Wage Labor and Freedom Under Capitalism
Bowles et al. have argued that wage labor is only problematic if the employment contract is incomplete: problematic, that is, if employers—who control the surplus product and have incentives to extract as much production from their employees as possible—use their disproportionate power and bargaining leverage to create unfair terms of employment that impose private costs on workers—who have no choice but to work for a living and, thus, may have no choice but to concede to the terms. We have also seen from thinkers like Keynes that this phenomenon in principle is only a concern when unemployment rates persist and a growing number of unemployed people compete for scare numbers of jobs; that when we approach full employment employers lose this leverage. Friedman, in a similar vein, has emphasized that the economic opportunities and social mobility possible under capitalism and its system of voluntary exchanges of labor empowers individuals to find gainful employment. This is because, says Friedman, capitalism’s central principle of competition and free markets means that no worker has to bear unfair or exploitative employment contracts: their freedom to find work gives employees bargaining leverage and the opportunity to secure a different job if necessary.
Sandel and Cohen, however, give a very different impression of what wage labor under capitalism can be like—suggesting that selling one’s labor to a capitalist can be coercive, exploitative, and contrary to our commitment to a democratic principle of self-government.
Does wage labor under capitalism impede freedom? In other words, is it possible to reconcile this requirement of capitalism—of having a large workforce exchanging its labor for a wage—with our commitment to individual liberty and self-government? Why or why not? In answering this question, you must discuss one real-world example that illustrates your conclusion.
PLEASE NOTE: with this sort of normative question, where there is no clear right or wrong answer, you must do more than merely state your opinion. This would fundamentally fail to satisfy the expectations of this assignment. Your task is to take a stand on the issue and to defend this position by writing an educated and informed response, incorporating specific ideas from the readings that support your thesis.