The consent versus coercion framing
In many debates of a political or economic nature, I find myself again and again arguing with people on both the left and right who take the consent-vs.-coercion framing of political and economic issues as fundamental. Those on the right tend to take consent as the essentially sufficient condition for an institution to be morally acceptable. Somewhat surprisingly, those on the left accept the same framing of the issue, and just take the other side—arguing that certain institutions are “actually” coercive.
For instance, the basic economic institution of our society is the renting of human beings, the employment relation.
This framing puts the employment system on the same side as political democracy as based on the consent of the governed. Those on the left who attack “wage labor” typically accept the consent/coercion framing but argue that employment is “actually” coercive in some special sense, and thus should be on the other side from the impermissible-permissible dichotomy along with slavery and feudalism.
The consent/coercion framing on the left
An excellent example of this was a recent dust-up between the Bleeding Heart Libertarian bloggers (on the right) and the Crooked Timber bloggers (on the left). The whole debate was spent on arguing about whether this or that practice was consensual or coercive since both sides accepted the framing: consent = permissible and coercion = impermissible.
Perhaps the most surprising thing is that essentially the whole left—from American liberals to European social democrats and all the way leftward to the surviving endangered species of Marxists—use that framing. Liberals might just condemn “abuses” in the employment system that border on coercion while Marxists or “socialists” (whatever that means these days) might strike a more radical posture of condemning the system outright on the grounds of it being coercive in some special sense. Since the employment contract is obviously not coercive in the ordinary juridical sense, socialists of various stripes take it as a badge of red courage to use some rather elevated standard of “coercion” in their condemnations (a standard that historically was quickly relaxed when the employer was a socialist government).
For the use of the consent/coercion framing on the left, the generative metaphor is the historical enclosure movement where free peasant farmers were denied access to the “means of production.” Hence people were seen as being historically forced or coerced into wage labor. A person of the left might argue today that wage labor is “inherently coercive” unless everyone has a guaranteed basic income (GBI) that provides a feasible alternative. The guaranteed basic income would function as the modern version of access to the commons or more generally access to the “means of production.” Ironically, the historical result of this “access to the means of production” definition in the socialist countries was a guaranteed job as a state employee for the state owning the means of production, a rather curious fate for the left-wing notion of “non-coercive.”
But my point here is that if some such non-coercive argument is the ‘best shot’ the left has at the employment relation, then the left has no per se objection to the whole institution of renting people, so long as people have the desired specified alternative available (e.g., GBI) to make it a “really” free choice. Thus the whole left-wing posture of “condemning” wage labor turns out to have been just another way to draw the line between “really” voluntary and “actually” coercive.
Intellectual history of consent-vs.-coercion framing
Insight into the consent/coercion framing can be gained by looking at the intellectual history of three voluntary contracts:
- the voluntary slavery contract;
- the political pact of subjection (where citizens alienate their right of self-government to become subjects of some sovereign); and
- the coverture marriage contract (where the woman alienates her independent legal personality in favor of her husband).
All these voluntary contracts are now abolished in the advanced western democracies. But historically, slavery, autocracy, and the legal non-personhood of females were all seen by their sophisticated apologists as being based on an implicit or explicit version of these contracts.
The basic point here is that those of the left or right who analyze social issues using the consent-vs.-coercion framing can only disagree with those contractarian defenders of slavery, autocracy, and female oppression by quibbling about what is “really” voluntary or “actually” coercive. Putting it the other way around, if the coercion-critique is the ‘best shot’ at condemning slavery, autocracy, and female oppression, then the implication is that;
- slavery is OK if it is really voluntary;
- non-democratic government is OK if it is really voluntary; and
- female non-personhood is OK if it is really voluntary.
In contrast, if one does have a per se critique, then there is no reason to use the consent/coercion framing at all—since one has a case against those institutions even if they were fully voluntary and consensual.
The inalienable rights per se critique of those institutions of alienation
The case from the right or left against slavery, autocracy, or female oppression on the basis of those institutions not being “really voluntary” is thus a rather superficial case. Fortunately, the historical abolitionist, democratic, and feminist movements developed per se inalienable rights arguments against those institutions [Ellerman 1992], arguments that did not degenerate into quibbles with the apologists for those institutions about what was “really” voluntary or “actually” coercive.
The argument was that any rights one has qua person are inalienable, even by a really voluntary contract, since after the contract is signed and “validated” by the legal authorities, then person still qualifies for the same rights on the same grounds qua person. Hence the pretended legal alienation was inherently invalid, and those qua-person rights are inherently inalienable.
This sort of argument clearly has nothing to do with quibbles about what is really voluntary or actually coercive, i.e., it has nothing to do with the consent/coercion framing.
Of course, consent is a necessary condition for a permissible social institution. The real question is whether the consent is to:
- a contract to legally alienate some of the rights one has qua person, or
- a contract “to secure these [unalienable] rights.”
A democratic constitution does not alienate the right of self-government to a sovereign; it is a contract that secures that right by only delegating the exercise of that right to representatives who only govern in the name of those governed. In the Latin, the alienable/inalienable dichotomy was translatio versus concessio. Thus the real framing is that between voluntary contracts of alienation versus contracts of delegation.
The consent/coercion framing on the right
The consent/coercion framing essentially defines the classical liberal or libertarian doctrine. From the political viewpoint, even the most addled libertarian would not argue that the employer is the delegate or representative of the employees, so if classical liberalism or libertarianism was to use the alienation/delegation framing, then the employment system would end up on the alienation side of that dichotomy. That is one reason why liberal thinkers do not use that framing, even though the civic republican intellectual historian Quentin Skinner  as well as the legal historian Otto von Gierke [1958, 1966] have both shown that the alienation/delegation framing was the key development in the history of democratic theory.
The disconnect between liberalism and political democracy has recently come out into the open in the charter cities movement. The charter cities, also known as “free cities,” are newly built and are ruled by a well-meaning foreign country, a corporation, or a committee of well-meaning liberal do-gooders. As noted in a recent analysis:
According to US economist Paul Romer, whose brainchild the charter city concept is, the apparent affront to democracy is not actually problematic because the cities will be inhabited entirely by migrants who have taken up residence of their own volition.
Thus Romer, who is more a standard American liberal than a libertarian, sees no problem in non-democratic government if it is “really” voluntary.
When the employment contract is viewed not just as a workplace governance contract but as the individual self-rental contract, then it is only a short-term and limited tenure version of a civilized self-sale contract which is essentially a long-term or permanent (perhaps until some ‘retirement’ age) labor contract. Some libertarians such as Harvard’s late Robert Nozick have explicitly endorsed allowing a civilized form of the voluntary slavery contract. But the more mainstream libertarian position is that such a contract would be unenforceable by libertarian standards since a voluntary slave who wanted to exit the contract would be subject to some modern version of the fugitive slave laws (which do not pass libertarian muster). However, this is only a procedural objection, not a per se objection. A different procedure for handling breached slavery contracts would be perfectly acceptable by libertarian standards.
For instance, the up front lump sum payment to a voluntary slave could be put into an escrow account, and then an appropriate amount released each year to the slave or the slave’s beneficiaries when they continue to work for the master. But if the slave decides to exit, then the remaining balance would revert to the master. Modern libertarians have no objection to that civilized form of the voluntary slavery contract—and for good reason. They correctly point out that it would essentially be a long-term form of today’s human rental contract with an up front lump sum wage payment.
Thus classical liberalism and libertarianism have no per se objection to a civilized voluntary slavery contract (called by a better name). And for good reason. As noted in an article entitled The Libertarian Case for Slavery;
Any thorough and decisive critique of voluntary slavery or constitutional non-democratic government would carry over to the employment contract—which is the voluntary contractual basis for the free market free enterprise system. [Philmore 1982, 55]
Hence the inalienable rights critique of the historical contractarian arguments for slavery and autocracy is not available to the standard liberal thinkers and social scientists whose professional task is give an “account” of the current economic system.
We have seen some of the reasons why the basic political and economic debate between the left and right, particularly concerning today’s institution of renting people, is so often framed using the consent/coercion dichotomy. It is quite clear why liberals and social scientists need to use that framing if they are to give an account of the current economic system. It is less clear why those of the left would accept that framing, but it can probably be attributed to the deadweight legacy of 20th century Marxism and socialism. In either case, the consent/coercion framing seems to be the pons asinorum of political-economic theory.
Ellerman, David 1992. Property & Contract in Economics: The Case for Economic Democracy. Cambridge MA: Blackwell. Downloadable at: www.ellerman.org.
Fischer, Stanley, Rudiger Dornbusch and Richard Schmalensee 1988. Economics. New York: McGraw-Hill Co.
Gierke, Otto von 1958. Political Theories of the Middle Age. Trans. F. W. Maitland, Boston: Beacon Press.
Gierke, Otto von 1966. The Development of Political Theory. Trans. B. Freyd, New York: Howard Fertig.
Philmore, J. 1982. The Libertarian Case for Slavery: A Note on Nozick. Philosophical Forum. XIV (Fall 1982): 43-58. Downloadable here.
Samuelson, Paul 1976. Economics. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Skinner, Quentin 1978. The foundations of modern political thought. Volume Two: The Age of Reformation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 The use of the phase “renting people” instead of saying “hiring or employing people” is non-standard and is intended to get people to think anew about the institution. But it is not part of the controversy. According to the standard texts: “Since slavery was abolished, human earning power is forbidden by law to be capitalized. A man is not even free to sell himself: he must rent himself at a wage.” [Samuelson 1976, 52 (emphasis in original)] Or “We do not have asset prices in the labor market because workers cannot be bought or sold in modern societies; they can only be rented. (In a society with slavery, the asset price would be the price of a slave.)” [Fischer, et al. 1988, 323] Americans say “rental car” and the British say “hire car” but they are talking about the same thing. A rented person is a hired person, i.e., an “employee.”
 Employment contracts may be collectively bargained unlike the usual contracts of adhesion facing people as consumers.