Tyler Cowen thinks he has a gotcha.

David Gordon emails me on the workplace

I enjoyed reading your excellent post on the Crooked Timber workplace coercion piece. Many of their complaints also hold for the university classroom, e.g., limits to free speech, students have no say in what work is required, etc.; and often there are costs to refusing to enroll in classes the student finds onerous, such as failing to obtain the desired degree. But I doubt Bertram and his friends would regard this situation as coercive.

Best wishes,


Nor is it always easy to switch schools…

and who knows – when Chris, Corey and Alex start advocating for students to be penalized for having (or not having) abortions, being monitored at home, making, or failing to make, the right political donations, supporting (which was far from a hypothetical question for Corey in his own graduate student experience – he notoriously was the victim of retaliation by one of his professors) or failing to support unionization drives or the like, it might actually become a gotcha. But in the universe that we inhabit at the moment, this continues an extended (and indeed rather ostentatiously extended) exercise in refusing to get the point, let alone addressing it.

Still, if Tyler is in the market for analogies of this sort, I do have one for him. He suggests in his previous post that the problem is on the side of the employees rather than the employers:

I am not comfortable with the mood affiliation of the piece. How about a simple mention of the massive magnitude of employee theft in the United States, perhaps in the context of a boss wishing to search an employee? … When I was seventeen, I had a job in the produce department of a grocery store. … I did observe … massive employee shirking … If I ponder my workplace at GMU, I see many more employees who take advantage of the boss, perhaps by shirking, or by not teaching well, than I see instances of the bosses taking advantage of the employees.

But let’s draw the comparison out a little. What would the world look like if GMU economics professors were treated similarly to workers in low-paid jobs with little protection? No offices – at best open cubicles, so that a supervisor could stroll by, making sure that the professors were doing the job that they were supposed to be doing. Monitoring of computers to prevent random websurfing. Certainly no air conditioning. Compulsory random drug testing. Body searches, in case professors were sneaking office supplies back home. Monitoring – at best – of bathroom breaks, and written demerits and termination of employment for professors who took too many of them. Perhaps Tyler might want to argue that such pervasive distrust and supervision would hurt productivity rather than help it – but it would seem difficult plausibly to reconcile such an argument with his prior claim that mooching, slacking and skiving off is endemic among his colleagues.

Knowing professors quite well, including economics professors, I can very safely predict their reaction if they found themselves subjected to such vigorous supervision, (perhaps as a result of some general bill attacking academic privileges passed through the Virginia legislature). And it wouldn’t be a careful consideration of contracts, and a measured conclusion that given the inevitable incompleteness thereof, they would have to put up with it until they could find a job at some more enlightened institution. It would be sputtering, semi-coherent outrage at what they would perceive as a humiliating and direct assault on their professional and human dignity. Indeed, they’d have a point. But it isn’t only professors who have dignity as workers and human beings. And that’s a rather important point too.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.