What is this blog about?

What is this blog about?

I am a political philosopher. My 'political philosophy' is a form of 'liberal egalitarianism.' So in this blog I reflect on various issues in political philosophy and politics (especially Canadian and American politics) from a liberal egalitarian perspective.

If you are curious about what I mean by 'liberal egalitarianism,' my views are strongly influenced by the conception of justice advanced by John Rawls. (So I sometimes refer to myself as a 'Rawlsian,' even though I disagree with Rawls on some matters.)

Astonishingly, I am paid to write and teach moral and political philosophy. I somehow manage to do this despite my akratic nature. Here is my faculty profile.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Unfreedom in Wisconsin

I always feel a certain dread when I have to return to Wisconsin after a break in Canada.  It’s not about the teaching (usually), but rather my sense that some further horrible decision will be made by the state government that will make life there even more unnecessarily unpleasant than it already is.

A New York Times piece from a week ago, “The Destruction of Progressive Wisconsin” by Dan Kaufman, does a good job in summarizing the transformation of Wisconsin over the past five years under Governor Scott Walker and his henchmen within the Republican-controlled state legislature; the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) also is discussed.  (ALEC is one of my bêtes noires.)

Individual freedom is a central concern of mine, both politically and in my philosophical work.  So I find it fascinating, and at the same time deeply depressing, to see the ways in which pro-plutocracy organizations like ALEC, and the politicians that implement ALEC’s ‘model legislation,’ deploy the rhetoric of ‘freedom’ to justify their policies.  So-called ‘right-to-work’ laws are a perfect example of this: such laws, of course, do not ensure anything like a ‘right to work.’  Moreover, they do not remove a restriction on employment.  People always are free to accept or decline a job at a unionized firm.  Nobody is every ‘forced’ to join a union.  What ‘right-to-work’ laws do is restrict freedom of contract, encourage freeriding, and coercively (through the force of law) undermine the viability unions.  It’s an Orwellian term.

Having smashed the unions of Wisconsin – and thereby undermined the freedom of workers there – Walker and his minions have turned their sights on the state’s civil service.  Kaufman explains:
By adding the Civil Service bill [to previous ‘right-to-work’ legislation], Mr. Walker brings Wisconsin closer to the achievement of a long-sought goal of the libertarian right: universal “at-will employment.” Unlike union workers or state employees, whose collective bargaining agreements or Civil Service rules generally require employers to demonstrate “just cause” for them to be fired, at-will employees can be terminated at any time for any reason. At-will employment is promoted by the Heritage Foundation and American Legislative Exchange Council, which disseminates model bills to state legislators benefiting its corporate members and conservative private backers.
The ‘libertarian right,’ of course, interprets a law that permits ‘at-will employment’ as one that is ‘freedom enhancing’ in nature.  And at-will employment does increase freedom – but only the freedom of those individuals who already enjoy considerable wealth and power, namely, employers.  It increases their freedom to dominate others, by entitling employers to fire arbitrarily – and thus to threaten more generally – their employees.  The flipside of this kind of freedom for the powerful, of course, is unfreedom or subjugation for employees.   Employees are rendered even more vulnerable to the will of their employers under an ‘at-will employment’ regime. 

The less that employees are subject to arbitrary firing – and subject to ongoing threats of arbitrary firing – the more they enjoy what some political philosophers who write on liberty call ‘freedom as non-domination’ or ‘republican liberty.’  (The reference to ‘republican liberty’ by political philosophers such as Philip Pettit, it should be stressed, refers to the Roman Republic, where a freeman enjoyed a certain status under the law, and obviously is not a reference to the contemporary American Republican Party, which generally opposes republican freedom for most citizens.)  In contrast, the more that employees are subject to arbitrary firing – and thus subject to ongoing threats of arbitrary firing – the more they are subject to domination, and thus the more they are unfree.  

So while the libertarian right, and the contemporary Republican Party more generally, portrays itself as championing individual freedom through such policies, it in fact is championing only the freedom of the already powerful, whilst further restricting and undermining the freedom of most citizens. 

Professors such as myself hardly have been exempt from the Republicans’ assault on liberty within Wisconsin.  After all, the recent attack on tenure is precisely about undermining academic freedom and rendering academics more vulnerable to the will of the politically powerful. 

Sadly, the dark days in Wisconsin do not look to be ending any time soon… 

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