Exploitation, Social Justice

Three Reasons Sweatshops Are Good for the Poor

My newest video at LearnLiberty.org is up now, on sweatshops and the poor.

Obviously, there are a lot of complexities that I wasn’t able to go into in a 5 minute video. I address some of those complexities in this blog post on the left-libertarian critique of sweatshops. See also these other related blog posts:

And for even more detail, I have three academic papers on the subject as well:

  • Watching the video I’m unsure why, on the narrow grounds you have chosen to defend sweatshops, with “development” apparently assumed to be a uniform good, your arguments wouldn’t work as well in defense of chattel slavery. And the naturalization of “development” seems to be the heart of your argument against concern for structural exploitation. Without that assumption, the fact that being exploited is the best choice for workers—and this, of course, is as true for pretty much every half-time, minimum-wage worker in the “developed” world as well—points to fundamental flaws in that whole “development” narrative.

    • No, I don’t think my arguments would work to defend slavery at all. The first point I make is that sweatshop employment is mutually beneficial. We can infer the mutually beneficial nature of sweatshop employment only because workers voluntarily choose to accept it. 
      I think the fact sweatshops contribute to economic development is an important point in their favor. But not everything that contributes to development is good. And the primary point to be made in defense of sweatshops is the way in which they benefit individual workers in desperate need of benefit.

      • mdh

         “We can infer the mutually beneficial nature of sweatshop employment only because workers voluntarily choose to accept it. ”

        This is entirely based on a pretty specious definition of the word “voluntarily”.  One can claim that slaves voluntary chose slavery when faced with the alternative of being beaten or killed.  One can likewise claim that working people choose sweatshop, food service, and other such jobs voluntarily when faced with the alternative of having no income and becoming homeless.  Neither exists in a context of free choice, and neither is truly voluntary.  Give those people the option of a decent job, and see how many of them voluntarily choose the sweatshop.  Then you can call it voluntary. 

        • Alex Strekal

          Basically, the notion of something being “voluntary” can lose meaning the moment one considers the social context/environment of choice. If a choice amounts to an act of submission, it’s “voluntary-ness” quickly becomes suspect.

        • “Voluntary” can mean a lot of different things in different contexts. My argument doesn’t depend on the claim that sweatshop is voluntary in a very strong sense of the term. Suppose that Aaron has options A-Z available to him. Then Bill coerces Aaron and reduces his options set to A-D. Now Aaron has to decide what to do. There’s a sense, an important one, in which Aaron’s choice is no longer a voluntary one, because it is partly the product of coercion. But there is *another* important sense of the term in which it *is* voluntary. To see this, imagine that from his remaining option set (A-D), Aaron chooses B. That tells us something. It tells us that of options A-D, B is Aaron’s most preferred choice. And it would be reasonable to infer from this that if Bill further coerced Aaron by removing B from his option set, Bill would thereby make Aaron even worse off. So while Aaron’s choice of B isn’t fully voluntary, it’s “voluntary enough” for us to draw some important moral conclusions from it.

      • The same sorts of arguments have, of course, been made for chattel slavery, of
        course, emphasizing the “mutual benefit” of the relations, and the
        disadvantages of the alternatives. So we need to be quite explicit about how those arguments differ from your own. Arguably, this notion of “economic development” is itself a problem in your argument, because it is obvious that somehow “economic development” is characterized in your mind by sufficient “voluntarity” to clearly distinguish it from chattel slavery or other forms of clearly coerced agreement.

        You are apparently willing to acknowledge that someone else may be unjustly limiting the choices of the sweatshop workers, in ways which creates the relative advantage of sweatshop labor over other forms of providing for their own needs. But you want to cleanly separate those other, clearly un-mutual arrangements from the locally “mutual” and “voluntary” arrangements involving the sweatshop labor specifically. The problem with that, of course, is the one I pointed out in another comment: if someone else threatens you with a gun, and I take advantage of your situation to take your wallet, “agreeing” to my action may be the best option you have. And I, of course, ought simply to be considered an accomplice in a coercive situation. In order for it to be clear that your argument is not essentially those same arguments in favor of slavery, it has to be clear that the situation we are talking about with the sweatshop workers is not essentially one in which already enslaved workers choose which set of plantation tasks best suits their unfortunate situation.

        And to do that, you have to confront the possibility that “development” is not itself a voluntary and mutual choice. You have to confront the context of global capitalism and the powerful actors who, arguably, hold the guns while the sweatshop owners (and certainly not just sweatshop owners) lift the wallets…

        • “if someone else threatens you with a gun, and I take advantage of your
          situation to take your wallet, “agreeing” to my action may be the best
          option you have.”

          That’s a poor analogy, isn’t it? There is no mutual advantage in the victim giving you his money. A better analogy would be this. You encounter the victim of a mugging, now cashless. You offer him some cash if he cleans your car. He wouldn’t normally clean your car (he is, let us say, an accountant); but he is happy to do so to get the cash he needs to get back home.  You have done him a favour. He has done you one. The mugger was the problem.

          Of course, you could, theoretically, have done more. You could have given him the cash. But perhaps you only had enough cash to pay to get your car washed.

          • It’s a fine analogy, because Matt has left open the possibility that there is a gun in the room, but the sweatshop owner is simply not the one holding it.

            And, of course, he has also raised the issue of “development,” to which the sweatshop presumably contributes, which suggests that the relationship between the sweatshop owner and the gun in the room is potentially much closer than between your opportunistic do-“good”-er and the mugger.

      • “No, I don’t think my arguments would work to defend slavery at all. The first point I make is that sweatshop employment is mutually beneficial. We can infer the mutually beneficial nature of sweatshop employment only because workers voluntarily choose to accept it.”

        You argument has worked to defend slavery. For example, in the Institutes of Justinian, slavery was either explicitly voluntary, voluntary because the slave committed a crime leading to slavery, or voluntary because, as a child of a slave mother, they entered into a debt to the master.

        •  “For example, in the Institutes of Justinian, slavery was either
          explicitly voluntary, voluntary because the slave committed a crime
          leading to slavery, or voluntary because, as a child of a slave mother,
          they entered into a debt to the master.”

          Neither of those, to my eyes, are voluntary. In the first case, the person did not agree to x, but did something (or was said to do something, regardless of whether they did so or not!) that had the effect of binding them to y. (So, if I was put to death because I was found guilty of a crime and was sentenced to death as a consequence, it is an absue of the word ‘voluntary’ to say that I voluntarily chose death!)

          In the second case, at least as I read your description of it, the person had no choice but to enter into debt to the master, not because they chose to, but because they were born to a slave.

          I really don’t see how Matt’s arguments can apply to slavery, because the essence of being a slave (it is why they are CALLED slaves) is that the relationship is involuntary. To be mutually beneficial in truth requires both parties to see the benefit of the relationship enough to voluntarily agree to it (which requires having the ability to exit if they do not judge it to be beneficial). A slave is not asked whether she sees the relationship as beneficial (of course, the owner will be all too glad to say that it is beneficial to her, but if that be so, why not give her the choice?). A sweatshop worker CAN leave the arrangement, because no one is forcing her to remain there. (You could argue that circumstances force her to be there, but that is simply to say that her work at the sweatshop is the best option available to her, and she chooses to stay because of it.)

          • “Neither of those, to my eyes, are voluntary.”

            I happen to agree but it’s beside the point. The point is that it is historical fact that slavery has been defended by appeal to consent.

            “I really don’t see how Matt’s arguments can apply to slavery, because the essence of being a slave (it is why they are CALLED slaves) is that the relationship is involuntary.”

            The common thread in the history of slavery is that they are regarded as legal non-persons, having no political standing as mere property. The idea is that consent simply doesn’t apply once you become a slave. The argument that you must have the ability to exit later for the entry into slavery to be considered voluntary now just doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. Instead, I think it takes stepping out of the consent-versus-coercion framework and understanding that legal personhood, one’s equality of political authority, isn’t a matter of consent and isn’t alienable.

          • “I happen to agree but it’s beside the point. The point is that it is historical fact that slavery has been defended by appeal to consent.”

            So, are you just committing the genetic fallacy here? The fact that a similar argument has been used to support x (where we don’t like x) isn’t really an argument against Matt’s argument, is it (especially since you are admitting that you don’t find the argument as it was employed to defend x a very convincing application of the argument)? 
            “The common thread in the history of slavery is that they are regarded as legal non-persons…”To me, this is where your (seemingly?) trying to analogize Matt’s current arguments with past arguments defending slavery being mutually beneficial is a real stretch. In the sweatshop situation, the employees who are offered a job and take it are legally, unless I am really mistaken, persons and are free to either take the contract or not. They are not forced into the job, only to have the forcer (like the slave owner) argue that they are being forced because it is a mutually beneficial relationship, but are offered a job that they do not have to take (as in, no one will make them worse off than they were originally if they choose not to take the offer). 

          • Shayna

            If you had a choice between taking a terrible, and possibly inhuman job in which you will likely be sexually harassed and threatened with termination if you ever tried to do something about it OR be trafficked into sex slavery, is it really a choice? Is it REALLY voluntary when you truly have no other DECENT options?

  • Here is a counter-argument. 

    Imagine a developed country. Let’s call it Amerika. In Amerika there are no social benefits despite the fact that the average person earns $30,000 per year. There is also no minimum wage or real worker rights. Businessmen are free to operate as they see fit. In this country people have a simple choice: either they take whatever work they are offered no matter how low the pay or bad the conditions, or they starve along with their children. 

    In Amerika, when someone opens a factory and offers to pay $0.5 per hour for a 14 hour workday, there are a lot of people who would rather do that than starve, so they “freely” choose to do it. 

    Do you think Amerikans should support this system and if they do, do you think it will last shorter or longer than if they didn’t?

    My point is that the system itself is in need of reform and if you prop up a system in need of reform it will be reformed much more slowly. Indeed, how much reform can you push for if you are working 14 hours a day in a sweat shop. And how much reform is likely if you enrich people (sweatshop owners) who have an interest in the status quo?   

    • DanHagar

      So, in your example of Amerika, there are only two choices:  work or starve.  I’m of the opinion that given your strictly exclusive example that, yes, they would be better off to work for that pay for those hours in the assumed horrible conditions than, perhaps, starve, relying on the assumption that their only other alternative is starvation, probably due to their farm land being taken by force for this factory in question.  Perhaps, there will be people who are better off.  Certainly, especially in urban centers, women and young girls, if allowed to work there, will probably only have that as a place of employment aside from prostitution or worse.  However, this boilerplate libertarian ethical dilemma has a gaping plot hole in the premise itself:  why are there only these two options in the first place?  I understand the notions about positive externalities leaking into society, creating spin-off factories, and relieving poverty for thousands.  I just don’t think it actually applies on wholesale in the real world.  Maybe it does for Jeffrey Sachs or Paul Krugman, not so much for Bill Easterly.  

      •  Two other things to note about this hypothetical Amerika:

        If wages really were $.05 such that people’s best off option was generally to work for that wage, wouldn’t prices reflect that such that things like living expenses would be much “cheaper” in AmeriKa, where the average person makes $.05 per hour?

        Second, if the only options were to work for $.05 per hour or starve, then I think Martt’s larger point perfectly applies: those well-meaning folks who picket to shut down the employers would have the effect of condemning people to starvation.

    • Watoosh

      Well, if we assume we have an economy approximating a free market, at least insofar as competition and free flow of labor and capital are possible (and this assumption can very well be disputed), then enriching those fatcats is one of the best things you could do. More profits allow for capital accumulation, which leads to more productivity (people in developing countries are more productive with more capital), which allows for (and in a flexible labor market, demands) better wages. That’s not the only factor of growing economies, of course, but it’s a big part of it.

      The sad fact remains that in poor countries, a steady wage and good living conditions are not the natural state. Before you start introducing reforms, you’d better figure out what is conducive to a growing economy and what the economy can support in terms of minimum wage mandates or other ideas.

      Your thought experiment, however, is pretty bad. Maybe I’m not playing by the rules here, but can you seriously conceive of a labor market in a relatively wealthy country where the such a terrible employment offer is a serious option for the unemployed? The Amerika in your example is not Bangladesh or Zimbabwe, where people would be lining up for that kind of prospect – so in that sense, Amerikans would deny support for that kind of sweatshops, by refusing to work there. There’s also the dubious assumption that the only institution capable of providing social benefits is the government, but that’s beside the point.

      • martinbrock

        I have no problem with a progressive consumption tax limiting the entitlement of fat cats to build themselves private castles and otherwise organize vast resources to produce exclusively for the consumption of a few.

    • martinbrock

      In this country people have a simple choice: either they take whatever work they are offered no matter how low the pay or bad the conditions, or they starve along with their children.

      May they not be subsistence farmers? May they not join an intentional community like Twin Oaks? If people are offered work and accept the best terms offered, how could I improve their circumstances by limiting their offers?

      In Amerika, when someone opens a factory and offers to pay $0.5 per hour for a 14 hour workday, there are a lot of people who would rather do that than starve, so they “freely” choose to do it.

      You should be free to offer a higher wage for a shorter day, and you should compete with anyone wishing to organize a voluntary exchange between free consumers and free producers by employing producers using free (as in speech) credit.

      In Amerika, when someone opens a factory to build weapons of mass destruction, or weapons of targeted destruction, there there are a lot of people who would rather do that than starve, so they “freely” choose to do it. The problem with this scenario is that a monopoly commands resources, not that some people in some organizations earn more than others and thus have better working conditions.

      Some people earn lower wages than others. If everyone earned the same wage, varying wages could not signal consumer demand for some skills and synergistic organizations over others.

      If capitalists are a privileged class with monopolistic rights excluding competition, that’s a problem, but if they aren’t, some people still earn less than others, and people in less developed countries earn less than people in more developed countries, and the lowest earners in the least developed countries earn much less than the highest earners in the most developed countries.

      If the lowest earners in the least developed countries “work in sweat shops” by definition, what do you propose to do about it? My grandparents worked in sweatshops by modern standards. Everyone in their generation did. No shops had air conditioning, and working conditions generally were much poorer. Passing through this stage of development is unavoidable.

  • Sheldon Richman

    This is a response only to the person who says, “Shut down the sweatshops but do nothing else because then everything will be all right.” It does not address the argument that sweatshop owners are capitalizing on people’s options being severely limited by government intervention, and therefore the owners have a vested interest in such intervention. I don’t know why this point is usually relegated to a footnote.

    • Hi Sheldon. That’s an important point, and one I address at length in the “left-libertarian” post linked above.
      However, it’s not obvious that merely capitalizing on people’s lack of options is sufficient to make the actions of sweatshop owners wrongful. If workers’ options are limited by someone else’s wrongful activity, and sweatshop owners capitalize on it by offering a mutually beneficial offer of employment, have they done something wrong? Perhaps they would be even better if they took pains to remedy the background injustice, and did everything they could to lift its victims out of poverty. But is this really a responsibility they have in order to avoid injustice?

      • If someone else is holding a gun on you, and I take your wallet, then, yes, I’ve pretty obviously done something wrong.

        • I don’t disagree.

          • Well, as I said in the exchange with Danny above, this then opens up the question of complicity in the structural exploitation that conditions the “voluntary” and “mutual” character of sweatshop employment.

          •  I am not sure it does. If someone holds a gun to your head and you ‘voluntarily’ give them your money to spare your life, the only reason you did so was because their holding a gun to your head and threatening to shoot ARTIFICIALLY made your worst off option worse off.

            So, had they NOT held a gun to your head, but left you free, your worse off option would be to not give them the money and continue walking. In  order to induce you to give them money, they had to ARTIFICIALLY intervent to make your worst off option death.

            Now, there may be (I think there probably are) instances where sweatshop companies work with governments to make sure that employees have no better option than to work for x wage. And in this cases, it is analogous to the gunman because the company induced you to make a bad decision by artificially making what might have been your worst off option (work for another employer) worse off than that (starve).

            But I think we are assuming here that the sweatshops in question are those who did not artificially prohibit (with the help of government) workers possible choices. These sweatshops only ‘crimes’ are offeringn employment at a certain wage, leaving potential workers the un(artificially)restricted option to take the deal or go elsewhere.

          •  I refer you back to the question of structural exploitation, and Matt’s statements in favor of “development,” which raise the question of complicity. Taking advantage of “the violence in the system” is at best a pretty lame “good.”

      • For me, Mr. Zwolinski, the concern is that a defense is created for the idea of ignoring, or even promoting, the harms done to others, so long as I am in a position to capitalize on them.

        As you say, I have no responsibility to remedy a background injustice. Do I have a responsibility to blow the whistle on it? Do I have a responsibility to prevent it? Do I have a responsibility to not promote it? Or, as long as I am not an active party to a background injustice, am I in the clear?

        I’m concerned that, once we establish that a background injustice is a legitimate competitive advantage, as long as I am not a perpetrator, I then have a stake in other people perpetrating injustices, so that I may capitalize on them. And I wonder, how do you create a system that guards against an active incentive that has been put in place? And incentives matter, right? And now I have an incentive to create injustices, so long as I can keep my own hands clean enough to not be prosecuted.

        • Aaron, these are really good questions, to which I don’t have a well-settled answer. I think people have some obligation to remedy background injustices when they can. But the strength and scope of this requirement is unclear.

          Here’s one question: does this requirement apply to companies that contract with sweatshops to a greater extent than it applies to ordinary people? If so, is this merely because we assume that those companies have a greater ability to remedy injustice, or is something deeper at stake?

          Suppose Company A is considering contracting with Sweatshop B in Developing Country C, where significant background injustice exists. A reasons that if it contracted with B, it could increase its profitability and also improve the conditions of workers in B. However, if it had to devote resources to fighting the injustice of C, the investment would no longer be profitable enough to be worthwhile. So the only options it is willing to consider are 1) contract with B and do nothing to remedy background injustice, or 2) do not contract with B – hire American workers instead. Of course, in the real world these might not be the only two options. But suppose they are in a particular case. My own intuition is that 2 is worse than 1, morally speaking.

          Just a quick thought, and not nearly and adequate response to the challenge you raise, but for now…

          • As far as that goes, I agree. 2 is worse than 1. But my concern is that Company A also has the following option – 3) Encourage the regime of Developing Country C (or other, non-state, actors) to impose the greatest background injustices on its people as they can get away with (and/or interfere with efforts to remedy those injustices), because this gives them a comparative advantage over Company D, which has settled on option 2, and may be, in fact, more profitable than option 1. Note that Company E, which runs Sweatshop F in Developing Country C can take option 1, benefitting from Company A’s actions. But they also have an incentive for keep the benefits of working in Sweatshop F as small as possible. This extends the time that it will take for the benefits of working at Sweatshops B and F to bring workers to a level that erodes or eliminates the comparative advantage that Companies A and E have over Company D, even if we assume competiton, rather than collusion, between them.

        • lasolitaria

          It seems to me you are saying that, in order to avoid benefiting directly or indirectly from background injustice and deflecting claims that background injustice is a competitive advantage to them, these companies should stay the hell away from any places where there is background injustice, whether they have a stake in said background injustice or not. Even if such a company is in no way an active party to background injustice in that country, even if it does not promote it, even if it prevents it (I assume you mean within the extent of its own operations), even if it actually fights it, it is still benefiting from conditions caused by or linked to background injustice, isn’t it?
          So, in your world, only charities could ever operate in such places as they are, by assumption, getting no benefit from it.

  • Chris Burkhardt

    You’re not going to address the core of the left libertarian objection to sweatshops by pointing out that people only work at them because it is the best of their available options. We’re aware of that.

    The left libertarian objection to sweatshops is not that they somehow crowd out better options for workers, it is that wages as determined by a labour market and the authoritarian property regimes which make such markets possible, are inherently antithetical to liberty. If an owner of a sweatshop can make a profit by paying labour-market wages, then a worker-owned factory can do even better without the parasitic capitalist. So why argue for the former?

    Arguing that capitalists who increase their fortunes off of the desperate humans they treat as commodities is somehow beneficial or mutual I hope will not find an audience at a website called “Bleeding Heart Libertarians”. Maybe there is a heartlessvulgarlibertarians.com ?

    • Hi Chris. This video wasn’t intended to address left-libertarians. It was intended to address the general public. Did you read my post that was directed at left libertarians, linked to above? What did you think of it? 

      • ChrisBurkhardt

         Hi Matt. Thanks for spending so much time engaging in the comments here!

        Yes, I did read your article directed towards left libertarians (and I admittedly should have left my comment there instead — but there were already so many comments there I decided to jump into the fresh conversation instead 😉


  • If my station in life had fallen to the point where I was prostituting myself for drugs on the street, or selling my kidneys to feed myself, you might say that that’s my best available option. You might even be right about that.

    But I think it’s really, really facile to say that therefore prostituting myself, or selling my kidneys, is *good* for me.

    • Watoosh

       I don’t think anyone was claiming that it’s good for you (only that it’s better than dying by starvation). We’re talking about ordinal preferences here, not moral judgements.

      • Chris Burkhardt

         The title of this post is “Three Reasons Sweatshops Are Good for the Poor”. There does seem to be an attempt, unjustified as far as I can see, at jumping from “best” existing choice to “good” choice.

      • What Chris said.

    • Really? It doesn’t seem that odd to me. We talk about “good” in a context-relative sense all the time. Exposure to large doses of radiation generally isn’ good for you. But if you have cancer and need chemotherapy, it might be. Similarly, prostituting ourselves or selling our kidney might not be good for most of us, but if our situation is desperate enough it might be.

      My claim isn’t that sweatshops are all that workers in the developing world should ever aspire to – that they’re good in the sense of an ideal final end. My claim is that given the desperate poverty faced by many of the world’s workers, sweatshops are good for them. Not as an end, but as a means toward, hopefully, achieving a better life and a better world where sweatshops are a thing of the past.

      • ” My claim is that given the desperate poverty faced by many of the world’s workers, sweatshops are good for them. ”

        I know: the problem is that, instead of using libertarian politics to inspire an expansive, creative version of how these poor people could aspire to a better set of options from which to choose, you’re pressing our philosophy into the service of justifying the existing relationships.

        • Why does it have to be one or the other? Yes we live in an unjust world, and those injustices should be abolished. But in the context of those injustices, allowing people to trade can make them better off. And when that happens, it’s a good thing.

          • Johnmarkbrady

             And in the context of (unjust) chattel slavery, allowing manumission makes slaves better off, but is this somewhere libertarians want to go?

          •  It’s a twisted logic, Matt, by which allowing people to take advantage of injustice makes those taken advantage of “better off,” and it only works if you can show that those taking advantage have no connection to the background injustice. And I don’t think you’ve even tried to show that.

          • Because what we consider “good” and “bad” relative to other things we judge determines our policy and activism priorities. And that’s the meat of what actually persuades people to hear you out on other matters, and maybe even helps them see their lives in light of the principles for which you’re advocating.

            Nobody’s saying you can’t have yours. But if you’re not open to hearing why others find those priorities unconvincing, better close off comments.

            I’ve never known so many libertarians to take such a polemical position and then shrug when people point out why it’s not doing it’s job. It’s really amusing. 🙂

        • What’s up Jeremy, was there a problem in my cross-posting to your blog?

          It’s your space, you can do whatever you like with it, just curious that’s all.

          • I’m not sure what the problem is, I don’t censor whatsoever and I use the exact same comment system that’s used here. Please try again and email me at jeremy at jeremyweiland period com if you continue to have problems. Thanks!

          • In any area that is privately controlled by me there are no Constitutionally protected 1st Amendment Rights or Privileges, so I expect those same courtesies to be extended to me.

            If you decided to let it pass, that’s cool, but if it isn’t to much to ask if you could let it be the post with the non-screwed up formatting I’d appreciate it.


          • Not only would I never have held your comment up, but I have changed my Disqus settings to notify me when comments get auto-marked as spam so I can review them.

            I appreciate your thoughts. I think private control of fora for discussion is a poor excuse for not hearing challenging points of view. 🙂

          • OK I think I figured it out: your comments were marked as spam (probably because you had too many links) but I have approved the last one since it looked like you had submitted the same post twice. Shouldn’t happen again.

    • lasolitaria

      That is a poor analogy. In your example, you’re stuck with your only and worst choice, prostitution for drugs/selling a kidney to buy food, since withdrawal/starvation is not a choice for you but actually the result of your running out of choices. Sweatshops are neither the only nor the worst choice but the best or a least one of the better in the cases we’re discussing. So a better analogy for your case would be this: “I’ve fallen to the point where my choices are begging, slavery, selling a kidney, stealing and prostitution. You might say prostitution is my best available option, you might even be right, but it’s really facile to say that therefore prostitution is *good* for me”. I think any of the four can actually be your best available choice depending on your values and attitudes towards life. You may believe stealing is the best choice because you don’t mind using force against other people or you may believe that slavery is the best choice because you don’t mind surrendering your will. Any of the four you pick is good for you, otherwise you’d have picked another, wouldn’t you? Besides, many people choose prostitution even when they have other choices, like working or college, so their “good” is apparently very different from yours.

  • Chris

    I didn’t know that Bleeding Heart Libertarians cross posted videos from the Mises Institute.

    I kid. . .kind of.

    Posts like this make me think that libertarians lack imagination. Sweatshops are only a good “choice” if we are willing to accept a society in which individuals don’t actually have a choice (or that we must be relegated to a couple of crappy choices). One must wonder whether or not Zwolinski and his fellow sweatshop defenders have ever worked in or intimately known someone who worked in a sweatshop. Have they read the numerous articles that document the horrific working conditions at these “factories”?

    • No one is saying that sweatshops are ideal or wonderful, just that they are better than the realistically available alternatives; and that closing them down (in one way or another) because they offend your sensibilities makes poor people worse off.

      • And none of that really sounds like an adequate response to critics of sweatshops. There are probably more important things than “sensibilities” at stake, however little you may want to focus on them. I suspect, for instance, that the “realistically available alternatives” are considerably more diverse among critics than among apologists.

      • Chris

        So I should read this as a “left libertarian” version of Walter Block’s Defending the Undefendable? Yikes.

        What is the point of wasting time defending sweatshops? They are terrible, dehumanizing places to work and should not exist.  Please, show me five defenses of sweatshops by people who have worked in them. Oh, and if you find one, the author can’t be paid by a political organization or now be on the payroll of the sweatshop.

        • Ask Ben Powell, who’s surveyed sweatshop workers on what they actually prefer. 

          I realize it’s a hackneyed point in these debates, but it’s an important one. People work in sweatshops because they believe it’s the best option they have. So when you say that sweatshops shouldn’t exist, you’re saying that the best option people have shouldn’t exist, and that they should take a less good option instead. Do you think it was a good think that the factory that Masango’s friend worked in was shut down, and that she went from earning $36 per week to $14 per month instead?

          Or is what you’re saying that people shouldn’t have to work for low wages anywhere? That people shouldn’t have to be poor? If that’s what you’re saying, I guess I agree. But what follows from that in terms of public policy in general, and in terms of policy for sweatshops in particular?

          • The public policy implications are — rather obviously, I think — that instead of apologizing for people who take advantage of people’s lack of choices, we oppose the system which limits their choices in particular ways in the first place.

            Unfortunately, that system is all tied up in “development,” which you treat rather uncritically.

          • It seems like there’s an ideal/non-ideal theory problem here. Ideally, we all have our visions of what a perfectly just world would be. But for most of us, the chances of implementing such a vision are virtually zero. By contrast, the chances of making marginal adjustments within that system are non-negligible. So, if we assume that remedying all the background justices of the world isn’t a viable option for now, what do we do about sweatshops in the meantime? 

          • ChrisBurkhardt

            > what do we do about sweatshops in the meantime?

            Wouldn’t a good start be in recognizing that degrading wage labour is bad for the poor? I don’t see that trying to convince the general public that sweatshops are “good for the poor” is a very promising move, anyway.

          • I guess it just simply depends on what answers we’re comfortable with. I get that you think it’s unreasonable to advocate for radical unionizing, overthrowing the bosses and politicians, occupying the factories, etc. You don’t find any of that helpful — perhaps you have commitments to institutional stability or a deep aversion to anything approaching violent remedies. I can understand that.

            For me, I want to see not just third world poor people’s options expanded — I want to contribute to a broadening of the mindsets of all involved (us and them) so that they don’t have to be given more choices so much as they see there are other choices available that get ignored. So for me, pushing the envelope is not about realism in the here and now, but about expanding the consciousness and imagination into new possibilities.

            What do we do about injustice right now that can effect near-immediate satisfactory conditions? What you say — just like it’s probably not a good idea for all of us THIS MINUTE to drop everything and form guerrilla militias striking at U.S. Government infrastructural choke points. But we can start talking about radical means, start broadening the imaginations, and remind people just how arbitrary these sets of choices are, and therefore how they can play a role in not just choosing the best among those but widening those choices. And we can think outside our own comfortable, self-interested sets of options and advocate for things that may be destabilizing but offer real opportunities to prioritize justice for once. 

            Essentially, you’re right when you say you don’t have to pick one or the other. It just seems like you did. And we’d like you to do both, in fact.

        • Liz

          I recently watched a program called ‘The Truth about Child Marriage’ which featured an interview with a young Bangladeshi girl who was about 14 and she had been working selling clothes for a couple of years –  over 40 hours a week if I remember rightly, for very little pay. But having that job gave her independence and thus gave her the power to refuse to enter into marriage, even though her parents wanted her to. She sung the praises of her job, even though it could be seen as exploitation AND child labour. I’m sure there are 4 more similar examples. While her job was obviously by no means ideal, I don’t think it is at all a stretch to say that it is better than entering into quasi-slavery via marriage to a much older man or than acquiring  an obstetric fistula due to giving birth as a young teenager.

          • Liz

            sewing clothes*

          • Chris

             So a sweatshop job is an improvement over forced child marriage. Sure, I guess that technically meets my challenge.

          • ChrisBurkhardt

            I think a better title for the video might have been: “Sweatshops: Better Than Forced Child Marriage”

    • Believe it or not, I do actually agree withe Mises folks from time to time. Yes, I’m a Bleeding Heart, but I’m also a libertarian, precisely because I believe that a lot (but not all) of the standard libertarian proposals serve the interests of the poor.

      As for your substantive point, I do want us to reach a world where no one has to take a sweatshop job as the least bad option available to them. But that’s not the world we live in now, and it’s not a world we’re going to see in the foreseeable future. So, until then, my claim is that sweatshops provide a way to make life better – sometimes significantly better – for people in need. That doesn’t get us to utopia. But when you’re really badly off, even small improvements can matter a great deal.

      • I don’t think we’ll ever be in a world without sweatshops, because there will always be better and worse types of jobs or working conditions, and the worse ones will always be labelled ‘sweatshops,’ at least, so long as there are egalitarians (which there probably always will be).

        • This is what I mean by a lack of vision. What if somebody said, “I don’t think we’ll ever live in a world without gov’t regulation, because there will always be busybodies wanting to poke their nose in others’ business and people who want an unfair advantage through capturing the regulatory apparatus?”

          I’m sure many people say that — maybe even libertarians — but why be so realistic to the point that there is no project to accomplish? You don’t fight against crime because you want a world without crime. For the same reason, you fight against sweatshops — because, damn it, you want a say in the justice practiced on this planet, even if it’s unreasonable or unrealistic.

          We don’t see all ends, and our efforts yield fruits that take longer to gestate than our attention spans.

          • Thanks, Jeremy. You don’t actually contradict what I say or, at least, what I intended to say, but you have made it clear that I could have said it better.

            My point in response to Matt was that there will always be inequality, there will always be egalitarians, so there will always be occupations labelled ‘sweatshops’ by egalitarians. What counts as a ‘sweatshop’ depends upon general  confitions of prosperity, and as time goes on (so long as prosperity improves) people doing the kind of jobs that are nowadays envied will in future be pitied for working in ‘sweatshops.’ Of course, I still think it is worthwhile our attempting to increase prosperity.

            Incidentally, I am one of those libertarians who thinks that we’ll never live in a world without government over-regulation, rent-seeking, etc.  But like you I think that we should still try to make things better, to roll back the state as far as we can.

  • Pingback: LearnLiberty: Sweatshops are Good for the Poor « Spatial Orientation()

  • If someone offers you the choice between slavery and death, slavery may well be your best option — and one could accordingly pen an explanation of “Why Slavery is Good for the Poor,” which will be true as far as it goes (though one has to say the title would be an odd choice).  But surely the crucial question is:  how does it come about that these are your only options?  

    • Why does there have to be a single crucial question? I agree that the question of how people’s options came to be limited is an important one. Sometimes the answer will be injustice. Sometimes, I suspect, it will just be simple poverty caused by lack of development. 

      But even if that’s an important question, it doesn’t mean it’s the only important question, and surely the question of what we should do now that people’s options are limited to make them better off is an important one too.

      And, really, isn’t the fact that sweatshop worker is *consented* to, while slavery (at least in the real world, not in libertarian speculation) is not, a relevant difference?

      • Chris

         But there are some things that shouldn’t be defended. Why not write a libertarian defense of factory occupations? Or how factory owners will benefit from treating their employees better. Afterall, there are plenty of studies backing up that claim. Instead we are stuck with libertarian defenses of sweatshops. What ends up happening with these articles is that libertarianism becomes the political/economic philosophy that supports sweatshops.

        • You are still just assuming that there is something wrong with supporting sweatshops, despite the fact that they improve the position of people whose position desperately needs improving.. Is it the label ‘sweatshop’ that you just cannot see past?

          • Chris

             A big problem with sweatshops (as we know them) is that they are a solution to a problem that is created by the same system.  They are, in fact, part of the race to the bottom. So a sweatshop job might be the best job available, but shouldn’t we be asking why that is? A lot of people would probably be more happy living in a subsistence farming village. However, the ability to do that is becoming less and less common due to corporatist economic and political policy (and of course practice!).

            Some kind soul decided to remedy these problems by introducing sweatshops, free trade zones, etc. I wonder how many libertarians would defend the atrocious record of United Fruit? Well, here’s at least one: http://reason.com/archives/2012/05/28/bain-and-the-united-fruit-company.

            So yes, you can continue to defend sweatshops because they are better than dying. I will continue to say that is stupid. If we are going to defend outgrowths of statism and corporatism can we at least defend better parts of it? I would rather give a welfare check to a 14 year old on the condition that she learned a trade/craft than subject her to the working conditions of a maquila or the Foxconn plant.

          • What is the problem to which sweatshops are a partial solution? Underdevelopment and lack of opportunity. What created the problem? Government and local plutocrats prevent the development of private property rights and an open market economy. What is the solution to that? Regime change. Whose responsibility is that? Not multinational companies; though those companies may be able to influence the regime in beneficial ways by locating in the country. They can also improve the position of some of the country’s poor by setting up sweatshops there. What more can they do? Not much, probably, if they want to stay in business.

            It is no use objecting to this that some companies actively co-operate with the host governments in maintaining or even strengthening the barriers to the development of an open-market economy. That would be like saying that baby-sitting is wrong because some baby-sitters abuse their charges.

            What do you say? It is not that clear. You seem to be saying: close down the sweatshops and force the workers into subsistence farming because, in your view, they will ‘probably be more happy’ that way. Don’t the workers get a say in this? Even if this were an acceptable solution, how would it be brought about? We could do things to bring about the closure of the sweatshops, which would just make the workers worse off. How would we do the rest, especially if, as I suspect, most of the workers would be highly resistant to becoming subsistence farmers?

            Or you think that we should give welfare payments to the workers on condition that they learn a trade. How are we going to bring that about, and who is going to pay for it?

            There seems to be a lack of realism about your proposals.

          • Chris

            A lack of realism? The multi-nationals that run sweatshops benefit from government handouts all the time. They also often use local police and military to take land  on which they build their factories. In some instances, as another commenter mentioned (or alluded to), it is illegal to quit, unionize, take breaks, etc. The factory owners collude with the government to keep wages and conditions down.

            But, hey, it’s better than dying, right? Afterall, Ben Powell told us so.

            What boggles my mind is that people use brain cells to write articles, think pieces, studies, etc that read as if they are corporate press releases. Why not use the same energy to admit that sweatshops suck and propose something better. Things like – cooperative ownership? factory owners recognizing that their employers are people, wages that actually reflect the employees value to a company, factories that allow people to get a drink, go to the bathroom, stretch, etc.

            But no, we get another article telling us why sweatshops are good for the poor.

          • So your proposal is to write articles or blog-posts?

          • Cal

            Belligerent blog activity constitutes left-libertarianism’s upper bound of practical significance, in point of fact.

          • I guess when you don’t accept the intellectual challenge to your premises, it looks like that.

            The factory occupations in Argentina and Chicago are of practical significance, even if they don’t fit into the set of choices you’d like to see workers limit themselves to.

          • Cal

            In proportional comparison to economic development, the practical significance of those dubious events approaches zero.

          • It’s funny how all options are equally acceptable and who are we to judge… until they’re not, eh?

          • Chris

            Hi Cal. Please tell me why alternative forms of organization and management are insognificant. Why should we accept corporatisn as realistic but worker control as dubious and practically insignificant?

          • Chris

            I made a few proposals, actually. One suggestion would be for the employees to homestead the factories that benefit from government privilege. They would then be able to organize the factory as they see fit. I think that you’ll reply that I am being unrealistic. So. . .

            My next idea would be for the factory owners and the companes they serve to stop receiving government monies. The money they were to receive can be used for education, training, health and wellness, etc. This would be set-up to operate for a period of time (I.e. 25 years) and then expire.

          • So the first proposal is that we get the sweatshops closed down and then wait for the ex-employees to take possession of what remains of the disused factories? Are they likely to do that, given that the powers in the land will be keen to prevent them from doing so? You are right, I don’t see this as realistic.

            The second proposal is for the multi-nationals to stop receiving government money. Which government? Don’t they usually give the host government money via taxes or kickbacks?

          • Chris

            Danny – Where in my first suggestion did I say that the sweatshop should be closed down?

            As for the second, governments.transfer wealth to MNCs all the time. Aometimez it’s through infrastructure, other timez it’s throuh targeted tax breaks.

          • You didn’t say it there. But you said earlier that sweatshops should not exist and should not be defended.

            Tax breaks just mean the government takes a smaller cut; it is not a cash handout.Similarly, any assets made available to a compnany are just part of the deal, without which the company investment might not be worthwhile.


      • But if your choices are artificially constrained by background coercion (whether or not the person offering the choice is complicit in that background coercion — in the sweatshop case, sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t), isn’t it just a little weird to focus so much on the least-bad-option aspect?

        • Also, you make it sound as though people protesting sweatshops are demanding that the employers fire all their employees and close down the shops.  That’s not what’s being demanded.  What they’re demanding is higher wages and better conditions.

          Now maybe you’ll say that companies can’t afford to offer higher wages and better conditions.  But that’s not obvious.  There’s usually a gap between what employers are offering now and what they can afford to offer while still remaining profitable (otherwise strikes would never succeed), and Adam Smith’s “higgling of the market” (and I think of boycotts, strikes, protests, and secondary strikes as part of said higgling) can help to close that gap.

          And why not offer Immokalee as a model for sweatshop workers to follow?

          • Aeon Skoble

            Right, but if the demands for higher wages result in the factory owner clsoing the factory, you’ve failed to help the poor.   How can you get them to pay higher wages?  One way is to use the state to force them to do it; I assume that’s not your plan.  Another way would be if they just came to believe it was in their own best interests to do so.  That’ll work, but not with coercive activites.  A third way would be by encouraging greater economic development: if there were 2 other factories, the first one would no longer be the only alternative to scavening.  This competition for labor would raise wages.

          • Immokalee?

          • Cal

            Zwolinksi explicitly states that most are not calling for the closing down of shops. He explains precisely why “demanding higher wages and better conditions” is largely problematic. Did you watch the video or (better) read the articles??

            Development and resultant competitive labor markets (enabled by neoliberal reforms and institutions) is a much more reliable way of bettering wages and conditions than hostile strikes and boycotts, which are more likely to reduce available jobs and prevent new jobs from being offered. “Strikes and boycotts” is not at all a realistic alternative proposal for systematically improving the lives of the relatively-poor workers in LDCs.

            CIW is relatively admirable in a number of ways, but it’s not much of a generalizable “model” for significant improvement. Firms operating in LDCs don’t just need to remain profitable in an accounting sense to stay there–they need the benefits of staying to outweigh the costs in moving *anywhere else*. I.E. they need economic profit to be relatively maximized (minus operation moving costs etc). They may choose to move because their operation would be more profitable elsewhere, even if it would still be profitable in the original LDC. See opportunity cost.

            And, strictly speaking, there’s no reason to necessarily want to drive all profits (economic or accounting) to wages as that would likely reduce better things that the firm could be doing with the money (like reinvestment, expansion, R&D, etc.) things when firms are able to freely allocate would probably result eventually in the betterment of inter alia those very workers.

  • billwald

    In theory, US sweat shops employing legal immigrants are preferable to sending our sweatshop business to china.  Unfortunately, if aliens were not protected it would be mostly pimps and whorehouses who would gain the advantage.

    • Chris

      I’m waiting for the libertarian defense of Mexican coyotes and companies that exploit undocumented workers.

      • Waiting??

        • Chris

           By waiting I mean that I am anticipating that it will be written soon. Maybe it has, but I no longer read Chairman Lew’s rags on a regular basis.

  • Liz

    I agree that purchasing items made in the developed world in lieu of  those made in sweatshops is misguided. But what about the ethics of purchasing non-sweat shop items made in the developing world to purchasing standard, presumably sweat-shop made items? I.e. is fair-trade superior? 

  • Lev Lafayette

    This is an excellent opportunity to remove “Bleeding Heart Libertarians” from the sites I read.

    • Fair enough. Though I don’t think boycotts are any better a response to intellectual disagreement than they are to objectionable working conditions.

      • Lev Lafayette

         Look, I can find an-cap advocacy with a freshman’s understanding of minimum wages all over the Internet. I expect something better here.

  • Johnmarkbrady

    Does anyone else agree with me that the cartoon drawing is a distraction from Matt’s presentation?  And what does Matt himself think of this approach?

    • ChrisBurkhardt

      The animation was my favorite part of the video! I don’t think it distracted from the clarity of the message at all, but I’d also be interested in Matt’s opinion. Who’s the artist?

    • I like the animation, in general. I thought it worked much, much better in the first video I did for Learn Liberty – on price gouging. In that one, I thought it really added to and clarified some of the content I was explaining. Less so in this one, but I think they wanted a kind of unified theme.

  • Alejandro

    I don’t know  who contacted who to make this video first.
    Considering LearnLiberty already has two more videos on this subject matter, I don’t
    know why would they decide to make third one on an article that is almost two
    years old. Nevertheless, here you had the opportunity to make video on a topic
    that would be original to Libertarian thought.  A topic on social justice, free market
    fairness, voluntary workers groups, cooperatives, alliances with the “left”, the
    welfare state, advocating a minimal social safety net,  morality in markets, social tolerance, etc.
    The floor was open and you had a chance to introduce alternative ideas and
    viewpoints shared with Left-Libertarians or other BHL who become ignored and/or
    demonized by right-wing Libertarians (An-Caps, Constitutionalist, Voluntaryist)
    on a constant basis. A chance to attract moderates who think Libertarianism is
    cold hearted and uncaring.

    No, instead you choose
    to contribute to one of the most decisive issues regarding modern Left-Libertarians
    today in this area . Knowing full well of the large amount of disagreement you
    have on this issue by young Libertarian followers, Radical Libertarian
    Academia- Scholars with PHDs, and many others, you still choose to do a video
    providing material that is nothing new and nothing other left-libertarians haven’t
    already argued against so you cannot tell me this video was done to provide new
    talking points on an already established idea. You also cannot tell me that the
    video was made to showcase an original topic because as I already wrote and it’s
    been featured twice on LearnLiberty. Pro-sweatshop arguments have been made for
    the last decade and have been made by every economist from Conservative to
    Liberals and are featured in every single Libertarian publication and media
    that is known to exist including the John Stossel show. Over the last couple of
    years, Benjamin Powell has monopolized on this topic giving hour long speeches
    (one of which I attended) and making videos on this which pretty much covered
    everything you stated in this video. He is the most highly quoted economist on
    this topic, so what did you think you could provide that he did not covered?

    Most of my views on Sweatshops have already been stated by
    Kevin Carson and Ross Kenyon and even some of the question posted by Dr. Long
    and Dr. Richman but since you ask other questions to consider I ask you in
    return to consider other factors that make people against Sweatshops from the
    Left-Liberals? Why not consider the outrage usually has more to do with not just
    wages and conditions but how workers are PHYSICALLY treated. In many of these
    sweatshops workers are physically and sexually assaulted for various reasons
    but typically in order to force them to work a faster pace or as a  form of punishment for their pace. When I had asked Dr. Benjamin
    Powell about this twice (in person and on-line), the answers he gave were a that
    such abuses were either “trade-offs” or “Since Libertarians are for legal prostitution
     and sex work, then there is no reason
    why shouldn’t be against such practices if they constitute the job”. So now
    sexual assault has been reduce down to just sex work? Does this sound like
    Bleeding Heart Libertarian to you? Are these the best answers we can come up
    with? Lets also consider how they are sometimes  forced overtime and in some cases required to
    take pregnancy test or strip searched, and god forbid they even speak of
    unionizing or just merely protesting; many workers can legally be put in Jail
    or beaten for trying to commit what we would consider as a rights under free
    speech. The same punishments are even given to, workers that have quit their
    job. Why don’t I ever see any videos or documentaries of happy workers who say
    working at sweatshop is  a “ great thing
    and it saves my life and gives me hope for the future” and Why Sweatshops keep
    a tight security, that never allows filming or workers to speak to anybody? In
    summary,why don’t we consider the law of the land in these countries that put
    workers in these conditions. Why not make video addressing oppressive governments
    and how Libertarians could help by spreading the ideas of Liberty to help these
    workers in order for them to have work that isn’t oppressive. We all already
    know that boycotts and shutting down don’t  sweatshops don’t work, if we didn’t we would
    call ourselves Libertarians or be reading this blog and watching LearnLiberty
    videos in the first place.

    This video reeks of “Sell
    Out” and desperation of wanting to be accepted by the established mainstream Libertarian
    media and thinking. It sends out a symbolic message that draws a line in the
    sand to differentiate yourself from Left-Libertarians who compromise the main
    or at least the majority of your audience, and have promoted your blog throughout
    the web especially due to the addition of articles by Roderick Long, Charles W
    Johnson, and Gary Chartier. Instead of being  brave and honest and choosing a topic to
    attract left leaning moderates to Libertarianism, or promote a new way of
    thinking of common but critical issues, you instead chose to preach to the
    choir who would normally disagree with you on every other issue you have
    written about in this blog. A choir that would dismiss you and criticize you
    and your work within seconds from the mere mention or whisper of the word “Social
    Justice”.  It’s hard enough as it is to
    promote such views of  “social justice”
    considering the harsh social climate that is currently Libertarianism with
    being reduced down to a murderer who is responsible for keeping people hungry
    and poor but  now we have this to deal
    with, from soon to be backlash that you created.  

    In the end, all this
    video ends up accomplishing is sticking one big middle finger to the majority
    of your followers. People who seem to believe in social justice more than you
    do. One must think with their heart in order for it to bleed.

    • I’ll take it a step further.

      Leave aside for the moment that nobody who works in a Sweat Shop is posting videos on YouTube about how just awesome the experience is for them, consider this.

      Of the 355 comments currently posted on the video itself there is ONE Respondent who claims to have worked in a Sweat Shop and that it did them some good.

      So, since there are millions of Sweat Shop workers, the world over, some even with Internet Access, tell me this:Just where are the Sweat Shop workers?

      Tell me how come they are not leaving ANY replies to this video, either positive or negative?

      After all it’s their lives that are getting held up as being a Paragon of Virtue.

      If it were you, wouldn’t you jump right in and say something about it?

      Do you see the problem here?

      If you don’t, then please allow me to kindly spell it out for you, oh, Benevolent One.

      You are claiming expertise on a subject that you know exactly ZERO about.

      And the ONLY reason you’re able to peddle this bald face steaming pile of tripe and get away with it, is because the people that can rebut you aren’t in a position to stand up, never mind speak up, for themselves.

      Disgusting and vile.

      Shame is what you should be feeling right now.

      And if you don’t feel any shame then I’d suggest your seeking Medical Attention as quickly as possible to find out just what it is that’s wrong with you.

      • If you’re actually interested in hearing what sweatshop workers think, I’d suggest taking a look at this video for a start:


        But if you’re just interested in ranting, then by all means, rant on…

      • SPQR_US

        You’re a pampered retard. If you’d actually been to any “sweat shops” you’d sing a different tune. I’ve had to help build several piece work “factories” for the very poor in Southeast Asia. Were it not for this they’d literally have starved. I don’t expect to change your mind or convince you I’m not making it up. Bit if you have a shred of decency you’ll not be so quick in the future to attack something you know so little about. How much if your after tax income do you donate to the poor of himanity? What have you done to elevate the poor with your own personal labor and money over time? A fake weekend vunteer day doesn’t count.

    • Hi Alejandro,

      Believe it or not, I didn’t make this video to win points with the Mises Institute. Or to flip the c4ss people the bird. I did it because it articulates a position that I believe to be true, and important. Clearly, you disagree with me about that. And as you can see from the comment thread here, I’m more than willing to engage in dialogue with those who disagree with me. But if you want to talk, then let’s talk substance, and leave the speculation about my motives to the side.

      I agree with you that physical coercion and sexual harassment is wrong. Period. 

      As for why I made this video after Ben Powell made his, the reason is that Powell addresses the issue from the point of view of an economist, whereas I do so from the perspective of a philosopher. We use different methodologies, different concepts, different arguments. There’s some superficial similarity between the arguments, of course, and we agree on a lot of things. But I thought (and Learn Liberty thought) that there were enough differences to make the project worthwhile.

      And, for what it’s worth, there is in fact a video forthcoming about why libertarians should be more open to the concept of social justice.

      • Alejandro

        Having read some of your responses to
        the comments and your big response to Roderick Long I’ll give you the benefit
        of the doubt that your video was made with good intentions. In a sense, I wasn’t
        trying to accuse you of having deceitful motives; rather I was expressing how
        the video generally comes off to a majority of people ,like me, as sort of distancing
        yourself from a crowd of Libertarians who generally and on most issues share
        agreements with you. However, if you want to focus on substance I still fail to
        see how your video is different from Dr. Benjamin Powells, in the area of
        arguments. Both of you  state the
        followings in your video.

        1.      Sweatshop is the best job compared to the alternatives.

        Sweatshop offers the best wages than compared to the alternatives

        Asking for higher wages will lead to sweatshops shutting down and/or
        moving to another location which in return will leave workers worse off.

        Sweatshops being built in the USA do nothing for the poor third
        world workers (to which Dr. Powell clarifies it as “fair trade” option)

        Good intentions does not lead to good results (which is something
        most free market economist almost all agree with)

        So since the arguments are pretty
        much the same, I have a hard time in seeing how the methodology and concept can be
        different and an even harder time seeing how it could change any minds that haven’t
        already been changed by listening to Powell and I don’t see this video being
        appealing to anybody associated with the left. I’m not saying different methodologies
        can’t lead to the same results but it obviously wouldn’t show through in a
        video. Had you approach this topic with different talking point/arguments or a
        different topic altogether, then I would think and feel otherwise. I think many
        Libertarian economists already feel that they speak on moral or philosophical grounds
        on everything they advocate for which why they call themselves a Libertarian in
        the first place. Even if they don’t have a background in philosophy, many of
        them seem to take the idea that as long as I advocate non-interventionism and
        free-markets which help people by that very nature it is a moral position in
        within itself in the philosophical foundation that is Liberty. It’s a shame
        that it has come done to this which is why I would have preferred a video that
        focused more on social justice alternatives to the solution.

        I see this video
        as an opportunity for others to use it as a tool against the idea of social justice,
        not for it, which is why I stated that it helps the group of Libertarians who
        typically dismiss this blog even if it wasn’t your attention to reach out to
        them. As Economist would say “Good intentions does not lead to good results”,
        and I feel that the same applies to this video which does more harm than good for social justice Libertarians.
        I’m not saying that being in the world of Liberal academia is any easier for a
        Libertarian like yourself, but it’s no cake walk either for young
        left-libertarian/Anarchist either who discuss these issues amongst their
        supposedly like minded peers who usually dismiss and demonize their ideas as
        frivolous, dangerous, and compare you to a genocidal murderer both in your face or
        in the established Libertarian media (such an irony to those words) .

        This does
        not mean I’ll stop following the blog or sharing articles that I agree with or
        defend your position on other issues but I may stop using the term “Bleeding
        Heart” in front of other Libertarians. In any case, maybe I’ll feel differently
        once I see the other video on social justice but until then…..

  • Not to worry your pretty little head about this, Herrn Doktor Mister Zwolinski, these Sweatshops of human exploitation will quite soon be a thing of the very distant past.

    Which will, of course, render your entire argument MOOT.

    For your next big, high hit internet traffic generating Intellectual Number for you to justify Mass Primitive Barbarism by the Corporate State I’d suggest working up a Thesis in Defense of the Holodomor Famine.

    Just to have at the ready, because that’s what’s coming next.
    You may want to familiarize yourself, Professor with the concept of: 

    “Technological unemployment”
    Forget the peons of the 3rd World, right now in the USA today, the “Magic number” that will bring on massive Technological unemployment to the America we ♥ is…$30K a year.
    That is it costs businesses in the USA today $30K a year to hire a full time worker, (working 2,000 hours a year), who is earning the current Federal minimum wage.

    The whole point of Capitalism is to boost Profit margins. 

    The surest and quickest way to do that is to cut Payroll by engaging in… 


    Whenever, and wherever, possible. 

    By any means necessary.

    Anything that can get the job done for under that $30K a year figure will be leaped at. 

    Since the entire history of Capitalism is characterized by the stark, stone cold fact, that as soon as a newer, cheaper method comes along to bring a product to market, the older, more expensive method is promptly abandoned.

    The average 1 year cost for a Kiva Systems Order fulfillment Robotics unit, (that can work at least 6,000 hours a year) is $10K a year.

    Or about ⅔rds less than what it costs Mister Jeff Bezos to employ a human.(FYI, Doctor Professor, if you were to Factor in the Kiva Systems Warehouse Bots Productivity/Efficiency being 6 times more than a human workers the average cost to operate these machines is ALREADY CHEAPER than the LOWEST PAID Minimum Wage Worker in CHINA.)Figure that by this year’s end Amazon goes ahead with its plan to deploy these bots in its 69 US warehouses and eliminates at least half of the 50,000 jobs that are being done today by their minimum wage human workers.That’ll be half a billion dollars in Net Savings right there, which will go straight to their Bottom Line as Pure Profit.Once everybody else catches wind of this, (less than 5 years from now when WalMart eliminates 1 million of their human Minimum Wage Workers in America they’ll Net $20 billion a year, EVERY year using this Automated Cost Cutting Strategery), we can expect the switch-over transition away from human workers to be so abrupt and dramatic that it’ll make your head spin like it’s on a swivel.

  • Aeon Skoble

    Matt- I was starting to understand why a libertarian-conservative fusion project is fruitless, but the abuse you’re taking in this thread (and on my FB page) validates my skepticism about a libertarian-leftist fusion. 

    • But many of the critiques are coming from left-libertarians themselves.  Doesn’t that show, on the contrary, the robustness of libertarian-leftist fusion?

      (Of course, some of the comments are objectionably abusive, but that’s sadly common among all ideologies on the internet.)

      • Aeon Skoble

        I don’t know.  Matt has a great background and credibility, and has a project that involves getting people to think outside their usual boxes, and for that he gets called a sell-out (and worse) and has his motives impugned.

  • There were many, many, many people who thought just like you in 1850s America.

    The Scholar, one Master Mister George Fitzhugh, starting with his 1849 Tract entitled “Slavery Justified” published extensively on this very subject in the Antebellum South about the GRATEFUL  SENSE OF INDEBTEDNESS that American Slaves should feel for their Masters.

    As dubious a distinction that it may be, it seems that you belong to a long and storied American Tradition.

    So much so that I’d recommend that you and Fitzhugh’s desiccated corpse get a room together.

    All that said the dead bodies of 600,000 dead Americans lost in our single bloodiest conflict, yet, so far, anyways, aren’t enough evidence for you to realize the inherent logical fallacies of your Premise?

    Just WHAT would it take for there to be even a nominal shift in your thinking?

    • Some arguments might be more persuasive than an expression of outrage and a stream of abuse.

    • SPQR_US

      Blah blah blah blah…”I’m NYC labets” the talker, I’ve never actually gone to a poor country in my own done and made a difference.” I wonder if you’ve got the guts to do it…I have and I’ll tell you it’s hard. It’s scarey and it’s never done. Sometimes I feel line a fool sometimes I feel like I’ve made a difference. I hope I have. I’m curious how exactly have you made a positive difference in the 3rd world with your own labor, time, cash and effort?

  • Al Bundy

    I’m a bit surprised by how many commenters are taking issue with the use of the term voluntary for sweatshop work. Denying the “consensualness” of interactions they don’t approve of is a classic statist move in justifying government intervention.  Of course the shitty conditions and limited opportunities available to the global poor have an effect on their choices of labor, but they still make a choice from what is available to them.

    Libertarians should know better than to fall for the “limited opportunity = you can’t make your own decisions” trap. Instead, they should stress how state coercion is what limits opportunity in the first place. Restrictions on immigration, wars fought for the benefit of corporations, subsidies, tariffs, etc.

    • Libertarians should know better than to fall for the “limited opportunity = you can’t make your own decisions” trap. Instead, they should stress how state coercion is what limits opportunity in the first place. 

      Um, yes, isn’t that precisely what the libertarian critics of Matt’s post have been saying?  So who are you criticising?

  • CFV

    Half time post (Argentina-Brazil teams are playing in New Jersey). It is a very complex issue what we should do to effectively help the poorest of the poor in  underdeveloped countries. But I believe the standard/right-libertarian response (even of the bleeding-heart variety) seems to be too narrow minded in considering sweatshop labor as the best alternative we can devise: access to land, clean water and micro-lending, for example, can do a lot to improve the lives of the worse-off.

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  • jgvibes

    i just wrote an article on this subject but this covers the argument that these conditions wouldnt exist to begin with if property rights were fully respected


  • Estevao

    “My claim is that given the desperate poverty faced by many of
    the world’s workers, sweatshops are good for them. Not as an end, but as
    a means toward, hopefully, achieving a better life and a better world
    where sweatshops are a thing of the past.”

    So to erradicate sweatshops which you acknowledge as being unjust we must encourage the very thing that we want to remove?… This seems a little contradictory.

  • lasolitaria

    1) Not all sweatshops are colluding with local powers to create or preserve background injustice (it’s usually already there before they arrive and will sometimes be still there long after they’re gone). Those which are not should not be held responsible as long as they and their workers enter into reasonably voluntary and mutually beneficial agreements. Do you think every job choice in developed countries is completely free from some sort of background injustice? A job applicant may rather work as a professional violinist but he settles for the shitty job I’m offering him because something prevented him from doing what he really wants. Maybe his parents didn’t approve, he has no talent or he couldn’t afford music school. Am I responsible for remedying his condition in order to ensure his decision is completely free from external pressure?

    2) Force exerted by “thugs” is a poor case for a common cause of background injustice. Big agricultural losses which would lead unemployed farmers to seek sweatshop jobs out of resignation (instead of farmers willingly seeking sweatshops jobs because they’re usually better paying and associated with a better social standing than farming) are much more often caused by natural disasters or outdated, inefficient farming methods than by thugs burning crops.

    3) Background injustice in foreign countries can seldom be remedied by corporations in reality even if it’s in their power to do so. First, because in order to actually remedy it they’ll likely incur expenses which would render their whole operation unprofitable, thus defeating the reason why they’re there in the first place. And second, because any real effort to remedy background injustice, whether it’s in the form of thugs whose force must be met with a proportional opposite force or bad government policies that must be changed by significant political actions, will involve taking steps that eventually amount to intervention, which is even farther from Libertarian principles. They’re already providing jobs, training and some basic infrastructure. That’s about all the help they can give while also helping themselves and without overstepping into the functions of the local government.

    Let’s say you buy a pair of Nikes made by 12 year olds in a Vietnamese sweatshop. You’re benefiting from a more affordable price, which is due to Nike’s taking advantage of cheap labor, which is in turn related to conditions stemming from background injustice. Are you responsible for remedying those unfortunate conditions or can you just ignore them? How far would you have to go in order to ensure nothing you do or acquire is at some level linked to injustice? And since you, as an American consumer, are in a position where, even if your responsibility is proven beyond any doubt, there’s very little you can do to provide any remedy, other than stop supporting the whole scheme by not buying Nikes, is your refusal to buy Nikes good or bad for those sweatshop workers? I think that’s what this particular video is concerned with, what’s good for sweatshop workers, rather than whether sweatshops are compatible with Libertarian principles or not.

    • This was a worthwhile conversation 8 months ago. Now, much less so. So I’m going to leave with this. Just because a perverse incentive exists doesn’t mean that there is a rush to act on it. And I am simply pointing out the existence of a perverse incentive. I have never claimed that it was the responsibility of anyone here to remove it. You can trot out example after specific fictional example, and my response is going to be the same.

      If the point behind this blog is to explore the links between Free Markets and Social Justice, it seems to me that there is some value in pointing out where the incentives of a free market are, or can be, directly at odds with a desire for social justice. Libertarianism, despite what some doctrinaire ideologues might proclaim, is not a perfect unbroken path to a just future. So, I think that it’s useful to understand the potential speedbumps, so that they can be understood, and perhaps corrected.

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  • Bob

    Aww!!! Thats really sad what is happening in the world right now. I hope it gets Abolished.

  • Bob

    THis is a really good point. But i go Anti Child Labor.

  • Tracey

    very persuasive realistic approach, those who would say otherwise are dreaming of a world where there is labour protection for all, based on our western standards, which is not going to happen any time soon.

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  • Shayna Rivas

    As someone who is against sweatshops, I am not against factories. Why should the only available option for poor (in this example I’ll use women) in a community be to either get harassed and possibly assaulted at their jobs or become sex trafficked victims? Why do companies only pay pennies on the dollar to these workers when they could afford to pay a more reasonable, living wage? I’m not talking about $15 an hour, I’m talking about a living wage for the workers community. Why do companies continuously cheat building codes and safety standards in the industry, which causes completely preventable disasters to happen and thousands of people to die? Why can’t companies just care a little more about the people that make their product? It’s not like they aren’t making a 120% profit anyway. I care that factories remain in the communities in which they have always been. But I don’t care for the unethical and immoral practices big business plays to put profits over people. They can make the necessary changes to stop the human rights abuses that they are perpetuating. Working in a factory really ISN’T a choice. It’s either that or be trafficked/ get involved in crime. No one reasonable wants to choose the latter, let’s be fair. These factories are the communities only source of livelihood, and people don’t deserve to be treated like they are subhuman because a big corporation thinks it’s okay.


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  • Elrein

    I cannot believe that you made this video…appalling, your truly disgust me. By defending sweatshops you are defending the abuse and exploitation of vulnerable people there is no way around this. There is no justification for this cruelty. Despite all of your desperate mental gymnastics this practice will never be an ethical one. You are indeed a terrible person.