The other day, I tweeted that there's an "overlap between right-libertarians and shills for the rich." Bang on cue, Tim objects to the use of the word "Dickensian" to describe working conditions at Sports Direct.
Such pendantry causes Tim to miss the key point - that what's going on at Sports Direct is Dickensian in the sense that workers are suffering at the hands of domineering bosses. For example:
All warehouse workers are kept onsite at the end of each shift in order to undergo a compulsory search by Sports Direct security staff, with the experience of the Guardian reporters suggesting this typically adds another hour and 15 minutes to the working week – which is unpaid.
For most workers, I suspect, this sort of thing is far more intrusive and - importantly - demeaning than anything they suffer in their dealings with the state. These are acts of coercion of the sort that should outrage anyone who cares about liberty. Which poses the question: why are people like Tim who profess to be classical liberals apparently so indifferent to such workplace tyranny?
The question deepens because Friedrich Hayek, perhaps the greatest of classical liberals, was aware of the problem:
There are, undeniably, occasions when the condition of employment creates opportunity for true coercion. In periods of acute unemployment the threat of dismissal may be used to enforce actions other than those originally contracted for. And in conditions such as those in a mining town the manager may well exercise an entirely arbitrary and capricious tyranny over a man to whom he has taken a dislike. (The Constitution of Liberty, p136-7).
Hayek went on to claim that these conditions would "be rare exceptions in a prosperous competitive society". That might have been reasonable when he was writing: in 1960 the unemployment rate was only 1.6 per cent. But it is not true in today's slacker labour market where monopsony - Hayek's "mining town" - is less rare. As Chris Bertram has pointed out, workplace tyranny is widespread.
Why, then, do some rightists refuse to see this? One possibility is that they mistake the map for the terrain. They believe the labour market functions as the textbooks claim rather than see it as it is - a place where many people have lousy options and so are at risk of arbitrary and capricious tyranny. Their blindspot here is the same as some economists have when they try to deny the existence of involuntary unemployment.
Another possibility is that they believe that the cure is worse than the disease - that attempts to prevent bad employment practices would tie up even good bosses in red tape and so restrict growth and employment. But it need not be so. A basic income that allowed workers to reject bad jobs and a jobs guarantee that gave them other options would free people from tyrannical bosses without the need for burdensome regulation.
There is,though, a third possibility - that some right-libertarians and classical liberals care only about freedom for bosses, and not freedom for all. As I've said, it is we Marxists who are the true libertarians.