It’s something that we all experience from time-to-time.

  • We want the company to fix their mistake, but wind up trapped in a cycle of being transferred to different departments until 2 hours later, they explain how their policy prevents them from doing the right thing.
  • We want to (or need to) use a piece of software, but in order to do so, we have to agree to a 431 page terms of service document.
  • We want to tell that rude and hostile customer exactly how we feel, but can’t, else we want to start looking for a new job.

Agreements, explicit or implied, are all around us. There are policies enforced across nearly every dimension of our lives. But, to what extent should policies be absolute and immutable? Where is the line between reasonable and unreasonable? What is our recourse to confront seemingly unjust policies?

Today, let’s explore these ideas and uncover the important contradictions. Perhaps we can learn something about how we ought to structure our businesses, our society, and our lives so that everyone is better off.

Digging up the Sub-Structure

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?” – David Foster, This is Water

Most of us believe that, in an ideal world, any agreement between two parties should be truly mutual and free from any coercion or manipulation. We want to believe in the idea of free association, the free market, and freedom more broadly.

However, it is important to note that the water we swim in is often invisible to us. We often take for granted that every agreement we enter into and every decision we make is nested within a society with certain entrenched values and structures. This means that our decisions can never be truly independent of the realities of our needs for survival.

  • We cannot just quit.
  • We cannot just move somewhere else.
  • We cannot just do whatever we want to do.

How we exist, does not support these choices being made freely. In some cases, that is to our collective benefit. In other cases, the structure serves to oppress or imprison people into conditions they would not freely choose.

It’s important to understand this as the underlying foundation from which all forms of agreement are built on top of. The sub-structure supports our capacity to freely make decisions.

What does it mean to agree?

Company agrees to protect, defend, hold harmless, and indemnify (collectively “Indemnify” and “Indemnification”) [ABC], its subsidiaries, and its and their respective successors, assigns, directors, officers, employees, agents, stockholders and affiliates (collectively, “Indemnified Parties”) from and against all claims, demands, actions, suits, damages, liabilities, losses, settlements, judgments, costs, and expenses

Practically speaking, there are two types of agreements that may, or may not, overlap.

  1. An agreement you feel (something you agree with)
  2. An agreement you make (something you agree to)

The first describes something you actually agree to. Its similar to being convinced. You can’t really fake it. You either believe or you don’t.

The second describes something you sign your name to. This is an action that can actually be made independent of the first type of agreement. What we agree to, in practice, may conflict with what we agree with.

This most often happens when the situation gives one party power and control over another.

  • Maybe you need a place to live and the only place you can afford or that accepted your rental application requires you to sign a heavily restrictive agreement.
  • Maybe you are looking for work, or new clients, and one that pays enough finally comes along, but the employment agreement places concerning limits on your personal freedoms or future opportunities.
  • Maybe you signed an agreement but the other party substantively changed the terms after the fact, but you can’t afford a lawyer to go up against their fleet of attorneys.

In each of these agreements, what’s being enforced is what someone agreed to, but not necessarily with. This is because things cannot move forward without one side being compelled to agree to the terms set out by the more powerful entity.

Which brings us to our first contradiction…

Crossing Boundaries and Compromising Values

Thanks for thinking of me, but I have a personal policy of not working with payday or predatory lenders

Boundaries, in theory, are unilateral policies. Each person, in theory, gets to decide their own lines in the sand regarding the types of behaviors they will or won’t tolerate. They get to, in theory, make choices according to their own personal values.

gray metal fence with barbwire

It’s a nice theory but…

SCENARIO 1: That client who makes subtly racist remarks got their MBA with one of the C-suite execs. You can’t fire them. You can’t refuse them service. So, how do you enforce your own policies in conflict with the agreement you’ve made with your employer? Is it worth the risk to take this stand while you’re helping your kids pay for college?

SCENARIO 2: Your biggest client just dramatically downsized, and now you’re looking for new clients to backfill the revenue lost. Along comes a big opportunity from an oil and gas company and the contract could be huge. But, addressing climate change is one of your primary concerns. Is it worth laying off a team member or risk not being able to cover your mortgage payment?

While we’d all like to live our values, we may find ourselves in situations where we’re forced to compromise on our values or boundaries in order to survive in a world without a sufficient safety net.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have our own personal boundaries that could not be violated? Wouldn’t it be great to live your values, even at work? Wouldn’t it be nice to have total sovereignty over your own personal policies?

Sovereign Policies

“I’m sorry, but that’s our policy”

If you want to see what it looks like when boundaries are inviolable, values consistently applied, and agreements and policies strictly enforced, look no further than corporate America.

First, their values. The values of the corporation in America are profit, growth, and shareholder return. All else serves those values.

As for boundaries, the corporation will not allow you to cross the line of inhibiting their profit, growth, or shareholder return.

But how do they enforce their policies and agreements so consistently and effectively? Easy, you don’t have a choice.

Violating Sovereignty

As a customer, you have almost no recourse when a company makes a mistake. Sure, you could sue them, but they are well capitalized and so you decide it’s not worth the risk.

So, instead, you call and ask (beg) for them to do the right thing. Occasionally, you even come prepared to use your ultimate leverage: You’ll switch to their competition.

But let’s be real. They’ll be quick to remind you what was in the service agreement you signed. If you cancel your contract, you’ll still owe them money and since they have your credit card, it’s going to get automatically charged. Then, you get to spend the next few weeks going through the switching process all while arguing with your credit card company to stop payment, which won’t happen because you signed an agreement.

Inevitably, you sign a new contract with a different company…that has the exact same policies. Face it, you are trapped in a cycle of agreeing to things you don’t agree with, because you lack a true alternative in the “free market.”

In Search of New Policies

So, what can we learn from this and how can we end on a high note?

While there’s no way to candy coat the reality, we are not helpless agents at the end of history. The thing that works, the thing that has always worked is collective action. And this is why there is so much time, money, and energy dedicated toward keeping people angry, isolated, and disorganized.

The prospect of an organized workforce is perhaps the only thing that worries those at the top of an organization. The threat of enough customers or employees banding together in collective action to boycott or protest a company’s actions, is the only reason things are as good as they are.

The contradictions cannot be resolved at the individual level. Our boundaries will be crossed, or values compromised, and our agreements made under duress or due to lack of alternatives.

Perhaps our only option is if enough people organize around a set of values and boundaries that we agree with, so that we can compel the companies we work for and buy from, to agree to our sovereign policies.

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