No Masters Above: Testing Five Arguments for Self-Employment

In Keith Breen (ed.), The Politics and Ethics of Contemporary Work. Whither Work? London: Routledge (2021)
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Despite renewed interest in work, philosophers have largely ignored self-employment. This neglect is surprising, not just because self-employment was central to classic philosophizing about work, but also given that half of the global workforce today, including one in seven workers in OECD countries, are self-employed. We start off by offering a definition of self-employment, one that accounts for its various forms while avoiding misclassifying dependent self-employed workers as independent contractors, and by mapping the barriers to becoming and remaining self-employed (section 2). We then examine five arguments why governments ought to promote self-employment, despite the forgone opportunities to promote employee work instead that this often entails (sections 3-7): the argument from job creation, the argument from job satisfaction, the argument from independence, the argument from occupational freedom, and the argument from subsistence under non-ideal circumstances. Some of these are unconvincing, we argue, but others are not. Although the strength of the latter arguments hangs on various context-dependent conditions, such that they need to be carefully weighed against considerations of efficiency and equality, they nonetheless offer compelling pro tanto reasons to promote, and not just to protect, self-employment.
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