Mises Wire

That Google Diversity Memo

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 argues, 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 essay, my reply, Roderick’s rejoinder, and my second reply). I still think I’m right. (See also this essay.)

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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