Monday, September 2, 2013

How Is It A Free Country, If All Your Options Suck?

The infamous "McDonald's memo."

I was drawing up the syllabus for my fall course on introduction to ethics and values, and I found myself wanting to confront a weird situation my students find themselves in: while in one sense we live in one of the freest places in the world, their path through life feels, to them, extremely constrained.

In some senses, North America in 2013 is a free place. You can, to a large extent, choose what you want to wear, what bands to listen to, what tattoo to get on your butt, and whether you want to get plastered this Saturday. You have a choice about whether or not to major in Engineering, whether or not to join Facebook, and how nice you want to be to your parents.

But as is well known, just because you have choices doesn't mean you're free. If someone holds a gun to your head and says "Your money or your life!" you're not being given a choice. You're being coerced. There are options, and you have to choose, but the latter option isn't an option in any meaningful sense.

By this same logic, it would seem that -- even if there's no robber -- if you make a choice for something you hate because the other options are worse, then in some sense you're not really free in making this choice. You have a low degree of a special kind of freedom I think of as "choice autonomy."

In certain ways, people today have way less choice autonomy than they did when I was young. When I was in my twenties, I worked for a while as a waitress and bookstore clerk, lived in cheap crappy apartments, and didn't have a car, TV or any other expensive stuff.

This was not a bad option. I had enough pocket money for breakfast out, and evenings in bars with friends. I took the bus. Because there were no cell phones and computers and internet, my not having those things was a non-issue. Sure, I had some annoying bosses, but for the most part I worked for small independent restaurants without vast corporate strategies and crap like that.

A life like this now is so much crappier. Of course part of that is economical: the fact that you can barely live on a waitress-like salary these days has a lot to do with relative incomes and rising inequality and so on.

But it's way more complicated than money, because changes in our society have made the life of the non-well-off much worse than they used to be in so many ways. Working a low-paying job now often means working for a giant corporation which has typically worked out in excruciating detail how to get what they want out of workers without considering -- even while benefiting from -- the conditions that make those workers' lives a pain in the ass.

Low-pay workers now often have to deal with unpredictable schedules, no guarantees of full-time work in a given week, absurd and ineffectual policies involving sales targets and quotas for foisting on the public stupid things they don't need. They often have to be on-call, so not only do they need a phone, they can't turn that phone off. Since employers check on social networking presence, and even regard non-presence as a red-flag, workers have to constantly curate their online persona. Naturally, they have to do all this with a huge smile, a friendly hello, and a team-player mentality. It's revolting.

Complex changes in society mean even living on moderate middle class salaries can be challenging. During the burst of the housing bubble there was this surreal situation of cheering for rising house prices and moaning about their falling. I get the reasons -- mortgages, debt, saving, blah blah blah. Still, wasn't it odd not to see anyone spare one thought for the people who might want to buy an affordable house? Or just rent a little apartment for some reasonable rate?

All of this means that even if you win the early life lottery of good parents and money that can fund your education and all that jazz, the crappiness of low-pay work means you pretty much have to choose to fight the zillion other people trying for the brass rings. You don't have much of a choice. Of course, if you didn't win that lottery, forget it. You'll have little access to any good options at all.

Because of these facts, there's a sense of freedom in which people have less freedom, because their choices are not free but rather constrained. This use of the concept is related, I think, to the idea of "positive liberty," but it's not quite the same: I'm not talking about enabling self-determination and realization. I'm talking about having to choose X because all the things that involve not-X are awful -- not because one person made them awful for you in a moment, the way the robber did -- but because the world you live in made them awful for complex interconnected reasons.

If I'm right about choice autonomy it's a concept that can apply to anything. But on Labor Day it seems particularly appropriate to point out implications for worker conditions. If those conditions suck, that's a problem not just for well-being, not just for collective welfare, but for freedom and autonomy as well.

You sometimes hear arguments against rules and regulation justified on grounds that they would be coercive, would unjustly decrease the freedom of people and institutions to do as they see fit. My proposal is that "freedom" cuts the other way as well: when some options are awful, the choice for alternatives also isn't really free.

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