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Man, Economy, and Sexual Harassment

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Tags Labor and WagesValue and Exchange

When reading about the curious case of Garrison Keillor, the public radio icon fired for what he considers an innocent misunderstanding—or was it payback for his defense of Senator Al Franken?—I noticed a line in a comments section about where today’s raging response to sexual harassment (among other fruits of the sexual revolution) is likely to lead. 

The commenter, michaeljames49, said: “Best advice if you own a business, hire men.” 

So went several comments on the theme that sexual harassment and other egregious acts, many scores more serious than what Keillor has been accused of, is just what happens when men and women work together, that this cannot be avoided, and that, moving forward, it would be better to simply avoid integrating men and women in workplaces. The conclusion: Hiring all men or all women would save a lot of grief.

While I believe freedom of association is a natural right, I’m not so sure michaeljames49 and his interlocutors had Lysander Spooner in mind when making their point. Yet, I believe they inadvertently fell onto a likely end of our era’s anti-harassment zeitgeist, namely, that the workplace of the future will be less woman-friendly. There is sound economic logic leading to this state of affairs.

The Cost of State-Sanctioned Victim Status

Consider the case of two applicants of equal talent applying for the same job. Although both are likely to add the same level of revenue to the firm, one’s chromosomal composition is xx while the other’s is xy, a distinction that matters more today than it did a year ago. Employers are likely to hire the candidate less aligned with state-sanctioned victim status and the legal favoritism and potential costs it brings.

The argument is no different from the one used by many disability rights organizations that agitate for the end of the Americans with Disabilities Act out of the belief that that intervention increased the cost to hiring disabled workers and caused employers to hire less of them. The result was what Lew Rockwell called “a human rights disaster” and “the longest slide in disabled employment ever recorded, according to five different measures used to record unemployment among the disabled.”

In the same way, when anti-harassment lawsuits are filed and when state oversight of the workplace is increased even further than today’s level, female job applicants will inevitably seem bring additional costs to the hiring decision. Private-sector employers—at least those without deep pockets to finance vast HR and legal bureaucracies—will avoid hiring women to avoid litigation.

Such logic explains the explosive growth of the temp-worker staffing firm, Manpower, whose 4.4 million workers ranks it among the largest employers in the world. Its size is directly related to the increasing costs of labor imposed by governments. This intervention into the workplace rewards firms for using capital-intensive production techniques when labor-intensive production might have been just as feasible. The loss in labor flexibility means that employers are less able to take advantage of profit opportunities that arise when market conditions call for increased production of goods. The loss in flexibility also means that employers are less able to scale back their workforces when reduced production is called for as well.

Such a situation benefits large firms because it increases the cost to smaller competitors. Indeed, it reduces the degree of competition and entrepreneurial activity in general because the regulatory framework is biased toward the big, established firms that can afford to comply with the costs.

If the current wave of righteous disgust toward workplace harassment leads to new rounds of workplace interventions—think of a female-focused Civil Rights Act of 2019—I’d expect adverse impacts on workforce options available to women as employers respond to increased costs associated with their hiring. Some employers may very well decide to segregate workers by gender as a cost-saving measure (as suggested by michaeljames49). But more generally, others will simply resist hiring workers they believe carry special risks to their profitability.

This would be bad for many reasons, and not only because it would hinder the free movement of women into the labor force and restrict the division of labor. It would also distract from what I think is the most important aspect of this Age of Anti-Harassment, namely that it should be a Rothbardian teachable moment.

What Would Murray Say?

Let’s remember that an act is not harassment unless it is unwanted, at which point it becomes a violation of one’s property rights over his or her body. “In a free society,” said Rothbard in Man, Economy, and State, “as we have stated, every man is a self-owner. No man is allowed to own the body or mind of another, that being the essence of slavery.” In all of the cases of harassment about which we have read in recent weeks, the common denominator is that one party felt unable to opt out of a confrontation, while the perpetrator attempted to take advantage of this perceived inability.

Since all rights have their basis in property rights, charges of harassment stem from the aggressor party employing coercion and compulsion against another. The problem is not in aggressive actions per se, but in the inability, perceived or actual, of the targeted party to assume ownership of her body and walk away. 

That many are doing so today is due to the market system itself. An important factor enabling women to opt out of such confrontations, identify their transgressors and (possibly) take them to court, lies in the fact that the division of labor has so expanded that this is now possible in ways unknown to previous generations. An aggrieved worker no longer requires employment with a Weinstein Company or NBC, a Fox or Minnesota Public Radio. The more alternatives provided by the market, the less likely these workers are to tolerate boorish and or even criminal behavior, while giving their employers greater incentives to root it out. 

The role of the market in enabling today’s anti-harassment movement seems universally ignored. If anything, whenever markets are brought up, it is to demonstrate their failures in allowing harassment and justify further government intervention. Yet it is no mistake the harassment complaints we’re reading about occur in crony firms and cartelized industries. More competitive firms simply cannot afford to lose good workers due to insecure work environments and have greater incentives not to tolerate them, relative to less competitive and more protected firms. 

Perhaps Garrison Keillor’s biggest mistake was associating with a de facto state bureaucracy such as Minnesota Public Radio in the first place. Notwithstanding his exemplary skills as a writer and performer, he was also a lifelong defender of the modern liberalism that gave birth to public radio, such that the attacks on Senator Franken were of concern to him to the extent that they threatened other statist causes. 

But statism, like sexual harassment, employs tools of compulsion and coercion to achieve some desired end. One hopes Keillor comes to appreciate the value of secession, of opting out, and of walking away. 

Christopher Westley a professor of economics in the Lutgert College Business at Florida Gulf Coast University and an associated scholar at the Mises Institute.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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