was pretty unemphatic to her. I said that she got what she deserved and especially cause (if I remember correctly) she had fascist views or sympathies. But I’ve since learned (firsthand and secondhand) how awful online shaming can be when you make terrible mistakes.

I’ve gained a new perspective on this since then and I largely think the dog-pile is unjustified. In the case of Justine it may have been OK to fire her because of her high-ranking position in the firm, but even then if she was truly valuable and took ownership for her mistake, I think the firm could have spun it and tried to give her “sensitivity training” or something.


The rest of the interview that I could respond to involves things about changing the workplace. In Anderson’s view something like a compromise between worker cooperatives and full capitalist control is necessary. She relates the idea of “co-determination” which is labor and capital working together, despite all of the previous issues she’s mentioned.

Again, in the previous article I linked I’ve addressed this a little bit. But just generally it seems unrealistic to get managers who, if they are as bad as Anderson suggests, may not have good incentives to “democratize” their power and control.

Powell and Burrus actually bring up the much more interesting idea of networked non-hierarchical groups of workers who cooperate in egalitarian groups. Anderson seems intrigued by the idea and open to experimentation but puts more faith in co-determination making the same leaps that capitalism has with coordination problems.

Thank god capitalism isn’t our only option, huh?

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