Anderson explores government as defined by “the authority to issue orders to others, backed by sanctions, in one or more domains of life (p. 97).” More broadly, any system of carrots and sticks (i.e. positive and negative incentives) which can be used to compel or coerce obedience from others may be considered a form of government. Anderson then goes on to define what is meant by her use of the word “private,” namely that she is not referring to the traditional understandings of a “public sector” and “private sector” where all things civil government are considered public and all things commercial are considered private. Rather, on Anderson’s account privacy in this case refers to a lack of transparency or accountability on the part of those issuing orders. In essence, Anderson’s account of private government is any system which wields control over the life of its subjects where said subjects are denied any say in what orders are issued or any input regarding the protection of their own interests. By this definition, she contends, all workplace supervisors are essentially autocratic dictators.
Next, Anderson goes on to elucidate the three kinds of freedom which she sees as being distinct and essential: negative, positive, and republican freedom. Negative freedom means an absence of restriction or interference on one’s actions. Positive freedom means the availability of a rich selection of available options, and republican freedom means that no one is dominating you; you are not subject to anyone’s arbitrary and unaccountable will. Anderson points out that a person stranded on a desert island may have total negative and republican freedom, but would then lack positive freedom since there would be very little to do. Conversely, a favored member of a royal court may have abundant negative and positive freedom, but their ruler has the arbitrary ability to withdraw their favor at any time, prohibiting republican freedom. A successful democratic society may have abundant positive and republican freedom, but likely will not have a great deal of negative freedom, since there would be many complex regulations and restrictions on individual liberty.
Anderson then points out that it is often necessary to make trade-offs in various areas of these freedoms, for example total negative freedom would represent a state of anarchy, whereby anyone could take what anyone else owned with no intervention by any authority. The need for protection of property rights necessitates some state-imposed restriction on negative freedom, which in turn increases the share of positive and republican rights guaranteed to all.
Next, Anderson expounds on the emergence of the “Firm” as an economic structure. With the rise of the industrial revolution, employment was taken en masse from the home to outside places of production and manufacturing. This, in turn, led to the rise of “bosses,” or a managerial hierarchy, who were ostensibly intended to improve productivity by supervising and redirecting workers to ensure maximum cooperation and a minimum of waste. Since the complex nature of the production process continually grew, managers and supervisors were increasingly granted more sweeping authority to handle unforeseen circumstances. Coupled with the concept of at-will employment contracts, whereby a worker can be fired for any or no reason, this presented a set of circumstances whereby power devolved into the hands of numerous middle managers who had unmitigated power and little to no accountability. In response to the assertion that workers are also free under at-will employment to quit whenever they choose, Anderson points out that this does not actually constitute a check on abuse of power by managers, since the manager retains their position of power in the event a worker decides to leave, and the negative effects on the worker of their departure will be far greater than any negative effects on the company. Despite numerous reforms to labor laws, including provisions for protections of union activity, workers still remain protected under only a very narrow set of circumstances, and by and large are forced to cede the majority of their rights to the employer or risk harm to themselves and their families if they choose to leave.
Finally, Anderson arrives at her main point: the methods by which those under private government can advance and protect their liberties. She identifies only four main avenues which workers have to protect themselves and advance their liberties: exit, the rule of law, substantive constitutional rights, and voice. Exit is the right of workers to leave their place of employment, and while it seems acceptable to a casual observer, the difficulty of seeking out new employment is made all the more challenging by the realities of ineligibility to receive severance pay or unemployment, non-compete clauses which are becoming more popular even in non-technical fields, and the untold financial strain on those who would be most directly affected (spouses, children) if they left their job. The rule of law gives employees legal recourse in the event that their employer does something which is overtly illegal or discriminatory; however this is also problematic because it places responsibility on the employee to prove in court that they have been wronged, usually at great personal cost. Constitutional rights refers not only to legislative and judicial protections of the rights of workers, but also to the obligation of companies on Anderson’s account to articulate to their workers the policies, protections, and processes for redress to which employees are entitled. While many companies go to great lengths to codify and publicize their policies, they generally still have very wide latitude within the confines of the law to control and discourage certain activities (such as attempts at unionization) at their discretion. Finally, Anderson comes to the avenue of “voice,” whereby employee empowerment through joint governance of a firm allows all workers a voice in how things are done. She holds up the German model of employee/management codetermination as one promising example.
Personally, I found Anderson’s account of the tyrannical nature of some employers to be extremely personally relatable. Having served ten years in the US Navy, I can personally attest to Anderson’s quote that “private governments impose a far more minute, exacting, and sweeping regulation of employees than democratic states do in any domain outside of prisons and the military.” (p.112) I was at one point subject to the arbitrary whims of a ship Captain who evoked images of Captain Bligh, and at another time to an even more petty supervisor with whom I had personality conflicts. This petty supervisor ultimately accused me of arbitrary violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and because he outranked me it was impossible to defend myself without also being accused of insubordination. I was brought before a disciplinary hearing, summarily reduced in rank, and confined to military quarters for thirty days. This experience taught me that, while the military is ostensibly a meritocracy, there are in fact many examples of petty tyranny where a person who is granted a modicum of power and autonomy with little to no accountability may wield it abusively with virtual impunity.
While in the civilian world this level of absolute control over employees is rare, in some sense the financial burden of supporting a family provides and even more compelling incentive to submit to arbitrary and abusive supervisors, for fear of the ramifications of losing not only one’s income, but potentially health insurance, retirement, and other benefits as well. There are innumerable cases of single-parent workers who are forced to take low-paying jobs under poor working conditions merely for the sake of day-to-day survival for their children. These represent some of the most vulnerable elements of the workforce, and without basic enforcement of their legal rights they can be and often are subjected to all manner of harassing or discriminatory treatment simply because an employer knows they don’t realistically have the option to quit.
Unions and labor laws provide some manner of protection in this area; however as Anderson mentions the practical likelihood of taking one’s employer to court is almost unthinkable for the average minimum-wage worker (p. 116). Though labor reform has come a long way in the decades since it was first introduced, there are still many cases where workers lack the adequate resources to ensure their rights are protected. Anecdotally, I can also describe how my mother was effectively forced out of her teaching career at a public elementary school after 15 years of teaching because her union failed to adequately represent her, whether due to lack of funding or mere bureaucratic apathy, in a dispute against her school principal. While unionized labor does have its undeniable benefits, the protections it offers will likely never match the financial and legal resources of corporate employers. Until a method is devised whereby employees have the same right to legal representation as a person accused of a crime, it is unlikely that many of the most vulnerable employees, union or not, will have the de facto legal protections they are offered de jure.
With regard to promotion and advancement, I believe that it is also necessary to codify a requirement for employers to publish their criteria and selection processes for employee promotion. This is one concrete method of overcoming the perception of favoritism and special treatment within a workplace. I believe the military has done better in this area to a certain extent, in the sense that there is a documented set of instructions for the annual performance evaluation process. Unfortunately, this system (at least in Navy practice) is not used for selection to the senior enlisted paygrades, where a much more secretive and opaque system is guarded by an in-group desperately clinging to antiquated traditions.
Critics of my position may argue that unfettered access to legal counsel by employees would lead to numerous frivolous lawsuits, or that most workplaces do not engage in the kind of arbitrary tyranny and exploitation of vulnerable workers that Anderson and I describe. To the first charge, I would argue that the laws guarding against frivolous torts are already well established, as are the laws for perjury. Secondly, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data for FY17, there were over 84,000 reported cases of EEO violations in the US last year, so this problem is hardly isolated. Furthermore, in a workplace where truly abusive and retributive behavior is the norm, it is even less likely that workers would feel empowered to report these abuses through a company grievance process, making it necessary to offer them the means to raise the case outside the standard channels.
Though detractors may still complain that modern labor laws have essentially “solved” the issue of abuses which may be inflicted by private governments, I contend along with Anderson that true empowerment of laborers through joint decision making and greater accountability of supervisors is eminently necessary in order to protect the rights of employees from encroachment by their employers. Furthermore, with regard to Anderson’s four methods of ensuring the protection and advancement of worker’s interests, I believe that while exit, rule of law, and constitutional protections are indeed viable and necessary methods of securing workers’ rights, ultimately the democratization of decision making and increased transparency and accountability on the part of supervisors is the most crucial aspect of labor reform which as yet remains largely untouched by present efforts.