Exploitation, Social Justice

Answering the Left-Libertarian Critique of Sweatshops

Ben Powell and I have a new paper coming out in the Journal of Business Ethics in which we defend what we take to be the mainstream libertarian position on sweatshops against some critiques that have emerged in the recent academic literature.*  That position (which I have defended before here, and Ben here and here) looks something like the following:

  1. Sweatshop labor is very often the best option individuals in the developing world have for improving their lives and the lives of their families.
  2. We know this partly because individuals reveal a strong preference for sweatshop jobs both behaviorally in their eager acceptance of such jobs when they are made available, and verbally in their response to questions by journalists and researchers. [See informal reports such as this and more formal reports such as this]
  3. And we know it partly by looking at quantitative data on sweatshop jobs vs. other forms of employment. [See Powell and Skarbek’s paper here]
  4. Because sweatshop labor is often the most attractive option that individuals in the developing world have available to them, those of us who care about their welfare and their autonomy have strong prima facie moral reason to refrain from taking those jobs away from them.
  5. Boycotting sweatshops, or imposing onerous restrictions on the importation or sale of sweatshop-produced goods, often has the effect of taking sweatshop jobs away from people (i.e. of reducing the demand of sweatshops for labor).
  6. Increasing the legal regulation of sweatshops – requiring them to pay a higher wage, to improve safety conditions, to make concessions to organized labor, etc. – also often has the effect of taking sweatshop jobs away from people. [For one recent illustrative analysis, see this paper from Ann Harrison and Jason Scorse]
  7. Therefore, we should avoid, or at least be exceedingly cautious about, boycotting, banning, or increasing the legal regulation of sweatshops and/or sweatshop-produced goods.

For me, at least, this is a quintessentially bleeding heart libertarian position.  I support sweatshops because I believe that they are good for the poor, not because I believe that interfering with them violates the non-aggression principle, or a natural right to freedom of contract, or whatever.  If you could convince me otherwise – if you could convince me that the policies I advocate set back the autonomy and welfare of the poor rather than advance them – then I would change my mind.

Academic critiques of the libertarian position tend to come from the political left.  But another line of critique has emerged in recent years from within the libertarian camp itself.  This line of argument, put forward by people like Kevin Carson and Michael Kleen, is rooted largely in the “left-libertarian” insight that currently existing capitalism is not a truly free market.  To assume that it is, and to draw from this assumption the empirical or moral conclusions that would be appropriate in a truly free market is to commit the fallacy of “vulgar libertarianism” or, as Roderick Long has described it, “right-conflationism.”

The left-libertarian argument has been developed mostly in blog posts, rather than in extended form in a book or scholarly paper, so reconstructing it requires piecing together bits from various sources.  But the basic argument seems to be this:

  1. The current political/economic system is not a truly free market, so standard moral and empirical insights about such a market do not apply to it.
  2. The options of sweatshop workers are limited largely because the “employing classes” (Kevin Carson’s term) have colluded with governments in the developing world to limit them by engaging in the unjust seizure of land, restricting unionization, enforcing intellectual property rights, erecting barriers to trade, and so on.
  3. Therefore, sweatshops as the exist in the current political/economic system are not a phenomena that libertarians should celebrate or support.

Both of the premises in this argument contain an element of truth.  But they are also deeply misleading.  More importantly, they do absolutely nothing to undermine the standard libertarian position on sweatshops, as described above.

Take the first point.  It is true, of course, that we do not have a purely free market in this country or anywhere else.  But this does not mean that the moral and empirical insights of free-market analysis are entirely irrelevant.  The existence of crony capitalism, unjust coercion, and market regulation do not affect all transactions equally.  And so many transactions even in an unfree market can be analyzed in much the same way as they could be if they occurred in a purely free market.  If I bake a loaf of bread and you walk into my shop and buy it, we should expect that both you and I will be made better off by the exchange.  And we should not hesitate to endorse the exchange as voluntary and free of coercion.  The fact that my bread is made with partly subsidized agricultural products, or the fact that your income comes from working as a public school teacher, doesn’t change either of these conclusions, even if it might be relevant for other questions we could ask.

The second point is even more problematic.  First, it’s just not necessarily true that the options of sweatshop workers have been unjustly limited by corporate-government collusion.  Sweatshop jobs are attractive to workers because those workers are poor, and have few options for improving their poverty.  Sometimes workers are poor because they have suffered injustice.  But I don’t see any reason to assume that this is always and necessarily true.  Poverty is not an aberration that can only be explained by human injustice.  Poverty, for the vast majority of human history, was the normal state of human existence.  It’s wealth, not poverty, that requires the special explanation.

But, putting that point to the side, there has been no shortage of injustice in human history, and there is no doubt that sweatshop workers and potential workers suffer the ill-effects of some of those injustices.  So what follows from this?  In most cases, I would argue, not much – at least not as far as the moral status of sweatshop labor goes.  Look again at the standard libertarian analysis of sweatshop labor presented above.   None of the claims in it – including the important first claim – are undermined by conceding that sweatshop workers’ lack of good options is partly the product of past injustice.  It doesn’t matter why workers are poor – whether it’s because of injustice or natural disaster or whatever.  If they’re poor, then sweatshop labor will often be their best option, and the rest of the analysis follows accordingly.

With one possible exception.  If sweatshops are themselves responsible for workers being low on options, then this could indeed undermine the claim that workers are better off with sweatshops than without them, and it will certainly undermine the belief that  sweatshops are acting in a morally blameless (if not morally praiseworthy) manner.  If you’re drowning in quicksand and I walk by with a rope, then maybe my selling it to you for $50 is a run-of-the-mill (if distastefully exploitative) case of mutually beneficial exchange.  But it is certainly not if I’m the one who pushed you into the quicksand.  So, is sweatshop labor like this?

Left-libertarian critics of sweatshops have made much of this kind of argument, but have offered no evidence that sweatshops, or the multinational enterprises that contract with sweatshops, can be directly implicated in the injustices that workers have suffered.  Hence Carson’s odd reference in claim 2 to “employing classes.”  The idea, I take it, is that even if a particular company like Gap has committed no injustices against workers in its factories in India, it is nevertheless a member of the “employing class” and that class has committed injustices.  But the claim that individuals and firms can be morally responsible for the actions of others, simply because those others are members of the same class, is not only a deeply implausible moral view, but one that sits very uneasily with the broader moral framework to which libertarians are supposed to be committed.

Of course, even if firms aren’t themselves responsible for or culpably complicit in the injustices caused workers to be in a desperate situation, it might nevertheless be wrong for them to take advantage of that desperation by paying wages lower than those they would have had to pay had the injustice not occurred.  But if this is the line of argument one wishes to pursue, then it’s hard to see why it should matter whether workers’ poverty is the result of injustice or some other morally neutral cause.  If it’s wrong to take advantage of people who are in a desperate situation caused by an injustice for which one is not morally responsible, why wouldn’t it be just as wrong to take advantage of people who are in a desperate situation caused by, say, a natural disaster (for which, of course, one is also not morally responsible)?  This might be a defensible line of argument, considered on its own merits.  But it’s clearly not the argument that left-libertarians are pushing, and it may not be an argument that they can push consistent with their more basic moral commitments.  And this leaves them in the untenable position of claiming that acts of type X are wrong while denying that acts of type Y (which appear to be identical to acts of type X in all morally relevant characteristics) are wrong.

In conclusion, there’s good news and bad news for the left-libertarian.  Let’s start with the bad.  Unless left-libertarians can provide empirical evidence about the ways in which sweatshops and/or the multinational enterprises that contract with them are directly responsible for, or culpably complicit in, the injustices suffered by workers, their critique of the standard libertarian position on sweatshops fails.

The good news is this: none of these bad arguments about sweatshops are directly entailed by any of the most fundamental or distinctive premises of the left-libertarian position.  And, as I’ve argued in another recent paper on sweatshops, there are some useful insights to be gained from thinking about the problem of sweatshops in relation to questions of structural, background injustice in the way that left-libertarians suggest we do.  So left-libertarians don’t have to say the silly things they currently say about sweatshops, and indeed are in a position to say some very smart and helpful things instead.  This response from Ross Kenyon to a recent webinar by Ben Powell, for example, seems to me to draw on some left-libertarian insights without running into any of the problems described above, though I suspect that it will likely stumble over the same difficulties as other calls for ethical consumerism – such as those involved in “fair trade coffee.”  Still, it’s a good start to a conversation well worth having.


*The argument isn’t exclusively a libertarian position.  It is essentially the same argument made by people like Paul Krugman and Nicholas Kristof, neither of whom are libertarians by any stretch of the imagination.  I call it the libertarian argument not because only libertarians endorse it, but because almost all mainstream libertarians do.

  • Charles Anthony

    ” None of the claims in it – including the important first claim – are
    undermined by conceding that sweatshop workers’ lack of good options is
    partly the product of past injustice. ” 
    You just admitted that you erected a strawman argument.  That is the best you can do??  

    • Sorry, which argument do you think is a strawman?  And why?

  • Aeon Skoble

    Fantastic post, Matt.

  • I’ve received that criticism before on the same grounds of contra-ethical consumerism, but I don’t see why we shouldn’t be very careful about what sort of values we support with our money.  Is the only thing libertarians should care about when purchasing and consuming is how good of a bargain they’re getting, and ignore everything non-monetary? That doesn’t sound right.  Perhaps the problem might be with how Fair Trade works as a specific enterprise, rather than with so-called voting with one’s dollar.

    I’m also very dubious that we should view development economics in purely relative terms, as in yes, it is better probably to be a child sweatshop worker than a child prostitute. But I don’t want to have to wait generations for the world’s poorest economies to develop in the manner which has normally been pursued so that those are no longer the only options. In that time many lives will be brutal and dirty, and perhaps unnecessarily so if we could reasonably do something to make sure people have safer conditions and time to develop their minds. If I happened to have been born in China I’d at the very least wish people would be willing to pay a few extra dollars to make my life bearable enough where I didn’t want to commit suicide like many of my peers.

    As much as we enjoy methodological individualism, when we fetishize economic growth and aim for it at the exclusion of all other values, no-longer abstracted people will be sacrificed in the process. I don’t wish this to be the case.

    • Jamie Carroll

      but let’s suppose you decide not to purchase labor from “sweatshops.” does this necessarily mean that we’ll skip the “brutal/dirty” stage? not necessarily. it could just mean that that particular factory closes down, and all its workers go back to their lives as they existed before the factory. maybe the business moves to the US. That outcome seems just as, if not more, plausible to me than “the business stays int he same place and improves its working conditions” story.

      • Indeed. I wrote this in the blog post Matt graciously linked to. I’m not arguing for a boycott so much as I’d like to see people take non-monetary values into account and possibly pay more than people would be willing to accept so that they have a better quality of life.

        I didn’t even necessarily offer a strict positive vision of how we should achieve that end, and if programs like Fair Trade don’t, I’d curious as to how it could be done which takes its shortcomings into account.

        • Andrew Levine

          B-corps (recently enacted in California, making it the 6th state since 2010 to allow them to set up) are one potential option: For-profit companies that pursue social goals beyond mere profit, and which get independently audited on the achievement of those goals just as their financial books get audited. The common structure of shareholder-owned corporations does not permit prioritizing anything above strict shareholder value, but B-corps provide a promising alternative for re-centering economic priorities around non-monetary values.

    • Hi Ross,
      I have no quarrel with the principle that our purchases should reflect our values.  And I certainly wouldn’t want to claim that economic growth trumps all other values.  Though really, I don’t think I know anyone who believes that.  Economic growth is tremendously important for the realization of our other values, though.  Money isn’t just money – it’s safer workplaces, better schools for one’s children, longer lives, a cleaner environment, anything we choose to spend it on.  
      The problem with ethical consumerism isn’t so much the moral principle as the implementation.  I’m just not convinced that most of the proposals that have been tried or suggested have been or would be successful in making the lives of the poor better off in any significant way.  They’ll often benefit some poor at the expense of others, or provide short-term benefit that does little in the way of long-term good.  But I’m no expert on this area, and so have to defer to people like Haight who’ve studied it seriously.  It’s probably worth my looking into more for a future blog post though.

      • Anonymous

        Just a thought: how does this apply to disinvestment as a strategy to affect political change? I gather some people think it helped to speed the end of apartheid in South Africa. On the other hand, it probably caused some significant pain in the country, especially to the black working class. So was the short term pain worth the long term gain? It might be said that things would have improved on their own through economic growth. It’s hard to evaluate the counterfactual! There are some disanalogies here: a consumer makes a small difference to a company’s bottom line, but a large organization’s refusal to buy the stock of a company headquartered in a certain country might hurt more. Perhaps your answer to this issue would be the same as your answer to the sweatshop issue: if disinvesting is good for the worst off (in the medium or long term, perhaps) then you’re for it; otherwise, not.

  • Thanks for the well-written post, Matt. As a struggling libertarian, I’ve always struggled with the idea of sweatshop labor, even after hearing the libertarian case for it ad nauseum. This may be a stupid question, but how do you address the notion of “choice”? If someone in deep poverty ends up working in a sweatshop, are they making the free choice to do so, if the other option is the same or worse poverty? One could say that s/he had “no choice” but to work there. I know these questions extend far beyond this issue. Maybe you can help me parse through “choice” and free markets. 

    I appreciate it!

    • Anonymous

      A reality of the world is that people in poverty have very few choices. I assume that by calling it no choice, you mean that it is their only viable choice for survival. As depressing as that may sound, it is also the moral plank in the case in support of such operations. Seeking to prohibit desperate people from availing themselves of economic opportunities simply because we do not prefer the terms is robbing them of their only hope for a better future. That is violence.

    • I second the sentiment expressed by kch75, and would simply extend the point, also made in the blog post above, that the desperately poor people in question are voting with their feet, in droves.  To wit: the Chinese government (nowhere is China singled out, I realize, but we are talking about a situation that has played out in China, on a massive scale) did not (and does not, as far as I know) round up peasants from the rural countryside and march them, by force, into the cities where these factories offer employment on those terms. The (something like) 300 million Chinese people who have seen their standard of living rise from desperate poverty to some approximation of the Chinese version of middle class did not do so at the point of a gun. They walked (often literally) out of poverty on their own initiative.

      Just discovered this blog today, and I appreciate it very much. I’ve been calling myself a bleeding heart libertarian for years.

    • Hey Dan,
      No, that’s a perfectly legitimate and important question.  I think there are sensible grounds for saying that workers’ choice to work in a sweatshop is not truly free in some sense.  Their choice is, after all, severely constrained in a number of ways.  They don’t have a lot of options for work, and for some people it might be “work or starve.”  Some of the constraints might be the product of injustice, others not.  
      But I don’t think it’s too helpful to think of choices in terms of a dichotomy between “free” and “unfree,” as though there was no middle ground.  The great bulk of our choices, I think, fall on a continuum somewhere between these extremes.  So the right question to ask, I think, isn’t whether their choices are “free” or “unfree” in some absolute sense, but whether they are free enough for us to be warranted in drawing some normative conclusion.  How free is free enough depends on what moral conclusion we’re trying to draw.  But we can draw some important conclusions, I think, even in cases of choice that are significantly unfree.  Here’s a stylized example.  Suppose you’re kidnapped and held in someone’s basement.  They come down and ask you want you want for lunch: soup or a sandwich.  Now, clearly your choices here are severely and unjustly constrained.  But even so, you are free to choose from within this narrowly constrained choice set either a soup or a sandwich.  And if, say, you chose a sandwich, it would be a further wrong to you for the kidnapper to give you the soup instead.  The kidnapper is offered you to exercise your autonomy in a severely constricted way, and your choice of sandwich expresses a preference that allows others to draw inferences on what actions they could take to promote your well-being.  
      So I think we could say similar things about the sweatshop case.  Yes, their choice to work in a sweatshop isn’t totally free.  But it’s not totally unfree either, and it’s free enough, I think, for the (very limited) conclusions I try to draw in the “standard libertarian argument” to follow.

  • “If you’re drowning in quicksand and I walk by with a rope, then maybe my selling it to you for $50 is a run-of-the-mill (if distastefully exploitative) case of mutually beneficial exchange.  But it is certainly not if I’m the one who pushed you into the quicksand.  So, is sweatshop labor like this?”
    Matt, it’s not like an overt “push,” and of course, if it was, the pro-sweatshop argument could be rationalized.  

    It’s more like: “I’m willfully blind to the fact that the U.S. Constitution can help you out of the quicksand you’re already in, and being an official U.S. corporation I will allow you to think I’ll help out of the quicksand. But, I really have no intention of doing so, and in fact I’ll pack up and leave if I’m required to help you onto solid ground.”

    Rationalize and intellectualize however you will, with carrot and stick in hand, U.S. corporations primarily operate in foreign countries to exploit workers who are not subject “ridiculous” U.S. employment, environmental, and tax laws (not to mention the biggest carrot of all, a potential property right in human labor under the Direct Tax Clauses, which no U.S. lawyer will help workers to claim, even on U.S. soil).

    The bottom line is that U.S.-chartered corporations operating in foreign countries have a duty to offer, or at gradually least phase-in, the same Constitutional rights that are presently available to U.S. workers.

    • Hi Rick,

      Thanks for this.  Could you clarify something for me?  Is your claim that US based corporations have a legal duty to offer foreign workers Constitutional rights?  If so, what is the source of this legal obligation?  And assuming that they do have such a duty, what implications do you think this has for worker safety regulation, wages, etc., since most of these duties are statutory rather than Constitutional in the US?

      • Hello Matt,

        I wouldn’t say that U.S. based corporations have a duty to offer all Constitutional rights when operating in foreign countries, but certainly those related to employment.  Depending on the foreign country, I also think we’d have to look at each law to see how to reasonably phase them in.  For example, enforcing minimum wage laws would be likely be unworkable in most foreign countries, equal opportunity rights for women would take longer to enforce in Middle East countries than perhaps South American, etc.


        In my view, corporations have a duty to reflect the legal system of the government that created them under the ancient Law of Agency, from which the master/slave relationship was governed. (Of course, after the Civil War, we don’t use that terminology, but instead now we say “employer/employee,” “landlord/tenant” or “parent corportation/subsidiary corporation,” etc.)  In short, the U.S. government is a very uniquely structured entity built on the corporate model with the people-owned Congress representing perhaps one of the first publicly-owned “sovereigns” in history with a money-creation power.  

        So, in other words, the Congress is the “sovereign” or parent corporation that issues various corporate charters to subordinate entities, and even state issued corporate charters are subordinate to Congress.  Prior to the formation of the U.S. government, we would probably have called an entity like Congress the board of directors of a “master corporation,” with the corporate charters issued under its authority referred to as “slave corporations.”  My point is simply that the servant or subsidiary corporation can no more take independent action that is contrary to its master or parent corporation’s agenda than a child could arbitrarily claim dominion over a parent, which, oddly enough, is the common view today, i.e., that corporations can tell their creator (Congress) what to do.


        Yes, most of the duties owed to U.S. employees are now statutory, but all statutes must be derived from a Constitutional source, and in the case of employment-related statutes, are mostly derived from New Deal expansion of federal powers under the Commerce Clause, which states: “Congress shall have power … to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3) 

        There are other important worker-related rights coming from the tax and monetary clauses, which especially kicked in during the Supreme Court’s “revolution of 1937,” but explaining these would be a very long post.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent post, Matt!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the excellent, well-reasoned post that makes a very strong case for your sensible conclusion. I do, however, have a question/concern about this statement: “I support sweatshops because I believe that they are good for the poor, not because I believe that interfering with them violates the non-aggression principle, or a natural right to freedom of contract, or whatever. If you could convince me otherwise – if you could convince me that the policies I advocate set back the autonomy and welfare of the poor rather than advance them – then I would change my mind.”

    My concern arises from the fact that “the poor” consists of multiple groupings. I think it is undeniable that “sweatshops” advance the interests of the third-world poor. But, it is less clear that they improve the situation of the poor and working class members of our society. Indeed, many foes of “globalization,” including unions, argue that low-cost labor in the third world drives down wages here by the threat of out-sourcing. While I believe it is true that the overall welfare gains to our society are larger than the specific loss excperienced by the less well-off groups here, the least advantaged groups may still suffer.

    So this observation raises at least a couple of issues. First, are citizens of our nation who reasonably believe that sweatshops disadvantage them (perhaps a majority of the electorate?) morally obligated not to push trade barriers, domestic subsidies, and other policies that would nullify the cost advantage enjoyed by cheap off-shore labor? Second, what do you make of the argument, which has a very respectable pedigree, that we owe some special or more stringent moral obligation to members of our own community relative to what we owe strangers? Might this obligation require even those of us who benefit from cheap imports to oppose sweatshops? 

    It seems to me that those of us who see the non-aggression axiom or freedom of contract as a first and fundamental moral principle escape these issues.  On this view, all rational agents, foreign or domestic, enjoy these rights.

    • Hi Mark.  Thanks, as usual, for a thoughtful comment.  You’re absolutely right that there are multiple categories of poor, and that policies that help one category might fail to help or might even positively harm another.  For me, this is mostly a problem for thinking about how to help the poor in the developing world: policies that help poor urban workers might not help poor rural farmers.  Policies that help the already-employed might harm the already employed.
      As for the poor within the United States, I think lumping them in the same category as the poor of the developing world would be a serious mistake.  Yes, we have poverty within the United States, but for the most part it is narrow, relative poverty, not absolute poverty.  Even working class people in the United States are fantastically wealthy by global standards, and do not have to worry about having their basic needs met.  Things are quite otherwise for the poor in the developing world.  So the possibility that helping the poor in the developing world might hurt the “poor” of the developed world doesn’t trouble me too much, especially if helping the poor overseas doesn’t involve anything that could plausibly be regarded as a violation of the rights of the poor at home – it just allows tearing down barriers to trade and allowing people to engage in mutually beneficial exchange.
      So yes, I think citizens at home are morally obliged not to push for trade barriers, immigration restrictions etc., merely on the grounds that this would provide them with a small to moderate economic benefit.  As for special obligations, I’m certainly supportive of the idea that we have obligations to friends, family, and neighbors that we don’t have to strangers.  But I seriously doubt that whatever relationship I have with people living in Maine, simply by virtue of the fact that we are both citizens of the United States, is robust enough to ground much in the way of special obligations toward them.  Certainly not robust enough that I should prefer vanishingly small increases in their welfare to such a great extent that I employ coercion against other members of the United States to stop them from trading with (and thereby conferring great benefit upon) much worse off people abroad.

      • Anonymous

        Without necessarily disagreeing with your conclusion, I guess I am more sympathetic to the idea that our nation constitutes a “community” of some sort, requiring us to accord greater moral weight to the interests of fellow community members than to strangers. For many generations we (the current generation and our ancestors) have fought and died together in wars, and more importantly still, have agreed (at least post-Civil War) to live peacefully under the same political roof, regardless of our profound and passionate disagreements about many important questions. In some sense, we have and will continue to share a common fate.

        Nevertheless, as one of those “hard-core” libertarians who holds something like the non-aggression axiom as a first principle, I believe that community members have a right to engage in voluntary transactions as they wish, including buying goods from sweatshops. BHLs, however, I think must grapple with this “community” issue.

  • Anonymous

    “If you’re drowning in quicksand and I walk by with a rope, then maybe
    my selling it to you for $50 is a run-of-the-mill (if distastefully
    exploitative) case of mutually beneficial exchange.  But it is certainly
    not if I’m the one who pushed you into the quicksand.  So, is sweatshop labor like this?”

    On the other hand it’s not so hot if you instead say “Geez, you don’t have $50?  Wow, tough for you!”  Or “Hey, for $5 I can at least take down any last words you’d like to pass along to your spouse and kids.”

    Back when I was wealthy I had an opportunity to buy a gorgeous 100-year-old farm on the Olympic Peninsula.  It was beauty!  Two separate salmon streams on the property, all the modern amenities, totally restored farmhouse and outbuildings, totally self-contained utilities and power backups, the works.  While the owner was showing me around the property, down by the road near the powerhouse with the instant-on generator, there was a set of eight identical buildings that looked a lot like glorified outhouses — roughly 8×10 foot floor plans, one window each and a little porch each.  I asked about them and he said they were the original milkmaid housing.  He said they might look small but, he said, “believe it or not each one of them originally came with six bunks each!”

    That sounded more outrageous to him that me, in part because knowing the economic history of the Olympic Peninsula I knew that those shacks (“restored” to a splendor far greater than they’d originally ever had) must nevertheless have seemed palatial to the women who agreed to live in them as a (highly sweatshop-like) condition of work.  And the low (even by then-contemporary standards) pay they got was far better than the approximately zero money they could make elsewhere in the area.

    So I’m inclined to agree in principle that in much of the world when the conditions in a sweatshop are better than the conditions at home then sweatshops are an objective good.

    What I don’t care so much for, though, is the notion that if sweatshops are better than the pre-existing conditions then active steps should be taken to insure that, however much they might aspire for more, there is no where else for those workers to go.

    Cases in point being, for instance, the maquiladoras just on the Mexican side of the Texas border where, but for a border, workers could earn considerably more, in considerably fewer hours and in considerably safer conditions were they allowed to migrate even a few miles north.  (The way, say, similarly able but impoverished men and women from the deep South were able to migrate from Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, or Georgia up to Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan early in the 20th Century.)

    Now as libertarians we all probably agree that there shouldn’t be laws prohibiting able-bodied people from traveling to find work, even if there’s an international boundary in between home and workplace.  And that’s as it should be.

    But as libertarians we should probably also not go around saying “why them thar sweat shops is just hunky dory” when… people who stand to benefit from keeping people in sweat shops also go around lobbying hard to make sure aren’t able to migrate to areas with better wages and better working conditions.

    Bottom line: yes, a sweat shop is better than nothing… but only if the choices are a sweat shop and nothing.  If there is something even better but the sweat-shop workers are actively prevented from taking advantage of it then it’s no longer cause for libertarian celebration.


    • Hey Figleaf, 

      As I so often do, I agree with the great bulk of what you say here.  I think much of the public debate over sweatshops – and some of the academic debate – is overly-simplistic in terms of the moral categories it employs.  Either sweatshops are something to be vilified and abolished, or they’re something to be celebrated and preserved.  Of course, there’s a lot of room in between.  Sweatshops might be providing tremendous benefit to their employees, such that we ought not to try to abolish them, while still doing much less than they can.  They might provide benefit even though the people running them are greedy, shallow, and morally despicable.  So what conclusion we should draw about sweatshops depends a lot, I think, on just what question we’re asking.  And perhaps a lot of the misunderstandings in this debate stem from assuming that one’s interlocutor must, of course, be interested in answering the same question that you are.

  • CFV

     “Poverty is not an aberration that can only be explained by human injustice.  Poverty, for the vast majority of human history, was the normal state of human existence.  It’s wealth, not poverty, that requires the special explanation.”

    The post fails to distinguish between two different situations, which we may label (for lack of a better name) “social poverty” and “natural poverty.”  

    In Crusoe-like scenarios, Robinson is poor, but he has access to the means of production needed to improve his condition: nobody precludes/interferes with his actions, so he is at liberty to transform nature and maximize his utility-function.

    In sweatshops-like scenarios, the workers are first precluded by social rules of having free access to the means of production, and then they are offered a contract that will improve his condition relative to that baseline.

    A further point is that the sweatshop offer is Pareto-superior relative to the baseline, but it is not the only Pareto-superior state: if workers were not legally precluded of having freedom of association, they would have a wage-rate higher than the wage-rate they actually have. The argument that enabling unionization could be counterproductive because it “has the effect of taking sweatshop jobs away from people” just missed the point: one can argue that abolishing slavery’s laws could have the effect of taking slavery labor away from people (and at least the slaves are fed by the slave-owner).

    PS: For further complications about Crusoe-like scenarios, see Mcfadeen, D. (1975, 2003): “Robinson Crusoe Meets Walras and Keynes”, mimeo.

    • Agreed that the distinction between these two types of poverty is important.  Hard to say how much of each is responsible for the poverty of sweatshop workers – it’s certainly a mixture.

      I’m certainly opposed to governments that restrict the freedom of association of their workers.  But generally, this is a wrong the blame for which falls on governments, not sweatshops.  And what’s not clear to me is that we should blame sweatshops for taking advantage of an injustice perpetrated by government.

      • Anonymous

        “…what’s not clear to me is that we should blame sweatshops for taking advantage of an injustice perpetrated by government.”

        This is a fairly easy one.  It’s one thing (I guess) if the sweatshop owner “just” takes advantage of loopholes in labor laws.  It’s quite another if, instead, the sweatshop owner actively lobbies and/or actively bribes government to create bigger loopholes.

        Also you probably want to be careful there.  Because your sillogysm makes it equally unclear why we should blame drivers for taking advantage of an injustice perpetuated by government that allows them to (repeatedly!) run over two-year-old toddlers.


      • CFV

        Thanks for the answer. Some more thoughts about this issue.

        I don’t see how “natural poverty” is responsible for the poverty of sweatshop workers.  Had they had access to the natural means of production, they would have not sweated. 

        “And what’s not clear to me is that we should blame sweatshops for taking
        advantage of an injustice perpetrated by government.”

        Suppose I am an honest slave-owner. I have not instituted slavery (that’s government’s responsibility). I bought my slaves in the market and for the market clearing price. I even feed them well (perhaps I am sentimental, perhaps they are more productive that way).  Am I blameless for taking unfair advantage of my slaves? Let’s suppose your answer is: no (if you’re answer is yes, stop reading this).

        Now consider a second case: I am an honest businessmen. I have not restricted unionization or taking land and mineral resources, etc., away from workers (that’s government’s responsibility). I just offered them a contract (a throffer?)  in which I will have full ownership of the entire surplus thus created minus some subsistence wages. Am I blameless for taking unfair advantage of the workers? Let’s suppose that now your answer is yes. Question: what’s the moral difference between full-slavery and partial-slavery that makes you morally guilty in the first case but blameless in the second case? Because in the second case, what you have in the end is partial ownership in another person’s labor powers…

        • CFV, your comments about slavery, and the relationship between labor and employer, is why it’s so important to make U.S. law applicable in sweatshops. 

          Under post-Civil War income tax evolution in the U.S., employers (formerly slaveholders) are the primary targets of regulation and taxation, simply because they assume a position of dominance over workers. I just learned the Latin word for this: “libido dominandi,” which I think translates into “the urge to dominate.”  Remarkably, and only because of U.S. roots in slavery, federal jurisdiction is acquired over an employer simply because s/he assumes a dominant position over another human being, which is why, for example, even the hiring of a nanny becomes something that is subject to federal regulation.In foreign countries, employers may be said to fully or partially own their laborers, but not under U.S. law.  Although few lawyers understand the real purpose behind the 16th Amendment, its main post-Civil War goal was to assure that any tax on employers or their paid-out wages is not an unconstitutional direct tax on the underlying property source of human labor (which means that each individual employee under the employer’s control has a potential property right in his/her wages). But, either way, whether the employee claims a property in his/her labor, or allows it to be treated as income, under U.S. law the employer is considered to have a legal status that is inferior to his/her employees (which, of course, is why so many U.S. employers are eager to go abroad and get away from U.S. law).

          • CFV

            Thanks for this. I don’t know much about the background of the 16th Amendment. Interesting. Libertarians  are, in general, strongly against income taxes (See, for instance, Frank Chodorov The Income Tax: Root of All Evil, available here: http://mises.org/etexts/rootofevil.pdf).

            Although I share some of the standard libertarian dislike for income taxes, I think I have a more moderate stance on this issue, for things related to “non-ideal justice.”

          • Thanks for the link. I used to be strongly against income taxes, too, but the more I’ve learned about them, I’ve come to see them as useful and necessary. Useful to help draw distinctions between property and income, and thereby provide a laborer with a property right in his/her wages.  And necessary to help regulate fiat non-coin currencies, which are otherwise worthless and destabilizing if not regulated by income taxes.

        • I think it’s important to distinguish between taking advantage of an injustice, and taking unjust advantage of an injustice.

          Slavery as an institution is an injustice. But owning a slave is in itself unjust. So owning a slave is an additional wrong, above and beyond the institution of slavery itself.

          Contrast this with a different case. Suppose someone unjustly burns down your house. I’m a construction worker who’s been looking for a job for a while. I get you to hire me to rebuild your home, and charge you a fair price. I gain an advantage that is a direct result of the injustice you have suffered, but it is not an advantage that is in itself unjust.

          My position on sweatshops is this: you could sensibly hold that sweatshops are taking unjust advantage of people’s vulnerability. I think this position is wrong in most cases, but it’s sensible. But if it’s sensible, it’s sensible regardless of the source of the vulnerability – whether it stems from injustice or from natural causes (it’s be just as wrong to charge you an unjust price if your house burned down in a wildfire). Left-libertarians are wrong to focus on background injustices as much as they do, at least if the question we’re interested in is how we should morally evaluate sweatshops themselves. For different questions, the issue of background injustice is of course crucial.

          • CFV

            Matt: I don’t think I quite see the difference between taking advantage of an injustice and taking unjust advantage of an injustice. In a world of perfect compliance, you will paid the construction worker out of the compensation owed to you by the guy who burned down the house.

            In any case, owning a slave is in itself unjust in the same way than exploiting people is in itself unjust (although mutually beneficial).

            The source of the disagreement between standard libertarians and Left-libertarians could be this: Left-libertarians won’t define exploitation as taking unjust advantage of people’s vulnerability – regardless of the source of the vulnerability.

          • Very briefly, I define “taking advantage” of someone as interacting with them in a way that benefits oneself.  Some of the ways that we can take advantage of a person are unjust, and others are not.  So if I’m a home builder, and I see that someone needs a home built, I can take advantage of them by offering to build them a home at a fair price.  That’s taking advantage, but I don’t think it’s taking unjust advantage.  If, say, I charged them 3 times the market rate because I had killed every other home builder in the area and now had a monopoly, then that would be taking unfair advantage.
            To my mind, all of the important moral issues about sweatshops have to do with whether sweatshops (or the MNEs they work with) are taking unjust advantage or not.  Whether they are taking unjust advantage of a previously existing injustice, or whether they are taking unjust advantage of a vulnerability that is not the result of injustice, is to my thinking beside the point.

  • Andrew Levine

    “If you’re drowning in quicksand and I walk by with a rope, then maybe
    my selling it to you for $50 is a run-of-the-mill (if distastefully 
    exploitative) case of mutually beneficial exchange.  But it is certainly
    not if I’m the one who pushed you into the quicksand.  So, is sweatshop labor like this?”
    It’s not, since this is only a mutually beneficial exchange if it’s taken as an individual incident, whereas sweatshop labor occurs on the scale of millions of people sinking and being offered ropes by perfectly innocent strangers, and persists across generations. When you do that on such a large scale, you no longer have just a contract between two people; instead, you see the creation of a culture of mistrust when compared to a culture of good samaritans that throw the rope no questions asked. Belief in the idea of social mobility necessarily erodes in such $50-to-save-your-life cultures over time, and this limits economic aspirations and builds resentment further (both of which are linked to higher crime). All of this serves to encourage spending that is inefficient and wasteful (manifesting in the form of rope-tossers overspending on housing, schooling, and security to keep as far away as possible from the unfortunates who keep stepping in quicksand) not to mention it makes a more miserable place to live in.

  • Anonymous

    It’s a thoughtful argument, Matt, but I’m not convinced.  To take your two main points:

    In response to the fact — which I cheerfully stipulate — that both parties to even a non-free market transaction benefit from it, I answer “So what?”  Of course — even a pure monopolist engaged in price discrimination must target the price low enough so that the customer at least barely benefits from buying a good under monopoly conditions compared to not buying it at all.  The monopolist sets the price such that the benefits of purchase just barely exceed the cost, so that if there is nowhere else to go the customer will grudingly accept the deal.  Likewise for sweatshop employers just barely setting the wages high enough to make the choice of work preferable to homelessness and starvation.

    Regarding the second argument, I would say the historical evidence is overwhelming that when workers have independent access to the means of subsistence, they usually prefer self-employment to wage employment. And the main forces behind eliminating access to the means of subsistence have been some combination of state, landlords, and large employers.

    The propertied and employing classes of late 18th century England saw Enclosures as imperative in order to drive peasants — for their own good, of course — into wage labor.  Likewise for the British, who evicted the cultivators of the best 20% of the land in British East Africa and gave it to white settlers, in order to force them into the wage economy.

    • Anonymous

      Kevin, regarding your first paragraph about monopoly pricing, isn’t a more fundamental question about those trades the question of the source of value? We talking about who gets to walk away with the surplus value.  I’m ignoring here the issue of imposed monopoly and want to consider the case where there isn’t really a set price and each unit/lot sold is priced for the specific buyer and abstract away from governmentally supported rent-seeking cases.

    • Thanks for responding, Kevin.  

      So, first, I’m not completely sure that you’ve got my two main points correct here.  There
      are really two things I tried to do in this post: the first was to summarize the standard libertarian position on sweatshops, and the second was to argue that the left-libertarian critique of that position is unsuccessful.  

      The first point you raise is indeed an important point in the standard libertarian argument.
       I do think that it is important fact that both parties to a market transaction benefit from it.  “So what,” you ask?  What follows from this?  Well, in my presentation of the standard libertarian
      argument, claim #7 follows from it: “Therefore, we should avoid, or at least be exceedingly cautious about, boycotting, banning, or increasing the legal regulation of sweatshops and/or sweatshop-produced goods.”  I don’t think it follows that sweatshops are doing nothing morally wrong.  As others have pointed out, and as I’ve argued myself in my work on exploitation, it is possible for an exchange to be voluntary, mutually beneficial, and nevertheless unjust.  So there are two questions that need to be kept separate in the sweatshop debate: 1) whether the agreement between sweatshops and workers is unjust, 2) whether we ought to prohibit or otherwise interfere in the agreement between sweatshops and workers.

      You don’t actually say what the second main point you attribute to me is, so it’s hard to evaluate the second part of your response.  I think the main point of my critique of the left-libertarian position is this: even granting that sweatshop workers have suffered injustice, it is not generally
      the case that sweatshops or the multinational companies that contract with sweatshops are morally responsible for this injustice.  Other members of their “employing class” might be responsible for it; governments certainly are responsible for it; but not the sweatshops themselves.  But if sweatshops are not morally responsible for the injustices that sweatshop
      workers have suffered, then it is difficult to see why it is morally wrong for them to gain advantage from this injustice (see my response to CFV below).  Either it’s wrong to take advantage of vulnerable people, or it’s not; I can’t see why it should matter one way or another whether the vulnerability was caused by an injustice (for which one was not morally responsible) or some other cause.  That, I think, is the main part of my argument with which you have to grapple.

      As for whether people prefer self-employment to wage employment, I’m much less convinced than you that this is true.  A lot depends, I would think, on whether all else is equal: whether the income one can earn is the same, whether the degree of risk one faces is the same, etc.  And I suspect that most things aren’t usually equal.  It’s hard to know what data we could examine
      to settle this issue, since your point is a counterfactual one about what workers would do if they had independent access to the means of subsistence, which they typically don’t.  But it seems to me an important fact that many of the world’s poor don’t like agricultural work.  It’s very hard, it’s subject to tremendous risk based on uncontrollable natural events, etc.  A lot of people want a job where they can show up, do what they’re told, and count on a paycheck at the end of
      the week. And it’s not clear to me that this is at all an irrational preference for them to hold.  See, for instance, this summary by Matt Yglesias of Duflo and Banerjee’s new book, Poor
      Economics, noting especially his conclusion: (http://thinkprogress.org/yglesias/2011/05/07/200887/poor-economics/).

      • gaffigubbi88

        I think you’re conflating two questions here: are the sweatshops are morally culpable for their bargaining position, and is the system itself unjust? The former seems to me to be a completely irrelevant question. The left-libertarian critique says nothing about what kind of actions should be taken to help poor workers, or who’s really at fault here, it’s an analysis of what is happening and why.

        As for rational preferences, we can’t say much about that without knowing all the available options. It could be that people in poor countries look up to the West and
        associate wage labor with prosperity, or maybe people in general
        actually do prefer hierarchical wage labor to all the anarcho-utopistic
        stuff Carson and I like – I’m not paternalistic enough to tell them
        they’re wrong. But if you’re in a community where there’s plenty of land and resources for self-employment or cooperative work and a big factory opens up nearby, they’re going to have to offer something special to get people to show up (security, autonomy and a nice salary among other things).  Without the choice for freedom available, simply pointing at the revealed preference for sweatshop labor tells us nothing.

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  • mike

    Everything you say makes sense if, say, you were talking about robots and not human beings.

  • When is the article stating that slavery is an excellent career option?

    • You’ll have to look elsewhere for that one.  I personally think there’s a pretty big difference between voluntary labor agreements and involuntary servitude.  

  • This is a great piece.

    However, looking at it and the comments, I think people need to conceptually distinguish certain things.

    1. The issue of whether the corporation’s actions are bad/unjust.

    2. The issue of what we, consumers in the west, or western governments, should do about it. 

    Number 1 is somewhat unclear.  Sometimes even mutually beneficial exchanges can be unjust.  your quicksand/ladder example is one.  Or more starkly, I could offer to save someone from a burning building in exchange for sex.  That would certainly be exploitative.  Maybe corporations are being exploitative in this sense.  But then, they are doing more than most people to actually alleviate third world poverty.  So, are we worse than them?

    Whatever the answer is, it doesn’t matter for number 2…

    Because number 2 is, the evidence shows, very clear.  We should not boycott sweatshop labour because it will make the lives of sweatshop workers worse.  Buying fair trade will not help the poorest either because the money goes to relatively rich people.  Sweatshop labourers are the most in need.  Demanding some sort of minimum wage is, as we know, likely to make them worse off. 

    SO, it might be exploitative and awful to employ sweatshop workers, but still be the case that we should actually try and buy as much sweatshop-made stuff as possible. 

    • Thanks, John.  These are great points.  I completely agree that mutually beneficial and voluntary exchanges can sometimes be unjust.  I do think, however, that there’s a bit of a puzzle involved in explaining or defending the wrongness of such interactions, especially since most people seem to believe that non-interaction is generally morally permissible (perhaps not in the quicksand case, but certainly in cases involving sweatshops or price gouging).  I discuss this puzzle a bit in a previous post, here: http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2011/06/which-is-worse-a-sweatshop-or-you/

  • Henry Farbson

    That position (which I have defended before here, and Ben here and here) looks something like the following:
    Literally eating feces is very often the best option individuals in the
    developing world have for not going hungry and improving their lives and the lives of their
    families.We know this partly because individuals reveal a strong preference
    for eating their own feces both behaviorally in their eager acceptance of this feces when it is made available, and verbally in their response to
    questions by journalists and researchers. [See informal reports such as this and more formal reports such as this]And we know it partly by looking at quantitative data on eating feces vs. other nutrition sources. [See Powell and Skarbek’s paper here]Because eating feces is often the most attractive option that
    individuals in the developing world have available to them, those of us
    who care about their welfare and their autonomy have strong prima facie moral reason to refrain from taking those feces away from them.Boycotting eating feces, or imposing onerous restrictions on the
    importation or sale of feces, often has the effect of
    taking nutrition away from people who have nothing else to eat (i.e. of reducing the demand of feces for hungry people).Increasing the legal regulation of eating feces – requiring them to inspect the feces to make sure it is not overly diseased, halting feces-eating to make people eat rocks, bark, and bees, etc. – also often has the effect of taking feces away from people. [For one recent illustrative analysis, see this paper from Ann Harrison and Jason Scorse]Therefore, we should avoid, or at least be exceedingly cautious
    about, boycotting, banning, or increasing the legal regulation of feces and/or feces-related edible items.

    For me, at least, this is a quintessentially bleeding heart
    libertarian position.  I support literally eating feces because I believe that it is good for the poor and hungry, not because I believe that interfering with it
    violates the non-aggression principle, or a natural right to freedom of
    contract, or whatever.  If you could convince me otherwise – if you
    could convince me that the policies I advocate set back the autonomy and
    welfare of the poor and hungry rather than advance them – then I would change my

    • that’s an obviously wrongheaded criticism.  If it were actually the case that eating faeces made people better off than not eating it, it would actually be immoral to take away those people’s opportunity to eat faeces (and not replace it with anything).

      As it is, unlike sweatshop labour, eating faeces is not beneficial to the person, so your analogy is completely wrong.

      • Henry Farbson

        These impoverished people in the developing world have nothing else to eat. Do you want them to starve to death? Your first point is correct though. It would be truly immoral to not support their digestion of feces. If anything, we should financially assist those who are willing to eat their own feces to show our support.

    • Was this meant to be a serious comment warranting a response? Or do you just like saying the word “feces”a lot?

      • Henry Farbson

        Of course this is a serious comment, extrapolating from your excellent point to a broader argument about hunger and poverty. Sorry if it offended you. When I traveled through India and Central Africa, many people on the trip suggested Western countries should help provide food for those who are dying of hunger. I vehemently pointed out that it would be more pragmatic and perhaps even more moral to just make sure those who wanted to eat their own feces could continue to do so without interference. Or, rather, we should be extremely cautious about urging people to stop eating their own feces and especially cautious about objecting or drawing negative attention to the practice in public or political forums. After all, it is greatly enhancing most of their lives, since otherwise they would die of hunger. I actually think this issue is more important than the one you write about, but I suppose you just like saying the word “sweatshop” a lot?

        • OK, so if we’re being serious here, and not just trying for a cheap laugh, perhaps you could tell me which claim in the standard libertarian position on sweatshops you disagree with?  You obviously find the position absurd, but let’s see if you can advance beyond the level of cheap (and, as John Halstead has pointed out, flawed) satire, to that of actual, substantive argument.

          • Henry Farbson

            I’m not trying to write “satire” here. I’m trying to accurately apply
            the principles you outlined above to a different issue. If I have made
            an error in this analogy, I apologize. But I’m not sure why this
            analogy is flawed. Halstead’s point was that sweatshop labor is
            beneficial to people, whereas literally eating feces is not. This seems
            quite incorrect to me. Sweatshop labor is beneficial in the absence of
            any other reliable job or source of income. Similarly, eating feces is
            beneficial in the absence of any other source of food. (Xerographica’s
            comment supports this argument.) Eating animal and human feces is common throughout India, for example. (And, of course, dung is an important commodity throughout many African communities as well.) Just as we should be careful about regulating or deterring people who desperately need work from working in sweatshops, we need to be equally vigilant about regulating or deterring people who desperately need food from eating feces. Furthermore, just as we support sweatshop labor to keep people employed, I urge malnutritioned and impoverished people to stay fed by encouraging them to focus on eating feces. Taking these feces away from them, or proposing some more expensive and unfeasible source of nutrition, would take away the one source of nutrition they currently have and possibly kill them via starvation. I purchase products made in sweatshops rather than more expensive products made in “fair-trade” factories elsewhere because it gives the poorest people good employment opportunities. I don’t want these people to experience worse poverty or die. Similarly, I am far more likely to support someone eating their own feces than someone attempting to cultivate more expensive food products because this will have the net-effect of – at least in the short term – deterring people from eating feces they desperately need to survive. I don’t want these people to experience worse hunger or die.

          • I’m not trying to write “satire” here.

            I think you’re being disingenuous, and I’m strongly inclined not to converse with someone who’s not interested in a straightforward argument.

            You seem to know much more about feces-eating than me, so I’m not going to contest whatever points you choose to make about that practice, nor will I agree to them. 

            If you disagree, as you pretty clearly do, with the standard libertarian argument regarding sweatshops, I’m interested in hearing which one of the claims you disagree with and why.  Otherwise, I don’t think further conversation between us will be fruitful.

          • Henry Farbson

            With all due respect, I believe you wrote a persuasive argument, I attempted to apply it to a similar situation, and then you cheaply told me my analogy was “cheap” and “flawed” without specifying any basis for that opinion.  Obviously, there’s no reason you HAVE to respond to me (unless, of course, the alternative is death and extreme poverty, in which case I exhort you to respond to my “flawed” claims immediately because it is good for you).

  • Professor Zwolinski, 

    I am very much interested in your response to Kevin Carson’s comment, especially considering that you challenged him in your original post. 

    • I’m working my way up to it.  I have three young children and a full time job, so my time to respond on the comment thread is scarce.  I’m starting with the first comments first and moving my way down, making the occasional exception for comments (like this) that only take a few seconds to write.

  • Anonymous

    Matt, I generally agree with your proposition that we should not attempt to take away or make more scarce a relatively better alternative for others forcing them to accept a less preferred opportunity. I think that holds even when we don’t actually have a perfect world.

    However, I do think we need to toss a little more economic analysis into the mix. The first question I suggest we need to consider is what what the rate of return to the sweatshop owner is. If the markets are even close to free then the rates of return should not be too exceptional. If the rate of return at that level is exceptionally high we need to ask where the barriers to entry are. 

    In the first case we might be facing a basic economic development issue and Smith’s insights might suggest that the developing economy will be lower wealth as they have a less development market environment — basically some specialized input markets but that different than the external economies of scale that I think really drive Smith’s argument.

    In the second case, where some type of barrier to entry exists, that might also be a development issue but it could be a more designed and intended result. In such case where high returns to sweatshop owners is a contrived result then morally you might be faced with the problem that you’re helping the poor in a small way but helping the immoral in a much large way. I’m not sure how your moral calculations go in such a case.

  • Anonymous

    j_m_h:  Actually, I think the argument from monopoly pricing stands independently of your standard of value.  You can stipulate to any theory of value, and still argue on the basis of free market principle that a producer surplus extracted through the coercive enforcement of monopoly is extracted at the expense of the consumer — or turn it around and apply it to monopsony in the labor market.

  • I look forward to you follow up piece on the wonders of child labor. They’re nimble, obedient and they don’t eat much so why the big deal? Next up, Chinese prison labor, why let talent go to waste. Articles like this are why Libertarians rarely get elected to anything above dog catcher.

    • Perhaps you should take a look at Debra Satz’s article on the topic.  She’s hardly a libertarian, but thinks the practice is defensible in some contexts.  Do you not?  Do you think we should ban child labor even if the result of such a ban it to drive children into more dangerous underground work such as prostitution or theft?

      • Anonymous

        Some great points here. I just want to add that I have long believed rape should be legal and monitored by trained security officers, so that women will never be permanently injured or killed in dangerous alleyways. I think this is the most humane way to commit (and decrease) sex crimes.

        • As with Henry, above,
          I’m happy to engage with your arguments if you care to make any.  Do you
          think that child labor should be banned irrespective of the consequences of
          such a ban for children?  In 1992, the United States congress was
          considering legislation known as the “Child Labor
          Deterrence Act.” The purpose of this act was to prevent child labor by
          preventing the
          importation into the United States of any goods made, in whole or in part, by
          children under the age of 15. The Act never received enough support to pass,
          but while it was being debated, employers in several countries
          where child labor was widespread took preemptive action in order to maintain
          their ability to export to the lucrative U.S. market. One of these employers
          was the garment industry in Bangladesh. According to UNICEF’s 1997
          “State of the World’s Children” report, approximately 50,000
          children were laid off in 1993 in anticipation of the bill’s passage. Most of these children had little education, and few other
          opportunities to acquire one or to obtain alternative legal employment.
          As a result, many of these children turned to street hustling, stone crushing, and prostitution—all of which, the report notes,
          are much more hazardous and exploitative than garment


          I’m curious to hear your
          thoughts regarding this incident.  

          • Anonymous

            You are indeed a kind and patient man, perhaps to the point of suffering fools too gladly (here and elsewhere). I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for anything that you will recognize as “thoughts.” I am afraid that I cannot live up to your shining example.

          • Anonymous

            Not entirely sure where this is coming from. I agree with your points, and I’m making a clear argument on my own. Do you think that rape should be banned irrespective of the consequences for women? In every third-world society where rape was essentially institutionalized and supported by the state or its military, it resulted in far less brutal assaults and far less homicides (obviously a lot more hazardous and exploitative than rape).

          • I guess I don’t think that anything should be banned regardless of the consequences. I don’t know the facts you purport to summarize about third-world societies, but if we lived in some counterfactual world where legally banning rape produced significantly more rapes, for some reason, than not legally banning it, and if the legal ban didn’t produce other consequences that were sufficiently good to outweigh this cost, then yes, I would oppose the ban. Wouldn’t you? If not, why not?

          • Anonymous

            I generally agree with this, but I take exception to two points: 1)  The question is not whether legalizing rape produces more rapes, just as the question is not whether legalizing child labor produces more child labor. (I assume from your post that legalizing child labor in the garment industry did in fact lead to increased child labor in the garment industry, since otherwise this legalization would have no effect at all on whether children work in the garment industry instead of the street and underground markets.) The question is really whether the benefits of allowing rape or child labor outweigh the costs of prohibiting it. (In both cases, I think we agree, bans would result in barbaric underground child labor – prostitution, hustling, etc. – or in barbaric underground rapes leading to permanent injury or death.) 2) I don’t think this position requires a counterfactual world at all. Are you contending there would be an increased likelihood of rapes leading to injury or death if rapes were closely monitored by trained security personnel in safe areas? Nor is this purely conjectural. Consider the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where an effective legalization and systematization of mass rape by various militias (including specific rape zones) resulted in far fewer bodily injuries and homicides.

          • Damien S.

            Where the hell is this “legalized rape results in fewer injuries” coming from?
            a) Source?
            b) Why is it relevant?
            c) http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2006/11/12/more-vicious-than-rape.html

          • Regarding point one – fair enough.  I made the example rapes vs. makes to make the comparison of costs vs. benefits clearer.  Once you start comparing non-homogenous costs and benefits, things get trickier, although I think the principle that prohibition should be subject to some kind of cost-benefit analysis still holds.
            Regarding point two, like I said, I don’t know the facts about these situations.  Maybe you could point me to your source.  I’ll admit to being suspicious.  How trustworthy are the data? All else being equal, I’m inclined to doubt the validity of data provided by a government that legally condones rape.  But let’s suppose that the facts as you report them are accurate. There’s still another issue here: even if the number of rapes leading to injury or death are reduced by such a policy, the number of rapes overall might increase.  That makes the trade-off far less clear.
            Moreover, I worry that the legally sanctioned rapes in this case are gratuitious – that they are not, in other words, strictly speaking necessary in order to achieve the whatever reduction in rapes the government could otherwise achieve.  Yes, it better to have fewer and less harmful rapes than to have more and more harmful ones.  But it would be even better if the government could eliminate harmful rapes without legally sanctioning its own rape program.  Before endorsing such a program, I would want to hear why such an alternative isn’t thought to be feasible. 
            One possible explanation, I guess, has the following schematic form.  Within the government’s population is a group of citizens (X) with a very strong desire to rape women.   If the government tried to ban rape altogether, X would circumvent the ban and perpetrate rapes that are even more dangerous to their victims than the rapes that would occur in the absence of such a ban.  If, however, the government adopts policy A that allows a certain number of rapes in a highly regulated environment, the desire of X to rape could be satisfied in a way that is relatively free of danger for their victims.
            What can we say about such a case?  First, I think we’d want to look very hard to see if there might not be an alternative to policy A that would reduce dangerous rapes in a less repugnant way.  If there really was no such alternative, perhaps policy A might the best we could do.  Even so, we would still be fully justified in condemning X morally, holding that they ought not to have the strong desire to rape, or that they ought to try harder to control it, etc.  Thus we would have a case where we morally ought to tolerate a practice that we believe to be morally reprehensible.

          • Anonymous

            I specifically referred to the DRC above because there are many journalistic articles, first-hand reports, and some anthropological studies of the practice there. (I’m currently away from my university, but I can certainly produce some studies when I return.) Women understand their employment is a condition of being raped multiple times a day – as they would be anyway regardless of their employment – but the militias’ systematization of rape has ensured there are no longer as many permanent injuries or homicides as a result. More importantly, I think my argument is fairly intuitive. It’s intuitive that legalized child labor reduces the amount of underground exploitative child labor. It’s equally intuitive that legalized rape reduces the amount of violent or homicidal sex crimes. I don’t think you’re being fair to the general benefits of “rape zones” here. I agree with your point about  child labor, but to play devil’s advocate and convince you of my own argument about rape, let’s go back to child labor for a moment. Suppose that brutal underground child labor (hustling, prostitution, etc.) is reduced by a policy legalizing child labor in the garment industry, but that as a result child labor overall will increase. We could say this makes the trade-off of costs/benefits far less clear. We could also say that the relatively negative conditions of legal child labor – while still not as bad as underground marketplaces – may not be necessary in order to achieve whatever reduction in child labor the government could otherwise achieve. Yes, it’s better to have less dangerous forms of child labor than to have much more dangerous ones. But it would be even better if the government could eliminate child labor without legally sanctioning its own child labor program. Why is an alternative not thought feasible? Yes, we may want to look hard to see if there’s an alternative to legalized child labor that would reduce extremely dangerous child labor in a less repugnant way. If not, this is the best we can do. Child labor is not optimal perhaps, but it’s good for poor societies where unemployment is commonplace and jobs can prevent death. Now, we both know there really are no feasible alternatives currently, which is why we support forms of child labor in sweatshops in many contexts. But this is also true of rape, which will happen regardless and in a much more violent manner, and the best thing we can do for now is to support its legalization and organization. Legal and organized rape zones may not be optimal perhaps, but it’s good for poor societies where violent rape is commonplace and safer raping can prevent death. And we should tolerate (and, I would say, encourage and promote) this practice that is morally reprehensible.

          • were getting to the point were the columns of our text is so small as to be virtually unreadable. I usually take this to be a sign of the conversation has reached a conclusion. 1 final point though. import disability between rape and child labor is the following. I take rate to be a serious moral wrong even when is not physically harmful. in contrast is not so clear the child labor is seriously morally wrong even when is not physically dangerous

          • Well, the columns are getting narrow to the point of unreadability, which I usually take to be a sign that the conversation is drawing to an end. So I’ll let this be my last reply.

            I certainly will not endorse your rape zones as practiced in DNC. The practice strikes me as too disanalgous from child labor, and morally repugnant. To note but one disanalogy, rape is a serious moral wrong even when it does not cause physical harm. I’m not so sure that the same is true of child labor. Encouraging a large number of rapes to make rapes in general less dangerous isn’t sufficient to justify the practice – even on the assumption, which I’ve no reason yet to believe, that this is actually what occurs.

            So, sorry, but I’m afraid you’ve failed to convert me on this one. Though I suspect I’ve given your proposal much more of a serious hearing than it usually gets!

          • Anonymous

            This, of course, is not entirely a question of ethics but a question of semantics. What do you mean by child labor? If you mean domestic work, household chores, internships at family accounting firms, after-school tutoring, babysitting, and lemonade stands, no, that is not as morally repugnant as rape. But if you mean these things, then perhaps you should try using a different term, since “child labor” is generally associated with children of a certain age, say between 4 and 14 years old, employed in physically and psychologically dangerous or possibly lethal working conditions for many hours each day. As I’m sure you’re aware, this usage dates back to the Victorian era and is still used by many human rights organizations. Now, if you don’t consider that sort of “child labor” a serious moral wrong even when it does not cause physical harm, then I don’t see what makes rape so special.  I personally am opposed to both rape and child labor, and I am especially opposed to very violent/fatal forms of rape and very violent/fatal forms of child labor. With credit to your great post above, this is why I’m in favor of endorsing rape zones and child labor (to ensure we minimize the most violent forms of both phenomena as they occur in unmonitored underground markets).  If you truly believe rape is morally repugnant, then I would expect you to be even more in favor of rape zones. Let me ask: Would you rather be employed as a child laborer in psychologically dangerous working conditions in factories? Or would you rather be an underground prostitute constantly abused, beaten, and exploited by dangerous thugs? Would you rather be raped in a dark alley by insane violent criminals who will probably kill you? Or raped in a brightly lit room supervised by trained security personnel who will ensure you’re not physically injured or killed? The choice is yours.

          • Anonymous

            Matt these response from George and the other poster seem to me to fit into an earlier discussion. The one I’m thinking of was the one about not really caring about the actual results but engaging in actions the make a person “feel” better about themselves regardless of the affect on those they claim to be helping.

        • Damien S.

          I smell Swiftian satire.  At least I hope I do.

          Tangentially, have any women ever posted on this blog?

          • At least one, called “The Woman.”  The exception (and the definite article) that proves the rule…

          • Anonymous

            Has a maltreated child laborer ever posted on this blog?

  • Anonymous

    I find it quite interesting to observe the quality of “reasoning” and “argument” displayed by many here who object–it is not exactly clear on what basis–to Matt’s well-supported argument. Next time our left-leaning friends who participate on this site wish to make a crack about how right-wingers and libertarians employ false sterotypes about the cogntive abilities of those who are just “bleeding hearts,” w/o the libertarian component, they may wish to think back to the quality of discouse displayed here by their ideological bedfellows. Just a thought…

    • Henry Farbson

      Mark, thanks for helping defend the exceptionally rigorous arguments Prof. Zwolinski has brought up here! I agree it’s interesting to see the pathetic “reasoning” these bleeding hearts have to resort to. That being said, I would be very hesitant to claim we should improve the level of discourse in these comments. Let’s be honest: idiotic reasoning is often the best option some people have. And really if this is all they have, it would be a shame to try to eliminate that idiotic reasoning in favor of stronger, more intelligent reasoning. And when we say we should use intelligent reasoning, it often has the effect of taking reasoning away from the poorest, most idiotic people; demanding higher quality reasoning, while a noble goal, has the effect of taking idiotic reasoning away from people who desperately need it. I think we should, at the very least, be extremely cautious about objecting to idiotic reasoning. I support idiotic reasoning because it is good for the poor. If you could convince me that the idiotic reasoning I advocate would set back the autonomy and welfare of the poor rather than advance them, then I would change my mind.

  • Anonymous

    To those who follow the libertarian religion (cult?), there can be no questioning of the faith that underpins the “logic’ of the  argument presented on this web page.  Using the same logic, one can predictably justify exploitation of child labor, indentured servitude, slavery and even genocide. Please continue to make these arguments loud and clear.  “Sweatshops are Good for the Poor” belongs right up there with “Arbeit Macht Frei”. 

  • Anonymous

    I agree we should at least ENCOURAGE the one real, tangible option the poor have to make a better life for themselves. On my trips to China, I would often hear workers say things like, “Things would be pretty awful for me right now, but at least I work in a sweatshop.” Working in a sweatshop was really the one ray of sunshine in their lives. I often buy products created in sweatshops, and I felt proud that I was able to contribute to their dream (of working in a sweatshop). I think a lot of left-libertarians think everyone should fantasize about a summer associate position at McKinsey, but in lots of countries, the most fulfilling thing anyone can do is dream of some day hitting the big leagues and working in a sweatshop.

  • Student

    Imagine a hungry man in a far-off country. He likes pizza. He likes hamburgers more than pizza. Pizza is good. Hamburgers are better.

    0 < pizza < hamburgers

    The man decides to eat. He reaches for a hamburger. But no! An evil jerk leaps in, knocks his hand away, and takes away all the hamburgers. He is a bad guy. No one likes him!

    The man decides to eat the pizza. He definitely wanted to eat the hamburger. But the pizza will have to do.

    Now imagine very far away from this man lives other people who are very very rich. They eat chocolate fondue every day.

    0 < pizza < hamburgers < fondue.

    They see that this man is eating pizza, and that hamburgers are better than pizza, and that he cannot have the hamburgers because the bad man is bad. Thus they conclude:

    pizza < 0 < hamburgers < fondue.


    What is wrong with the rich people's brains?

    Bonus question:

    What is wrong with the idea that the rich people should try to provide this man with hamburgers? Use the keywords "incentives," knowledge," and "Basically, these rich people don't actually care about this man.  Not because they're bad, but because he's very far away and very different from them. They're human, so they don't really care. They pretend to care, so they can signal how nice they are to other rich people and then have sex with them. Furthermore, it is easier to seem like they're providing the man with hamburgers than to actually provide the man with hamburgers, yet while only seeming like they're providing the man with hamburgers, they can still signal to other rich people how nice they are and have sex. These facts make it highly unlikely that the rich people will actually do anything to ensure they are giving the man hamburgers rather than, say, accidentally taking away his pizza," in your answer.

    • Student

      Bonus points for pointing out that the technical definition of a sweatshop is “a work environment that I, a person who has never experienced these conditions, and am not affected by what results from my criticism of said work environment, disapprove of for reasons that I came up with after I decided said work environment is a bad.”

  • Student

    Here is another quiz based on my life:

    I have a job. I work for Halloween City. I am the guy who holds up the orange sign which says, “Halloween City.” I get paid minimum wage. I work outside in the hot sun without water. I have to smile and wave to strangers who think that I am homeless. I am miserable and poor.

    I am at home counting my meager earnings when suddenly a man appears out of thin air! He says to me, “Hello, I am from the future. I traveled back in time to now, and I just happened to land here.”

    “OK,” I say.

    “Let me tell you random facts about my time,” he says. “Where I come from, the poorest man has a standard of living of 50 trillion dollars a day, measured in 1800 dollars. He earns that much per hour in the most miserable job in the world, which is only as pleasurable as merely pure bliss and constant physical, intellectual, and emotional fulfillment and satisfaction.”

    “I make $7.25 an hour, measured in 2011 dollars,” I say. “Also, my job is hot, sweaty, boring, miserable, and  embarrassing.”

    “Oh, no,” he says. “Clearly you would be better off without this job. After all, I am a lot richer than you. So you should not have this job. I will take this job away from you. This will make you better off.”

    “No please no,” I say.

    “But wait!” he says.

    “Yes?” I say.

    “Is your job entirely the result of a Pure Free Market?”

    “Of course not,” I say.

    “Phew!” he says. “I mean, darn! Then you definitely should not have this job, since in a parallel world where bad people do not exist and everything is perfect you would be better off and not have this job.”

    “Ok, I am scared of you,” I say.

    “Also, you should know that I decided your job was bad just because it sounded yucky, and then I came up with logical-sounding reasons for this, which you should expect if you know anything about modern cognitive research,” he says. Then he disappears into the future after taking my job away. Later, he never checks back to see what happened to me because he did not actually care, and was only trying to seem nice to other future people.


    Is this man from the future my friend?

    Am I better off without my job? Does this man’s logic make any sense whatsoever?

    What is wrong with the future man’s brain? Has it been warped by time travel?

    Why is none of this surprising given what we know about human psychology and (ir)rationality?

    • gaffigubbi88

      That’s a complete strawman. No left-libertarian has advocated banning sweatshop labor – as far as I can tell, people like Roderick Long and Kevin Carson agree with Zwolinski that the workers are better off with a lousy job than without any job at all. The argument is simply that some options have been taken off the table by the governments colluding with big corporations – thus the revealed preference doesn’t really reveal all that much.

      Question: does misrepresenting others’ arguments with a smug sense of superiority make you a lot more likely to ask loaded questions, or only somewhat more likely?

      • Cal

        The argument is simply that some options have been taken off the table by the governments colluding with big corporations

        That’s the standard libertarian argument minus all the things government has done other than “collude with big corporations.” Do you think workers in developing countries are in their relatively bad situation because and just because of “government collusion with big corporations” …?

        thus the revealed preference doesn’t really reveal all that much.

        That doesn’t follow.

      • Student

        Wow, the left-libertarians managed to come up with an argument that applies to literally all jobs everywhere at all times in history. What insight we gain.

        This supports my hypothesis that first people decide that sweatshops are yucky and then come up with reasons to attack them, btw.

  • Student

    Some food for thought:

    Does it insult poor people to call their work environments the derogatory slur “sweatshop?”

    Does it insult poor people to act as if we know better than they do about what is good for their lives?

    Does it insult poor people to say that their poverty invalidates certain actions of theirs, such as their choice of employment?

    Is it inconsistent to say that their poverty only invalidates certain actions, conveniently the ones which make us uncomfortable, such as working in a sweatshop, and not other actions we coincidentally don’t care about such as where they live, whom they marry, etc?

  • Adam Miller

    It’s odd that in this entire discussion no one has mentioned that globally we produce a surplus of all necessities (the one exception, increasingly, being potable water). The problem in, say, China is less one of wealth creation than of wealth distribution. They, like, us, produce more than enough to care adequately for their people, but they, like us, are ethically opposed to “free rides” (which is of course ironic in a supposedly Communist nation). Sure, sweat shops are better than the alternative in some cases. But they turn people’s stomachs because it’s really, really obvious that nobody on this planet should be starving or working in inhumane conditions right now. Maybe the solution is to be a bit less dogmatic about Capitalist solutions.

  • Hi Matt, thanks for this post and the staggering patience you have with the comment thread. I am here to try your patience a bit more.

    I suspect we disagree about the empirical conditions underlying sweatshop labor, and I think your assumptions about the empirics matter to the argument. You are suspicious of the existence of “employing classes”; you think that the labor contract is more or less a one-off between employer and employee, where the two parties find each other in a certain state and the best course of action for each is to trade, even though at least one party would be better off if she did not have to make this trade at all. And you think of the poor — though you admit there are various categories and classes of them — as susceptible of being grouped together for the sake of the argument. You make the incisive point that over the course of history it is wealth, not poverty, that is the exception and hence which needs explanation.

    My understanding of the empirics of the sweatshop economy is that there are tight links between i) the governments that set the conditions of the global economic & financial system, ii) the governing and military elites of indebted countries, and iii) the corporations that use sweatshop labor. The global economic and financial system (e.g. debt requirements, investment policies) — together with militaries and paramilitaries to do the dirty work — foreseeably and intentionally create poor people in desperate need of cash, who did not need cash in the same way before because they had access to noncash income and means of production. So the labor contract between the sweatshop corporation and the worker — through many layers of middle-men — is very often more like the one where I push you into quicksand and then offer to sell you the rope. The labor contract cannot be pulled out and analyzed outside of its context on its own merits. Sometimes there is an even more direct link between corporation and worker — as in the case of Saipan or the modern slaves that Kevin
    Bales writes about. In Saipan, people were lured from China with the
    promise of work in America. They were then taken to Saipan which is,
    indeed, technically the US. The workers, er, hostages, were then told they owed lots
    of money for the transit and the food and lodging and so on. The
    corporations using Saipan sweatshops had close ties to particular
    members of Congress who exempted Saipan from US labor law. This case is
    exceptional only in the details.

    Further, and to wit, it is neither (cash) wealth nor (cash) poverty that is historically typical, but rather a system of production where the household is an economic engine in its own right, where wage work is not sharply separated from household management. What needs to be explained as the historical exception is neither wealth per se nor poverty per se, but the availability of needy, willing, wage laborers for market employment.

    Another crucial point is that the alternative to supporting sweatshop labor envisioned by many people is indeed the fair-trade co-op. Even if I grant that sweatshop labor > 0, it remains the case that fair trade > sweatshop labor. A fair-trade outfit that is owned and operated by other poor people in the same poor country or a different one keeps a much greater share of the proceeds in-country and so does much more to develop the economy, in addition to all the benefits from the standpoint of liberty of a much more consensual trade. Each, let’s grant, involves freely contracted labor. And each, let’s grant, risks going out of business if not patronized. It’s just that in one case the terms of the contract are much less exploitative and the effects are much better at generating development. If I am in position to patronize one of them, why on earth would I prefer the one that is worse for workers and their neighbors on all these criteria?

    • Hey Avery,

      Just as I was about to call it quits, you come along and write something interesting!  You’re absolutely right that the empirics matter a great deal to my argument, so what you say here matters a great deal.

      I wouldn’t exactly say that I’m skeptical of the existence of “employing classes.”  I’m willing to grant that such a class exists, or to be less objectivist about it, that the concept of an employing class can be useful for certain kinds of sociological and political analysis.  What I’m skeptical about, really, is the idea that we can use facts about the employing class as a whole to draw conclusions about the moral responsibility of particular members of that class.

      You say that “[t]he global economic and financial system (e.g. debt requirements, investment policies) … foreseeably and intentionally create poor people in desperate need of cash.”  I’m not so sure about the “intentionally” in this claim, but let’s put that aside and assume that this is true.  Even if it is, it’s not clear to me that we can draw conclusions about the responsibility of particular firms without a lot more argument.  Merely showing that, e.g., Gap is part of the “global and economic financial system” certainly doesn’t show that Gap (or the individuals who constitute it) is morally responsible for the existence of poor people in desperate need of cash.  To do that, I would think, we would have to show that Gap itself played some causal role in bringing about the existence of the poor, or that it was culpably complicit in others’ doing so.  I don’t think such culpability follows merely because Gap is a member of the same class as other blameworthy actors.

      The fair trade issue is, I think, pretty complicated and probably deserves a blog post of its own.  But I think most of whatever disagreement exists between us on this issue probably comes down to empirics.  I agree that if one really could do more good for the poor by buying from fair trade co-ops, then one ought to do so, so long as the additional cost one incurs by doing so is not unreasonably high.  Of course, here might be one of those cases where it matters that the poor is not a homogenous group, and so perhaps in addition to empirical disagreements we will have disagreements  regarding how to balance the advantages to one group of poor vs. another, or how to balance the costs and benefits of poor people today vs. poor people twenty years down the road.  But I’m willing to sign on to the basic principle – my only qualms those relating to the kinds of practical concerns discussed in the links included at the end of my post.

      • Hi Matt,
        thanks again. In your view unless there is direct responsibility for the bad situation (the pushing someone into quicksand), you don’t want to say that Gap, per se, is morally responsible for the injustice that it putatively alleviates with the job offer. I find this demand for person-specific direct responsibility appropriate for criminal culpability, but not for responsibility ascriptions. I’m claiming that Gap, e.g., is partly responsible for the context in which its offer of sweatshop employment represents a mutually beneficial exchange.)

        Consider two points: first, on your account, as long as Gap can keep its own hands clean, it can duck responsibility. Again, this makes some sense for criminal culpability. But the clean-hands criterion is way too strong for assessing moral responsibility.

        Second, Gap is a corporate person. So the question I’m interested in when I assert the existence of tight links isn’t whether the Gap itself is represented at the table — though sometimes it is — but who the human persons are that are all each other’s buddies and fellow board members and personal contacts in Congress and so on. The list of board members of the Gap (http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Gap_Inc.#List_of_largest_shareholders) includes people who are also board members of the following corporations: Shurgard, Starbucks, Kroger, Rubbermaid, Delta Air Lines, Lockheed Martin, Constellation Energy, Capital One, Burger King, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Rohm & Haas, American Beacon Funds,  Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken AB, Reuters, Charles Schwab, The Body Shop, Telecom Italia, etc. Again, this is exceptional only in the details. Of course there is no one corporation that can be held responsible for all the coerced land reforms, the loans to dictators that are then held against the people, the free trade zones, the one-sided eliminations of subsidies on staples, the divide-and-rule imperialist policies that precipitated Cold War-era proxy wars and ethnic strife, the shrinking of tropical lakes due to climate change, the charges for school books, etc. etc. But the Gap is also not some Johnny-come-lately that finds the world ready-made the way human persons do when we reach adolescence or adulthood. If the idea of an owning class seems too objectivist, we can refer to it as The Family.

        • Hi Avery,

          So, let me start in the middle here.  You say that on my account, “as long as Gap can keep its own hands clean, it can duck responsibility.”  And you say this as though it were a point against my account, which makes me think I must be reading “clean hands” differently than you intend it.  To me, “keeping one’s hands clean” means acting in a way that is not morally blameworthy.  On that reading, of course Gap avoids moral responsibility by keeping its hands clean.  I suspect you agree with that, right?

          So you probably mean “keeping one’s hand clean” to be in scare-quotes?  Like getting someone else to do your dirty work for you, with your knowledge and blessing?  In that case I’m not sure we disagree.  I don’ t think Gap has to be causally responsible for suffering in order to be morally responsible for it (though of course causal responsibility would usually be sufficient), which is why I used the phrase “culpably complicit” above.  

          I suspect the real difference between you and I might lie in what we take to constitute culpable complicity.  Given the kind of arguments you put forward in your article on responsible investing, and given what I know about you as a person, I suspect that you think that in an unjust world such as ours, individuals might have to make very great sacrifices in order to avoid acting unjustly so that, in fact, the great majority of people in a society like the United States are probably acting unjustly.  Is that accurate?  My own view, in contrast, would be that many of the behaviors you recommend people take to avoid complicity in injustice would be supererogatory, rather than obligatory.

          As far as the interlocking Boards of Directors stuff, it’s interesting, but I’m not quite sure where to go with it.  It’s possible, I think, that individual BOD members might be morally blameworthy for some outcome even when the Gap itself is not.  It’s also possible that both individual board members and the Gap itself are morally blameworthy.  In other words, I think there’s still a distinction to be made there, and that establishing Gap’s moral responsibility for some state of affairs will require more than showing either that a) Gap is a member of the “employing class,” or b) Gap has some people on its board who are morally responsible for the outcome in some way.


        • Anonymous

          If I could add my “two cents” worth into this interesting dialog, I don’t see your claim that “the GAP is partly responsible” for the creation of the background conditions for sweatshops to arise as constituting an adequate reason for condemning the GAP for using them, and certaingly not for outlawing them (I am not quite sure what position you are taking here). To go back to Matt’s quicksand analogy, suppose I am one of a thousand people who own an island. You are lawfully on the island, and fall into the quicksand. I am partially responsible for your predicament because I could have, but didn’t, post a warning sign.

          Now, I happen along and offer to save you for $100. Perhaps I should rescue you for free, but I doubt that I am committing a great wrong by charging you the $100. More to the point, it would be very bad policy to forbid this sort of exchange since this could cause you and other like-situated people to die.

          I think our reaction to examples of this sort will vary with the degree of responsibility of the person offering the rope and the terms of the exchange offered.

  • Cal

    Exceptional post, succinct, well-reasoned… and the sheer magnitude of patience and civility you’ve given to left-libertarian “arguments” in these comments is incredible. Kudos, Prof. Zwolinski. 

    The debate described above seems to be a symptom of a bigger broader problem with left-libertarianism, at least the class theory put forward by Carson, Long, etc. insofar as it emphasizes assignment of responsibility or blame to whoever they think benefits the most (or is harmed the least) by mixed economy statism existing vs. some counterfactual pure left-libertarian society existing. Usually this seems to be largely limited to stereotypical leftist targets: big greedy private corporationy corporations, “the rich,” the 1%, Wall St, business, “capital,” landlords, the “elite,” boogeyman “neoliberalism,” right-wingers, evil factory owners, management, etc. etc. 

    This entire project seems bewilderingly pointless and counterproductive… never mind the severe methodological and intersubjective problems determining such responsibility wrt actual people, or the nauseatingly partisan obsolete-industrial-socialist class warfare aesthetic, or the way this whole thing distracts from the central causal role of the state and the libertarian prescription of anti-statism. It gets even more distracting–to the point of making the entire discussion nonsensical–when these targets, like legally private businesses, are equated with the state itself.

    For instance, if multi-national corporations who fund developing country “sweatshops” are responsible because some of them successfully lobby nation-states who in turn sustain the “structural injustice” that creates sweatshops, then so too responsibility lies with unions and state welfare lobbies and the AARP and Auburn University professors seeking tenure and every other interest group that lobbies the state for anything other than libertarian reform. If MNCs are responsible because they superficially benefit from statism, so too are all those other groups. If MNCs are responsible because they utilize the structure created by the state as best they can, then so too is everyone else who drives on state roads etc. This whole line of reasoning goes nowhere and obscures substantive issues.

    • never mind the severe methodological and intersubjective problems determining such responsibility wrt actual people
      So, if a form of injustice is difficult to quantify, we should just pretend it doesn’t exist?

      or the way this whole thing distracts from the central causal role of the state and the libertarian prescription of anti-statism

      A central aspect of the libertarian critique of the state is that it uses collectivized rhetoric to disguise the actual [u]people[/u] benefiting from the state’s actions. In the real world, many of the people who work in big business have worked in government and vice versa. There is no clear line of distinction between these two features of our society. There is just one power elite — they just have two sets of hats.

      If MNCs are responsible because they utilize the structure created by the state as best they can, then so too is everyone else who drives on state roads etc. 

      The question is not whether [u]any[/u] benefit has occurred ever, but who gets the overwhelming bulk of the benefit? I think it’s fairly obvious that certain groups benefit to a colossal degree, while others get mere crumbs. Any project of reform that fails to recognize this is doomed to failure.

      • Cal

        The “injustice” you’re talking about is not only “difficult to quantify” methodologically, it’s difficult to demonstrate whether it actually exists in any particular case. Such determination is dependent on very subjective, very normative, and very complex and long-term historical narratives: “the structure of society,” “the system,” “the international labor market,” whatever. Moral “responsibility” for these big-picture “bads” can be easily assigned to everybody or nobody. 

        Such assignment of blame is necessarily largely arbitrary, and more importantly it’s pointless. What would you do with these judgements? If you could somehow demonstrate that Dupont holds 0.03% of the moral responsibility for some “structural injustice” or the current labor market or for the conditions that lead to sweatshops or whatever, then what? Who cares? Are you going to loot their offices? Redistribute the wealth of their shareholders? Imprison their board of directors? What if public school teachers, state university professors, welfare recipients, the AARP, or voters are more responsible?

        You think that some people benefit from the state compared to what? Compared to their well-being in a counterfactual left-libertarian society of your choosing? Not exactly demonstrable or falsifiable or relevant… The libertarian critique of the state indeed often points out that statism tends to turn people against each other in zero-sum coercive interaction rather than mutually beneficial voluntary interaction. Everybody seeks to get whatever superficial benefits they can from the existing statist system, which makes everyone poorer.

        There is a “clear line of distinction” between the state and any arguable beneficiaries of statism: causal dependence. Suppose you could make all the current net beneficiaries of the state (by whatever standard) disappear, but leave the mass ideologically legitimated nation-state intact. Would things improve or would people quickly take up the roles left behind? Suppose you leave all the individuals and organizations that you think benefit from statism, but make the mass ideologically legitimated nation-state disappear. Understand?

        The theory that everything is controlled by a “power elite” is Millsian-Alex Jones populist sensationalism, is contradicted by empirical public choice literature, is not libertarian, and distracts from the institution of the state (which is empirically a creature of mass ideology, not some exogenously imposed instrument of “the elite”).

        This whole moralizing class warfare schtick is counterproductive (and obsolete). Lines are constantly being drawn and redrawn, land units are constantly changing in terms of value and use and ownership, capital is constantly being created, traded, consumed, etc. and this has been going on for millennia. Attempting to assign moral responsibility to some subgroup or “class” or whoever is pointless. A focus on redistribution (or guillotining) based on this moralizing is counterproductive due to (a) the methodological and intersubjective problems wrt determining who “should” get what, (b) the practical impossibility of implementing such a redistribution or guillotining without top-down centralization which would cause more problems, and importantly (c) the incentive structure diverted away from productive activity, toward hostile redistribution and class warfare and partisanship and whatever else.

        As Matt noted here somewhere, the “natural state” of humans is not abundance and happiness from which any deviation must be blamed on someone else. There’s not necessarily any “injustice” here except that perpetuated by luck or nature. Rather than playing Who’s The Bigger Victim and Who Can We Demonize, it seems to me more sensible to argue for the mutual beneficence of freedom contrasted with government interventionism, including a focus on economic development as it relates to LDCs.

  • Matt, I applaud your patience on this topic, too.

    You’re tackling an extremely sensitive subject because there’s often a very fine line between child labor and child abuse/neglect, especially in countries that don’t have anywhere near the legal protections we take for granted here in the U.S.

    Generally speaking, the maltreatment of children across the globe is truly appalling and often grossly underestimated: http://www.psychohistory.com/htm/01_journal.html … (also see the work of the recently deceased child psychologist Alice Miller)

    The problems associated with child labor abuse (just one of many forms of child abuse) probably won’t be solved within our lifetimes, but it’s perhaps one of the most important subjects we can focus on.

    “War follows collective child abuse as night follows day.” –Robin Grille

    • I’d like to improve the links on my prior post. 

      The correct link to the home page of Lloyd DeMause’s Association for Psychohistory is http://www.psychohistory.com/index.html And the link to Alice Miller’s page is http://www.alice-miller.comDeMause and Miller are not mainstream psychologists, and don’t focus only on child labor abuse, but I think they’d agree that, in cases where child labor crosses the line into child abuse/neglect, a sort of hijacking of the child’s “individuation” process occurs, and the ultimate costs to society are far greater than any economic benefits that may result from employing children. Equating the employment of children to rape seemed harsh to me at first, but I’m afraid it may not be.     

    • I’d like to improve the links on my prior post. 

      The correct link to the home page of Lloyd DeMause’s Association for Psychohistory is    http://www.psychohistory.com/index.html
      And the link to Alice Miller’s page is   http://www.alice-miller.com

      DeMause and Miller are not mainstream psychologists, and don’t focus only on child labor abuse, but I think they’d agree that, in cases where child labor crosses the line into child abuse/neglect, a sort of hijacking of the child’s “individuation” process occurs, and the ultimate costs to society are far greater than any economic benefits that may result from employing children. Equating the employment of children to rape seemed harsh to me at first, but I’m afraid it may not be.

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  • ruffsoft

    From the comfort of their laptops, philosophers argue that sweatshops are a good thing and that criticism is off base.   In fact, sweatshops are part of a system of oppression in which the owning class exploits the workers who take such terrible jobs because they have no alternative.  To argue that eating shit is good if there is nothing else to eat is the luxury of someone who does not share the fate of oppressed workers.  By oppressed, I mean:  the value of their labor is minimally returned to them and maximally funneled to the owners.  

    Those in their air-conditioned offices can pontificate about the  benefits of sweatshops…but, to quote Bob Dylan, philosophers disgrace.  

    Go work in a sweatshop for a few months and then tell us what you think!  

    • And, meanwhile, from comfort of his own laptop (and behind the shield of anonymity!), ruffsoft argues that we should…what, ban sweatshops? That because sweatshops make him morally uncomfortable, we should prohibit workers from choosing the option that they perceive as their best chance of improving their lot? That because workers in the developing world are (truly!) oppressed, we should add to their oppression by denying them opportunities to make their lives a little less bad?

      You want me to go work in a sweatshop? How bout this. You go work in a garbage dump in Phnom Penh for a few months. And then tell me how bad a sweatshop job sounds.

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  • Khadija Umayyad

    I am certainly not bleeding heart at all (I am a misanthrope and an amoral egoist), but I detest the Libertarian Leftards. In fact, I despise the left, regardless of their economics. Conservatives can get on my nerves with their incoherent attachment to old, dead, pointless jungle-logic – BUT SO DO THE LEFTARDS. “UHHH THE MODERN WORLD MAKES US MAD BECAUSE OUR AMYGDALA EVOLVED HALF A MILLION YEARS AGO IN A LEVELED HUNTER-GATHERER GROUP, AND NOW WE NEED TO CONSTANTLY MORALIZE ON HOW EVIL SUPERIOR PEOPLE ARE.”

    This is the same sort of trash that infects all of liberalism (classical liberalism and much of libertarianism included), it’s repulsive and it’s retarded; I don’t even bother to communicate with these twits.

    You know what? Fuck stupid people, fuck lazy people, and fuck unlucky people. It isn’t my business to care about failures. Also, fuck families.

  • Hello, I have some thoughts about this I’d like you to know. Ilive in Mexico.

    In Mexico, local companies accumulate more legal complains than transnational in terms of labor rights, because they prefer to pay the fine than to respect labor rights. It’s cheaper. Bur most of the transnational maquilas left the country not because legal regulations, but because of cheaper manpower in other countries like China. They left 250 thousand people without jobs (2000-2001) even when they’d been benefited by local goverments (tax exemption, free ground for their factories, etc.) They asked for more. They left nothing but a hole.

    I’m against sweatshops in Mexico because of the fact that this kind of jobs are less secure and very volatile. Poor people in Mexico have the means to return to agricultural activities to get food for themselves, but they prefer to chase after sweatshops in USA rather. But what I might point is that life quality of people working in seatshops often gets worse than staying in their land growing their own food.

    Sweatshops will never disappear in Mexico because statistically we urge to get a job in less time than developed countries, and sweatshops are the major job offer in small cities.

    My concern is about respecting labor rights written in our constitution. It is very important to consider full development more than wages.

    Maquilas now are returning to Mexico with better wages and labor conditions. So, I strongly disagree with your 6th point about legal regulations. Labor rights can’t disappear and ALL companies should respect that. Better conditions give better jobs increasing productivity and manpower value. Companies giving better safety conditions and medical insurance can benefit from happy workers doing better.

    I think there’s no right answer that applies to all countries. In Mexico I prefer food sovereignty with more poor people working in rural enviroments than in sweatshops.

    • cindy

      Apparently, MATT ZWOLINSKI, in all his self-RIGHTEOUS glory has not seen it important to respond to you. He’s probably a white guy, whose never been HUNGRY a day in his life, and not likely to ever have to work in a sweatshop. that’s how he can talk like he does. Ignorance is bliss.

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  • cindy

    “Sweatshop labor is very often the best option individuals in the developing world have for improving their lives and the lives of their families.”

    I thought libertarians were against coercion.

    “We know this partly because individuals reveal a strong preference for sweatshop jobs both behaviorally in their eager acceptance of such jobs when they are made available, and verbally in their response to questions by journalists and researchers. [See informal reports such as this and more formal reports such as this]”

    So if I placed you in a coercive environment, i.e. a rigged game, one where you cannot possibly get your needs met because the cards are in more powerful hands, and you were, say, forced to drink urine to stay alive because in my game you are deprived of water. Can I assume you have a preference for urine? because you drink it so eagerly?

  • Unless you’ve revised your views in the past four years, the following might be pertinent to the reconsideration of certain key tenets of your argument:

    “no evidence that sweatshops, or the multinational enterprises that contract with sweatshops, can be directly implicated in the injustices that workers have suffered.”
    The following articles all clearly point to an empirical connection between worker injustices, the employer’s conduct, and the buying practices of multinationals. (There are gobs more of this, if you are interested in further reading…)

    In your original argument you cite that workers express a preference for factory jobs (though you may have overstated their desire for “sweatshops”). That workers prefer physically taxing factory jobs is not really the focus of many in the pro-labor rights/anti-sweatshop movement. It is about the quality of the jobs and the influence of various actors in denying workers basic rights. (See again the papers above.) Strengthening labor rights in supply chains has been shown to adjust employment opportunities toward better jobs rather than take them away. (See for example: http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTMACRO/Resources/harrison.pdf) Indeed, as working conditions are improved in a number of large companies in a given region/industry, other workers will demand higher standards. There is a pull-on effect from targeted rights campaigns.

    Worker action touches on a larger underlying problem of your line of argument: it seems to deny all agency of working people themselves in regards to the dignity and fairness of their work. It treats workers as passive participants in working conditions. But in fact, every year millions of workers in sweatshops around the world organize and protest because they themselves–even in a circumstance where they lack some other economic opportunities–will deny the fairness of their conditions and demand from employers and even multinational buyers (!!) better wages and working conditions. In the end, anti-sweatshop activists don’t really need to examine whether the pro-sweatshop argument(s) are sound because workers have already resolutely defeated the logic.

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