Does private property facilitate sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment
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It seems that the Walter Block quote on sexual harassment I posted a while back has been rediscovered by various libertarians online and  lots of criticism, analysis and defenses (of PP not Block) have been written about it. It appears as even Walter Block himself appeared on the scene to distance himself from his own words.

However, the issue here is not as simple as merely saying that Block made a flawed logical reasoning, or that it was all a mistake or anything as simple as that. The quote above is simply a pointed example of the intellectual dead-end one reaches when his whole ethical framework resolves around respect for Private Property and fetishism of  voluntarism.

The issue here is that what Block wrote, unfortunately is a logical conclusion of suggesting voluntarism and the non-aggression principle within a propertarian environment as the core of ethics. It is, unfortunately consistent with “Anarcho”-Capitalist principles.

Most defenses of Private property I’ve seen (for an example, see the No Third Solution argument) orbit around the concept that harassment is prevented by the Non-Aggression principle and the lack of an explicit contract to allow it to happen. In short they consider the problem to be simply one of a contractual nature. They miss the elephant in the room by looking at the murals.

You see, there’s basically two arguments put forth here. So lets look at them in turn

“The Problem is not that the boss is harassing the secretary, but that he is harassing her without having an explicit clause in their employment contract allowing him to do so.”

This argument in short suggests that there is nothing wrong with a boss who only hires secretaries as a personal semi-harem, as long as he makes that known from the start. It assumes then that any secretary which agrees to this contract cannot then consider the sexual advances she agreed to, to be harassment.

This argument, while on the surface seems legit, is not in fact any more different than Block’s. It simply moves the agreement of the secretary from the implicit to the explicit. Whereas block asserted that the secretary’s continuous acceptance of the sexual harassment (i.e. not quitting her job over it) was an implicit agreement to it and thus not “harassment”, the contractual argument simply desires to take the same exact situation and legitimize it via the legal stamp.

However this argument misses the point that in both cases, the implicit or explicit acceptance of the harassment from the secretary is not caused because she wants it but because of the lack of alternatives. Because the other choices that remain to her if she does not accept the harassment or sign the contract are worse (ex starvation of her and her family.) The same secretary which “volunteered” to be harassed without a contract in Block’s example will also “volunteer” to sign the contract. Does the nature of her harassment change because she signed a piece of paper? Does the moral condemnation the boss deserves for abusing his position disappear?

Of course not, because the moral condemnation does not spring from the “aggression” the boss performs against the secretary but from the fact that he is using his position of power, which stems from inequality of wealth, to passively coerce the secretary to accept behaviour she would not otherwise accept if she was on equal standing.

The second problem which logically follows from the propertarian system is this:

“The boss can initiate a sexual advance towards the secretary who is at all liberty to refuse. However the boss then is at all liberty to fire her and there is nothing at all wrong with this.”

I believe that this is even more tricky for propertarians to defend. If we assume that the boss would not go straight to pinching (which the right-“libertarians” can then jump to label as “aggression”) but would initially “test the waters” so to speak by starting with subtle advancement and then growing bolder the more such advancements are accepted we end up exactly in the original Blockean argument once more.

Let’s say that this Boss does a subtle sexual advancement which the Secretary refuses. The Boss then fires her (terminating their “voluntary contract”). Next secretary? Same thing. And so on until he finds one secretary which is in a desperate enough situation that she tolerates his initial advances. He then becomes bolder and bolder until we reach the phase of pinching. Can we call that “aggression”? No since the secretary did not show outright refusal to such an advance and for the boss it can look like a normal progression of human relationship (or some other similar phrasing of his excuse). After all, the secretary is free at any point to make it clear that she does not appreciate his advances…and get fired.

In fact, the prudent “libertarian” boss, would not offer a sexual contract upfront to his potential secretaries but would rather follow the above actions until he’s determined that she’s desperate enough, and before moving on to actual physical contact, he would simply request that his secretary sign a new job contract volunteering to his sexual advances so as to legally cover his arse…just in case, you know.

Is there any way for Voluntarism and the NAP to morally condemn the actions of the boss? I fear not. And this again points out the intellectual bankruptcy of this ideology which cannot be covered by shallow “I was wrong to say that” excuses. The problem is that Block was not inconsistent with his ideology. He simply took it to his natural conclusion as he’s done with his acceptance of slave contracts. It just so happened that his argument struck a chord in the feminist movement who saw through the bankruptcy of voluntarism and forced him to backtrack hurriedly, even if he can’t explain the reasoning behind this.

Unlike vulgar-libertarians, a boss firing a secretary because she would not accept such a debasement is immediately a cause for moral condemnation by egalitarians1 as we condemn all situations which passively coerce people to “volunteer” to such humiliation. It is the same reason why we condemn wage-slavery just as much as we condemn sexual harassment. The only difference between those two is that the latter has been taken out of the status of “normal” by the brave actions of the feminist movement while the former is still seen as something natural. But the underlying causes for one to “volunteer” to sexual harassment are exactly the same as what causes one to “volunteer” to wage slavery: Private Property.

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  1. Of course I maintain that one cannot be a consistent libertarian without being egalitarian as well but that’s beside the point []

18 thoughts on “Does private property facilitate sexual harassment?

  1. FWIW, "facilitate" is very different from "justify".

    Because the other choices that remain to her if she does not accept the harassment or sign the contract are worse (ex starvation of her and her family.)

    Reductio. It's preposterous to pretend that there would be no alternatives to a chauvinist boss in anything even remotely approaching a free market.

    Is there any way for Voluntarism and the NAP to morally condemn the actions of the boss? I fear not. And this again points out the intellectual bankruptcy of this ideology

    I condemn the actions of the boss in these circumstances as I would condemn any other unwelcome advance.

    Unlike vulgar-libertarians, a boss firing a secretary because she would not accept such a debasement is immediately a cause for moral condemnation by egalitarian

    Whether this is indeed a "debasement" is relative, just like sex-workers (prostitutes, adult film stars, dancers, etc.) In many (but not all) instances, I agree that such behavior is demeaning.

    1. It's preposterous to pretend that there would be no alternatives to a chauvinist boss in anything even remotely approaching a free market.

      Only because the only thing that can remotely approach a free market is within an egalitarian society. But in a propertarian or capitalist "free market" inequality will be the norm and thus there will certainly be people, including secretaries with nothing else to sell but their labour-power, i.e. proletarians.

    2. I condemn the actions of the boss in these circumstances as I would condemn any other unwelcome advance.

      How can you tell if it's unwelcome if the secretary does not actively refuse it? And if you condemn it, why would you support a system which facilitates it?

    3. Whether this is indeed a "debasement" is relative,

      So what's your point? We're obviously talking about secretaries (or prostitutes for that matter) who do not choose their "voluntary harassment" or profession out of personal preference but out of lack of alternatives.

    4. FWIW, "facilitate" is very different from "justify".

      Harassment has already a normative connotation. It can never be "justified". Either it is harassment or it isn't. Which is why it's silly to try to moralize about it from the perspective of the NAP (I'll write more on this soon)

  2. Correct me wherever I make poor assumptions (which could be everywhere). You disagree with private property "rights" or at least the "right" to do anything with/on one's private property. You disagree because outside interaction with that private property is at the owner's discretion and can facilitate [as you put it] undesirable rules and consequences for others who wish to use that property. However, your disagreements seem to come from the externalities that "force" people to accept these undesirable rules and consequences. If these external forces did not exist your arguments would be baseless.

    So in a "libertarian" society this point should be rather moot to begin with. If you want to argue that an unregulated free market economy minimizes choice and opportunity for secretaries (or anyone for that matter) then we can go from there. I would completely disagree with any such argument though, and any secretary that seemed "forced" to accept sexual harassment, either explicitly or implicitly, is simply valuing that job's benefits and pay above the negative aspects that are associated with it. I do get the feeling though, that you disagree anyone should "deal with" sexual harassment when they would rather have a job without it. But then you'd just be hypocritical if you didn't defend the unfortunate individuals that have to "deal with" 40-hour work weeks, deadlines, dress codes, and unpaid time off.

    1. You disagree because outside interaction with that private property is at the owner's discretion and can facilitate [as you put it] undesirable rules and consequences for others who wish to use that property. However, your disagreements seem to come from the externalities that "force" people to accept these undesirable rules and consequences. If these external forces did not exist your arguments would be baseless.

      If these external forces did not exist, private property would be moot in the first place as nobody would consent to any such rules and consequences (i.e. sexual harassment or wage-slavery) when they could go without.

      Furthermore I oppose these rules and consequences on their own, not just because they follow from passive coercion. I oppose them on an utilitarian basis that they destroy the happiness of humans. I simply point to the fact that nobody would consent to them given other alternatives to explain why people "voluntarily" accept them now.

    2. So in a "libertarian" society this point should be rather moot to begin with. If you want to argue that an unregulated free market economy minimizes choice and opportunity for secretaries (or anyone for that matter) then we can go from there. I would completely disagree with any such argument though, and any secretary that seemed "forced" to accept sexual harassment, either explicitly or implicitly, is simply valuing that job's benefits and pay above the negative aspects that are associated with it.

      You're using a circular argument by explicitly assuming that the free markets facilitate all the choices. Given an example of a secretary consenting to sexual harassment, you do not challenge your premise (that the free market allow her other options) but assume that this is the highest of her options.

      Furthermore, I do not even need to argue that the free market would achieve this opportunities. I value lack of hierarchies and egalitarianism much more than I value the free market. I wish to achieve those two while you wish to achieve a free market and assume that it will bring about those two (or something you think is better). I say that your perspective is flawed.

      1. I don't assume to know the "highest" of her or anyone's options. The truth is that not even the secretary knows what her "highest" or "best" option is. Furthermore, whatever is thought to be a better option, based on a perceived outcome, may turn out to be a worse option. If we decide we know what is best for her, that she shouldn't have the option to deal with sexual harassment, then we become an authoritarian society.

        If you really value the ends above the means then I don't think we can find any common ground. I value freedom above all else, and if that leads to a society of voluntary socialism or capitalism then so be it.

        1. I do not try to decide for anyone. I say that you cannot limit the
          choices one has and then label the one they choose among them as
          “voluntary”.

  3. This one is harder to clearly define. In essence, a hostile work environment is created any time someone makes an unwanted advance that is perceived by the advancee as being of a sexual nature. In actual cases, it has been interpreted in terms of the severity of the advance, the clarity with which it is demonstrated to be unwanted by the advancee, and the repetition of the advance particularly in light of information indicating its undesirability. This sort of case can range from instances of rape to people opening doors, staring, or intentionally blocking movement.

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