Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Libertarian Position on That Google Diversity Memo

By Peter Klein

The dominant story in last week's news cycle was Google engineer James Damore's diversity memo and his subsequent firing by CEO Sundar Pichai for allegedly violating Google's code of conduct. Damore argued that at least some of male-female employment gap at tech firms can be attributed to average biological differences between men and women, rather than discrimination. 
The incident drew all sorts of reactions. The mainstream press mostly condemned Damore (while wildly misrepresenting the content of the memo) and celebrated his firing. (As a few libertarian wags noted, suddenly the Left favors at-will employment.) Damore defended himself in the Wall Street Journal, and some journalists said he might be on to something. Jonathan Haidt and Sean Stevens weighed in on the science behind the memo and were generally supportive. ("In conclusion, based on the meta-analyses we reviewed above, Damore seems to be correct that there are 'population level differences in distributions' of traits that are likely to be relevant for understanding gender gaps at Google and other tech firms. The differences are much larger and more consistent for traits related to interest and enjoyment, rather than ability.")
More generally, critics have accused Google of fostering a cult-like atmosphere in which only certain, politically correct views on diversity are permitted. My Baylor colleague Alan Jacobs suggested that Pichai's goal is "to create a climate of maximal fear-of-offending, and that is best done by never allowing employees to know where the uncrossable lines are." (Sounds like most of today's universities!)
Whatever one thinks of Damore's arguments, the way in which he presented them, and his employer's reaction, the key point for libertarians is
that Google is a private company and may hire and fire as it wishes, not as some of us might wish. I personally loathe political correctness but, as long as the PC behavior is practiced at a private organization, my view has no political implications. I dislike rap music, think Michael Bay is a terrible director, and hope the Duke Blue Devils never win another NCAA basketball championship. Likewise, I wish companies like Google would tolerate a wider diversity of opinion. But, unless I am a Google employee or shareholder, the company's employment practices are really none of my business. 
Here I strongly disagree with Reason editor Nick Gillespie's claim that the Google memo "exposes a libertarian blind spot when it comes to power." Gillespie shares my view of political correctness but thinks that libertarians should oppose PC even when practiced by individuals and private companies. "Political correctness . . .  should be battled wherever we encounter it since it undermines free-thinking and free expression, the very hallmarks of a libertarian society. We have not just a right to criticize the actions of private actors but arguably a responsibility to do so, even if there is no public policy change being called for." On the contrary, the hallmarks of a libertarian society are private property and the freedom to trade and associate with whomever we wish. As Murray Rothbard pointed out in Ethics of Liberty, there is no such thing as "freedom of speech," only property rights and freedom of contract:
In short, a person does not have a "right to freedom of speech"; what he does have is the right to hire a hall and address the people who enter the premises. He does not have a "right to freedom of the press"; what he does have is the right to write or publish a pamphlet, and to sell that pamphlet to those who are willing to buy it (or to give it away to those who are willing to accept it). Thus, what he has in each of these cases is property rights, including the right of free contract and transfer which form a part of such rights of ownership. There is no extra "right of free speech" or free press beyond the property rights that a person may have in any given case.
Far from "revealing the limitations of . . . narrow or 'thin' libertarianism," as Gillespie sees it, I think the Google memo incident shows the strengths of the conventional libertarian approach. In a free market, entrepreneurs compete for consumer patronage and, as they do so, for employees, funders, suppliers, and other input providers. Should a tech firm allow engineers to voice opinions other employees find offensive? Is this a cost-effective way to produce, to innovate, to grow, or does a more narrow and restrictive organizational culture -- even a stifling politically correct one -- generate higher profits? The purpose of competition is to put such entrepreneurial conjectures to the market test. For this reason, libertarians do not worry if companies or other private groups have disagreeable view. As long as everyone is free to associate or not, to engage in market activity or not, the system is working as intended. Put differently, libertarians support the process of market competition, not the specific competitive acts of each market participant. (Gillespie praises the process of competition among ideas, which he sees as flowing from a central premise of "epistemic humility," but doesn't seem to appreciate how this process, as Rothbard explains, is embedded in a more basic process of competition among property owners.) 
Gillespie's concern with private organizations not permitting "free thinking and free expression" reminds me of Roderick Long's concerns about private authority and hierarchy (what some left-libertarians call "bossism"). Roderick and I debated this a few years ago, with me defending the bosses (here are Roderick's original essaymy replyRoderick's rejoinder, and my second reply). I still think I'm right. (See also this essay.)

The above originally appeared at Mises.org.


  1. The question is not IMO about Google's right to fire him but if the internal systems at google to discuss such things by which the memo was published constitute a policy of free expression, part of a contract of employment? If they do then google violated its voluntary agreement. This would make it wrong under libertarian principles.

    Google voluntarily agreed to create these internal systems for a reason. Presumably to attract and retain good employees. Their failure to live up to their own terms will probably hurt them when it comes to future recruitment even if they don't rise to a level of contract.

    1. I should have included contracts with employees in my post below. I happen to think that all contracts should have an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. That's not what is now happening. Libertarianism only says that as a third party to someone else's contract, you are not in a position to initiate violence against an alleged "wrongdoer". You can still certainly voice your opinion and take any other non-violent action you see fit in response.

  2. My concern is that Google, YouTube, Facebook etc… advertise themselves as offering a service to the general public. Under that announced model, I can understand censoring porn and live animal torture. However, to pull content because it is critical of the insane and potentially Khmer Rouge left is fraud, not only to the people who have relied upon the announced policy and have established a business model that is making them money but to advertisers. If the services were to announce in advance that these are to be exclusively forums for whack job leftist hacks and everyone else is banned, they could do whatever they wanted within that model without any fraudulent inducement.

    Clearly it is time for a competing service to arise.

  3. Mr. Klein's article is good, but when he writes "freedom to trade and associate with whomever we wish", that does include choosing to withhold trade from those individuals or companies whose practices are incompatible with my own beliefs.

  4. This is exactly it. In a free society, Google can fire whoever it wants for whatever reason. It can set whatever culture it wants inside the halls of Google. It's up to shareholders, consumers and employees to dictate what's tolerable.

    A corollary here, I think, is that some consumers should choose some of the products and services they use or don't use by the politics and corporate actions of the company, especially when that company wields tremendous power and is cozy with the State. I make a psychic profit by not purchasing goods from a State Growing Enterprise.

  5. PC is just another religion, a moral perspective, that is just as valid as any other. Those adherents that wish to force their religion on others, however, need to be reminded that all religious expressions are equally valid, but of course not equally true.

  6. It is possible that Googles diversity policies are best for their business. On the surface it seems to be popular so is catering to their customers (although there may be an underground majority that disagrees with their policies that eventually prove them wrong).

    They are also one of if not the most crony company in existence. Part of staying in their cronyism is staying PC. The need to service their customers is diminished with their degree of cronyism.

    It is also possible that diversity is beneficial not withstanding the PC and crony aspects. The company could be more productive and or creative due to having more diversity even if some of the employees are less qualified than the white male that did not get hired. Maybe this diversity creates an environment that is more successful than hiring all Asian males.