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:
- Sweatshop labor is very often the best option individuals in the developing world have for improving their lives and the lives of their families.
- 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]
- 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]
- 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.
- 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).
- 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]
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.