The Tyranny of Seeing Only Power

The Tyranny of Seeing Only Power

The book makes little pretense of being even-handed, offering instead a series of exposés of the various tricks of the trade that managers use to exploit workers and oppress consumers. There simply are no “good bosses” that populate this narrative. Nor, strikingly, are there any bad workers. It may well be true, as Ahmari charges, that many facets of American contract law are systematically rigged in favor of employers. But that is no justification for rigging the moral argument against them; “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great,” warns Leviticus 19:15. 

In my earliest political consciousness, I imbibed a framework that may be familiar to many American conservatives. There were two basic spheres of life: the public sector, run by the government, and the private sector: the zone of free enterprise, the market economy, and private property. Needless to say, the former was labeled Bad and the latter Good; the goal of any good politics was to shrink the former and expand the latter as much as possible. Why? Well because the government acted (indeed, only could act) by coercion, by compulsory action, while the private sector acted by free exchange, by voluntary action. Of course, sometimes coercion was necessary—we weren’t anarchists—but it was always regrettable.

Thankfully, I spent most of my youth fairly apathetic about politics, and so these assumptions functioned as little more than a vague default background framework. No sooner did I bring them to explicit consciousness and expression, during my brief fling as a Ron Paul devotee in 2007-08, than I began to find the framework full of gaping holes. For one thing, a simple binary was obviously not enough: at the very least there was a third sphere, governed neither by the logic of state or market, the family. The family seemed to belong to the private sphere, and yet it more closely resembled the unequal “coercive” logic of civil government than the free and equal exchange of the market. And where did the church fit into this equation? Both family and church, in fact, seemed to defy both state and market by modeling a kind of harmony or symbiosis even amidst inequality, rather than presupposing competition and constraint.

The more I looked, the more the anomalies multiplied. After all, was it really true that I only obeyed the law because I was coerced to? That didn’t really match my experience—in fact, increasingly it seemed to me a circular dictum: only if I thought of government action as coercive did I feel coerced; if I thought of it as rational or defensible, or of obedience as a duty of Christian charity, then law-observance turned out to be every bit as voluntary as any form of market exchange. And after all, what was law-making but a great corporate act of decision-making, a corporate exercise of freedom? I soon learned from Richard Hooker and the Christian tradition that most of what I had been taught to think about the “coercive” public sector was wrong.

And as I read economics and, more importantly, started paying attention to the world around me, it became equally obvious that the private sector could not possibly be the paradise of free exchange that Ron Paul said it was. Collusive monopolies used their market power to constrain and oppress consumers, while leaning heavily on the levers of government to tilt the playing field in their favor. Libertarians charged that such “crony capitalism” was a perversion of the true order of things, was proof that everything goes wrong when government gets involved, but what if this was instead an almost lawlike feature of society: businesses will always lobby for laws that favor them, and very powerful businesses will do so with greater success?

On a more basic level, the compulsory/voluntary binary just didn’t seem to fit the realities of experience. Did I buy the cup of coffee before my job interview because I wanted to or because I needed to? Did I ride the bus to my job interview because I wanted to or because I needed to? Did I take the job on the terms offered—the only job offer I could get—because I wanted to or because I needed to? Clearly the answer in each case was somewhere in between: in theory I could turn down the job and take my chances, but I had to get some income somewhere fast, and beggars can’t be choosers. I could have woken hours earlier and walked to the interview, but “drenched with sweat” doesn’t usually make a good first impression. And I could have foregone the cup of coffee, to be sure, but as an addict, I wouldn’t have found it easy and might’ve been lethargic at the interview. Most of my “market” transactions, it turned out, just as most of my interactions with the law, turned out to lie somewhere on a spectrum between 100% voluntary and 100% involuntary, rather than at the poles.

This basic insight, blindingly obvious once you wake up to it, but seemingly ignored by much popular political discourse for the past two generations, is the central contention of Sohrab Ahmari’s blockbuster new book, Tyranny, Inc.: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty—And What to Do About It. Of course, it’s not the only contention; as a title that spicy suggests, Ahmari is engaged in a bit more than merely an exercise in conceptual clarification. And rightly so, for conceptual confusion at this crucial point has profound consequences. “What you see is all there is,” as psychologist Daniel Kahneman likes to say, and if you operate with a political-economic framework in which private sector coercion is simply a contradiction in terms, then you will simply never see it—and thus never do anything about it, however abusive. Ahmari’s goal in this important work is to open our eyes to the real power imbalances that characterize the modern marketplace (or indeed any marketplace) and the ways in which the powerful use these asymmetries to coerce and exploit the weak.

Of course, as soon as you put it like this, suspicions are likely to be raised: doesn’t this all sound a little bit Marxist? It is, after all, a basic feature of Marxism in all its permutations to read the world through the sole lens of power, and to see every imbalance of power as a structure of oppression to be dismantled. The old Marxism focused on economic power, preeminently the power of the “boss” over the “worker,” while the new cultural Marxism has widened its remit in a self-contradictory quest to interrogate and dismantle power of any kind (except, of course, the power of the victims to exact revenge on their oppressors). Within the toxic discourse of wokeism, a return to the old-fashioned Marxism of labor activists and class consciousness may feel almost like a breath of fresh air. But it’s hardly where we should want to end up.

Ahmari’s work, then, is shot through with ambiguities. On the one hand, it represents a much-needed clarion call to discard the blinders of ideology, with its convenient binaries of bad “coercion” and good “freedom,” and wake up to economic and political reality, so we can make responsible political choices within the options actually available to us. On the other hand, it can’t seem to help indulging in a different ideological binary, one between bad bosses and good workers, oppressors and victims, that ignores the fine-grained realities of experience. By trading the false alternatives of neoliberalism for the false alternatives of old-school Marxism (or at least dallying with the latter), Ahmari misses a fantastic opportunity to transcend this zero-sum discourse and highlight the fundamental mistakes that both have in common: namely, an obsession with power to the exclusion of authority. For cultural conservatives tired of the stale categories of Friedman-style economic conservatism, it is high time to connect the dots between our economic and social maladies, between our alienation from our work and our alienation from ourselves.

Without authority, every constraint is felt to be oppressive, from gun licensing laws to my work schedule to the biological sex of my own body. Within a healthy understanding of authority, any number of constraints may be experienced as liberating.

By saying this, I do not mean that all the downtrodden worker in a dead-end job needs is a change of perspective (although as Paul’s advice to Roman slaves highlights, a change of perspective can change quite a lot). Ahmari is not wrong to draw attention to concrete evils and abuses of the contemporary market economy that conservatives have long turned a blind eye to. Many of the stories he chronicles should lead any sober reader to burn with indignation and demand immediate political changes to reduce the chances of such abuses. But this side of the eschaton, the poor we have always with us, and the powerful. Inequalities of wealth, wits, and strength will persist, and with every such inequality, an asymmetrical relationship between governors and governed, managers and managed. A just regime is one that accepts such imbalances, vigilantly watches for and seeks to mitigate abuses, and above all seeks to instill a healthy sense of solidarity and civic friendship between all orders of society based on the conviction that there really is a “common good” that is common to all of them.

At its best, Ahmari’s Tyranny, Inc. points us in this direction. But ultimately, I fear, he cannot resist the temptation to stoke ressentiment that seems to have seduced nearly everyone wanting to write a best-seller in modern-day America.

Let’s begin though with the crucial lessons that Tyranny, Inc. can teach us.

The Ubiquity of Coercion and the Need for Countervailing Power

Ahmari begins his book with a clever rhetorical ploy: he narrates three stories of worker oppression ostensibly drawn from China, Russia, and Iran, before revealing that all three injustices actually took place within the United States—not at the behest of totalitarian governments, but of private corporations. The lesson is clear: “tyranny” is not just something that happens over there, and more importantly, it is not something that must be exercised by “the government.” We have been indoctrinated to forget, he says, “that private actors can imperil freedom just as much as overweening governments; that unchallenged market power can impair our rights and liberties; that there are finally such things as private tyrannies and private tyrants.”

In chapter 1 he examines the false dichotomy that has perpetuated our blindness to private tyranny: the facile opposition between “liberty” and “power,” between “consent” and “coercion.” In fact, liberty depends on power. It would be a cruel mockery for a doctor to tell a quadriplegic lying on the examining table, “Ok, you’re free to go now.” Freedom to act without any corresponding power to act is an empty name. Just so, notes Ahmari, “You, as an employee, might be free to tell me, your oppressive employer, to ‘take this job and shove it.’ But your ability to make good on this threat—and survive physically afterward—depends on the relative power of employers and employees in a given labor market.” When the weak go head to head with the strong, the poor with the wealthy, the jobless with the business owner, the isolated with the well-connected, the two parties are simply not equally free because they do not have equal power.

Far from being some radical Marxist notion, this point was recognized as a truism by no less a liberal than Adam Smith. Later on in the book, Ahmari quotes a famous passage from the Wealth of Nations that when employers and employees go head-to-head, it is not hard to “foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into compliance with their terms.” Even in a worst-case scenario, the employer will generally have enough money to sustain himself for a year or two, while “many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment.” While the economist may be right that “in the long run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him,” still, Smith observes, “the necessity is not so immediate,” and this difference gives a strong edge to the employer in any negotiations.

Because of these differences in negotiating power that are simply a feature of almost any human relationship (economic or otherwise), the binary of “consent” and “coercion” also blinds us to reality. It imagines two worlds: one of slaves who live under the thumb of cruel masters armed with whips, coerced at every moment, and another of two perfectly free and equal individuals coming to barter with one another—the classic parable from the Intro to Econ textbook of the farmer who could use a new horseshoe and the blacksmith who could use a gallon of milk. In reality, most of us consent to various agreements under some kind of duress. When the harried mother of four hungry children stops at the grocery store for a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread, she probably does not have the luxury of shopping around for the best price. And she certainly doesn’t negotiate for a better deal. She pays what she has to and gets her screaming kids out of the store as quickly as possible.

This is a simple and relatively minor example, but it highlights a reality that again should be familiar to everyone’s experience: real market interactions have little in common with the Intro to Econ barter story. Companies set prices, consumers pay them; consumers might, to be sure, be able to exert indirect bargaining power by shopping around, but in the near-term, the sellers tend to have more leverage, especially in highly consolidated industries (which is most industries nowadays). More importantly for Ahmari’s purposes, employers set contracts, and employees sign them. Nowhere is the myth of free consent more obvious than when it comes to modern contracts, drawn up by teams of highly-paid lawyers in opaque fine print, and then put before employees on a “take it or leave it” basis. Free-market apologists insist that workers enjoy “liberty of contract.” Really? Ahmari acidly observes, “Newly hired workers, in this telling, carefully review each paragraph and voice their objections before coming to a mutual understanding with their employer over disputed provisions. As your own experience likely tells you, that is almost never how this process takes place.”

In various chapters, Ahmari drills down on some of the particularly egregious abuses that hide in these contracts: non-compete clauses, non-disclosure clauses, arbitration agreements, one-sided intellectual property policies, etc. In each case, it is difficult to imagine an employee who actually possessed equal bargaining power being willing to sign such a contract. In most cases, employees don’t really understand what they are signing, and figure there’s no point in understanding, because they don’t have a choice anyway: they need a job, and another employer in the same industry is likely to have a very similar-looking contract. The same, of course, applies to many contracts that consumers sign nowadays as well, such as the “End User License Agreements” by which we regularly sign away our rights to technology companies.

The problem with the free market envisioned by capitalist theorists like Milton Friedman is not that it’s a bad idea or describes a bad world; it’s just that the world it describes is science fiction, like a world in which the force of gravity still regulated motion but in which friction and inertia did not exist. The happy results predicted by the free-marketeer would in fact result if—if the marketplace was characterized by perfect competition of equally powerful and wealthy actors. It isn’t. If every participant to an economic exchange had perfect information (or at least, equally imperfect information) about the product, service, and economic conditions. They don’t. If the future prospects of each participant were the same. They aren’t.

Ahmari then invites us to be coercion realists: to recognize that almost every social interaction or market exchange, if you look closely enough, happens under conditions of at least some coercion: that is, conditions in which one party has somewhat more leverage over the other, and the weaker party feels some constraint to give up what he really wants to avoid worse consequences. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and certainly not a wicked thing—we need to remove the stigma from the word “coercion,” Ahmari seems to imply at key points in the argument, and simply recognize it as a reality of the social world, just as gravity is a reality of the physical world.

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