The debate over libertarianism and the workplace (if you can call it a ‘debate’, when libertarians make responses like this, here is a summary of what Cowen and Tabarrok are saying) seems like as good a time as any to post on the bargaining power relationship between labour and capital.
I have posted before about how the idea that wages are determined by productivity is indefensible; capital and labour only have productivity when combined, so it is impossible to separate their relative contributions, which are instead determined by bargaining power. As Daniel Kuehn also notes, a ‘job’ is generally what is bargained over, rather than specific aspects. So it would not be unreasonable to say that working conditions, hours and pay are generally all determined by bargaining power, though not separately. It is also not unreasonable to say that employers generally have the edge in this. But why?
The first reason, noted by Paul Rosenberg, is that labour requires wages to subsist every day, whereas those sitting on capital can produce for themselves. This means that labour’s situation is generally more urgent than capital’s. Now, libertarians might respond that people can save money, inherit money, and so forth. But this begs a lot of questions: what if you are born poor? Where do you get your savings from initially, if not wages?
Libertarians also might respond, as the BHL libertarians have, by advocating a universal income (something that strikes me as trying to make the world behave like an economics textbook, where workers can smoothly trade off leisure for work, from 0 hours to 24). This would indeed improve labour’s bargaining power. However, it is also the case that, even under this system, many workers would incur obligations such as debts, families, and of course social obligations, that require money. Whether these people ‘choose’ to do this is irrelevant: what we are asking is if, at the moment somebody tries to get a job, they have more bargaining power than their employer.
The second reason is that employers are fewer than employees, making the latter more readily substitutable, particularly in low skilled jobs. This starts from the obvious observation that not everyone can be a capitalist. Since wages tend to be consumed, but profits don’t, it is fair to say that an increase in the amount of capitalists over workers will reduce consumption and therefore available profits. This will result in capitalists going bankrupt. Obviously, if there are too few capitalists then opportunities will also open up, and we will go in the other direction.
It is reasonable to conclude that there is a rough ratio of capital to labour around which the economy oscillates, something similar to what Phillips was actually saying with his ‘curve.’ Capitalism generally finds it hard to deal with true full employment, as it diminishes the capital available for investment. This results in lay offs, and diminishing bargaining power for labour. Historically, capitalism appears to spend a lot more time in period of unemployment than periods of full employment.
There is the final point that under modern capitalism, labour is free to organise and create collective bargaining power. However, in the absence of legislation to assist this, unionisation falls into all the familiar problems with collective action, problems that capital doesn’t have: coordination, aligning different interests, the incentive for individual members to cheat. This is reflected by the fact that countries with strong unions generally have legislative support of those unions, too.
Obviously I’ve been assuming that neither capital nor labour ‘hijack’ the state to further their own interests (questions over whether capitalism is a system characterised by capital’s hijacking of the state aside), but I don’t think it’s necessary to invoke these to understand why labour often seems to be on the losing side of the bargain, particularly for low skilled workers.
Bringing it back to the debate over libertarianism and the workplace, it’s worth noting that ‘voluntary’ versus ‘coerced’ is not a binary distinction but a spectrum, with one end representing virtually no costs for choosing something different, whilst the other represents death/torture. In between you can have anything from walking down the road to another shop to social pressure to moving country – all are costs of not taking a particular choice, and hence reduce the ‘voluntariness’ of the decision itself. If employers generally have more bargaining power, this is a reflection that the costs of them choosing another employee (or no employee at all) are lower than the costs of the employee taking another job (or no job at all). This means the spectrum is tilted further away from ‘voluntary’ for the labourers, and the mere axiom that they have agreed to it so it’s OK will not suffice.