Virtual Picket Lines Test Labor Economics

Media are abuzz lately with plaudits for the Huffington Post, noting the site’s parity with august news sources like the New York Times. Arianna’s site lacks not for critics, though, and many have begun to ask the question — as Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum did last week — is HuffPo unfair to labor?

That question proceeds from HuffPo’s long-running practice of not paying bloggers, instead capitalizing on their desire for exposure to the site’s formidable — and growing — audience to solicit “free” content. As the news economy hemorrhages jobs, the Newspaper Guild and the National Writers Union are calling for an “electronic picket line” to contest the site’s “unfair business advantage.”

Beyond the discrete question of whether or not these bloggers are exploited, the HuffPo dust-up presents a unique opportunity to test some common speculations about labor economics. It’s frequently argued by libertarians, for example, that unions and their strikes achieve results for workers only through the use or threat of force (i.e., that unions are inherently coercive bodies).

Given the prevalence of anti-union sentiment within libertarianism, it behooves market anarchists to demonstrate that one can be both pro-free market and pro-labor — indeed, that to be one is to be the other.

It isn’t merely that cartelization and labor laws stack the deck for capital at the bargaining table, but that the totality of the circumstances created by the state propels everyone toward that table. Most of us are familiar with the phrase “nanny state,” the notion of state creepery into every facet of human life, but many don’t realize just how fully the state preempts any attempt at genuine independence and self-sufficiency.

It’s seldom noted that the power elite’s monopolization of wealth, natural resources and technology have changed the very patterns of daily life. With alternatives to the state-corporate economy effectively closed off, rendered both legally and economically infeasible, there’s little to do but “choose” the life of the average nine to fiver.

The expression “wage slavery” is, unlike “nanny state,” not often heard from free market libertarian types, but the two are married both in theory and in practice. The hierarchical, chain-of-command structure of the maladroit American corporation situates naturally within the cradle-to-grave state.

Both are designed to render us unthinking, biddable instruments, fully dependent on higher-ups who must know better than we how we ought to spend our time and energy. To measure the state against the present-day corporate, to present them as opposites, is to ignore the reality that the existing corporation is a mere protuberance of the state. Its current form is defined by and exists only through the constant prolongation of privilege, of government support including massive handouts and protection from competition.

Bearing such a warped context in mind, it is impossible to consider — as so many libertarians do — present employment agreements “purely voluntary.” While they may not be as palpably coercive as other interventions, they are nonetheless molded by coercion, and nonetheless harmful. As Friedrich Hayek explained, “Coercion implies … that I still choose but that my mind is made someone else’s tool, because the alternatives before me have been so manipulated that the conduct that the coercer wants me to choose becomes for me the least painful one.”

Again and again, we libertarians seem to understand the dangers of the all-embracing “nanny state” so well indeed that we figure it’s used to give the worker more than what she’d earn in a free market. Even if Huffington Post bloggers don’t evoke the same mental imagery as downtrodden factory workers, we should hardly fault them for their desire to drive a better deal for themelves.

Some libertarians who so execrate unions ought to note well the fact that no one is acting coercively against those crossing the “virtual picket line.” Admittedly that would (in this case) be rather difficult, but it’s worth pointing out, as even Rothbard did, that for many of the Huffington Post’s writers not crossing that line was given a “commandingly high place on their value scales.”

That is to say, coercion hasn’t been what’s kept many writers from “strikebreaking;” they’ve made the decision not to cross the line quite independently of the prospect of any violent consequence. So although many have continued to write, enough have abstained to induce Huffington to sit down with the unions.

The Internet Age, by allowing easy, non-confrontational routes around picket lines, may finally put to rest some of the anti-union prejudices that have populated libertarian thought. Because even with those routes available, workers are going to see that not crossing isn’t just right in some abstract sense, but is in their interest.

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