Confusing power with opportunity

Now that Modeled Behavior has moved to their fancy new corner in Forbes Adam Ozimek has been pumping out quality content. That being said, I think he largely misses the point here on the subject of Chris Bertram’s criticism of the private domain and abuse of power (my emphasis in bold):

Hundreds of thousands of immigrant farmworker women and girls in the United States face a high risk of sexual violence and sexual harassment in their workplaces because US authorities and employers fail to protect them adequately, [the report] describes rape, stalking, unwanted touching, exhibitionism, or vulgar and obscene language by supervisors, employers, and others in positions of power. Most farmworkers interviewed said they had experienced such treatment or knew others who had. And most said they had not reported these or other workplace abuses, fearing reprisals. Those who had filed sexual harassment claims or reported sexual assault to the police had done so with the encouragement and assistance of survivor advocates or attorneys in the face of difficult challenges.

“The issue seems to me to be emblematic of what’s wrong with the BHL people. They can’t and don’t take seriously the realities of private power, of domination, and of the need for someone (the state or the unions or both) to step in and protect people who have nothing against those who believe they are entitled to do what they want on their private domain. In an unequal world, where access to employment is in the hands of the few, then it is certain that at least some of the few will take advantage of their position to abuse and humiliate their subordinates in various ways, including sexually.”

Ozimek considers this an odd way to think about the subject (again, my emphasis):

 […] it is not all that surprising that a variety of abuses are endured by low-skilled immigrants, but not, as Chris claims, because of the “realities of private power” but because of the power created by the government.

Perhaps the single greatest way tha the government worsens the powerlessness of legal immigrants is through immigration laws which tie them to one employer. […]

I happen to consider Ozimek’s framing odd, given that it’s not my intuitive sense that sexual harassment only exists in situations where the government has created the power for private interests to engage in such actions. The type of power used by some private actors to sexual harass their employees is created by the contractual agreement of any given job – or, indeed, any given situation with a hierarchal authority structure. If you wanted to argue that such power is only created by the government, then it would be in the sense that the government hasn’t explicitly prevented such structures from materializing.

Of course to make such an argument would be silly, but only slightly more so than imagining the counterfactual world in Ozimek’s mind where removing the one employer restriction in guest-worker visas eliminates the power of private actors to engage in sexual harassment. He would probably then say that he’s not making such an argument but that reforming immigration law to allow for freer labor movement would greatly reduce the power to abuse. I would agree that such reform might greatly reduce incidences of abuse and is wholeheartedly worth pursuing, but in this case it would be because the opportunity for abuse would diminish, not the the power.

I follow Modeled Behavior on Twitter and happened to read a back and forth on this issue with another person – I think Ozimek’s real criticism of Bertram is that the latter didn’t acknowledge that in this specific realm government is making the problem worse. That seems like a fair jab but in the blog post the he argues that government creates the problem, which strikes me as way off base.

So Ozimek’s disagreement is largely besides the point. Bertram was commenting on the realities of private power using the the example of legal immigrant labor. Reform or no reform that power still exists, and in either Bertram or Ozimek’s position government is still the solution.

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