Of Our Time: Rules That Liberate

Recently, I participated in a new television program called
Debates, Debates, in which two teams have an hour to argue
an issue of the day. The proposition under debate that day was
whether trade sanctions should ever be used to advance human rights.
For the opposition, the team captain was Eugene Rotberg, former
vice president of the World Bank. Rotberg, cross-examining my
debating partner, William Greider, expected to score a nice point
on Greider with the following exchange:

Greider: We all have our choke points. I wouldn't trade with a
country that used slave labor. . . .

Rotberg: Who's "we" here?

Greider: Americans. This is a political question.

Rotberg: Do you know where the parts to the car that you're driving
are made?

Greider: What's that got to do with it?

Rotberg: Do you know that the car parts are made with child labor?

Greider: But, see, you're starting from the position that governments
are incapable of addressing these questions, so us poor consumers
are supposed to resolve them. I don't agree with that. Look at
American history. They didn't get children out of the coal mines
until the government made it illegal. They didn't close down the
sweatshops until reform movements passed laws.

Quite so. A consumer may be sovereign when it comes to deciding
between a Taurus and a Toyota, but the individual buyer is powerless
to know, much less influence, the labor practices at, say, a Ford
engine plant in Mexico.

Within advanced countries, governments enact wage and hours laws,
health and safety regulations, regimes allowing collective bargaining.
These and kindred policies all offer relief from economic pressures
that would otherwise yield hardship for ordinary workers. They
are the fruits of a century of political struggle. But between
countries, there are no such rules—as yet. So the default position
for traded goods is laissez-faire: The country with the lowest
standards enjoys a competitive advantage, and drags down the standards
of other countries. This is why the question of whether, and how,
to link trading rights to labor rights is so contentious. The
domestic forces that don't like these safeguards let international
trade do the dirty work of tacitly dismantling them.

The above exchange between Rotberg and Greider offers a
much broader insight about the paradoxical relationship between
individual freedoms and society's framework of rules. The now
ascendant libertarian view depicts rules as nothing but constraints
on individual freedoms. But rules can also be empowering. Rules
set social standards in realms where the individual as consumer
is essentially powerless to achieve constructive social change.
And rules protect the individual as producer from acceding to
"contracts of desperation" that leave society as a whole
worse off.

Subscribe to The American Prospect

For example, no matter how dire a household's circumstances, we
no longer allow six-year-olds to work for wages. In the short
run, child labor might put a bit more bread on a poor family's
table, but in the long run it would yield a society with more
urchins, less education, and lower breadwinner wages. A custom—child
labor—that market society would otherwise lead desperate people
to "freely" choose is precluded, by law. A spurious
liberty is foreclosed, for the sake of creating a society with
more genuine freedom—the freedom enjoyed by a better-educated
population that can command higher earnings as adults. There was
a time early in this century when the courts held that such laws
interfered with the freedom to contract. But a more complex conception
of freedom acknowledged that such laws enhanced liberty.

If we look a little harder, we can think of other examples where
people are forced into Hobson's choices because the available
menu presents no good options. The problem is not bad individual
judgment. It is the absence of rules and social remedies that
compels individuals to make unbearable choices.

A case in point is the proliferation of guns. If gun-control laws
are weak and you live in a violent neighborhood, you are tempted
to carry a gun. Pretty soon, nearly everyone is carrying a gun.
The NRA actually believes that universal gun toting enhances personal
security. But this is only the case when guns are already ubiquitous.
A far better "leveler"—one that leads to less total
violence and more total security—is to rid the society of private
handguns. Who is freer? The citizen free to carry his own weapon,
or the citizen free of the worry of being menaced at gunpoint?
Game theory understands this as a "collective action"
problem, meaning one in which the sum of rational individual choices
does not yield a rational collective outcome. We need some external
mechanism of reciprocal disarmament, which the lone individual
cannot attain unilaterally. The only remedy is a set of collective

Another pertinent case is campaign finance. Do the Democrats unilaterally
disarm, and let the Republicans—as natural ally of the rich—raise
10 times the money to contest elections? Or do the Democrats discard
half of their historic program and constituency, cozy up to fat-cat
financiers, and rent out the Lincoln Bedroom? Neither choice is
defensible. The existing rules offer no good choices.

In this issue of The American Prospect, John Donahue analogizes
this sort of dilemma to the environmentalist parable of the Tragedy
of the Commons. When common standards are weak, there ensues a
"race to the bottom"—the phrase is originally Justice
Brandeis's—to discard standards altogether. As a society we reap
choices that we as individuals really don't want. But in the absence
of common standards, the rational pursuit of individual self-interest
leaves the collectivity, and hence most individuals, worse off.

A less obvious, though telling, example is family versus
career. As real median earnings have fallen, more households require
two breadwinners. Parents are constantly torn between sacrificing
children and sacrificing living standards. A parent with a sick
child must choose between taking time off from work and seeming
to the boss like a laggard, or feeling like a rotten mother or
father. Faced with these two alternatives, there is no good choice.
What we need is not a more discerning engagement with the available
choices, but a different menu.

Here, as elsewhere, membership in the elite conveys choices not
available to ordinary people. A friend, with two small children
at home, has an important job comprised entirely of writing, editing,
and telephoning. Her employer is a large corporation. My friend
is immensely productive. Her productivity speaks for itself—the
work gets done efficiently and well. She recently asked her boss
if she could do her job from home three mornings a week—something
easily attainable in an age of computer, fax, and modem. The boss
responded that he worked a long day, and he expected everyone
on his team to put in a long day. As it turns out, he also has
small children. But he has a wife with a very part-time job, as
well as an au pair.

The very existence of au pairs, as opposed to more social investment
in child care and more liberal family leave policies, forces these
invidious choices on the nonrich. Here in greater Boston, the
papers have been filled with the story of a teenage English au
pair, Louise Woodward, who, in a terrible moment of frustration,
shook an infant so hard that he went into a coma and eventually
died. She is now on trial for murder. This has prompted a heated
debate about whether au pairs are adequately screened.

Weighing in with a defense of au pairs was Derrick Jackson, one
of the Boston Globe's most liberal columnists. He testified
to the wonderful experience that he and his family had had with
no fewer than eight au pairs. Jackson bolstered his argument with
the point that, statistically, there is far more child abuse by
natural parents and ordinary babysitters than by au pairs.

But the real scandal here is not that a trivial fraction of au
pairs may abuse children. It's that only a trivial fraction of
families can afford au pairs at all, and that society doesn't
offer good choices for the rest. No wonder so much abuse occurs
among parents.

The sociologist Arlie Hochschild, in an important new book, The
Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work
, studied
the efforts of an unnamed Fortune 500 company to make its workplace
more "family-friendly." She picked a company that was
renowned for its caring approach to work and family. The company,
disguised by Hochschild as "Amerco," offers flextime,
pro-rated part-time career ladders, on-site day care, generous
family leave policies, and so on.

But Hochschild found, to her dismay, that pitifully few workers
took advantage of options that left them more time at home. After
conducting extensive interviews of everyone from the chairman
to the human resources vice president to ordinary clerks and production
workers, Hochschild came to two conclusions. First, despite the
company's protestations, workers who got off the fast track paid
a severe career price. Second, there has been an awful inversion
of what we expect from home and what we expect from work.

Instead of serving as a haven from a hostile world, the home,
in time-squeezed America, is a place of split-second juggling
acts, marital disputes about who gets leisure time and who minds
the children, much stress, and little comfort. The workplace,
by contrast, offers social relationships, mentoring, and a feeling
of teamwork and accomplishment. One can exaggerate this, of course,
but Hochschild's meticulous evidence suggests that the model of
the nurturing corporation backfires. Instead of workers taking
the company's offer to use the family as a respite from work,
they use work as a respite from the family. As Hochschild writes,
"The valued realm of work is registering its gains in part
by incorporating the best aspects of home. The devalued realm,
the home, is meanwhile taking on what were once considered the
most alienating aspects of work."

That, in turn, suggests that the work-family conundrum is even
more intractable than it seems. Parental leave and part-time career
options are fine and necessary, but hardly sufficient. What might
be sufficient? Here, we come back to the question of society's

As recently as two decades ago, basic industry and commerce
in America were substantially regulated, and domestic oligopolies
were substantially insulated from foreign competition. Corporations
in industries as diverse and far-flung as banking, trucking, telecommunications,
broadcasting, health care, airlines, autos, chemicals, steel,
and electric power were all so sufficiently insulated from cutthroat
competition that they could offer their employees a stable career
environment. Productivity did not suffer; on the contrary, productivity
growth in the 1950s and 1960s was more rapid than in the 1970s
and 1980s. But it occurred in a stable institutional context,
which in turn was the fruit of regulation.

The regulations that afforded this stability were either classic
economic regulation of what were thought to be natural monopolies
(telephones, trucking, airlines, electric power), or regulation
based on safety and soundness concerns (banking, savings and loans,
stock brokerage, insurance), or regulation based on professional
and public-goods objectives (health care), or regulation that
yielded strong unions in basic industry (enforcement of the Wagner
Act), or tariff regulation that insulated domestic industry from
the pressures of foreign trade.

Most of this has now been discarded, in the pursuit of greater
textbook "efficiency." But one of the real, and insufficiently
appreciated, benefits of the postwar era of regulation was that
it yielded a workplace stable enough to permit the negotiation
of durable social compacts. Those social compacts, while they
lasted, allowed progressively longer vacations, progressively
shorter workweeks, and increasing fringe benefits. The job security
afforded by the same social compact emboldened workers to insist
on these other amenities. This progress, as Barry Bluestone and
Stephen Rose documented in our March-April issue ["Overworked
and Underemployed
"], has abruptly come to an end. Deregulation, though seldom blamed, is a prime culprit. Had this more
stable bargaining environment continued, I have little doubt that
these amenities would have been expanded to include measures to
reduce the tension between work and family. This is certainly
the case in European countries that have resisted the pressure
to dismantle a workplace compact.

So the relationship between regulation and a decent society is
rather more complex and multifaceted than it first seems. When
so many diverse industries were subjected to economic regulation
early in this century, more decent working conditions were not
the intent, but they became an important side effect. Evidently,
it will not work to graft family leave mandates onto a work environment
that is so fluid and precarious that workers dare not take advantage
of added benefits. In order to allow social progress to resume,
we first need to restore a more social conception of work and
some new preconditions for a durable social compact. In an information
economy of shifting technologies and virtual careers, it is that
much harder to negotiate social compacts. But if there were more
social safeguards against arbitrary treatment and more social
subsidy of the cost of child rearing, more workers would have
the confidence to pursue more satisfying trade-offs.

Hochschild calls for a "time movement," demanding relief
from the universal time squeeze, in the spirit of the late-nineteenth-century
crusade for an eight-hour day. Although a personal turning away
from career-crazed materialism could help, this movement will
require more than individual commitments to a life of voluntary
simplicity; the countervailing economic pressures are simply too
intense. It will also require new rights and rules. Extended paid
leaves for new parents—of both genders—would be a good place to
start. A normal four-day workweek would be another good innovation.
Socially sponsored child care and more employee rights against
arbitrary dismissal would also help. A revival of the labor movement
would be the best remedy of all, since most of the specific gains
of the postwar era came via the solidarity and concerted legislative
pressure that unionism afforded.

The libertarian story, depicting government and collective
regulation as the enemy of individual freedom, offers an impoverished
conception of liberty. It has the virtue of simplicity—cast government
aside. Our story is necessarily more complex, because it acknowledges
the complexity of human society. The libertarian worldview is
somewhat contradictory, because it recognizes the need for norms
of behavior. Indeed, many professed libertarians pride themselves
on being stern parents. But the libertarian view denies that norms
of behavior can ever be legitimately set by collective public

In a libertarian society, we are free to choose—to sacrifice children
or income; time or career; political integrity or political money;
weapons or personal security; free trade or decent labor standards.
All of these are lousy choices, and not the only ones potentially

In reality, regulation remains necessary to prevent races to the
bottom, and to preclude invidious choices from being forced upon
ordinary people. Regulation is also necessary to create oases
from short-term economic pressure, so that durable social compacts
can be negotiated. In rebuilding a usable liberal politics, we
would do well to rehabilitate the liberating virtue of collective

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)