Do We Need Property Rights Over Our Jobs?

17 11 2011

In my various doings, toss-abouts, and private follies, I’ve known many socialists or quasi-socialists. I don’t know how common that is, to know a lot of socialists; nor do I know if I actually do know “a lot,” since there are probably many people who know lots more. Seems like a lot to me. I guess any would seem like a lot.

Anyway, my point is to say that I always profoundly disagreed with them on a lot of things, but the big one—and the reason I could never be a socialist, or even a proper Marxist—is that I’m big on property. I think reasonably strong property rights are not just important, but fundamental to a working democracy and liberty generally. I think it’s so plainly obvious that it’s not even worth arguing about. Property rights are a funny thing though; libertarians—hard libertarian, not the vague Ron Paul-ish ones—take the extreme view that property rights precede all civil society. In other words, they are inviolably ours, to the degree that the state can have no powers that conflict with that right.

This isn’t a very common view; the Constitution itself gives the government the power of eminent domain in its 5th Amendment “takings clause.” The takings clause allows the government to take any property for a “public use” so long as it is done via due process and pays a “just compensation.” So our starting point, as a society, is that the right to and dominion over your property is not 100% absolute. The debate then settles in on what is an appropriate framework, or the optimal limits, for our property rights.

Consider two examples:

In the first, you are you. You work for a firm as, say, a designer of some kind. You lead a team, but don’t have any management authority. You’re there for five years. You get incremental raises every six months. You’re five years in, and you make $65,000 a year now, and pay about $18,000 in taxes. Now, a management position just under the executives, say, two levels above you, opens up. You interview and you get the job. Now you make $174,000 a year, and pay $55,000 in taxes, or a 5% greater rate. Is that fair?

In the second, you’re still you, but probably older. This time, you’ve bought a little vacation house—one story, a few rooms, modest—on the beachfront. The whole beachfront is homes, with the exception of a lookout point that is owned by nobody—or rather the public. Now it so happens that your newly bought house is situated so that it provides one of the only safe and convenient passages to this spot. After noticing that people will occasionally traipse across your yard while you’re barbecuing or hosting friends or what not, you decide to put up a little wooden fence to discourage people from crossing your property, and to instead take the extra-long way around. The state, which runs the coast, comes in citing an Open Beaches Act and historical practice and tells you that your property’s unique location gives the public an easement, or right, of entry over it and in fact you can’t put up a fence. What about this one? Fair?

I think most people have little problem with the first, but instinctively recoil at the second. But why? They’re both you’re property. Arguably, the government’s taking of that disproportionate $7,000 or so every year is just as bad, if not worse, than tolerating a few beach-goers every once in a while? Think about what you could do with just a handful of years of that $7,000. You could pay for a kid’s college tuition. You could take a dream vacation. You could invest it in a business and double it. You could buy a slightly worn first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species. What do you really get out of building a little fence just so you don’t have to cast your imperial visage on an outlander?

Part of the answer is that we “feel” different about our real property than abstract property like money. Even if that quality is ineffable, there is a qualitative difference between these two kinds of property. The law agrees; it’s generally a lot easier for the government to take your money property than it is to take your real property, even in the trivial sense described above.

We can all agree on these two things, though: first, in neither case would it be okay if the government took this property without the force of law behind them, and second, we want there to be differing standards to address the differing qualities of these kinds of property.

A third example: you live in Chicago and you hate the jacked-up parking prices so much, you prefer to take your chances with a ticket rather than pump cash into the meter. You accrue tickets and one day, you walk outside to find they’ve towed your car, and they won’t release it to you until you’ve paid your $1,500 in tickets and penalties. Your car’s Blue Book value is only $1,250. Outrage! Right? That’s your property! GIVE IT!

Now, here’s the pitch: the evolving nature of the economy and the social relationships that define and are defined by it have given rise to the fact that our employment is a form, though definitely a differing form, of property, over which we have some degree of right.

Currently, we don’t have any property rights over our jobs. But we should have at least some. Not as much over our right over our real property, and perhaps not even as much as our right over our cash-as-property, but some. In the sense that if we’re threatened with losing it, we have some recourse to preserve our right over it.

Consider the example of the UK. In the UK, after working somewhere for a year, you can still be fired (or “dismissed”) but only for the following reasons:

Behavior or conduct; capability; layoffs (generally); reaching official retirement age; or because a change of law that made the job illegal.

These all sound like precisely the reasons you’d expect to be fired from a job. What other good business reason would an employer have to fire you? Surely we aren’t concerned with an employer’s right to fire you because you’re funny looking or complained to the human resources lady that your supervisor is always talking about your “taut, tear-drop ass.” In fact, if you work for a corporate employer, there is a near 100% likelihood that you were given an “employee handbook” that specified those UK-style causes as the appropriate causes for dismissal. With one addendum: you signed it when they told you to, and in so doing acknowledged that your employer didn’t actually have to abide by this. You acknowledged that you are an “employee-at-will” who can be terminated for any cause or no cause.

What we’re talking about is giving people a “property interest” in their job that requires a species of due process be satisfied before that property interest can be terminated. You have a right to your employment int he same sense, if not to the same degree, as you have a right over your money or your real property or your car. We could do it the same way the British did it, by statute that creates the right.

Thought of another way, it reads an implied element to our employment contracts. When you’re hired, you create a contract, whether or not you sign an actual contract. Normally, if you have a contract with someone, and they want out, they have to make you whole, or have to demonstrate why they have a right to end the relationship without doing so.

If we’re going to have an economy where wealth can freely accrue and more and more Americans work for fewer and fewer employers—something like 40,000,000 Americans work for fewer than 2,000 firms—it makes perfect sense to compensate for the inherently superior bargaining power of one side.

Our freedom to determine the boundaries of various property interests gives us a wide range of options. You could limit this rule to firms that employ more than 5,000 people, and thus impact less than 0.03% of firms, but meanwhile cover 40,000,000 people. Bring it down to firms that employ 1,000 people or more, and you’re still only impacting 0.1-0.2% of firms, but 55,000,000 people or nearly half the work force. Is this as radical a reform as requiring as many as 45,000,000 to buy health insurance?

The effects would be profound. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, such a reform would protect your basic dignity in the workplace. Secondly, it would bring predictability and security to employment. Third, it would rebalance, at least a little bit, the bargaining power of employees vis a vis their employer. That’s important, because it would improve working conditions and stabilize income inequality in the workplace, rather than requiring government policies that are imposed (and arguably constitute taking of property).

One last example, I swear, to bring the point home. You live in Chicago. You own a small bungalow. On the same day you mail in your property taxes, you come home to find that you’ve got a boot on your car. You stomp into the backyard to have a cigarette and rue your fate. Once there, you find a Streets & Sans crew, and they’re telling you the city has to dig up a corner of your driveway abutting the alley and put in a grate so that crews can get to a sewage…uh, thing, that is under there. You shake your fist at the sky. “O! Let me but call a witness in my defense! Let the Almighty state his case against me! I would plead the whole record of my life and present that in court as my defense!”

Then you walk inside and the mail is waiting for you on the kitchen counter. Right on top is an envelope from your employer and inside a pink slip. Under the reason for your termination, it says, “No cause at all.”

At which point in that chain of events would you feel most aggrieved? And when would panic, true panic, set in?


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