By Elizabeth Anderson
One in four American workers says their workplace is a “dictatorship.” Yet that number probably would be even higher if we recognized most employers for what they are—private governments with sweeping authoritarian power over our lives, on duty and off. We normally think of government as something only the state does, yet many of us are governed far more—and far more obtrusively—by the private government of the workplace.
In this provocative and compelling book, Elizabeth Anderson argues that the failure to see this stems from long-standing confusions. These confusions explain why, despite all evidence to the contrary, we still talk as if free markets make workers free—and why so many employers advocate less government even while they act as dictators in their businesses.
In many workplaces, employers minutely regulate workers’ speech, clothing, and manners, leaving them with little privacy and few other rights. And employers often extend their authority to workers’ off-duty lives. Workers can be fired for their political speech, recreational activities, diet, and almost anything else employers care to govern. Yet we continue to talk as if early advocates of market society—from John Locke and Adam Smith to Thomas Paine and Abraham Lincoln—were right when they argued that it would free workers from oppressive authorities. That dream was shattered by the Industrial Revolution, but the myth endures.
Private Government; How Employers Rule Our Lives (And Why We Don't Talk about It) offers a better way to talk about the workplace, opening up space for discovering how workers can enjoy real freedom.
Based on the prestigious Tanner Lectures delivered by Anderson in 2015 at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values, Private Government is edited and introduced by Stephen Macedo and includes commentary by cultural critic David Bromwich, economist Tyler Cowen, historian Ann Hughes, and philosopher Niko Kolodny.
Michael C. Munger on The Independent Review wrote:
"Anderson, a philosopher at the University of Michigan and one of the foremost philosophers of egalitarianism, puts today’s exploitative bosses in a broader context. She explains that, whether you’re a C.E.O., a mayor, or the head of a campus commune, there are two ways of being in charge. If you exercise 'public government,' you allow the people you rule to have a say in how they are governed; if you wield 'private government,' the rules are not up for debate. [...] For most of history, Anderson writes, almost all government was private. [...] In Anderson’s view, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, and other eighteenth-century advocates of the free market were really enemies of private government. [...] In the years between the American and industrial revolutions, the growth of the free market succeeded in pushing back the borders of private government. [...] The rise of large factories and corporations created a new environment in which private government could thrive. [...] Anderson shows that, in reality, the dream of a society of 'masterless men' never had a chance—it was always going to be derailed by technology, which both demands and facilitates the close coördination of workers in vast companies."
Rose Deller on LSE Review of Books wrote:
"Libertarians, classical liberals, and market advocates of various stripes often start from what philosophers would—rightly—identify as a 'question-begging premise.' [...] That premise is a pair of binaries that map onto each other. The first is “state versus market.” The second is “coercive versus voluntary.” The claim is that there is a clean dividing line, and it cleaves at the same boundary: everything states do is coercive; everything markets do is voluntary. [...] But nobody outside the libertarian “movement” buys the claim. They see the state (with some exceptions) as embodying the collective, voluntary will to cooperate. And they see markets as exploiting glaring disparities in bargaining power that amount to coercive force. If you want to persuade anyone that markets are substantially less coercive than the state, you will at least need to understand the argument you are up against. A good place to start is Elizabeth Anderson’s marvelous new book Private Government. [...] For the sake of full disclosure, I should note that I myself am known to be a heretic from market orthodoxy on this point, having tried to problematize the notion of 'voluntariness.' Economists often simply start there ('Since exchange is voluntary'), whereas a more careful approach requires analysis ('If exchange is voluntary . . . , and how would we know if it is?'). [...] I worry that Anderson sees the alternatives as mutually exclusive: either we must rely on the state, or we must regulate firms much more tightly, fostering workplace democracy and a workers’ 'bill of rights.' But of course if firms adopt her recommendations, and she’s right about what workers value, then the obvious solution is for her to quit her job as a chaired philosopher at University of Michigan and open Anderson’s Widgets, Inc. It doesn’t matter much what the widgets are because if workers prefer the mix of freedoms and manager accountability that Anderson claims they do, they will accept lower wages to work for her firm. I suspect that’s not the case, however [...] These quibbles notwithstanding, Private Government is an important book.
Paul Raekstad on Krisis; Journal for Contemporary Philosophy wrote:
"Anderson urges us to see capitalist firms as arbitrary governments, antithetical to our moral commitments to freedom and equality. [...] As always, Anderson’s analysis is as compelling as it is provocative. Still, there are things to quibble with. Is the theory of the firm-as-market as influential in public discourse as Anderson contends? [...] Furthermore, are ‘private governments’ as private as Anderson suggests? [...] Anderson explores various institutional remedies for de-privatising private governments, emphasising the importance of mechanisms for worker influence and control. But there is another option: abolish firms entirely. Anderson dismisses this as implausible [...] With Private Government, Anderson has offered an important corrective to influential libertarian theories by bringing the governmental nature of firms into sharp relief. I only worry that she might be downplaying how distinctive these kinds of governments are, thereby obscuring the conditions they presuppose and the factors that can influence or eclipse them."
Valerie Soon on Essays in Philosophy wrote:
"Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government is an important and timely contribution to contemporary political theory, especially for anyone thinking about freedom in the workplace or about reforming or replacing existing economic institutions. It combines historical inquiry into the egalitarian origins of free-market capitalist theory with a critical examination of the structure of the contemporary capitalist workplace as a form of 'private government' [...] An interesting question in this regard is the extent to which Anderson’s analysis applies to workplaces with more stringent workplace regulations than the United States. In countries with stronger workplace protections and systems of co-determination – such as the Netherlands or Germany – it’s not clear whether she would think that bosses treat it as none of your business which orders it issues or why it sanctions you. [...] In general, the book is (as one would expect) exceedingly well-argued and compellingly written. It tackles a very important and under-theorised set of issues, and it does so excellently. However, I do have some quibbles about the terminology that is sometimes employed [...] In the final few pages of the second essay, Anderson considers four general strategies for dealing with private government in the workplace: (1) exit; (2) the rule of law; (3) substantial constitutional rights; and (4) voice. Although she supports both workers’ effective rights of exit and protection under the rule of law, her main focus is on (3) and (4)."
Wayne Norman on Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews wrote:
"Anderson persuasively shows that historical egalitarian concepts, together with the theory of the firm, constitute an ideology that conceals the dark character of workplace relations. [...] But who are the 'we' that Anderson refers to throughout her lectures? Anderson’s ideological explanation for our oversight depends largely on the answer to this question. [...] most workers are just not going to have anything like Smith’s idea of mutual exchange or the theory of the firm in mind when they shrug and say that the structure of their workplace seems fine by them (even if they hate their boss). So what, if not the ideology that Anderson describes, explains why most people don’t realize that their workplace is a private government? Perhaps it is not an ideology at all, as Cowen suggests, but simply a calculated trade-off that workers make between higher pay and less freedom (111). Or perhaps there is some other mechanism at play that neither Anderson nor any of her commentators have identified. The burden of proof is on Anderson and those sympathetic to her view to explain what this mechanism might be. For example, worker beliefs and attitudes about the legitimacy of private government are probably much more influenced by the ideology of meritocracy on a conscious level than they are by the ideology of market exchange. Whatever the right explanation is, it doesn’t affect Anderson’s powerful contention that the workplace is unfree. [...] Anderson emphasizes that she is not opposed to government in the workplace per se—only to private government (133). As both Kolodny and Cowen note, however, public government can be just as limiting to freedom as private government, if in different ways. If it is true that public government would be less efficient than private government, then we might choose to trade the positive freedom gained from having more material resources for the republican freedom gained from having bosses who are more accountable to workers. Whether this trade-off needs to be made is an empirical question. [...] Anderson does not address this trade-off, which seems quite pragmatically important. Nevertheless, in insightfully illuminating our collective oversight, she has raised a new set of urgent questions that challenge political philosophers on all points of the ideological spectrum."
"She concedes that her readers will be mostly political philosophers, or students aspiring to be, but she writes in a style that could engage any educated reader interested in problems of social justice. The entire book could work equally well, albeit in different ways, in a freshman or a graduate seminar. Through dozens of quick examples of oppressive, yet perfectly legal, managerial practices, Anderson unveils what she considers to be the pervasive 'authoritarian governance in our work and off-hours lives' by corporate America in the twenty-first century. [...] Her subtitle is How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don't Talk about It) [...] We don't talk about this problem because we don't see it. And we don't see it because of ideology. This is why her 'focus in both lectures is on ideology.' (xx) [...] So what do her eminent commentators think of all this? If I may be a little unfair, in part due to lack of space here: they kind of don't get it. Although Anderson signposts her revisionist, ideological mission clearly in several places, the commentators cleave to the expertise that got them invited to respond. So the historians find numerous omissions and insufficient balance and nuance in her sweeping historical narrative that runs from the English to the American civil wars. [...] The philosopher remains unpersuaded by her persuasive redefinitions of central political concepts like 'government' [...] The economist wonders why the author did not entertain any of the abundant non-anecdotal empirical evidence for believing that most employees do not feel especially oppressed [...] Most of the specific criticisms in these four commentaries strike me as accurate and fair. But, oddly, I was also just as impressed with the author's spirited replies. It's less important that she gets the history right than it is that she shows how misleading her ideological rivals' accounts are. We can choose to judge the success of this essay more on the basis of what it claims to be doing, and less on the accuracy, nuance, or scholarly fairness of its specific critiques. Anderson succeeds because her objective was to show that these topics are worthy of searching political and philosophical debate, and her interlocutors took up that challenge enthusiastically."
Videos & Podcasts with Anderson on Private Government
You may also want to check out these podcasts (both have also a transcript available):
- "Do Employers Rule Our Lives?" - episode 213 (17 November 2017) of Free Thought on libertarianism.org
- "Forms of Domination in the Market" - episode (5 November 2019) of The Governance Podcast by the Centre for the Study of Governance & Society of King's College London
Table of Contents of Private Government
- When the Market Was "Left" (Elizabeth Anderson)
- Private Government (Elizabeth Anderson)
- Learning from the Levellers? (Ann Hughes)
- Market Rationalization (David Bromwich)
- Help Wanted: Subordinates (Niko Kolodny)
- Work Isn't So Bad After All (Tyler Cowen)
- Reply to Commentators (Elizabeth Anderson)
More Academic Reviews of Private Government
- Thomas Ferretti in Economics & Philosophy, Volume 34, Issue 2, July 2018 , pp. 275-282
- Joanne B. Ciulla in Journal of Business Ethics, 156, pages 289–292(2019)
- Carl Rhodes in Organization Studies, Volume: 39 issue: 10, page(s): 1489-1491
- Iñigo González-Ricoy in Ethics, 128, no. 3 (April 2018): 642-646.
- David Ellerman on ResearchGate
About Elizabeth Anderson
Elizabeth Anderson is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Imperative of Integration (Princeton) and Value in Ethics and Economics (1995). She lives in Ann Arbor.