According to a year-long investigation from—of all places—USA Today, truckers around the Port of Los Angeles are suffering through extraordinary financial and physical hardships. They work incredibly long hours, rarely seeing their families, yet frequently take home less than minimum wage. The situation is made possible by the unique structure of the contracts between truckers and trucking companies: drivers pay for their trucks on a “lease-to-own” model, meaning that most of their original gross income goes straight back to the company to pay for the vehicle. Worse, when drivers lose their jobs, they lose the truck and everything they have paid into it. As USA Today reports:  

Trucking companies force drivers to work against their will – up to 20 hours a day – by threatening to take their trucks and keep the money they paid toward buying them. Bosses create a culture of fear by firing drivers, suspending them without pay or reassigning them the lowest-paying routes… Employers charge not just for truck leases but for a host of other expenses, including hundreds of dollars a month for insurance and diesel fuel. Some charge truckers a parking fee to use the company lot. One company, Fargo Trucking, charged $2 per week for the office toilet paper and other supplies… Many drivers thought they were paying into their truck like a mortgage. Instead, when they lost their job, they discovered they also lost their truck, along with everything they’d paid toward it.

The newspaper profiled some of the truckers who struggled under the rent-to-own system. The stories are devastating:

Reyes Castellanos, 58, has gallstones and no health insurance, because he’s labeled an independent contractor instead of an employee. Near-constant pain causes him to wince repeatedly as he talks from the cab of his truck. He keeps a giant thermos of coffee on the passenger seat. By his feet, a bottle he uses to avoid bathroom stops. Money is tight and it’s not getting any better. Castellanos‘ 2015 tax return shows that he grossed $94,000. But he took home just $21,000 after truck expenses, including the lease-to-own payment he makes to his employer every week. His wife told him to quit K&R Transportation and leave the truck behind. But Castellanos isn‘t sure what other work he could find. “The truck is the only thing putting food on the table,” he told her. “So we lost the house,” Castellanos said. “I lost the house.”

Some workers have taken home as little as 67 cents per week after paying for the lease, insurance, gas, and maintenance on the trucks. The contract model means that drivers have all of the responsibility that comes with owning a truck, but none of the benefits of actually being their own boss. They’re trapped in a never-ending cycle of toil and debt, as their health breaks down and their family life disappears.

To me, it seems that any halfway morally decent human being has to call what is done to these truckers “exploitation.” The companies are squeezing out every last ounce of the drivers’ energy, and giving as little as possible in return. It’s a cruel, cruel situation in which hard-working people’s lives are being consumed and destroyed to enrich the owners of trucking companies.

There is, however, a problem. The truckers’ situation is obviously horrifying. But under the basic principles of a free market, there’s nothing either wrong or illegal about it. Several things the trucking companies have done are obvious violations of the law (demanding that employees lie about their hours on timesheets in order to violate federal maximum-hours safety standards). But in order to stop many of the most harmful features of the arrangement, one would have to support significant government interference in people’s “freedom of contract.” After all, this is a purely “voluntary” transaction between the drivers and the companies: nobody made the drivers agree to a lease-to-own arrangement. USA Today says that drivers were “forced to work against their will” and “not allowed to leave” because they would lose their jobs and trucks if they did not agree to the terms. But accepting that this is true requires us to reject the libertarian conception of “force” and “allow.” In fact, it requires us to admit that Karl Marx was right: that workers don’t really have a “choice” when entering into contracts with companies, because the “choice” they have is between working and starving, which isn’t a choice at all. (We heard that in the words of trucker Reyes Castellanos: he would leave, but the truck is the only thing putting food on the table.)

This notion, that under capitalism workers are forced to enter exploitative agreements with employers, is explicitly rejected by free market thinkers. The libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, addresses those who believe that the agreements made by “workers accepting a wage position” are “not really voluntarily because one party faces severely limited options.” Nozick concludes that this is nonsense:

Whether a person’s actions are voluntary depends on what is it that limits his alternatives. If facts of nature do so, the actions are voluntary… Other people’s actions place limits on one’s available opportunities. Whether this makes one’s resulting action non-voluntary depends on whether these others had the right to act as they did.

Thus, if someone puts a gun to my head and tells me to do something, my action is involuntary, because the person did not have the right to do so. But if they act within their rights, and the constraints upon me arise “naturally,” then it does not make sense to call an action involuntary. Nozick asks us to consider a group of people who pair off into couples. Let’s call them Man A, Man B, Man C going down to Man Z, and Woman 1, Woman 2, Woman 3, going down to Woman 26 (I am using heterosexual couples just to make the example clearer, but it works with any set.) The people are ranked from most to least desirable, with A and 1 being most desirable and Z/26 being least desirable. Now, the couples pair off. A and 1 partner off. B would like to partner with 1, but since 1 has partnered with A, B settles for 2. Likewise, 2 would like to partner with A, but settles for B. 3 wants to partner with A or B, but settles for C, and so on, until only Z and 26 are left. Both Z and 26 would like to partner anyone other than each other. But since there’s nobody left, Z partners with 26.

Nozick uses this needlessly convoluted example to prove the following point: even though Z and 26 had only one option, as a result of choices made by other people, their decision to partner was still not “involuntary.” They could simply have chosen to remain alone. He compares this situation with the labor market:

Similar considerations apply to market exchanges between workers and owners of capital. Z is faced with working or starving; the choices and actions of all other persons do not add up to providing Z with some other option… Does Z choose to work voluntarily?… Z does choose voluntarily if the other individuals A through Y each acted voluntarily and within their rights…. A person’s choice among differing degrees of unpalatable alternatives is not rendered nonvoluntary by the fact that others voluntarily chose and acted within their rights in a way that did not provide him with a more palatable alternative.

Under a free market, then, the idea that you are “forced” just because you have “no more palatable” alternative is false, according to Nozick. He would scoff to read USA Today’s description of truckers being “forced” to continue working. They were not forced. They could simply have left their jobs and lost their trucks.

Of course, Nozick’s “partners” comparison fails for an obvious reason: it isn’t the correct analog. If we wanted to test the principle with an analogous scenario, what we should really envisage is a situation in which people partner off into couples, and if you choose not to partner into a couple, you will starve to death. Instead of imagining a world in which there’s not much of a consequence for not partnering, let’s imagine a world in which there is one: a small group of people controls access to the community’s food supply, and if you do not choose to marry someone, you will be denied access to the food supply and starve. In that situation, Z and 26’s choice to partner, even though they have no interest in one another, seems a heck of a lot less “voluntary” than Nozick wishes for it to be.

The free-market conception of voluntariness therefore leads to an absurdity: it leads us to believe that people who choose between death and compliance are making a meaningful choice, even though this is precisely the same set of options provided to the person with a gun to their head. It believes that voluntariness rests not in the set of choices available to someone, but in whether other people are within their rights in creating that situation. That applies even if the person creating the situation is doing so intentionally. So I can deliberately construct a situation in which you are forced to either partner with Z or die (say, by bribing everyone other than Z to refuse to partner with you), and your choice is still perfectly voluntary under the Nozickian free-market framework. (I have previously posed a hypothetical “puzzle for libertarians” in which an entire village conspires to starve a child to death and then eat him, but does so entirely using free-market mechanisms rather than outright coercion.)

I dwell on this because I want to emphasize the importance of a key leftist insight: that economic coercion using the market can be just as bad as physical coercion. Leftists have always argued that the choice to “work or starve” is not much of a choice at all, and that this makes a lot of “freedom of contract” arguments untenable. The responses to this, even from the most thoughtful right-wing philosophers like Nozick, have not been persuasive. They require a definition of “voluntariness” that borders on the meaningless, or at least makes absolutely no difference to the individual actually faced with the choice (if I must work or starve, what difference does it make to me whether the people who have created that choice for me have acted within their rights or not?)

The California trucking scandal is therefore a useful case study of why it’s crucial to reject a fundamental tenet of free-market thinking, and accept a fundamental tenet of leftist thinking. If we believe that all contracts are purely voluntary, then truckers like Castellanos are deliberately “choosing” a situation in which they never see their family, suffer from horrible, painful gallstones, and spend the vast majority of their income on a massive loan they will never pay off. But it’s quite clear that this choice did not come out of nowhere: it was engineered by the party that offered him the contract. The trucking company could have paid Castellanos a decent wage and made him an employee with health benefits. Instead, it chose to present him with a choice between permanent indenture or starvation. Only one party in this situation has done anything meaningfully “voluntary.”

Separate from the question of voluntariness is the question of exploitation. What the trucking company did to Castellanos seems intuitively “exploitative”: if it’s not exploitation for a company to attempt to financially ruin its employees for the sake of its own profits, then is anything exploitation? But the word “exploitation” is fraught and contentious, because it’s difficult to figure out a precise definition. Marx offered the most famous formulation, but he grounded it in his notion of “surplus value,” which is highly controversial. My own conception is rather rough: to me, exploiting someone means extracting whatever you can from them without regard to their well-being (except, of course, to the limited extent that maintaining their well-being is necessary for you to further extract things). The trucking company exploits its workers because it only cares about their health and financial security to the extent that those things are minimally necessary in order to allow the drivers to keep working. Its drivers only matter to the company to the extent that they are useful.

Of course, once you adopt that definition, much of the labor that occurs under capitalism begins to appear pretty exploitative. A lot of companies see their employees as little more than fungible parts who exist to perform a function. Actually, Marx had an important description of how this relationship between the owner and the worker begins to look:

In its blind unrestrainable passion, its were-wolf hunger for surplus-labour, capital oversteps not only the moral, but even the merely physical maximum bounds of the working-day. It usurps the time for growth, development, and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight. It higgles over a meal-time, incorporating it where possible with the process of production itself, so that food is given to the labourer as to a mere means of production, as coal is supplied to the boiler, grease and oil to the machinery. It reduces the sound sleep needed for the restoration, reparation, refreshment of the bodily powers to just so many hours of torpor as the revival of an organism, absolutely exhausted, renders essential. It is not the normal maintenance of the labour-power which is to determine the limits of the working-day; it is the greatest possible daily expenditure of labour-power, no matter how diseased, compulsory, and painful it may be, which is to determine the limits of the labourers’ period of repose. Capital cares nothing for the length of life of labour-power. All that concerns it is simply and solely the maximum of labour-power, that can be rendered fluent in a working-day. It attains this end by shortening the extent of the labourer’s life, as a greedy farmer snatches increased produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility.

That description is awfully similar to what happened to the truckers. They slept for just as many hours as were necessary for them to keep driving. Their bodies were broken down, their energies ruthlessly extracted. Marx points out that a profit-seeking company will burn through laborers without regard to their long-term health, because they can simply be replaced. The situation created by “freedom of contract” will be one in which people’s lack of available options lead to their being exploited, used as disposable parts in a machine rather than respected as human beings who deserve fulfilled and prosperous lives.

In the absence of a mathematically precise theory like the one Marx offered, it may be difficult to measure degrees of exploitation. But the concept is extremely important: it describes a situation in which moral obligations toward people disappear, and they are simply utilized as means toward ends, even if this hurts the person being used. Under such a definition, the port truckers are a paradigmatic case of exploitation.

Most people who read USA Today’s report on the trucking industry were probably appalled; the drivers were classic examples of “upstanding, hardworking people,” who received almost nothing in return for their labors. But it’s important to not just see that the situation is morally outrageous, but why it’s morally outrageous. And the case shows why it’s important to reject the idea that “voluntary contracts” are effective safeguards of people’s interests, and to accept the value of “exploitation” as a concept for understanding the viciousness of the contemporary economy.