Political Correctness

The Google Memo Exposes a Libertarian Blindspot When It Comes To Power

It's not just the state that wields power and squelches good-faith debate.



[This piece has been edited to correct Peter Singer's ideological orientation. Explanation at end of article.]

The "Google Memo" (read it here) raises at least two big questions from a specifically libertarian perspective: When does an employer have a right to fire an employee and how do social pressures work to shut down speech that makes powerful people uncomfortable?

The answer to the first question is pretty clear-cut, at least when talking about an at-will employee: Google (and other employers) should and do have extremely broad rights to fire any worker at any time. Exceptions rightly exist (and depending on the state one lives in, there may be fewer or more legal exceptions recognized by the courts) but they are narrow. Critics fear that at-will employment will result in chronic job instability, but no firm thrives over time by firing its workers on a regular basis and without good reasons (at-will employment also gives workers the not-insignificant ability to leave a situation without having to explain themselves or negotiate out of contractual obligations). The vast majority of Americans have never signed an employment contract (in nearly three decades of adult work, I know I never have) and are not the worse off for it.

Shortly before the memo's author was fired, Google's vice president of diversity, integrity, and governance wrote

Diversity and inclusion are a fundamental part of our values and the culture we continue to cultivate. We are unequivocal in our belief that diversity and inclusion are critical to our success as a company, and we'll continue to stand for that and be committed to it for the long haul. As Ari Balogh said in his internal G+ post, "Building an open, inclusive environment is core to who we are, and the right thing to do. 'Nuff said."

You might think that such values would have meant that James Damore, who penned the memo, might have been lauded for raising the issues he did, if not necessarily the way he did. Just earlier this year, at a shareholder meeting of Google's parent corporation Alphabet, chairman Eric Schmidt told an audience, "The company was founded under the principles of freedom of expression, diversity, inclusiveness and science-based thinking."

But whether you agree with Google's specific decision in this case, there should be no question that it has the right to fire people. If a company does that consistently for arbitrary and unconvincing reasons (ranging from enforcing ideological consistency in non-ideological organizations to erratic management to whatever), it will have huge trouble attracting and keeping talent. But in a free society, every company should have the right to put itself out fo business through bad management practices.

James Damore says that his most-recent performance review at Google rated him as "superb, which is the top few percentile" at the company. Supporters of the firing say that nobody at the company would want to work with a person who publicly questioned the announced demographic diversity goals at Google, a fact belied by reports that "over half" of Google employees don't think he should have been let go. If his firing causes more morale problems than it solves, that's Google's problem and it shouldn't erode confidence in the system of at-will employment.

The second question raised by the Google Memo—dubbed "an anti-diversity screed" by Gizmodo, the site that posted it in its entirety apparently without reading it—is a more-complicated and interesting topic from a libertarian point of view.

Damore titled his memo "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber," and management's quick response to it underscores his titular implication, which is that political correctness has in many ways stymied any sort of good-faith conversation about issues touching on race, class, gender, and other highly charged topics. If libertarians instinctively only think about state power as worthy of critique, such a myopic perspective misses all the ways in which power asserts itself in society. As linguist Steven Pinker tweeted in response to Damore's firing, Google's hair-trigger response actually gives the supporters of President Donald Trump a juicy talking point in their war against the tyrannical ideological orthodoxy that Trump specifically said he was running against. From Pinker:

The situation is compounded by the fact that Damore's text is not in any sense the screed or rant that detractors call it. In fact, it starts with the statement, "I value diversity and inclusion, am not denying that sexism exists, and don't endorse using stereotypes" and continues

People generally have good intentions, but we all have biases which are invisible to us. Thankfully, open and honest discussion with those who disagree can highlight our blind spots and help us grow, which is why I wrote this document.

The result is a discussion of possible causes, including genetic and cultural influences, for why Google's attempt to hire more women and minorities is going so badly despite massive and ongoing efforts to change that. I suspect that the real problem with the essay's logic (as opposed to, say, Damore's personality and reputation within Google, of which I know nothing) is calling attention to the costs and effectiveness of diversity programs along with their benefits, which are simply taken for granted. Additionally, he makes a plea for ideological diversity, which never turns out well in most places that say they value "diversity":

I hope it's clear that I'm not saying that diversity is bad, that Google or society is 100% fair, that we shouldn't try to correct for existing biases, or that minorities have the same experience of those in the majority. My larger point is that we have an intolerance for ideas and evidence that don't fit a certain ideology. I'm also not saying that we should restrict people to certain gender roles; I'm advocating for quite the opposite: treat people as individuals, not as just another member of their group (tribalism).

At Quillette, a website whose editor says suffered a denial-of-service attack after publishing stories critical of Google's actions, Rutgers psychologist Lee Jussim writes:

The author of the Google essay on issues related to diversity gets nearly all of the science and its implications exactly right. Its main points are that: 1. Neither the left nor the right gets diversity completely right; 2. The social science evidence on implicit and explicit bias has been wildly oversold and is far weaker than most people seem to realize; 3. Google has, perhaps unintentionally, created an authoritarian atmosphere that has stifled discussion of these issues by stigmatizing anyone who disagrees as a bigot and instituted authoritarian policies of reverse discrimination; 4. The policies and atmosphere systematically ignore biological, cognitive, educational, and social science research on the nature and sources of individual and group differences….

This essay may not get everything 100% right, but it is certainly not a rant. And it stands in sharp contrast to most of the comments, which are little more than snarky modern slurs.

That last point is indisputable, as the more charitable negative assessments of Damore include only calling him a "shitball" and the like. And of course, the near-immediate firing of Damore, thus at least superficially proving his large point that Google's commitment to "freedom of expression, diversity, inclusiveness and science-based thinking" is a joke.

Even self-described Marxists leftists [*: see below] such as Princeton philosopher Peter Singer have criticized Google for its actions:

On an issue that matters, Damore put forward a view that has reasonable scientific support, and on which it is important to know what the facts are. Why then was he fired?

Again, from a libertarian point of view, one traditional response to Singer's question would be: Who cares, it's none of our business what a private entity does because libertarianism is ultimately about relations between individuals and the state, not individuals and voluntary associations they make, including employment.

The Google Memo controversy reveals the limitations of such narrow or "thin" libertarianism. Political correctness—which is both the enforcement of an orthodox set of beliefs and the legitimization of any criticism of those beliefs—is an attitude that is hardly limited only to state capitols, state agencies, and state universities. It exists everywhere in our lives and 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 (Google should be allowed to fire whomever it wants, though its grounds for doing so are fair game for public discussion). Libertarianism is ultimately grounded not in anything like knowable, objective, scientific truths, but in epistemological humility built on (per Hayek and other unacknowledged postmodernists) a recognition of the limits of human understanding and that centralization of power leads to bad results. That is, because we don't know objective truths, we need to have an open exchange of ideas and innovation that allows us to gain more knowledge and understanding even if we never quite get to truth with a capital T. At the same time, we need to allow as many "experiments in living" (to use John Stuart Mill's phrase) as possible both out of respect for others' right to choose the life they want and to gain more knowledge of what works and what doesn't. Political correctness is not simply an attack a given set of current beliefs, it is an attack on the process by which we become smarter and more humane. That's exactly why it's so pernicious and destructive.

With that in mind, here's Penn Jillette in 2011 talking about why he's a libertarian. It's a provocative and persuasive argument, I think:

[*] Correction: I originally mistakenly tagged philosopher Peter Singer as a "self-described Marxist," which is wrong. Indeed, in 2000, as editor in chief of Reason magazine, I ran an interview of Singer to discuss his new book, A Darwinian Left, which argued explicitly that progressives must replace Marx with Darwin at the center of their worldview if they wanted to remain a viable force in political debates. I regret the error. Read the interview, conducted by Ronald Bailey, here.