Sunday, May 2, 2010

Business Rights

The NY Times is reporting that the Labor Department is planning new rules that require businesses to show evidence that they have specific plans to follow existing labor rules.
The effort, aimed in part at reducing the incidence of employers not paying overtime and improperly classifying workers as independent contractors, will require them to document many of their decisions and share that information with their workers and the government.

This raises an interesting question: What right does the government have to treat businesses any different than individuals?  It seems in a way that by requiring businesses to pre-emptively show how they will abide by the law would be like requiring individuals to show plans that they are not going to break the law.  Kind of like the new Arizona law that requires citizens to show proof of residency when asked.

But there is a profound difference here.  In America - at least so far - businesses do not have the same rights as individuals for a variety of reasons.  For starters, business is an activity, not a person.  The activity involves power relationships between people.  There is also an established profit incentive embedded in the activity that regularly depends upon compliance with the law. 

So the onus is on the business to prove all manner of things, if asked.  Because people are depending on an employer for their livelihood, there is an unequal power relationship.  To the extent that the worker is dependent on the employer, they are subject to the employer's moral integrity.  In a "worker's market", this isn't quite as important.  But in tough economic times, or in certain sectors of the market, workers are more vulnerable.  Also, there is an information gap - because most workers are not overseeing operations, they may not be aware of ways in which they are being taken advantage of (something unions have traditionally played a role in addressing).  Businesses must prove that they are not employing children, or that they are disposing of waste properly, keep their kitchens clean, or that they are paying overtime precisely because these are activities that business has an economic incentive to engage in (at least in the short term).

With individuals, it could be argued that there is also a profit incentive to take advantage of others, and break the law.  But because being an individual is not generally a for-profit exercise, there just isn't the intrinsic motivation to bend the rules.  Sure, we can speed in our cars, or steal from stores, or build additions that are not up to code - but these activities are either have a high cost/benefit ratio, or just very infrequent opportunities. 

Also, as individuals we expect certain personal rights to privacy, so as to avoid mass abuses by the state.  Every individual lives in a private residence, while places of business are relatively few, and generally don't hold the same notion of private space - except maybe the boss's office.  So the idea of inspectors entering a business on a whim is much less worrisome than the idea of inspectors being able to do the same to any individual.

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