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Tyranny of Choice

June 6th, 2003 · No Comments

This post by Lambert, who’s temporarily standing in for Atrios over at Eschaton, serves as an unintentional reductio of a certain way of thinking about labor markets. Congress was considering a bill to let employees choose to have their overtime compensated either in the form of the standard time-and-a-half overtime pay, or instead take extra paid vacation time later. That’s a pretty modest introduction of contractual leeway into the labor market, but even that triggered the patented Corporate Power Worst Case Scenario reflex. So any possible benefit to those who might like the ability to introduce some extra flexibility into their work life slips down the memory hole, and it’s assumed that the paradigmatic use of the new option will be employers “forcing” workers to take the comp-time option, and make use of that vacation time whenever maximally convenient to the employer. Not to say that won’t ever happen, of course, but let’s look at what follows from taking that as the archetype.

The background idea here is that almost any degree of choice or room for negotation between workers and employees is just license for exploitation. All employment is assumed to be monopsonystic: since workers are helpless, their apparent choices are merely that—apparent. So, for their own good, they cannot be allowed to make any. And heaven forfend that employees should be given any leeway to compete against each other along any dimension. Competition between firms is just fine, of course, eliciting better performance and more optimal allocation of people and resources to tasks. But for some reason we’re not allowed to count the same benefit when it comes to competition between individual employees. In short, workers need to be saved from themselves. I’m sure they’ll be glad that we have a body of wise legislators who will make the optimal tradeoff between income and leisure for them.

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