Elizabeth S. Anderson

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Elizabeth S. Anderson (5 December 1959), is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan and is a notable American philosopher specializing in moral and political philosophy.


  • Since the mid-1970s, neoliberal economic policies have increasingly pervaded rich democracies. A list of such policies would include the following: enacting international trade agreements that strongly favor capital interests and constrain democratic policy making; deregulating markets (especially in the financial sector); tightening bankruptcy regulations and imposing harsher policies toward individual and state debtors; enhancing intellectual property protections; cutting taxes (especially on top incomes, capital income, and inheritance); retrenching the welfare state (especially replacing cash benefits with benefits conditioned on work); weakening antitrust enforcement; assaulting labor unions and laws protecting workers; reducing workers' pensions; delegating labor and trade disputes to private arbitrators; outsourcing public functions to private enterprise; and replacing Keynesian economic policies oriented to full employment with fiscal austerity. Taken together, these policies have had three principal effects. First, they have increased economic inequality and shifted the distribution of income from labor to capital, leading to stagnant wages for lower-tier workers, even as productivity has grown. Second, these policies have also constrained and undermined democracy, reducing its ability to respond to the needs and interests of ordinary people . . . Third, neoliberal policies have shifted economic and political power to private businesses, executives, and the very rich. More and more, these organizations and individuals govern everyone else.
  • In Bentham's vision, the poor should be treated like criminals, forced to labor in prison for the private profit of capitalist entrepreneurs. Such a totalitarian idea might seem remote from purportedly enlightened twenty-first-century practices in liberal democracies. Yet both the criminalization of poverty, and the subjection of the criminalized poor to unpaid labor for corporate profit, exist in the United States today.
  • Incarceration in prison or a local jail sets poor people up for exploitation in a forced labor system. New Deal laws once prohibited the use of prison labor except for state institutions. Businesses won the right to use prison labor in 1979. They won an exception from minimum wage laws for prison workers in 1995. This led to the employment of hundreds of thousands of inmates of federal and state prisons for mere pennies per hour. Many are forced to work in unsafe conditions without protective equipment, because workplace health and safety laws do not apply to prison workers.
  • We are used to rhetoric that casts “government” as a threat to our liberties. By making it clear that the workplace is a form of government (that the state is not the only government that rules us), we can make clear how the authority that employers have over workers threatens their dignity and autonomy. By naming that government as “private” — that is, as kept private from the workers, as something employers claim is none of the workers’ business — we can make more vivid the fact that workers are laboring under arbitrary, unaccountable dictatorships.
  • If free market prices don't give people what they morally deserve, should we try to regulate factor prices so that they do track producers' moral deserts? Hayek offered two compelling arguments against this proposal. First, if you fix prices on a backward-looking standard, they will no longer be able to perform their informational function. Producers will produce for what was demanded last quarter, even if it isn't demanded today. This creates enormous waste and generates huge opportunity costs. We'd be much poorer in an economy that worked like this. […] Hayek was right. It might sound like a compelling idea, to make sure that people receive the income they morally deserve. But orienting the economy around this goal, assuming it is achievable at all (and there are principled doubts about that), would doom us to poverty and serfdom. It would abolish capitalism, along with its chief virtues. It isn't worth the draconian costs.
  • Several implications follow from Hayek's insights into the nature of capitalism.

    (a) The claim "I deserve my pretax income" is not generally true. Nor should the basic organization of property rules be based on considerations of moral desert. Hence, claims about desert have no standing in deciding whether taxation for the purpose of funding social insurance is just.
    (b) The claim that people rocked by the viccisitudes of the market, or poor people generally, are getting what they deserve is also not generally true. To moralize people's misfortunes in this way is both ignorant and mean. Capitalism continuously and randomly pulls the rug out from under even the most prudent and diligent people. It is in principle impossible for even the most prudent to forsee all the market turns that could undo them. (If it were possible, then efficient socialist planning would be possible, too. But it isn't.)
    (c) Capitalist markets are highly dynamic and volatile. This means that at any one time, lots of people are going under. Often, the consequences of this would be catastrophic, absent concerted intervention to avert the outcomes generated by markets. For example, the economist Amartya Sen has documented that sudden shifts in people's incomes (which are often due to market volatility), and not absolute food shortages, are a principal cause of famine.
    (d) The volatility of capitalist markets creates a profound and urgent need for insurance, over and above the insurance needs people would have under more stable (but stagnant) economic systems. This need is increased also by the fact that capitalism inspires a love of personal independence, and hence brings about the smaller ("nuclear") family forms that alone are compatible with it. We no longer belong to vast tribes and clans. This sharply reduces the ability of individuals under capitalism to pool risks within families, and limits the claims they can effectively make on nonhousehold (extended) family members for assistance. To avoid or at least ameliorate disaster and disruption, people need to pool the risks of capitalism.

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