People say that sweatshops exploit their workers.  People say the same thing about men who hire prostitutes, price gougers, couples who enter commercial surrogacy contracts, payday loan operations, and people who buy kidneys from the poor (or would do so if it were legal).

Exploitation, as we’ve discussed here before, is usually understood by philosophers to involve taking unfair advantage of a vulnerable person.  Sweatshops, for instance, are said to involve exchanges in which multinational enterprises profit off of persons in desperate poverty by offering labor contracts in which workers are subjected to low wages, long hours, and unsafe or demeaning working conditions.

I think there’s a strong case to be made that these labor agreements are not as unfair as they appear at first glance, and that the same is true for many of the other allegedly exploitative exchanges listed above.  But I want to put these concerns aside for the moment and assume for the sake of argument that these exchanges are unfair, in some morally significant sense.

Even if they are unfair, there is very good reason to believe that all of the exchanges described above are usually mutually beneficial.rather impressive empirical data on sweatshop wages.  But even apart from the empirical evidence, there’s a fairly strong a priori argument to be made in favor of the assumption of mutual benefit.  After all, if workers didn’t expect to be made better off by working in a sweatshop – if they didn’t think it was all-things-considered their best available alternative – then why would they take the job?  And the poorer workers are, the more dramatic the impact on their overall welfare will be of even slight improvements to their material conditions.

So sweatshops are doing something to make poor workers better off.  On the other hand, I assume that most of us do nothing to make any serious improvement in the lives of people in desperate poverty.  We might give a few dollars to the Red Cross when a tsunami hits and makes the evening news, but most of don’t do anything on a regular basis that is going to have any real long-term impact on the lives of poor workers in the developing world.

But if all this is true, then we face a bit of a philosophical puzzle.  For if exploiters like sweatshops are doing something to make the lives of the poor better, while most of us are doing nothing, then how bad can exploitation really be?  We vilify sweatshops, price gougers, and payday loan operators for exploiting the vulnerable.  But we give ourselves a pass on our own neglect of those same vulnerable people, even though exploitation is often better for the vulnerable than neglect. As Joan Robinson once claimed, ”the misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.”  So why do we think of exploiters as so much worse than us?

Now, I’ve framed the puzzle in a way that suggests that exploitation might not be as bad as we might have thought.  But that’s not the only conclusion one might draw from it.  The puzzle shows that it’s hard to maintain that exploitation is worse than neglect.  But the lesson to draw from it might not be that exploitation is less bad than we thought, but that neglect is worse.

The puzzle here is based on a principle that Alan Wertheimer has labeled the “non-worseness claim,” which holds that where A has a right not to transact with B, and where A’s transacting with B is not worse for B than A’s not transacting with B, then A’s transacting with B cannot be seriously morally wrong, or at least cannot be morally worse than A’s not transacting with B, even if the terms of the transaction are deemed unfair by some external standard.  I’ve discussed this principle in relation to questions about sweatshops and price gouging here, here and here.

The non-worseness claim has some counter-intuitive implications (beyond the implication that most of us are worse than price gougers!).  Alan Wertheimer, for instance, asks us to

Consider the case of the exploitative marriage.  Suppose that A and B have a dating relationship.  Let us assume that A would not act wrongly if A were to refuse to marry B . . . Now suppose that A proposes to marry B but only if B will agree to terms that are unfair with respect to the distribution of financial resources, care for the children, the division of household labor, and so forth . . . B would prefer to marry A on nonexploitative terms, but that option is not available.  Suppose, as well, that the exploitative marriage is better for B, all things considered, than not being married to A . . . Even so, it does not seem preposterous to say that it is worse for A to enter into an exploitative marriage with B than not to marry B.

I’m pulled by the intuition here.  But I’m also suspicious.  I wonder if my intuition is being pulled by something special about marriage, or about close relationships in general – something that wouldn’t translate into arms-length economic exchanges.  Or I wonder if there’s a trick of moral psychology at work: the badness of the exploitative marriage is described quite clearly.  But we are left without any details at all regarding why or how B’s situation is so bad that even an exploitative marriage to A would be better.  I wonder, if we described her situation more thoroughly, would A’s action look less bad?  (In the same way, perhaps, that sweatshop labor looks less objectionable when we look in detail at the alternatives?)  At any rate, the denial of NWC, insofar as it implies that helping some is worse than helping none, is also pretty counter-intuitive.  So I’m inclined to bite the bullet and accept whatever counter-intuitive implications NWC might have.  Am I wrong for doing so?

 

  1. There is an argument, popular especially among the libertarian left, that questions the mutually beneficial nature of sweatshop labor by claiming that sweatshops, often in collusion with government, actually close off a number of options to workers.  Suppose a multinational corporation colludes with a government to force subsistence farmers off their land, or to shut down unionized labor.  And suppose that, after doing this, it offers workers employment at terms that are better than any of their (remaining!) alternatives.  This fact would not suffice to show that workers are better of on net with the sweatshop than without.  And if this is how sweatshops typically worked, many of the standard moral defenses of them would seem to fail.  I will have more to say about this line of argument in a future post.  For now, though, let me stipulate that the case I am trying to analyze in this post is not of this sort, and assert (without evidence or argument) that cases of the sort I analyze here are not at all uncommon.  In the cases I am interested in here, it might well be the case that workers have suffered injustice – including the seizure of land or the suppression of rights of collective bargaining.  What is crucial is that these injustices are independent of the sweatshop’s offer of employment.  In other words, what I say below applies to cases where sweatshops allegedly take unfair advantage of an injustice that somebody else has perpetrated, not to cases where the workers’ vulnerability and desperate need for employment are the result of the sweatshop’s own past actions.
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  • pjg9g

    A lot of good things said here, but I do want to complain about a typically libertarian fallacy, which you put succinctly: “After all, if workers didn’t expect to be made better off by working in a sweatshop – if they didn’t think it was all-things-considered their best available alternative – then why would they take the job?” The implication here is that if someone believes that he benefits from an arrangement, then he in fact does benefit. I’ve never understood this kind of assumption on the part of libertarians, because it is plainly false–that I think I’m better off doesn’t mean I am. Freedom of contract can, I believe, be defended on grounds of general lack of knowledge, because, as you say, we haven’t thought of a better, sustainable alternative. So the main point isn’t so much that each person individually knows what benefits him the most, but rather that no one knows what the optimal alternative is.

    • Anonymous

      Isn’t the obvious response: If the person’s assessment was wrong that person quits the sweatshop?

      • pjg9g

        That assumes the person has access to such knowledge.

        • Anonymous

          Are you saying most people are unable to make such a determination about their own situation?

          • http://twitter.com/your_girl_tara Tara

            Yes he is, which circles us back to the classic critique of liberal elitist attitudes.  ”The poor need us to rescue them from their own decisions, since we obviously know more about what’s best for them than they themselves do.”

          • Anonymous

            Apparently, though I didn’t want to put the words in pjg9g’s mouth, as it were.

            That was my fear and does seem to be a position that progressives often assume — though I suppose it applies to elitists of many flavors.

          • Conchis Ness

            Seems a bit misplaced to trot out the “classic critique of liberal elitist attitudes” here, given that pjg9g specifically said that “no-one knows what the optimal alternative is”, and that it was possible to defend freedom of contract on precisely this ground. 

          • Anonymous

            Perhaps but his response appears to be saying that “we”, via the government I suppose, should step in and prohibit the sweatshop even if the poor worker is a) better off than otherwise, b) has not been forced to take the job (slave labor) and c) is free to leave if they want (for some other alternative including what they had prior to taking the job).

            In short, pjg9g appears to be substituting the assessment of the poor worker with that of society. 

          • Conchis Ness

            I didn’t see anything in pjg9g’s comment that claimed we should prohibit sweatshops.

          • Anonymous

            Perhaps. I will simply say that pjg9g could clarify this whole thing by answering the question I asked — or simply clarify why the question has no meaning in the context of his or her statements.

          • Conchis Ness

            But even if pjg9g answered your question in the affirmative, and claimed that most people *are* incapable of making this determination themselves, that still wouldn’t imply that he or she thinks that ‘we’ are  *more* capable of making that determination, and should substitute ‘our’ judgement instead. 

          • Anonymous

            If so then there’s no actual point to the comment as it provides no basis for making any evaluation regarding a situation–apparently by the people directly involved or by external observers.

          • Conchis Ness

            I don’t think that follows. Allowing for the possibility that individuals could be mistaken suggests that we can look for ways to help improve their decisions, but this needn’t be limited to re-evaluating their decisions and substituting ‘our’ assessments for theirs.

            It might instead involve trying to enhance individuals’ own decision-making capacity through education or information-provision (e.g. publishing worker safety statistics so that people actually  know the risks they’re running.) This doesn’t require an alternative evaluation – merely the identification of a bias that could derail individuals’ own assessments.

          • Anonymous

            How will that occur? We won’t know what to educate people about based on the claimed limitations of human knowledge and analytic abilities.

          • Conchis Ness

            It’s much easier to identify potential biases than to perform an independentre-evaluation.

            Thesenestedcommentsarebecomingvery difficult to read!

    • Anonymous

      Isn’t the obvious response: If the person’s assessment was wrong that person quits the sweatshop?

    • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

      I think you’re right that it would be fallacious to believe that voluntary transactions are *necessarily* mutually beneficial.  And some libertarians do seem to say something like this.  But would you likewise hold it fallacious to believe that there is a strong but defeasible *presumption* of mutual benefit?  
      In other words, maybe people who take sweatshop jobs are wrong to think those jobs will make them better off.  But given the importance of local knowledge for such determinations, and given that the person has a very strong incentive to find out what’s good for them, there’s at least a presumption that they are not.  We can rebut that presumption in some cases where we can show that they lacked relevant information or the capacity to evaluate that information correctly.  But the burden to do so is on us.

    • Patrick McEwen

      The implication doesn’t have to be that they are necessarily better off, only that the person who is most likely to know if a certain action makes them better off is oneself.

      You commit what I believe to be a typical fallacy in many critiques of private property rights and capitalism. You point out a flaw of the system, but yet it is a flaw that all other alternatives fail to improve.

  • Hyena

    I think the exploitation problem is less about wages and more about conditions: sweatshops aren’t generally known as great places to work or ones which respect basic human dignity. If you have a duty to avoid exploiting others but not a duty to charity itself, then sweatshops create moral problems which subsistence farming odes not because you are an indirect participant in the former system.

    Further, I think that there is an argument to be made that sweatshops are evil insofar as owners/managers are involved in some “evil on the side”. We have usually believe that certain goods, like basic respect, should be given away and so using the economic position of workers to be generally abusive (demeaning workers, demanding loyalty oaths, requiring that you be addressed in ways which mark you as a “douche”, to use Kant’s terminology) is verboten. Insofar as sweatshops enable this “evil on the side”, they may be evil as well prior to wages.

    • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

      I think the exploitation problem is less about wages and more about conditions: sweatshops aren’t generally known as great places to work or ones which respect basic human dignity. If you have a duty to avoid exploiting others but not a duty to charity itself, then sweatshops create moral problems which subsistence farming odes not because you are an indirect participant in the former system.

      I see the point you’re making, but this is precisely the intuition I’m trying to question.  Why is participating in an exchange that is mutually beneficial but unfair worse than non-participation?  As for the wages vs. working conditions issue, I go back and forth myself on how separable these are.  I think you’re right that some bad working conditions seem gratuitous, in a way.  But safety conditions seem very similar to wages in that improving them raises the cost of labor to employers.

      • Hyena

        >>Why is participating in an exchange that is mutually beneficial but unfair worse than non-participation?<>As for the wages vs. working conditions issue, I go back and forth myself on how separable these are.  I think you’re right that some bad working conditions seem gratuitous, in a way.<<

        Safety and working conditions would require a long jaunt through the weeds, so I will contract my position: you don't have a right to actively demean someone's humanity, to treat them with basic disrespect. I think we have a sufficiently good grasp of the core of that concept, though not the edges, to know what it means. Participating in this is what makes some, possibly most, sweatshops immoral and what would, in my opinion, separate "sweatshop" from "low-paying factory".

    • Glen Raphael

      “sweatshops aren’t generally known as great places to work”

      Um, actually they ARE known as that…by the relevant population, which is why the companies running factories have no trouble filling all the jobs. Hard though it may be to imagine, jobs that have long hours for low pay by our own standards are still BETTER than nearly all the other jobs available to those workers in those places. Which makes them great places to work.

      (I have relevant expertise in that I’ve worked at a factory in southern china that was doing electronics assembly. It seemed like a MUCH better place for young women from poor northern villages to work than for them to stay home and do subsistence farming)

      • Hyena

        Thanks to the low number of available jobs for college graduates, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to a number of people who have worked as labor in Chinese factories. I’ve never once had anyone describe it as a “great place to work”. No one, period, expresses a natural preference for this work and several of my interlocutors have returned to their villages, taking a large wage cut, for the increased quality of life and work.

        Note how your points are orthogonal to my own: I’m talking about the quality of the work experience, you’re talking about remuneration. To link back to the raison d’etre of this blog, we have to honestly evaluate the actual outcome, not merely what amount of money changes hands. “Better than subsistence” might still be pretty crappy and, in terms of human dignity, might even be far worse. That people can endure the death of their humanity better than the death of their body is not an argument in favor of torturing the soul.

        • Glen Raphael

          I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to a number of people who have worked as labor in Chinese factories.

          Hmm. Were any of them doing electronics assembly? It’s that job in particular that’s been in the news lately and that was the job that seemed particularly desirable to me (and that the girls seemed to enjoy doing). August in Dongguan is brutal – hot, muggy, smoggy – and very very few places in that area are as nice to be as on the factory floor, because air conditioning is expensive and power is unreiiable. When you assemble electronics, the environment in which you do it needs to be cool, dry, well-lit, and dust-free…or the product doesn’t work! It was really more for the benefit of the product than the benefit of the laborers that they had what seemed like a pretty good work environment.

          But that’s the assembly part, and specifically assembly of *electronics* – things like calculators and dictionaries. I’m sure if you were making something less finicky like T-shirts or shoes it would be worse.

          • Hyena

            It’s absolutely true that there are better and worse places to work. However, that’s like saying that a country can have both sweatshops and simple low-wage factories at once. This is obviously true and we have some of both right here in Los Angeles.

  • Hyena

    @J_M_H

    This might not be possible for all the same reasons that quitting a job you don’t particularly like might be impossible, at least in the short run.

    (Sorry, for some reason Disqus and my phone aren’t getting along.)

    • Anonymous

      But the whole point is basically that I’m better off staying in my job due to the constraints of the short-run. 

      If we’re going to make all kinds of conditions that depend on ability to know the unknowable events of all the potential futures that’s just unrealistic. So I come back to the question I asked above, are we really saying that most people are unable to competently evaluation their own situation? Or are you bring in some other factors?

      • Hyena

        Every time we push a decision out like that, however, it becomes less evaluable simply because the variables become more numerous.

        • Anonymous

          Which is probably why we should put our personal views of the situation, which are necessarily second hand, one hold and consider that those selecting the work, and even offering the work, are:
          1) creating a step up for both parties directly involved and
          2) is actually helping the poor where as attempting to eliminate the alternative for the poor is actually hurting the poor.

          Matt’s point holds here and, within the constraints applied to the situation – voluntary choice, free to leave and go back to the prior condition — we should not be interfering in the transactions merely because the situation offends our sensibilities. It seems yet another case of the road to hell being paved with good intensions. I think Mark Friedman’s point about time frames and dynamics also deserves consideration within the analysis.

          • Damien S.

            “within the constraints applied to the situation – voluntary choice, free to leave and go back to the prior condition”

            Of course, while some people do respond simply to the reports of low wages, or to the threat to developed-country jobs,  a lot of concern about sweatshops is precisely about whether those constraints apply.  We know that China uses forced prison labor.  We know that even in the US, effectively slave labor factories get found.  These aren’t ethereal concerns.

          • Anonymous

            But no one here is arguing for such situations. We saying “let’s make a separation between them so we don’t condemn what is actually helpful for the poor. 

            Your conflating the two cases does as much harm to the poor as it does good — if Matt’s statement that true cases of slave labor is rare in the world then it’s possible conflating the two does more harm and good.

          • Hyena

            My point isn’t personal, it’s simply about the basic fact that the greater the geographic, social, temporal and economic distance, the harder it becomes to actually evaluate outcomes before action is taken.

            This undermines the voluntariness of the transaction because it reduces the amount of agency involved. If someone is not acting in an agent-y way, their choices are not freely made, aren’t really “choices” at all and so aren’t voluntary. That is, I think, what is going on in most cases in the third world: they don’t choose “sweatshop labor” they choose “move to Shanghai and hope everything is okay”.

            The latter is very different, it does not always map to “sweatshop labor”, so it’s not the case that “sweatshop labor” and “move to Shanghai and hope everything is okay” have all and only the same elements. They’re very different.

            You do need to put the breaks on the interference train: no one has left the bounds of theory to propose a solution. I doubt that there is a solution. I do, however, think that arguments like yours are unacceptable. It comes perilously close to arguing that either their suffering is not real or that it is not undeserved. That statement is itself an immoral act.

          • Anonymous

            I agree that there will always be some degree of uncertainty in any choice we make. Moreover, one can also say that if the unanticipated does occur that it’s not quite the same as saying the person voluntarily choose the alternative. I think you are stretching this aspect to a completely unfounded degree.

            I’ll go back to my original comment: why don’t the people leave if the sweatshop is so bad.  A moves to Shanghai where they hear better opportunities than exist in the local village await them. They get to the big city and all they can find is what we’re calling sweatshops. Why continue to stay after any real period of time? They can work for a week or two or three if they need some money for a train ride. That might not even be necessary — perhaps they go to the city by walking or on their own bike. 

            So we still come back to the if they stay, even if this was not specifically what the person set out to get it would appear they find it preferable to their original status quo and we can conclude it’s still a beneficial situation for the person — even if not as beneficial as they expected. Ex post, then their continuing on with the relationship/transactions with the sweatshop are voluntarily performed. 

            Again, I’ll say those of us viewing from a distance need to defer to those involved.  In saying this I most certainly am not suggesting that any pain or suffering is unreal or that it is deserved. I’m saying that the person involved is in the best position to make the relative evaluation of which alternative available allows them to experience the greatest benefits available from the options they can choose from.

          • Hyena

            You’re entangling issues.

            Don’t jump from a single premise to a conclusion. I get the feeling that you believe that if some set of transactions isn’t voluntary, then there is a problem and are denying a non-controversial premise to defend yourself from some problem that happens when you combine it with your other priors.

          • Anonymous

            Please address the question posed. If the sweatshop is not the best available option for the person based on that person’s direct assessment, why are they not leaving? If that  person is making such an assessment why should we assume that someone sitting hundreds or thousands of miles away is better positions to assess the situation for that person?

            I’m asking pretty much the same question in two ways above.

          • Hyena

            Your question isn’t relevant to whether that person has a choice in the matter. That’s what you were told to begin with: just because someone lacks a better option, doesn’t mean they’re choosing the option they have.

            I have no idea why it matters whether someone else would make better choices, since that question is also completely irrelevant to whether a person is choosing something.

          • Anonymous

            I agree that there will always be some degree of uncertainty in any choice we make. Moreover, one can also say that if the unanticipated does occur that it’s not quite the same as saying the person voluntarily choose the alternative. I think you are stretching this aspect to a completely unfounded degree.

            I’ll go back to my original comment: why don’t the people leave if the sweatshop is so bad.  A moves to Shanghai where they hear better opportunities than exist in the local village await them. They get to the big city and all they can find is what we’re calling sweatshops. Why continue to stay after any real period of time? They can work for a week or two or three if they need some money for a train ride. That might not even be necessary — perhaps they go to the city by walking or on their own bike. 

            So we still come back to the if they stay, even if this was not specifically what the person set out to get it would appear they find it preferable to their original status quo and we can conclude it’s still a beneficial situation for the person — even if not as beneficial as they expected. Ex post, then their continuing on with the relationship/transactions with the sweatshop are voluntarily performed. 

            Again, I’ll say those of us viewing from a distance need to defer to those involved.  In saying this I most certainly am not suggesting that any pain or suffering is unreal or that it is deserved. I’m saying that the person involved is in the best position to make the relative evaluation of which alternative available allows them to experience the greatest benefits available from the options they can choose from.

  • Anonymous

    One reasons why I believe the marriage example is convincing (and also why the intuitions it brings forward are relevant to the sweatshop debate) is that we understand that the exploitative marriage contract is partially the result of underlying forces of patriarchy that lead women more often than men to accept unfair exchanges in return for (smaller than fair) net benefits. Clearly, there are unjust background conditions that make this type of exploitation possible (as well as frequent, Wertheimer even jokes about how the arrangement is “in other words, a normal marriage.”) Sweatshops are similar in that the conditions that lead many potential workers to seek out these jobs are unjust. The developed world has shaped the global economy in ways that put developing countries in a less-than-fair position.  The NWC takes a narrow view and wants to examine these transactions only in themselves. While I think this is a justifiable position to take in many cases, like price gouging perhaps, I don’t think it has much sway in cases where we can clearly identify an injustice shaping the terms of the transaction. To endorse the NWC in these cases is to either accept the status quo as just, or to make large assumptions concerning the best means to fight injustice (and these assumptions will be largely libertarian in substance). But the NWC attempts to mask these positions, by excluding the facts and arguments that are where the real debate must occur, that is, in how to best bring about fair terms of cooperation in a currently unjust global economy. For this reason (as well as others) I find it insufficient for the sweatshop debate, and ultimately unconvincing.

    • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

      Hi Michael,
      I think you put your finger on a very important point.  You’re right – the NWC focuses on the morality of a transaction and not on the injustice of the background conditions that may have given rise to that transaction.  And undoubtedly, there are many injustices in the background of sweatshop labor contracts.  So where does that leave us?  

      My position is that background injustices do not, as such, affect the morality of sweatshop labor contracts.  The fact that you are poor and in desperate need of employment because someone has acted unjustly toward you does not make it unjust of me to offer you a sweatshop job, at least as long as I am not myself responsible for that past injustice.  That doesn’t mean that the background injustice is irrelevant.  We have reason to fight injustice when we can.  I just think the background injustice is irrelevant for determining the morality of the sweatshop labor contract.

      • Anonymous

        Thanks for your response, and I do believe we are in agreement about where the debate should take place, if not in our ideas on where this leads us. There is however a couple issues in your response that I would like to bring attention to.

        You make the good point if B is the victim of injustice and A has played no role in putting B in this situation and has no specific duty to improve B’s position, then there is no reason to assume an offer is unjust. From this, it looks like, as you say, “the background injustice is irrelevant for determining the morality of the sweatshop labor contract,” and the NWC seems to carry the day.

        There are two things I would like to briefly say in response to this.

        First, while I agree that an unjust background is not sufficient for exploitation, I do not think it is irrelevant. I think in the case of sweatshops we can still plausibly evaluate the terms as exploitative by questioning the effects unjust background conditions can have in sweatshop contracts. That some businesses and governments conspire to (unjustly) suppress unions, among other things, is not enough in itself to say the wages and working conditions of sweatshop employees are unfair and thus exploitative, but this fact of the background plays a large role in determining what terms workers and their employers ultimately agree to, and in this sense the background can be an important area of concern in determining the morality of the sweatshop labor contract. So perhaps irrelevant is a bit strong.

        Second and perhaps more importantly, what I am trying to point out about the NWC is how it adopts a minimalist view (in Alex John London’s sense, even though he used this term in the context of medical research abroad). In attempting to abstain from difficult questions of justice by focussing narrowly on the benefit and voluntary aspects of the terms, the minimalist view/NWC seems to cut off the discussion about broader issues of justice before it gets off the ground. In investigating these issues, we may come to question the part of the NWC that requires that A have played no role in putting B in unjust circumstances and have no responsibility to correct this. For sweatshops then, we may come to question whether businesses (among others, such as most developed world citizens who often get ignored in this debate as your post nicely points out) have played a role in contributing to the injustices faced by their potential workers, and are thus partly responsible for ending that injustice. Cashing out these responsibilities is a difficult task, but not one that I think should be ignored based on the considerations of the NWC. In your article “Structural Exploitation” you address this issue and I commend you for that (like I said above, I think we agree on where the points of tension in the debate), yet I don’t quite agree with you when you suggest, if I understand you correctly, that MNEs that operate sweatshops have no more responsibility than most others. I believe this disagreement lies in the fact that you don’t believe, whereas I do, that sweatshops exploit. Yet as I tried to point out above, we might be led to this idea not based simply on the fact that the background is unjust, but on how this greatly affects the terms workers consent to.

        I should point out that I am in the process of writing on this very subject (sweatshops, exploitation, NWC) for my MA thesis, and have found tremendous value in your work.

        Thanks again.

        • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

          Hi Michael,

          Thanks for your thoughtful comments.  I’m not totally sure that I disagree with much of the substance of what you say.  Your first point – that unjust background conditions play a role in determining what choices are available to workers and what they are willing to accept – sounds completely right.  Though, of course, we can always imagine workers being faced with the same limited choice set as a result of entirely natural forces (disease, natural disasters), and my intuitions about the exploitativeness of the transactions into which they enter would be unaffected by this alteration.  I guess that’s all I met by “irrelevant,” though perhaps, as you say, that was too strong a term.  Here I’m following Mikahil Vladmin’s article on exploitation and injustice, which I certainly recommend if you haven’t seen it yet.

          Your second point sounds basically right to me too.  It is important to think carefuly about structural injustices, and to think about the role that businesses might have played in them.  I do believe, as you say, that MNEs that operate sweatshops have no more of a responsibility than most others.  But I don’t think that judgment is dependent upon a prior judgment that sweatshops don’t exploit.  Rather, the reasoning goes something like this.  A MNE that has not yet contracted with a sweatshop seems to have no more responsibility than anyone else to remedy global injustice.  Contracting with a sweatshop that pays an unfair but mutually beneficial wage is an option that it is permissible for the MNE to decline to take.  Since it would be permissible for the MNE to “neglect” the workers in this way, and since workers would prefer exploitation to neglect, it cannot be the case that they have a moral responsibility to offer a “living wage” and not an exploitative one.  

          I’m a bit rushed for time in replying to your post, but since you’re working on this as a thesis, feel free to drop me an email some time, and we can talk this over at greater length.  I’d be happy to send you some works in progress, and would enjoy reading your own.

      • Anonymous

        Thanks for your response, and I do believe we are in agreement about
        where the debate should take place, if not in our ideas on where this
        leads us. There is however a couple issues in your response that I would
        like to bring attention to.

        You make the good point if B is the victim of injustice and A has played
        no role in putting B in this situation and has no specific duty to
        improve B’s position, then there is no reason to assume an offer is
        unjust. From this, it looks like, as you say, “the background injustice
        is irrelevant for determining the morality of the sweatshop labor contract,” and the NWC seems to carry the day.

        There are two things I would like to briefly say in response to this.

        First, while I agree that an unjust background is not sufficient for
        exploitation, I do not think it is irrelevant. I think in the case of
        sweatshops we can still plausibly evaluate the terms as exploitative by
        questioning the effects unjust background conditions can have in
        sweatshop contracts. That some businesses and governments conspire to
        (unjustly) suppress unions, among other things, is not enough in itself
        to say the wages and working conditions of sweatshop employees are
        unfair and thus exploitative, but this fact of the background plays a
        large role in determining what terms workers and their employers
        ultimately agree to, and in this sense the background can be an
        important area of concern in determining the morality of the sweatshop
        labor contract. So perhaps irrelevant is a bit strong.

        Second and perhaps more importantly, what I am trying to point out about
        the NWC is how it adopts a minimalist view (in Alex John London’s
        sense, even though he used this term in the context of medical research
        abroad). In attempting to abstain from difficult questions of justice by
        focussing narrowly on the benefit and voluntary aspects of the terms,
        the minimalist view/NWC seems to cut off the discussion about broader
        issues of justice before it gets off the ground. In investigating these
        issues, we may come to question the part of the NWC that requires that A
        have played no role in putting B in unjust circumstances and have no
        responsibility to correct this. For sweatshops then, we may come to
        question whether businesses (among others, such as most developed world
        citizens who often get ignored in this debate as your post nicely points
        out) have played a role in contributing to the injustices faced by
        their potential workers, and are thus partly responsible for ending that
        injustice. Cashing out these responsibilities is a difficult task, but
        not one that I think should be ignored based on the considerations of
        the NWC. In your article “Structural Exploitation” you address this
        issue and I commend you for that (like I said above, I think we agree on
        where the points of tension in the debate), yet I don’t quite agree
        with you when you suggest, if I understand you correctly, that MNEs that
        operate sweatshops have no more responsibility than most others. I
        believe this disagreement lies in the fact that you don’t believe,
        whereas I do, that sweatshops exploit. Yet as I tried to point out
        above, we might be led to this idea not based simply on the fact that
        the background is unjust, but on how this greatly affects the terms
        workers consent to.

        I should point out that I am in the process of writing on this very
        subject (sweatshops, exploitation, NWC) for my MA thesis, and have found
        tremendous value in your work.

        Thanks again.

      • Anonymous

        I think you’re subtly sliding from the question of exploitation in the post to the question of injustice here.  Maybe you do that before this comment; I’m not sure.  But if the question of injustice in the labor offer is what you are interested in, it seems like that is how you should frame the discussion form the very top, rather than framing it in terms of exploitation, whose relationship to injustice certainly involves a great deal of examination beyond an easy assumption of implication.

    • Anonymous

      This is tangential to your contribution Michael, but I think Matt was also on to something when he said “I wonder if my intuition is being pulled by something special about marriage.” I think it is. I think that for Matt (and hopefully for a lot of people) the notion of such bargain-driving in a marriage contract is antithetical to their idea of a marriage relationship. The economic interest revealed in the bargain-driving appears to us as inappropriate and disgusting, and it is easy to tack on “abusive” as well. But other than abuses potentially following from Michael’s point, or from the manipulation of the emotions evoked in the pre-marital relationship, is there in fact an economic abuse occurring? Can we perhaps test this by removing some part of the marital relationship that we deem intrinsic, dampening our cultural expectations a bit? Consider a case where there is no expectation of physical intimacy, or even of close emotional intimacy. The proposal is for a life-long combination of effort and interest, protection, status, mutual benefit in many ways… but not for any romantic notion of a marriage. For me this alters the intuition greatly. So abuse we see, but I think not economic abuse, which is to Matt’s point. It is also worth pointing out that the economic intimacy of marriage, while educational, desirable and laudable in its better examples, becomes a very unwieldy beast when extended beyond two individuals, perhaps more prone to invite abuse than to solve it.

  • http://twitter.com/ChrisLindsay9 Chris Lindsay

    Would it be exploitation if the person is benefiting monetarily, but facing risks of which they are otherwise ignorant?  Example might be a poorly educated sweatshop worker that benefits from a (barely) livable wage, but not aware that the machines they are using are not sanitized properly or safe?  Thus when the worker becomes ill or hurt, they are not covered by any sort of liability insurance?

    • Anonymous

      Would it be exploitation if they were earning a minimum wage or even some risk premium?

    • Glen Raphael

      What makes you think the “sweatshop” worker’s jobs have *worse* risks than the alternative jobs available to them? That seems really implausible to me. Even if the job does include unanticipated risks, so does such jobs as subsistence farming, working in a restaurant or prostitution. If anything, the factory workers (these days) tend to be in a much *cleaner* environment than outside the factory.

  • JW Ogden

    And the poorer workers are, the more dramatic the impact on their overall welfare will be of even slight improvements to their material conditions.
    American workers sometimes suggest that manufacturer act more charitably and pay them more money or keep their jobs in the USA.  In do so they are asking the business to run more a charity for the workers but if they were charities and the jobs were charity they would surely move the jobs to the places with the lowest paid most desperate workers.  They would hire more workers at lower pay rates.  So the USA manufacturing workers should be glad that the Manufactures are not charities.  

  • Anonymous

    You’ve completely ignored the idea of ‘risk’.

    If someone has better wages but is slowly being killed by toxic fumes and will dead within three years, uh, no, they aren’t better off, even if they think so.

    Likewise, if they have a daily risk of 1/1000 of being mauled by a machine, uh, no, they aren’t better off, even if they think so.

    And, of course, sweatshops countries do not have to tell workers such things, or have any sort of safety standards. Nor provide any care for workers who are harmed.

    But, yes, if you totally ignore the fact that the sweatshop (Or the government, to lure the sweatshop there in the first place) might have changed the living conditions of the poor so they have no choice, and if you completely ignore the fact that sweatshops are incredibly dangerous…yes, they are ‘better’ than the alternative, if people voluntarily work there.

    Do you know that before child labor laws existed, a lot of children voluntarily worked? Instead of going to school? It was clearly a ‘better’ choice for them.

    Of course, a lot of ‘sweatshops’ are actually using literal slave labor, and everyone’s just pretending it’s a voluntary workforce.

    • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

      You’ve completely ignored the idea of ‘risk’.

      If someone has better wages but is slowly being killed by toxic fumes and will dead within three years, uh, no, they aren’t better off, even if they think so.

      Likewise, if they have a daily risk of 1/1000 of being mauled by a machine, uh, no, they aren’t better off, even if they think so.

      I don’t think I’ve ignored the problem of risk.  But I don’t think you’ve analyzed it correctly.  It is not a priori true that someone who bears a 1/1000 risk of death is not better off for taking on that risk.  Doesn’t it depend on what their alternatives are?  And what they gain by taking on the risk?

      Do you know that before child labor laws existed, a lot of children voluntarily worked? Instead of going to school? It was clearly a ‘better’ choice for them.

      Yes, I agree, unless those were scarequotes around “better.” 

      Of course, a lot of ‘sweatshops’ are actually using literal slave labor, and everyone’s just pretending it’s a voluntary workforce.

      A lot?  Do you have evidence for this?  I’m aware that this sometimes happens.  But most scholars who study sweatshop labor, even those who are sharply critical of it, maintain that truly forced labor is relatively rare.

      • Anonymous

        I don’t think I’ve ignored the problem of risk.  But I don’t
        think you’ve analyzed it correctly.  It is not a priori true that
        someone who bears a 1/1000 risk of death is not better off for taking on
        that risk.  Doesn’t it depend on what their alternatives are?  And what
        they gain by taking on the risk?

        I have no idea what’s you’re trying to say here. As I said, it’s not like they know there’s a risk like that.

        Perhaps I’m on the wrong site. I though this was Bleeding Heart Libertarians, where the idea is perhaps that people shouldn’t have to work themselves to death.

        Yes, I agree, unless those were scarequotes around “better.”

        Erm, what? Yes, those were scarequotes. Children working in factories was indeed neccessary economically under the system that the rich set up, where there were no orphanages and no family could support itself without the child working. It was the better choice for children to work, because the other choice was starving to death.

        That is, in fact, rather my point. It’s rather easy to set up a system where the best choice for human beings is to work themselves to death in sweatshops.

        In fact, if you try hard enough, it’s possible to set up a system where the best choice for human being is to cut their own legs off…there’s probably an example in the ‘Saw’ movies somewhere. (Sorry for using such an absurd example, but I thought the ‘child labor’ example was absurd enough to get the point across, apparently I was wrong.)

        This does not mean we should let people set that system up.

        A lot?  Do you have evidence for this?  I’m aware that this sometimes
        happens.  But most scholars who study sweatshop labor, even those who
        are sharply critical of it, maintain that truly forced labor is
        relatively rare.

        ‘Truly’ forced labor is rare. It’s more ‘US early 1900 factory’ labor, where the police beat you if you striked, and exits are locked during the day. You can, of course, always just not show up to work, and then immediately get thrown out of your company house and arrested for vagrancy.

        And I will point out a lot of sweatshops are in communist countries, where people often have no choice about where they live and work.

        • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

          So, first let’s take the point about risk.  You said that if sweatshop workers have a daily risk of 1/1000 of being mauled by a machine, then they aren’t better off, even if they think that they are.   I responded that this is not necessarily true – it depends on what their alternatives are, and what benefits they derive from taking on the risk. If their only other potential job has, say, a 1/900 daily risk of death, then the 1/1000 risk is an improvement.  Likewise, if the sweatshop job pays enough, a reasonable worker might conclude that the added risk is worth the benefit.  Of course, if they don’t know about the risk, this is a problem, and one that I think employers have an obligation to try to correct.  But note that the mere fact that a person does not know about a risk does not necessarily entail that the risk one they would deem unacceptable if they did know about it.
          Then, I guess, you question my bleeding heart credentials.  You wish people didn’t have to work themselves to death, and presumably think that I should wish this too.  Well, I do.  And if I could snap my fingers and make it happen, I most certainly would.  But since I can’t, the question is what steps we can take now to make marginal improvements in people’s lives.  And I think that sweatshops represent a substantial marginal improvement for many of the world’s poor.

          I think the same thing is true of child labor.  Of course I don’t think child labor is an ideal to be aspired to.  And I’m glad our country is wealthy enough that it is no longer widespread here.  But not everyone is as fortunate.  And so the question is what should we say about child labor in countries where it might be necessary for families to support themselves.  On this question, even very non-libertarians like Debra Satz are open to the idea that it should be tolerated.  See http://wber.oxfordjournals.org/content/17/2/297.abstract.

          Why is child labor sometimes people’s best alternative?  To some extent, it probably is because the world’s powerful have “set things up” in a way that limits the options of the poor.  But that can’t be the entire explanation.  For surely child labor was a pervasive phenomenon for most of the world’s history, long before today’s powerful nations ever became powerful at all.  A large part of the explanation has to be simple poverty.  The poorer you are, the worse your options are, and the more attractive (or necessary) child labor becomes as an alternative.  And not all poverty is a result of the rich nations of the world rigging things against everyone else.  Much poverty, it seems to me, is simply the natural condition of humankind.  Wealth is the exception, not the norm.

          • Anonymous

            To some extent, it probably is because the world’s powerful have “set
            things up” in a way that limits the options of the poor.  But that can’t
            be the entire explanation.  For surely child labor was a pervasive
            phenomenon for most of the world’s history, long before today’s powerful
            nations ever became powerful at all.

            Erm, you went from ‘world’s powerful’ to ‘today’s powerful nation’ there. The reason there have always been sweatshops (Or the agricultural equivalent before the industrial revolution) is because the powerful people in the world choose to pay people as little as possible.

            The people revolt, and the powerful people bribe the government to crush them. Over and over again. Eventually the people build a democracy enough to force change.  At which point, apparently, the powerful people just move their operations elsewhere where the government is still willing crush people who fight them.

            And I think that sweatshops represent a substantial marginal improvement for many of the world’s poor.

            Yes, and not letting them be sweatshops would, of course, be more of an improvement. This is where I get a little baffled as to exactly what the pro-outsourcing people think is going on in opposition to outsourcing.

            If tomorrow, every country in the world actually started enforcing safety standards on par with the US, and a minimum living wage that was enough to cover food and clothing and whatnot, would you be opposed to that? If tomorrow, the first world required that all countries that imported into their respective countries did that, what do you think would happen?

            The answer is, of course, that maybe a third of the outsourcing would come back to the US (good for job market) and another two thirds would be in must better circumstances, a much better marginal improvement for the world’s poor. You can argue that split, what percentage would be what, but neither of those is a negative.

            There is a negative that prices would go up somewhat…which is fine if people have jobs. Or, more specifically, if wages actually start increasing again.

            Now, there is the additional anti-sweatshop argument that the US should stop ‘caring’ so much about the world’s poor and perhaps care about its own poor a bit more. That perhaps the US government should perhaps be a bit biased towards doing good in the US. That if the US has the ability to cause a certain amount of good in the US, or twice as much good elsewhere, it really should cause the good in the US. (Not causing harm, mind you, just not causing good.)

            It’s a bit amazing how we suddenly care about the poor only when their ‘interests’ manage to align with ‘businesses making more money’. It’s a bit amazing how suddenly we’re supposed to save the world from itself when we have 19 million unemployed and stagnant wages.

            But that’s after someone’s demonstrated the sweatshop system is actually doing good elsewhere, vs. us disallowing imports from such a system and, tada, forcing them to be better employers.

          • Georgian Tutuianu

            “Yes, and not letting them be sweatshops would, of course, be more of an
            improvement. This is where I get a little baffled as to exactly what the
            pro-outsourcing people think is going on in opposition to outsourcing.

            If tomorrow, every country in the world actually started enforcing safety
            standards on par with the US, and a minimum living wage that was enough to
            cover food and clothing and whatnot, would you be opposed to that? If tomorrow,
            the first world required that all countries that imported into their respective
            countries did that, what do you think would happen?”

             

            Do you actually think that the same government who will oppress
            its citizens will abolish sweatshops? The first world would never do anything
            like that because the first world enjoys its standard of living too much. In any
            case this is beyond unrealistic.

             

            “The answer is, of course, that
            maybe a third of the outsourcing would come back to the US (good for job
            market) and another two thirds would be in must better circumstances, a much
            better marginal improvement for the world’s poor. You can argue that split,
            what percentage would be what, but neither of those is a negative.”

            Very doubtful. In reality what would happen is there would
            be a black market in labor. The rich and powerful who can no longer go to the
            governments for cheap labor will then go to someone else who will give them
            what they want. In a world where over a billion people live on less than a
            dollar a day I’m sure Nike or whoever will have no problems whatsoever in
            finding willing workers. Governments will be bribed, laws will be sold and at
            the end of the day sweatshops will reemerge either legally or illegally.

             

            Actually, Peter Singer might disagree with your view. From a
            utilitarian point of view it might be better for more people to become slightly
            more uplifted out of poverty than for a smaller amount to be much higher
            elevated.

            “There is a negative that prices would go up somewhat…which is fine if people
            have jobs. Or, more specifically, if wages actually start increasing again.”

            You are assuming that demand for goods remains constant, but
            I assure you it’s dynamic. Supply and demand will still be working in your thought
            experiment (I hope). So, if the price of goods goes up then, the demand will
            most likely drop. So, depending on the actual increases will result in how many
            jobs will actually be created.  

             

            “Now, there is the additional anti-sweatshop argument that the US should stop
            ‘caring’ so much about the world’s poor and perhaps care about its own poor a
            bit more. That perhaps the US
            government should perhaps be a bit biased towards doing good in the US. That if the US has the ability to
            cause a certain amount of good in the US, or twice as much good elsewhere, it
            really should cause the good in the US. (Not causing harm, mind you, just not
            causing good.)”

             

            Are you equating US Government with US business and
            citizens?

             

            This is a terrible argument. Peter Singer destroys it. For
            more information you can check him out. But, I can appeal to the idea of
            marginal utility to show you. If our goal is to alleviate poverty then our
            efforts would have significantly higher pay offs by aiding the worlds poorest
            people. This is because a dollar in the US to someone making say $5,000 a year
            does not go along way but a dollar going to someone in the Philippines making
            $400 dollar a year would be a significant increase in their living standards
            and what they can afford. Furthermore, US poor have significantly more
            advantages and opportunities than many other people of the world. To clarify
            this would you rather be poor in the US or in Ethiopia? Furthermore, singling
            out poor people in the US is morally arbitrary and inefficient.   

             

             

            “It’s a bit amazing how we suddenly
            care about the poor only when their ‘interests’ manage to align with
            ‘businesses making more money’. It’s a bit amazing how suddenly we’re supposed
            to save the world from itself when we have 19 million unemployed and stagnant
            wages.”

             

            People have cared about the poor long before wal mart was
            around to make a killing off of them. No one is suggesting that we save the
            world. In fact, your view of US first is the majority view in this country
            right now. What’s even more amazing is the idea that we can help the ourselves
            with such high unemployment and stagnant wages.

             

            The simple truth is that fighting poverty is not cheap and the
            most effective way of doing it is by helping the worlds most absolutely
            impoverished.

            I believe that your ideas of legislating good outcomes is not only naïve, but
            also equivalent to Matt snapping his fingers.

          • Damien S.

            Following greatest marginal utility would also mean much higher progressive tax rates, and probably wealth taxes to boot.  I doubt there’s any plausible utilitarian argument, even including incentives, for letting anyone own more than $40 million, say (20x the lifetime income of the average American).

          • Georgian Tutuianu

            I agree with you, but that doesn’t mean that we should abandon marginal utility when looking at how to best address the plight of the poor. I think that it’s a great tool in our toolbox when looking at prioritizing the fight against poverty.

          • Anonymous

            Governments will be bribed, laws will be sold and at the end of the day sweatshops will reemerge either legally or illegally.

            Um, yes, in the same way that murder will exist, legally or illegally.

            That doesn’t mean we can’t outlaw the selling of such goods here.

            If our goal is to alleviate poverty then our efforts would have
            significantly higher pay offs by aiding the worlds poorest people.

            If my goal is to have my country alleviate poverty, the very first part of that goal is to have my countrycontinue to exist, which requires that people are actually employed and pay taxes and whatnot.

            I’m not certain when this became ‘You can’t claim you’re helping the poor because you haven’t sold your car and used the money to feed the poor’, but I assure you, there’s plenty of reasons why that’s nonsense. The most obvious being that without a car, I can’t earn any more money and thus give any of it to the poor.

            Likewise, if we don’t have people earning income, we can’t, for example, give foreign development aid to other countries.

            Furthermore, US poor have significantly more advantages and opportunities than many other people of the world.

            Uh, no. Perhaps they do if you define ‘the poor’ to mean ‘people with no money’.

            But the thing is, we’re not talking about ‘the poor’. We’re talking about people who aren’t poor yet, until their job is shipped overseas.

            People with jobs, almost by definition, have more responsibility and more need of the money to continue to come in, than people who are not expecting the money to come in in the first place.

          • Georgian Tutuianu

            My point was your thought experiment was nonsense and it is reasonable to deduce that blackmarkets would arise with potentially far more appalling conditions for the working poor. 

            I think you’ve mistaken my position. I’m not advocating all out 100% GDP economic aid to all parts of the world. I’m not saying we should sell our cars to aid the poor. I’m simply saying that if your goal is to end poverty and make the world more equal then, the best way to do this is to help bring the world’s most impoverished out of poverty first. Furthermore, if you are to choose between foreign and domestic “aide” or “welfare” then, the better choice is foreign. 

            If your goal is purely nationalistic and to alleviate ONLY those poor folks fortunate enough to be in the U.S. then, I believe that there are strong arguments to resist such morally arbitrary and misguided intentions. Since the U.S. poor have many more advantages and opportunities over non U.S. poor. See Peter Singer for more information. 

            And yes I define poor as people who have no money. Haha your definition is not only nonsensical but also hypothetical. 

            Poor People: People who aren’t poor (so how are they poor?) yet until their job is shipped overseas.

            I think you mean to use “potential unemployed” instead of “poor”.

            I think you are enamored with the idea that people in the U.S. deserve or are entitled to jobs more than other people in other parts of the world SOLELY based on the arbitrary fact that they find themselves on the lucky side of lines on a map.

            It seems to me that you’re against general welfare, but in favor of corporate welfare. Isn’t outsourcing more efficient thought? Doesn’t it benefit the taxpayer who can spend more of their income as disposable when they can buy cheap foreign made products? 

            Why should a company pay higher wages here when they can get cheaper labor elsewhere? This frees up Americans who are on average far more educated than the people taking their jobs (and  in general most of the world for that matter) to pursue other more productive endeavors. 

            Yes people with jobs tend to get sucked into long term agreements i.e. student loans, car loans, mortgages, children etc. So yes they do “need” a job more so than other people, but their needing a job does not mean a job should be provided to them at the tax payers expense. It simply means that they need to take their jobs and the prospects of unemployment seriously. Furthermore, they should also learn to save money. They should have back up plans etc. For example my back up plan is to go back to college and if that fails be a farmer if the world decides that my skills aren’t as valuable as I think they are. 

            Anyway, while people with jobs need to keep their jobs because of their voluntary responsibilities people without jobs need to find jobs in order to live. Which I think trumps any long term investment such as loans, mortgages etc. I would rather miss payments than die.

            Wouldn’t you?

          • Anonymous

            My point was your thought experiment was nonsense and it is reasonable
            to deduce that blackmarkets would arise with potentially far
            more appalling conditions for the working poor.

            There are two options here: Either the US government can determine the origin of goods, and demand standards, or it can’t.

            If the former, it can certainly block goods that don’t meet it. If it can’t, then conditions are already as appalling as they can be.

            I am little confused at the strange middle ground you think has been found there. Why do you think these companies would currently provide non-appalling conditions? Why do you think this would change if the rules required them to be even less appalling?

            Doesn’t it benefit the taxpayer who can spend more of their income as disposable when they can buy cheap foreign made products?

            Um, NO.

            We just did that. For a decade. we shipped jobs overseas (Actually, we did that for two.) and wages stagnated. But it didn’t matter, because everything was cheap, and people could borrow out of their houses.

            And then the entire damn economy crumpled because money continued to exit, and not reenter, the US.

            So yes they do “need” a job more so than other people, but their
            needing a job does not mean a job should be provided to them at the tax
            payers expense.

            Remember, folks: Demanding that corporations who sell in America either make the goods in America (providing money to Americans, and both they and those Americans paying taxes) or, if they want to make the stuff overseas, pay tariffs on that (Which reduces everyone’s tax burden), is ‘making the taxpayer pay for it’, despite that producing more tax revenue, and more money for taxpayers, no matter how you look at it.

            Whereas anything the corporations producing their stuff at the absolutely lowest cost imaginable is the best thing, because corporations will magically lower prices, despite the fact that is not how prices works.

            I think you meant ‘So yes they do “need” a job more so than other people, but their
            needing a job does not mean they should get one if it in any way slightly hurts multinational corporate profits.

          • Georgian Tutuianu

            No that’s not what I meant at all. I like how you skipped the best part.

            Anyway, while people with jobs need to keep their jobs because of their voluntary responsibilities people without jobs need to find jobs in order to live. Which I think trumps any long term investment such as loans, mortgages etc. I would rather miss payments than die.

            The sweatshop laborers are far more dependent on their labor as a means of SURVIVAL while Americans as you’ve correctly hinted at dependent more so on financial SOLVENCY. 

            Which would you rather avoid: defaulting on your long term debts or death?

            Clearly, a laborer who is fighting for subsistence needs their job more.

            In anycase, I thought protectionism was destroyed by libertarians ages ago.

          • Glen Raphael

            If tomorrow, every country in the world actually started enforcing
            safety standards on par with the US, and a minimum living wage that was enough to cover food and clothing and whatnot, would you be opposed to that?

            I would be opposed to that, in that it outlaws a vast number of jobs which  make people better off by their existence.

            “If tomorrow, the first world required that all countries that
            imported into their respective countries did that, what do you think
            would happen?”

            What I think would happen is that a lot more third-world people would die of starvation, resort to working on the black market, or at a minimum fail to improve their lives as quickly as they can today. It would make many people worse off. As a bleeding heart libertarian, I’m opposed to human suffering; to the degree that “sweatshops” alleviate suffering, outlawing them strikes me as a bad idea.

          • Anonymous

            I would be opposed to that, in that it outlaws a vast number of jobs which  make people better off by their existence.

            Just saying people are ‘better off’ does not make it true.

            What I think would happen is that a lot more third-world people would
            die of starvation, resort to working on the black market, or at a
            minimum fail to improve their lives as quickly as they can today.

            Wow, you’re certainly all noble by ignoring America like that. Stand firm! It’s almost as if you don’t care if the American middle class disappears overseas, turning the middle class here into the working poor, and turning the unworking poor over there into the working poor.

            I warn you, other people might not understand this. They’ll point that  neither of those groups has any political power.

            Which is, of course, exactly what many people see as the exact goal of the political right.

            But I know this strange concern for people overseas, and non-concern for Americans, can’t possibly be related to the fact that right has, for decades, constantly attempted to remove political power from all but the rich. That’s just crazy talks.

            It
            would make many people worse off.

            Also business profits would go down.

            As a bleeding heart libertarian, I’m
            opposed to human suffering; to the degree that “sweatshops” alleviate
            suffering, outlawing them strikes me as a bad idea.

            Oooh, quotes, fancy. Let’s all pretend we’re talking about metaphorical sweetshops instead of real ones.

  • Anonymous

    Matt, I like the basic theme of your post. I would say that the non-worseness claim should explicitly call out the requirement of voluntary transaction. 

    I do think some of the points about asymmetry in the exchange, transparency of the underlying risks and the like have some force in terms of practical implementation of the view. This is something of an identification problem allowing a distinction between “sweatshop” and either a forced/slave labor case or that where some deceit is a consistent part of the transaction.

    I think in a libertarian solution consideration for the identification problem is not only expected but I think would be embraced by libertarians when put to them as such.

    One thing that also seems apparent in comments, and I think appears in other posts as well, is the libertarian side is much more willing to allow a larger set of options, trusting the poor to act in their own interests and to have the ability to do so.  The progressives seem much more willing to reduce the option set by imposing their sense of fairness and acceptability upon the poor with total disregard that the poor may well disagree with the progressive’s assessment. The issues and concerns raised within the Repugnance post remain an underlying theme.

    • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

      Agreed wholeheartedly!

  • http://twitter.com/VelizCF CFV

    I am still unsure about your claim that background injustice is irrelevant for determining the morality of the sweatshop labor contract.

    As far as I can see, your underlying argument seems to be something like the following:

    1. There can be clear cases of exploitation without background injustice.

    2. Therefore, background injustice is irrelevant for determining exploitation.

    You give some support to 1 by considering cases like those of the guy drowning and the fishing boat.

    Now consider this hypothetical:

    Antonio was shot in the leg by some bandits and lies bleeding on a route in the middle of nowhere.
    Now Shylock, a motorized passerby, offers to give him a ride to the next hospital where Antonio’s life can be saved, but charging him an ‘exorbitant’ price: let’s say, he wants a pound of (his) flesh in return.
    Since this is the better alternative that Antonio has, he accepts.

    Of course Shylock is innocent and is not causally related to the background injustice (neither has he   wounded Antonio nor has he any relation with the bandits). But, in my view, that doesn’t mean that, in this type of cases, background injustice is irrelevant for determining charges of exploitation. 

    There is a causal dependency between the background injustice and the exploitative (though mutually beneficial) agreement. 

    • http://twitter.com/VelizCF CFV

      Maybe this reconstruction is better:

      1. There can be clear cases of exploitation without background injustice.

      2. There can be clear cases of no-exploitation with background injustice.

      3. Therefore, background injustice is irrelevant for determining exploitation.
       
      If we accept that premises 1 and 2 are true, should we accept conclusion 3?

      • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

        Yes, this second reconstruction is better, I think.  More in line with what I try to argue in my Structural Exploitation paper, which is that the identification of background injustice is neither necessary (1) nor sufficient (2) for the identification of exploitation.  Whether (3) follows, I guess, depends on how exactly you want to use the word “irrelevant.”  I don’t deny what you claim in your first comment – that there are some cases in which “there is a causal dependency between the background injustice and the exploitative…agreement.”  We can have situations that look like this:

        [1] Background injustice —> [2] Vulnerability —> [3] Exploitation

        My point is that if we want to know whether exploitation has occurred, we don’t need to look at [1].  It doesn’t matter whether the vulnerability was created by a background injustice or by a bad luck or by poor choices.  If you’re taking unfair advantage of the vulnerable person, you’re acting in an exploitative way.

        Though perhaps what exactly counts as unfair will depend on [1]?  Is it less unfair to drive someone up against a wall who’s in a vulnerable situation because of their own dumb choice than it is to do so to someone whose vulnerability is the product of sheer brute luck?  That’s a possibility I’d need to think more about…

  • Paul Gowder

    Hmm — two thoughts, only loosely formed: 

    1.  It strikes me that “neglect” is at least a difficult classification as “exploitation.”  One claim we might make is that those of us who don’t directly contribute to the well-being of the poor aren’t guilty of neglect because we don’t have the capacity to help in a significant degree without making unreasonable sacrifices: donating money to the red cross might be ineffective, and we might, for example, have to quit our jobs to go found aid organizations or work in government reform in order to have a real impact.  (Cf. all the “look how hard it is” literature on international aid)  By contrast, the sweatshop owner could have a real impact on the lives of his workers: he could pay them more and offer them better conditions.  So we might think of some exploitative transactions as also neglectful, and not think of some apparent neglect as actual neglect, once we relativize our classification of neglect to the capacities of the alleged neglecter.  

    2.  I’m also slightly skeptical that neglect is worse, or always worse, than exploitation.  (However, I’m much, much, much less confident about this point than about the previous.)  Here’s an intuition pump: Joe walks past Phil, a homeless person.  Joe chooses between two appealing options: 

    a) ignoring Phil
    b) giving Phil a dollar to publicly humiliate himself for Joe’s amusement 

    Of course, this isn’t a “clean” comparison between exploitation and neglect, because in addition to taking advantage of Phil, Joe also offers him insult (plus Joe’s behavior is evidence of really serious character defects).  Still, I think it highlights structural features of exploitation vs. neglect: exploitation isn’t just a wrong in itself, it’s also a tool to commit other wrongs — one of the things that we might think makes exploitation bad is that it can be, and often is, used to humiliate the exploited, or to cause them physical injury, etc.  Neglect, by contrast, seems to be a relatively self-contained wrong…?

    • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

      Hey Paul,

      I think you’re right that getting clear about what to classify as “neglect” will be a little tricky.  Though I’m probably not persuaded by your point about difficulty.  The “look how hard it is” literature is mostly about development aid, which is really, really hard.  In contrast, keeping people from getting sick and/or dying is relatively easy.   And while no single person can make much of a dent in the overall problem, even with tremendous sacrifice, most of us could probably have a major impact on many people’s lives with relatively little sacrifice.  Or maybe I’ve just been reading too much of The Peters?
      As for your second point, I certainly feel the pull of the intuition that (b) is very very nasty, whereas (a) seems, well, normal.  I just don’t know how much stock to put in that intuition.  If (b) really makes Phil better off, then that’s important.  And maybe that’s something that a parsimonious presentation of the case makes it hard for us to appreciate.  And what exactly is driving our intuition about (a)?  How much of it is a close tracking of moral truth, and how much is status quo bias,  or some similar psychologically powerful but morally irrelevant mechanism?  I’m not sure.  But I’m suspicious.

  • Anonymous

    It may stun you to hear me say this, Matt, but I actually agree with you to a very large extent about sweat shops.  As long as the people working in them are better off than they would otherwise be in their local or (for migrants) their original economies then it’s not as relevant that they’re worse off than 100% comparable people doing 100% comparable work elsewhere.

    This was really brought home for me maybe 20 years ago when some friends and I considered buying a working farm on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound.  The farm dated to roughly the turn of the 20th century and nearly all the buildings on the property dated to that time.

    Down near the road, far away from the main house, there was a set of little shacks, each about the size of one of those cedar work sheds you can buy at Home Depot or Sears.  The owner mentioned that they were originally housing for milkmaids.  And that six to eight women had lived in each shed!

    And guess what?  Even crowded like that they were better off than other local unmarried women working at home would be!  Because rural life almost anywhere really, really sucks.

    That said, if instead the sweatshop worker is kept holed up in a warehouse in or around Manhattan, L.A., Seattle, or Houston, and paid double the wages they’d earn in Cambodia, China, or Indonesia… they’re still being ripped off because unlike sweatshop workers in Cambodia they’re not making better money relative to their peers in town, they’re making about 10% of that.  That’s a rip off.

    The rip off is arbitrage of non-transparent information.  Were a boatload (not a handful) of manufactured goods (not just trinkets) worth more to native Americans on Manhattan than the land itself?  Possibly.  But had there not been collusion and/or calumny to insure there was no second bidder the selling price would have been staggeringly higher.

    It sounds like you’re saying no, no, if I can talk a little kid into trading me his grandpa’s smelly old stamp collection for a shiny new dollar then we’re both getting the best of a good deal.  Ok, if you don’t think little kids are a good example how about offering a dope-sick heroin addict $40 for the same collection?  How about offering a West Virginia or Kentucky truck farmer $12 for the mineral rights under his land when you knew that he didn’t know how much coal could be strip-mined out from under it?

    Again if you’re saying that’s all hunky-dory because each party thinks they’re getting a good deal then I say… well, actually I can’t say it in a family blog.

    If it really is an advantageous deal for both sides then go for it big guy.  If it’s not a transparent deal in circumstances where one side clearly knows the true value of a transaction in a way the other side doesn’t then no.  A free market necessarily implies free information.

    figleaf

    • Anonymous

      Well said. That last bit is really what’s important.

    • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

      Thanks for this.  I agree that not every deal that one enters into, or even every deal that one anticipates to be mutually beneficial, will actually turn out to be a good one.  I hope I didn’t give that impression.  I think there’s a presumption of mutual benefit, but that presumption can be overridden by other considerations – such as the lack of developed rational capacity in your stamp buying example. 
      On the other hand, I don’t think lack of relevant information is always enough to undermine the voluntary nature of exchange.  If it were, then, well, almost none of our exchanges would be be voluntary.  So the moral reality here might be a kind of continuum, with some vaguely specified threshold where the information is “good enough.” 

      • Damien S.

        “well, almost none of our exchanges would be be voluntary”

        Someone might call this a missed epiphany. :p

        For the record, I don’t think everything describable as a sweatshop is a step backwards for the workers.  That said, that doesn’t stop us from advocating better conditions even so; there are a lot of moral shadows — in a world where land is stolen, corruption is high, and some Chinese goods are made with prison slave labour, should sweatshops be given a presumption of innocence? — and as a social democrat, I’m going to care about the statrting stake people bring to the table more than libertarians seem to, even if the sweatshop operator isn’t responsible for the low stake.

  • Anonymous

    Maybe a little historical perspective would aid this discussion/debate. It is a fact that those nations that at one time were the international sweatshop of choice for huge multinational corporations are no longer in this position because over time their local wage rates were bid up by this very demand, and because they benefitted from the related transfer of manufacturing skills and technology. I am old enough to remember when this was true of Japan, Hong Kong, Mexico, and now China. But if you are paying attention to international economics, you are aware that there are already rumblings that China is getting too expensive for certain categories of goods.

    My point is that you cannot analyze the benefits/harms of “exploitation” on a static basis, but must look at it over a time horizon of decades at least. What might first appear as unfair or even unjust dealing might be seen in this light as a necessary part of a process by which hundreds of million of people are lifted out of dire poverty. 

    • Anonymous

      Since I’m currently disagreeing with you on another post, I’d like to call attention to my agreement with you here. This is right on – I don’t suggest that you can simply reference this concept and then stop worrying about the sweatshop you own, but this does speak directly to the argument that sweatshops only exist because the workers can’t afford to consider their long-term goals. It is arguable that their short-term and long-term goals actually coincide.

  • Anonymous

    Nice post, Matt, as I would expect from the leading philosophical writer on this particular subject. I have only one question (along the lines of CFV’s Antonio-Shylock example). Why can’t someone who holds deontological beliefs say: “Your concession that sweatshops are unfair is all I need. It doesn’t matter that both benefit, because benefit is not the ultimate yardstick of morality.”  The deeper philosophical problem is whether this deontological position makes sense. When evaluating some interactions, failing to take into account mutual benefit is unreasonable. In other words, my intuition is that sometimes it makes sense to condemn an action on abstract principle alone, and sometime it doesn’t. Sweatshops are an example, perhaps, of the latter.

    • http://twitter.com/VelizCF CFV

      Maybe justice IS mutual advantage, as Gauthier and others have forcefully claim.
      I doubt it, but if this were the case, I would have to said (along Portia’s lines) that justice must be tempered with mercy.

    • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

      Thank you for your kind words, Fernando.  I think you’re right that NWC is most naturally read as a kind of external critique of a deontological position.  But I’d like it to be more than that.  I’d like to think it has some traction even within a deontological position.  For if a deontological position is based on the idea of respect for persons, I would think that the deliberate neglect of persons has got to be at least as disrespectful as the exploitation of them.  And if exploitation would not merely serve the interests of the victim, but is something that they would autonomously choose over neglect if given the option, then I think there is a strong deontological case to be made that exploitation cannot be worse than neglect.

      • Anonymous

        Just for clarification: Who would be perpetrating the neglect? The government that prohibits sweatshops or hits the product with a tariff? I basically agree with you, but just to be devil’s advocate: the exploiter is directly causing an unfair harm, whereas the “neglecter” arguably causes an oblique harm, that is, not directly intended but occurring as a side effect. So even if the victim would choose exploitation over neglect, the intentional structure of each action is different.  That is how someone with deontological sympathies might argue. I disagree with that claim, for reasons we both know well, but..
        Am I misinterpreting your claim?

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  • http://profiles.google.com/michael.giberson Michael Giberson

    I would guess that sweatshops are distant, abstract things to most readers of this (or any) blog. Let me offer two similar scenarios closer to home for at least some readers.

    Suppose a storm damages a tree branch such that it hangs perilously over my garage. A local contractor quotes me a price of $1000 to remove and dispose of the branch. Wondering if I can get a better deal, I drive past a corner frequented by day laborers, one of whom has a truck and some tools. I propose to pay him $50 to remove and dispose of the branch and he accepts. Is it exploitive for me to go through with the $50 transaction?

    In a second version, suppose the same storm damage to the tree and same $1000 quote from a local contractor, but I don’t go cruising the local day laborers. Instead, while I’m out in my yard a person in a truck stops to offer yard work, notices the damaged branch and offers to remove and dispose of the branch for $50. Is it exploitive for me to accept the $50 offer?

    Does it make a difference, morally, if I initiate the relatively low offer or the worker initiates the offers? (Would it make any difference to the morality of a sweatshop operator if a worker arrived at the factory and offered to work for $5/day instead of the sweatshop operator proposing $5/day to prospective workers?)

    • Aeon Skoble

      Michael, I don’t see that there’s a morally significant difference between version 1 and 2.  I also don’t think either is objectionable.

    • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

      Michael, have you read any of the literature on blackmail?  I share Aeon’s intuition, of course, that there’s no morally significant difference between the two cases you mention.  But take a case of blackmail in which A has incriminating photos of  B that he is considering selling to C.  My understanding of the law is that it would be legally permissible for B to approach A and offer to buy the rights to the photos, but that it would be legally impermissible of A to approach B with the same offer.  

    • Glen Raphael

      “I would guess that sweatshops are distant, abstract things to most readers of this (or any) blog”

      Not to me! I’ve worked at one, alongside groups of young women who were being paid ~$20/month plus room and board. Note that the “plus room and board” part means this is “a living wage” in the literal sense – though the wages were small they were in addition to the bare necessities of life.

      As a result of my non-abstract experience, I am hugely in favor of sweatshops. I plead not-guilty to the original charge of neglect in that I have actively supported companies that used “sweatshop” labor. So I’m firmly on the “exploitation” side of the ledger :-)

      (I took this picture:  http://impel.com/pictures/factory.jpg )

  • Damien S.

    Y’all know about the ultimatum game, right? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultimatum_game  Seems pretty related: intuitions that “‘you’re better off even if I only offer a penny” vs. intuitions that massively unequal splits are unfair and should be denied or punished, even at cost.

    I suspect there’s a lot of handwaving of non-transparent safety risks, forced child labor, dispossessed circumstances, etc. going on here.

    • http://blog.hecker.org/ Frank Hecker

      I’m not sure what you’re getting at with your mention of the ultimatum game. As I understand it, the standard interpretation of ultimatum game experimental results is that people will reject offers perceived to be unfair even if it is economically “rational” to accept such offers. So if someone accepts an offer to work in a sweatshop then the naive interpretation is that they don’t perceive the offer to be unfair.

      Now of course things are more complicated than that: As you note, they could have been directly coerced into working (forced labor) or indirectly coerced (by having other options forcibly closed off to them). It’s also possible that the exact nature of the “bargain” may have been concealed from them (e.g., workplace risks they weren’t told about), so that they perceive the offer as more fair than it actually is. Those are all things that would have to looked at on a case by case basis.

      But suppose that in particular cases there doesn’t seem to be obvious direct or indirect coercion, and that the people considering the offer seem to be reasonably well-informed as to the nature of the work (perhaps because they know others already doing it). Then, given all this, if the people do in fact accept the offer then it seems to me that the ultimatum game experimental results would lead us to believe that they themselves regard it as a fair bargain, regardless of what we might think.

  • Anonymous

    I suppose that if I engage this from a level that half a loaf is better than none, it’s better for me to find someone who will do the work under exploitative conditions than it is to simply leave them on the streets.

    But I think that this deliberately misses the bigger picture.

    It’s the idea that there is nothing better than “low wages, long hours, and unsafe or demeaning working conditions” that drives this discussion. The real answer to exploitive work conditions is to expand the work market so that people have meaningful choices. But that’s not good for either the “exploitative capitalists” or the “neglectful public,” as both of them would need to have a lower standard of living, at least at the outset.

  • Damien S.

    Something of a general tangent: over past dicussions, liberals supposedly valuing equality over wealth, and the allegedly empirical benefits of free markets, have been tossed around.  I’ve noted that most liberals think their policies give more absolute wealth to the poor, and have been countered with philosophers.  Also that the current dominance of liberalism or social democracy over socialism indicates a fair bit of leftist adjustment  to the more dramatic empirical failures of centralized socialism

    But!  I’m reading the Spirit Level, the thesis of which is that inequality empirically makes everyone not at the top of society worse off, in measurable ways like health and violence, and even points to mechanisms: reproductive success meaning we’re evolved to care about relative status, not absolute well-being; the long term effects of stress and cortisol.  Having $15K in a society where everyone has about $15K is better than having $20K in a society where the average have $40K and the visible rich have $400K… let alone everyone having $35K, vs. having $20K in that inequal society.

    Now, I don’t expect y’all to suddenly believe this; I don’t know myself if the case is airtight, though I find it consilient.  But, as a thought experiment, if the evidence *were* undeniable, would it matter to you?  Or would the alleged morality of uncoerced propertarian freedom be worth living in a sicker (physically and mentally), more violent, and less educationally successful society?

    • Anonymous

      I couldn’t agree with you more. I mean, while it is true that at one point in my life I worked for minimum wage and was one of the 15K slugs you portray, I am clearly a superior person and so had the expectation that I would not ALWAYS work for the minimum. But your average person, well you know, they are vastly inferior to us, in fact they are barely human at all. So they go through life consumed with envy and misery, without the slightest hope that they will get a promotion or a better job down the road. And, I am sure they lack the imagination to believe that they might live to see their children excel at something (not that that ever actually happens). Of course, since I have multiple graduate degrees from schools that even you have heard of, I should probably assume that I am vastly superior in all relevant ways to you, and that we have totally different psychological makeups. Gosh, now that I think about it, I don’t know why I am even wasting my time talking to you…

      • Anonymous

        Yikes. That was pretty harsh.

        • Anonymous

          Thanks. My personal wealth is less than Bill Gates’ and I mean a LOT less. But I have a wonderful wife, a beautiful three year old son, and I am happy. I feel NO envy, none. Well educated liberals of the sort that write books like the one cited by Damien also have much less wealth than Gates, but I can’t believe that they walk around all day consumed with envy and dispair. If they do then shame on them, and as they say, “get a life,” but I suspect that they too live tolerably happy lives. Why, then, are they so quick to attribute to the “common man” a psycholgical state that is foreign to them?

          • Anonymous

            I guess I just don’t see the point in phrasing it the way you did. I think you’ve brought up valuable points and I agree with most of them, but they don’t actually address Damien’s thought experiment.

            That said, as a person who is decidedly more blue collar than you from your self-description, while I don’t go around wallowing in self-pity and envying Bill Gates, it sure would be nice to have his amount of wealth. That doesn’t mean I want to take it from him though.

          • Anonymous

            I guess I just don’t see the point in phrasing it the way you did. I think you brought up some good points and I generally agree with the outlook, but they don’t address Damien’s thought experiment, merely ridicule the book he read. 

            p.s. I tried to post this comment earlier, but disqus ate it, sorry if another similar post magically appears later on.

          • Anonymous

            Well, I think I did indirectly address his thought experiment, but let me be more explicit. People are generally responsible for their own lives, subject to certain exceptions, the nature of which are I think are fairly obvious, and which warrant assistance from the more fortunate. However, for the vast majority of people, if rather than focusing on their blessings and striving to improve their situation, they elect to wallow in self-pity, that is their problem. In short, I believe we should not alter our moral judgments about political justice by the fact that Damien’s imaginary people are envious of the more successful members of society. But, for the reasons already stated, this picture of human psychology is essentially false. 

          • Anonymous

            “But, for the reasons already stated, this picture of human psychology is essentially false.”
            The thought experiment is what if the empirical data showed the opposite of what your saying. So this still doesn’t address it. I agree that it’s most likely incorrect, but what if it was correct. Would that change your opinion?

          • Anonymous

            One further point of clarification. 
            I agree that you shouldn’t want to “alter our moral judgments about political justice” based on imaginary people, but what about that imaginary world’s moral judgments? For me, I just find it hard to accept that one should think that the majority is just a bunch of whiny losers rather than help improve the situation, in this imaginary world that is.

          • Anonymous

            The reason I have empathy for and wish to help people in general is because in the real world they ARE like me in all important respects. If I lived in an imaginary world where everyone else was nasty, brutish and aggressive, I would NOT care about them, and would look out only for myself and my loved ones. 

          • Damien S.

            One of the Spirit Level points is that people tend to be nasty and aggressive when they live in a society that rewards being brutish and aggressive.  From the small scale of childhood upbringing (abused kids often go on to be abusers, and make up a good portion of abusers) to the big scale of social incentives.

            Which seems relevant to serious BHLs.  As Ls, you advocate an economic system where in the pure case  everything is individually owned, everything needs to be paid for, one has to keep a sharp eye out for contracts that might be against one’s interest in the small print, and there’s not even pressure on how rich or dominant someone can get, let alone an upper bound.  But as BH, you want people to or hope they will be somewhat altruistic and egalitarian.  (I think?  Still not sure what BHLs actually envision.)  Hard-nosed rational seekers of individual advantage in a competitive environment should turn around and be cooperatively charitable.  There seems to be conflict here.

          • Anonymous

            I guess we have completely different reasons for empathizing. I’m not exactly sure what the core root of my empathy is, but I do know that I empathize with “nasty, brutish, and aggressive” people, or at least try to.

            I think I’d agree with your last statement if the majority population was generally murderous, but not if they are unhappy because of their economic situations. 

            Also, I’m not sure why you made the jump from “wallowing in self-pity” to “nasty, brutish, and aggressive”.

      • Damien S.

         Your sarcastic reply would work better if I’d actually said anything about envy and misery.  Instead, the key emotion is stress and competition: “am I keeping up with my peers? Do I risk losing my position?  Will my kids be able to have what I have?”  And it doesn’t even have to be all that conscious.  Your “wallowing in self-pity” is your projection onto what I said, no doubt making it easier to dismiss me.

        And among rich countries, the more equal ones *do* have longer lives and lower crimes rates (and even lower prison costs, since they don’tthrw people in prison as much), while still being rich, while the increasingly inequal US is at the bottom.

        • Anonymous

          You posit two distributions: (i) in which most people are better off financially in absolute terms, but live in a more unequal society and (ii) most people are worse off relative to (i) in absolute terms, but are more equal. You cite some “genius” who claims that most people feel subjectively worse off in (i) than in (ii).  I do not find this credible. If I can’t properly feed and clothe my kids and if my family lacks other basic necessities, I don’t think that I will feel much better if most everyone else is in the same boat. I personally would prefer having the basics, and not worrying about the fact that others have much more.  You can rationalize it any way you want, but if people prefer going without rather than having to live in a society where others have more, I call this envy. You call it what you like.

          • Damien S.

            There’s a reason I said $15K as opposed to $1500, say.  At that point you *can* feed and clothe your kids, and the life expectancy is probably high — $45K/capita societies don’t live much longer than $15K/societies.

            And this is an extreme case.  The realistic comparison between the US and social democracies is more like my second set of numbers — mean income being no more than a third lower, but median and low-quintile incomes and social statistics being much higher.

            Of course, with the falling dollar, it’s decreasingly true that the US can even claim to be richer in mean wealth per capita.  Smaller pie and smaller slices for the poor!

    • http://blog.hecker.org/ Frank Hecker

      I’m not a libertarian, but I’ll give you my personal view as someone who thinks libertarian and classic liberal arguments are worth listening to. To the extent that relative inequality is bad for people in general (except presumably for those at the top), I think it’s a trade-off similar to other trade-offs we make both personally or via government, for example, living in cities or having zoning and other policies — or lack thereof –that promote city-scale size and density. Cities have and foster lots of great things (high culture, ability to meet lots of new people, environment favorable to economic opportunity and innovation, etc.), but some people as individuals don’t want to live in cities, and some people want to see government policies that mitigate the downsides of living in cities (e.g., preservation of green space). I don’t think those people are being unreasonable.

      I think relative inequality is similar. Let’s suppose inequality has proven downsides (as you mention) but also upsides as well (some of which may be similar to those of city living).  Some of us as individuals may prefer to live in countries or regions with lower (or higher) levels of inequality; we should be free to do so, and policies like federalism could promote such diversity even with countries. We could also vote for government policies that attempt to restrain what some might see as excessive levels of inequality. That doesn’t necessarily mean attempting to correct inequality after the fact (e.g., by high taxes and redistribution); it could also mean measures to help prevent excessive inequality from arising in the first place. One example would be childhood education and health measures to help ensure people could rise to the level their inborn talents could take them. Another example would be structural regulation of industry sectors like financial services that seem prone to giving rise to high inequality without necessarily providing much social benefit in the process.

      So the bottom line for me is that if there were ironclad evidence of the harm done by relative inequality, I’d certainly be open to measures to address that, but I would also balance the harm against any benefits for which evidence also exists, and I’d favor starting with measures that address structural reasons for inequality as opposed to measures that attempt to enforce equality after the fact, as it were.

    • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

      FWIW, it would certainly matter to me.  It might not be decisive, but it’s relevant.  

      • Damien S.

         Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    It is nearly impossible to conceive of, and even less likely to actually find in the world, wringing anything approaching fairness out of transactions that involve parties at massive disparity to one another in terms of wealth or power as do transaction for labor involving major corporations and the increasingly far-flung and remote sources of labor they are seeking out across the globe.  And these massive breaches of fairness in deals involving disparities in wealth and power will always look like, and in some ways be, exploitative.  Mutual benefit changes none of this.  the richer party can offer next to nothing to party with no better options, and the latter party will nearly always have to take it.  That is the precise nature of the claim of ‘exploitation’in this context. Exploitation of the disparities in position between the offerer and the receiver of offers. When these disparities are massive, if what we are considering not an exploitative scenario, indeed exploitation per se then I don’t know what the point of talking about exploitation in this context even is.  

    The fact that there might be mutual benefit and overall improvement of utility does not prove lack of exploitation; it just means it’s a trade that on balance should take place as opposed to no trade taking place.  It still might very well be exploitative. You know what other trade should also take place, in preference to the one just above where the party at great disadvantage in wealth and power experiences no marginal benefit in utility but rather just breaks even? *One where the richer party offers more than the minimum possible bid, because the levels of inequality in wealth and power that are in question here are fundamentally abhorrent!* Maybe *that* deal is not exploitative. But maybe it still is. It depends.  To get past exploitation looking at these levels of underlying inequality at play in modern global economics, my feeling is you need to get waaaaay (or at least pretty far) into the realm of charity (even if the charity is still a bid to pay someone for labor – just a higher-than-necessary bid).  Simply showing that you can arrive at a two-way rational deal doesn’t get you past dealing with the possibility of exploitation.  Rather, the reality of extreme inequalities of wealth and power *implies* that mere two-way rational deals *will be* exploitative.  That’s what power is.  A lack of exploitation will involve some level of charity beyond merely what is economically rational for each party.  At the same time, this does not imply that the choice between an exploitative, mutually benefitting deal between parties at extreme disparity in wealth and power and the lack of any deal marginally benefitting the party with less wealth and power should be made against such a deal. The choice there should be for the deal. But that fact doesn’t imply the deal is not exploitative.  Why should it?

    • Damien S.

      Related to both this and the Ultimatum Game: when A and B make a voluntary non-fraudulent exchange, they’re creating new value.  The capitalist is better off for paying the worker, the worker is better off for working for the capitalist.  But who gets how much of the surplus value thus created?  If the worker needs $5/hour to live, and works profitably at up to $15/hour, how much should she be paid?  Supply and demand in perfectly competitive markets gives an equilibrium answer, which might or might not be fair or moral, and anyway markets are typically not perfectly competitive, especially on the employer side in these cases.  The worker needs money continually to not die, while the capitalist can typically idle production as needed, creating a power imbalance driving the price of labor down to $6, say, rather than $10 or $14.  Thus the perception of exploitation.

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  • Sheldon Richman

    “After all, if workers didn’t expect to be made better off by working in a sweatshop – if they didn’t think it was all-things-considered their best available alternative – then why would they take the job?”

    Maybe because the corporatist state has closed off other options through land grabs, tax policy, etc. That’s what the western colonial powers used to do. Why does our side never consider that possibility?

    Western companies have not been totally divorced from the “background injustices.”

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HSKXAWKADVEXMD6SG7DRBB7H3I Silly Wabbit

    Sweatshop workers (nor most workers in the US) don’t have a “labor contract”.  I’m a reasonably but not exceptionally smart person. However, I don’t understand why so many on the libertarian blogosphere refer to “labor contracts” that don’t exist. A better term might be “time and effort for wages informal relationship”. 

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  • Damien S.

    This has been said before, but it’s worth saying again; “sweatshop” is a multi-valent term.  At one extreme, we have the fact that you can sometimes build a factory in a low productivity country, and get developed country productivity for that product, while paying wages kept low by the average productivity of the country, because you don’t need skilled labor, just basic labor plus the capital in the form of the factory.  This feels unfair to a lot of people for ultimatum game reasons, but I grant it’s hard to see where the company is doing anything really wrong here.  It may also be true that having a lot of this process makes the country better off over time, though that depends on how well workers learn skills they can transfer out of the factory.  High income from a bunch of foreign factories around only for your cheap labor is not the same as actually developing native wealth-creating processes of one’s own.  Interestingly the latter often happens with government education and protection, but I digress.

    At the other extreme, you have sweatshops that are basically slave labor.  Forced prison labor in China or some USA states, trapped illegal immigrants in locked buildings, etc.

    In between, you have cases that look like the first extreme, but the low wages are accompanied by undisclosed health and safety risks.  Or where, as already discussed, the company is complicit in reducing the economic choices of the workers, or where the native government reduced choice so as to attract such companies, which took no active role but are still profiting from immorality and stolen land.

    So part of this debate is over which model you think is most normal for “sweatshops”.  Libertarians like to assume the first is, and that companies are innocent until proven guilty.  Globalization skeptics assume the worst until proven otherwise, from health risks to complicit dispossession to outright use of prison labor or goods produced by prison labor.  Pure argument will not settle this issue or convince anyone of which is actually predominant.  Neither will anecdotal testimony from people reporting on the sweatshops they are allowed to visit.

    Given the history of labor abuses, and of businesses opposing safety regulations and worker’s comp even when applied via law as a level playing field for all businesses, I lean toward the skeptic end. An outsourced factory could be decent but there’s lots of historical reason not to assume it as a default condition.

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