Private Government, by Elizabeth Anderson (A Book Review), by Winter Trabex

At 144 pages, this little unassuming white book published by Princeton University might not seem it has a great deal of information. There’s also a bit of confusion about how much it cost, at least in my local area. While the MSRP of the book is set at 27.95, Rivier University in New Hampshire paid 75.77 to have it on their shelves- I know this because a receipt from my local lending library tells me how much I save each time I check something out.

Right away, I was struck by the irony of the situation. Here’s a book which attempts to address the problems of governance in the private sphere of business creating problems for individual people who have to interact with it. A college book seller (in other words, a scam artist) goes ahead and charges whatever price they feel like to any organization silly enough to take them up on it. And, because there are likely rules in place that prevent a library from just acquiring books from Amazon itself for the lowest price they can get, they are stuck with the price dictated to them by third-party agencies.

Looking at it this way, it becomes clear why college tuition is so expensive: colleges- if Rivier University is any example- are terrible at accounting and have no instinct for reducing costs as much as they can. The people who then go to college in such a cost-heavy system are forced to bear the fiscal burden of collegiate irresponsibility.

However, the college student in this equation ceases to matter. The book itself probably isn’t even that important. What’s important is that money flows in the direction that it’s supposed to go- from the bottom to the top. Whether the author herself is aware of such a pattern, or whether she chooses not to point it out in order to keep her job at Princeton University (a college that costs an average of 47,000 a year to attend or an average of 188,000 for a four year degree) isn’t known.

Rather, in this book, she chooses to focus on the unaccountable and unchallenged authority that bosses, managers, and owners have in the workplace. She debunks that libertarian argument that a person is free at work because they are free to leave and free to choose what job they want. Common sense suggests that this is a fallacious argument from the start, yet Anderson points out that while workers are free to choose their own duties, they aren’t free during the fulfillment of those duties.

It’s worth noting here that the first half of the book is simply a transcript of a series of lectures she gave, which someone thought important enough to print and sell for a profit. Although the lectures presented in this book don’t appear to be available on Youtube, other lectures she’s given from other years are- such as the Tanner lectures that she gave in 2013.

In addition to her own lectures, there are four chapters written by people in response to her lectures and a further final chapter in which Anderson herself responds to the responders. Rather than a single person presenting a single point of view, as happens in most books, Private Government presents a diversity of opinion- one from Anderson herself (a left-wing college professor), others from collegiate historians, and another from a libertarian defender of free markets. The reader must ultimately decide who has it right and who doesn’t.

The fundamental premise of Anderson’s work here is a medical term that she applies to a situation for which it was not originally intended- hemiagnosia. Hemiagnosia refers to an involuntary blindness in one eye only after a person has a stroke. Anderson applies this as an economic concept to identify a philosophical trend which has caused other economists and philosophers to recognize the plight of business owners suffering under the unwieldy power of government despotism while at the same time refusing to recognize, or even be aware of, working class people suffering under the unwieldy power of despotic private business.

Not being aware of how workers are suffering makes it impossible for any person to correctly analyze how the economy works for everyone, let alone how to make it better. This one principle causes American political action to divide into two classes: those who are in favor of the current system of private ownership so much that it ought to be unregulated, and those who, seeing the suffering of working class people every day, want something to be done about it.

For the former category, whether someone is a republican, libertarian, or anarcho-capitalist, the underlying moral philosophy is the same: the removal of unnecessary hierarchical systems that prevent the development, function, and efficiency of an economy. Those who fall into this category tend to disregard the experiences of working class people because they can’t see it.

For the latter category, whether someone is communist, socialist, anarcho-syndicalist, primitivist, nihilist, anti-natalist, or any other stripe, the common thread is that the experiences of the working class are seen- and, as a result of this, different solutions are idealized. The ultimate aim is the removal of unnecessary hierarchical systems not only from government but from private enterprise as well.

Anderson uses Adam Smith and Thomas Paine as examples of people who did see both the experiences of the working class and the business owners. For them, introducing more individualism into each situation was the answer. Workers ought to work independently while business owners ought to be free to run their business as they see fit.

She even uses Abraham Lincoln as an example of someone who was against a system of wage slavery; Lincoln once commented that people would work for a few years, then go off to own their own home or business. He was against the idea of working for a wage forever, Rather, Lincoln envisioned an egalitarian society in which people of different classes would interact with one another as equals. (Whether this was what he really believed or what he just happened to say isn’t spelled out in this book.)

She then talks about how the Industrial Revolution dashed all the hopes that everyone had for an individualist economy. Individualism had become toxic when those who utilized it most ended up actively oppressing others through economic means. The Levellers in 1640’s-ish England were an early pushback against this. Two hundred years afterward, the Chartists formed as an attempt to keep wages from being constantly pushed down while workers were required to work 12 hours a day or more.

From my reading of Engels, who went to England himself (and went places that no other man of his class would have dared venture), I found that Anderson understated the matter quite a bit. The business owner determined how long a person would work, what they would be paid, how often they could take breaks, whether they could eat and for how long. Engels sometimes witnessed pregnant woman delivering on the working floor, then going back to work almost directly afterward. He discovered the truck system, which was designed to by employers to pay workers not in wages, but in products the company made or owned itself. He discovered employers who not only owned the workplace, but also the habitat where workers had to live so that the employer would charge rent out of the wages that he himself paid to his employers. He discovered children working so long and in such conditions that they failed to biologically mature correctly. He discovered young and old alike with deformed limbs wandering the streets looking for whatever aid they could find.

He also discovered, at the same time, the working class being completely disenfranchised from anything resembling political power or influence. Many of them weren’t educated, for they had neither time to instruct themselves nor time to instruct their children. The family unit was broken up in such a way that they only saw one another during meal times. Children who did not work and who were not placed with an expensive governess or private school were left to their own devices for the duration of the day, trying to get by as best they could.

In addition, because business owners had all the power, the working class people of those days subsisted on spoiled food that made them sick. Rotten meat and ruined vegetables were regular fare. People were crammed into cities to work at factories, yet there were too many people and not enough fresh food to go around. Because business owners owned most, if not all, of the real estate, some of the living situations were in deplorable conditions. When people had a bed, they often put multiple people in it at once- people who didn’t have regular access to a bath, and no time during the day to bath themselves at any event.

Rather than being told that they could seize power back for themselves, instead the Englishmen and Irishmen that Engels studied were told to place their hopes in a life after this one every Sunday morning. The pastors, many of whom were at least moderately successful in life, appeared also to have suffered from economic hemiagnosia. And while charitable efforts did exist here and there, such charity as did exist could not possibly change a whole societal system overnight.

This unaccountable authority in the workplace, amounting to a private government, quickly leads to any number of other negative outcomes. In her lectures, Anderson hopes to reassert the place of the individual in their own lives- rather than being led, controlled, and marginalized by a group of others who use their authority for their own ends.

The first response chapter, written by Ann Hughes, gives further detail about the Leveller movement in England. What isn’t mentioned by either Hughes or Anderson in regards to this subject is that, during this same time period, Oliver Cromwell forcibly evicted Irish nobility from their land in the northern part of the country where the good land was to the southern part of the country where the land wasn’t as good. He did this in order to ensure loyalty to England within the most economically successful districts in Ireland. The Levellers, insofar as I understand, not only would have restored the local Irish lords to their ancestral lands, but would have abolished the notion of aristocracy altogether.

The second commentary, written by David Bromwich, reads like so much academic nitpicking. Both Anderson and Bromwich use Adam Smith as source material for their arguments. Bromwich’s argument is basically, “Smith didn’t say what you think he said.” Rather than addressing the central theme of Anderson’s work, Bromwich goes off in a different direction altogether. While this does make for enjoyable reading, I can’t say that anything in particular stood out for me as being memorable.

Niko Kolodny’s third commentary at least appears to understand Anderson’s argument- that workplace authority functions in much the same way government does, but without the same (albeit limited) checks that individual citizens may have upon government action. There are no checks upon corporate action save through boycotting. If the boycott isn’t effective enough, or if the corporation is strong enough to survive it, the boycott won’t make much of a difference.

Nonetheless, Kolodny takes an apologetic approach to business operations. While he cites third-party acquisition of workplace browsing history and email activity as justifiable uses of business authority, he does not address Anderson’s examples of people being fired over social media posts. Anderson illustrated the notion that, once a person subordinates themselves to a business authority, such an authority then feels they have the right to rule that person’s lives outside of work. In other words, the business owner assumes a power to which the employee for which the employee did not explicitly consent (it is assumed here that most people would not want their boss to monitor their social media accounts).

While many of Kolodny’s arguments aren’t wrong in and of themselves, they fall flat because he fails to take the full picture into account- even when Anderson has given direct examples for him to refute. Rather, it appears that he picked and chose what he thought was okay, and ignored everything that was indefensible.

The fourth commentator, Tyler Cowen, sticks out the most because he diverges the most from any other writer in the book. It quickly becomes apparent that, across the eleven pages with which Cowen has to make his point, that he is a right-wing libertarian person who writes from a position of economic privilege, which he acknowledges. Nevertheless, everything that Anderson had to say went over his head. Many of his talking points are those which other libertarians have made and continue to make.

Ironically, he is an example of the kind of economic hemiagnosia that Anderson referred to.

What particularly struck me during his critique was that he criticised one of Anderson’s sources as being “not very influential.” This occurred on the second page of his comments, and defined all else that was to follow. Cowen apparently believes that only the most popular and well-known ideas ought to be accepted as being valid.

Anderson’s response to the four commentators is really just a re-iteration of her previous points, again using Smith and Paine as her primary source material. She does come up with a few new fascinating examples to illustrate her point. One is from an Amazon warehouse in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The temperature had risen to 102 degrees that day. The warehouse management, for reasons of their own, refused to open the docking bay doors to let air ventilate, leaving the workers inside- all of whom were working 12 hour shifts where they had to race around constantly with little time to rest- to deal with the situation themselves.

For Amazon, the condition, rights, experiences, feelings, and health of the workers didn’t count at all.

What mattered for Amazon was that they service their customers as quickly as possible- which was a thinly-veiled proposition that meant servicing the corporation as quickly as possible. The fact that Amazon put so much emphasis on serving the customer and so little emphasis on serving their own workers serves as an example of selective blindness. Only one-half of a company’s economic transactions are consideration valid- the half that involves purchasing power.

Overall, Private Government is an interesting, short little book full of provocative ideas. The book challenges its reader to consider new ideas, and then to consider the ideas they just considered. Though the price is too high (even at 27 dollars), I received my copy through an interlibrary loan, so I was able to read it for free. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in economic theory, regardless of where they may sit on any ideological spectrum.

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