Friday, February 11

Employers and Employees vs Liberty

My two preliminary post on whether not smoking (tobacco) in the home can be grounds for either termination or bear on a hiring decision has engendered varying comments. To my idea that employers should expect those employees to bear the higher costs of their own health insurance, opinions differed. Sue Bob (web site here) thinks that medical insurance should be contracted by individuals, not your employer.

Elizabeth Anderson (of Left2Right) has also thrown her thoughts into the ring. Ms Anderson warns that we are straying dangerously into contract feudalism (and away from the nanny/nerf state I guess). On the surface, I had supposed that this was a conflict between the employees "right to privacy" and the employers rights of liberty. On reflection, this isn't quite right.

What people claim is a right to privacy isn't. It is really is just another flavor of liberty. My right to privacy is one of the freedoms I might claim. So the question when posed that way becomes: How does an employees freedoms to do what he wishes at home compare with the freedom of an employer to hire whom he pleases?

Many on the left, have decided that as part of our social contract, an employers rights to decide whom to hire must be restricted. They still recall with vivid details "workers" rights being trampled in the 19th and early 20th century. On the other hand, look at the situation from the perspective of an employer. Think of yourself as that employer. Restrictions are being placed on whom he (you) can or cannot employ and the criteria used to select them. If the government placed restrictions on whom you might choose to call friend and associate with, this would be seen as an unfair intrusion. Friendship is seen as a personal commitment. Imagine rules regulating allowable percentages of your friends by racial (or sexual) identity or affiliation. Arguably an employer depends more on his employees than we do our friends. He depends on their integrity and honesty in their labor. Most of us do not depend (on a daily basis) on our friends, just enjoy their company. One might ask: Why cannot an employer use whatever criteria he chooses to select his employees just as you and I can use whatever criteria we choose to select those whom we call friend.

At the heart of this matter it seems there is also a question of scale. Ms Anderson and those like her view the labor market as small and restricted. I would take the opposite view, that the labor market is large and changing. That if one employer chooses to restrict his labor pool to non-smokers, it is his right. Smokers can choose to work elsewhere. If one restricts your applicant pool too much, competitive advantage will be lost thereby and the market will weed you out. If however, you view the labor market as small, an employer deciding to restrict his applicant pool causes those workers outside of that criteria little or no hope in finding work. In the example Ms Anderson cites, of medieval serfdom, the alternative labor markets for the serf were highly restricted, but times have changed since then.

Update: I would suggest that perhaps labor restriction laws which are in place be based not on the company size, but the size of the labor market in that industry or specialization. When a large pool of jobs and workers exists, choices by employers might more easily be varied. In more specialized jobs, I could see the rationale for arguments which restrict choices that don't bear on the technical requirements of the job.