Why Liberty of Contract Matters

UPDATED 10/19/15

I wrote this four years ago “In Defense of Wal-Mart“:

There are no goon squads dragging unwilling people in from the streets to work in Wal-Mart stores. There are no Wal-Mart employees caged in their work areas. There are secret prisons in Arkansas where they send Wal-Mart employees who elect to move on to more highly compensated jobs at other companies.

People work at Wal-Mart because it offers them the best combination of pay, benefits, and working conditions available to them. In other words, employment at Wal-Mart usually is a step up, not a step down.

The attention of the worrying classes turned recently to Amazon, as John O. McGinnis notes:

The New York Times has recently portrayed Amazon as a workplace somewhere between the first circle of hell and a bad section of purgatory, with harsh supervisors and backbiting colleagues that are the inevitable consequence of the company’s management practices. I did not need Jeff Bezos’s demurral to doubt the accuracy of portrait. In a company this large, there will always be bad supervisors, intriguing colleagues and disgruntled employees that can support a lot of wild anecdotes. And the New York Times, a newspaper that even a former ombudsman has admitted is on the left, has an agenda of attacking business the better to justify an intrusive state. [“The Liberty to Work Under Tough Bosses,” Library of Law and Liberty, August 19, 2015]

McGinnis continues:

But let us suppose for moment that the Times portrait is more accurate than Bezos’s denial that overall these anecdotes capture the reality of the company.  Is it really any cause for concern? The employees chose to work there and can leave at any time: it is not a case of indentured servitude. The white collar jobs portrayed here pay good wages. And most important of all, we have a competitive labor market that serves the needs of employees and consumers alike. Even the Times’ description shows that many employees find the culture empowering and thrilling. Some employees stay for a long period. Others use the skills they learn to start their own businesses. It may well make perfect sense for some people to endure upfront unpleasantness—even of the kind that leads to occasional tears—to gain discipline and knowledge that will later stand them in good stead.

I couldn’t have said it better.


The Atlantic reports on Amazon’s response to the Times story.  I gagged when I read this:

The company, in its post Monday, also did not challenge the other claim made in the Times story: that Amazon can be a challenging place for its female employees. One female employee, Molly Jay, who had received high ratings for years, found herself being called “a problem” after she began traveling to care for her father, who was stricken with cancer. Another, Michelle Williamson, a 41-year-old mother of three children, was told, in the words of the newspaper, “that raising children would most likely prevent her from success at a higher level because of the long hours required.” A third, Julia Cheiffetz, wrote in Medium, about being sidelined after having a child and being diagnosed with cancer. [Krishnadev Calamur, “A Blistering Response from Amazon,” October 19, 2015]

Life is full of choices. If you choose family over work, don’t expect your employers’ customers to pay you (or your employer) for time you spend away from work.

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Related posts:

A Short Course in Economics
Law and Liberty
Creative Destruction, Reification, and Social Welfare
“Buy Local”
Substantive Due Process, Liberty of Contract, and States’ “Police Power”