Wage Slavery Is Real and Appropriately Named

“Wage slavery” is a controversial concept. As with “patriarchy”, plenty deny its existence. I will argue that it is quite real and that the “slavery” in the phrase is not misleading or inappropriate.

The two questions are distinct. I’ll tackle the existence question first, then argue that it is appropriately named.

Is it real?

A “wage slave” is a wage laborer who

a) depends on her wages to survive;

b) must work under subpar conditions to earn those wages; and

c) has no reasonably accessible alternatives that are significantly better.

(c) is crucial. Someone who depends on wages to survive but could switch to a different and cushier line of work if she wanted to would not be a wage slave. Someone who, on the other hand, could only switch to other jobs with similar conditions, would be a wage slave.

So defined, it should be obvious that wage slavery exists. Most people reading this depend on wages to survive. If you’ve ever been to a hotel or restaurant, chances are that you’ve been invisibly served by people who work under subpar conditions (to say nothing of sweatshops in China, etc.). Finally, given that these people are working in subpar conditions, they’d probably take a significantly better alternative if it were reasonably accessible to them. That they don’t is a strong indication that those alternatives aren’t, in fact, reasonably accessible.

There are two ways I can see of challenging the existence claim. The first is by asking: what standards are we using to judge “subpar conditions”?

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Michael Zigismund: Philosophy of Law | Who Shaves the Barber? #22

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Before the law, there is the philosophy of law

What is the law? Is it simply what’s to be found in legal statutes and government decrees? Or is it something broader, affected by and inseparable from both morality and custom?

This is one of the fundamental debates in philosophy of law. On one side stand the positivists, who propose a narrow view of the law as separate from ethics and other concerns outside of the direct commands of the state. On the other, we have natural rights theorists, who believe the law and morality are inseparable. Indeed, according to natural rights theorists, illegitimate laws aren’t laws at all.

On what grounds may this debate be settled? And what’s really at stake here? Is there more to this than a question of semantics? Legal expert Michael Zigismund guides us through this debate, and applies it to three areas: Nazi law, slavery, and gun ownership. He concludes with a summary of a “third way”, which he argues takes the best of both while avoiding their pitfalls: the Hayekian view of law as emergent practice.



Special thanks to Jackie Blum for the podcast art, and The Tin Box for the theme music.

Topics discussed

0:20 – Introduction to Michael Zigismund
2:02 – What is law?
8:53 – Common law v. customary law
11:36 – Positivism v. natural law
16:45 – Is Nazi law law?
19:23 – Separation thesis
22:54 – Application to federalism
26:14 – Where does morality of law come from?…

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Collective Agency and the Pretense of Ethics

There’s a problem about political discourse that’s been bugging me for a while and I think I finally understand what it is.

Ethics presumes agency. It makes no sense to make an ethical demand of an entity that is not an agent. It’s why we don’t demand of the Earth that it stop producing hurricanes. We can wish things were one way or another, but we can only add a “should” if we’re talking about something an agent can make a choice about.

I see no reason to imagine there is such a thing as “collective agency”. Indeed, there are powerful reasons not to believe in agency of any sort, even individual. But individual agency also has a lot going for it, not least of which is the visceral experience of having choice over personal actions. In the case of “collective” actors, there is no corresponding experience of agency that needs to be accounted for. This seems like good enough reason to regard collective agency as a useful fiction.

So when we say, for example, “war is wrong”, whose action are we talking about? War is not an action individuals take, only groups. So it is not subject to ethical evaluation. As something caused by an entity with no moral agency, war is more like a hurricane than like a murder.

Of course, that’s not the end of ethics and war. It’s plausible to argue that individual participation in war is wrong. And it’s important to note that if each moral actor acted ethically, the non-ethical but still very unfortunate events we call wars would no longer happen.…

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