I have no quarrel with Matt’s central thesis – namely, that eliminating sweatshops without changing anything else would be bad for the poor. But I think an analysis of sweatshops that stops there, or that puts its main emphasis there, is a bad choice for bleeding-heart libertarians.

It may be true that sweatshop employment is preferable to the available alternatives, but we need to ask why these are the available alternatives; and in most case the answer is that these workers live under oppressive regimes that have violently closed off other options – which casts doubt on the description of the workers’ choice as “voluntary.”

Alliance of the Libertarian Left

In his video Matt refers to workers’ being “free to choose within their constrained set of options”; but of course it’s analytically true that we are always free to choose within whatever our constrained set of options may be (otherwise they wouldn’t be options). If someone puts a gun to your head and demands your money or your life, you have, of course, the Sartrean freedom to choose either way; but this is not what voluntariness means in a political context. And while it would be true enough to say that we shouldn’t take away the robbery victim’s freedom to avoid death by handing over the money, it would be a strange bleeding-heart libertarian analysis of the situation that went no further than this.

As Jeremy Weiland asks, why should libertarians expend “so much precious time, energy, and money on justifying” a bad situation, rather than investing that same “time, energy, and money into advocating for an improvement in the set of choices,” so that sweatshop workers have “better options that are not demeaning, dangerous, and unjust?”

Matt has raised doubts in a previous post as to the role of government in explaining the constraints on workers’ options:

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.

That’s true enough if we’re talking about the long history before various modern inventions and techniques were developed (though even then the best explanation for periods of rapid advancement is usually more freedom). But once such innovations are in place, it’s rare for anything short of organised violence to prevent them from spreading via free exchange (thanks to the Ricardian Law of Association) to anyone who wants them. Nowadays the wealth or poverty of a country is virtually always correlated with its degree of freedom or oppression.

Matt also casts doubt on whether sweatshop owners are responsible for the policies of the governments of their host countries. I think the responsibility varies from case to case. Certainly such companies seek out countries with low wage rates, which in practice means seeking out countries whose governments artificially constrain their subjects’ options; and while those governments may have been oppressive already, certainly their liberticide dispositions are only reinforced by the need to keep the cash-cow corporations around. Cases where corporations actually bring in military support to prop up, or even establish by coup, regimes that clamp down on unions and resist land reform may be the exception, but they’re not unknown (United Fruit being the most celebrated example). But even when these corporations don’t share culpability for the oppression, they’re certainly guilty of exploiting it.

Does this matter to Matt’s point, though? After all, he’s not claiming that sweatshop owners are morally virtuous; all he’s saying is that as things stand, poor workers are better off with sweatshops than without them.

Fair enough; but he’s saying a bit more than that, for he’s also condemning anti-sweatshop protests and boycotts. Is that fair? I agree that if protests and boycotts take as their aim simply the closing of sweatshops (or, worse yet, regulations such as minimum-wage laws that force out sweatshops), then they’re a mistake. But what the people protesting sweatshops are demanding is not that the employers fire all their employees and close down the shops; rather, they’re demanding higher wages and better conditions. If a company responds to a boycott, not by improving its sweatshops but by closing them, and the boycotters respond by ending the boycott, then the boycott is being done in a counterproductive way; but that’s a reason for condemning stupid anti-sweatshop boycotts, not for condemning anti-sweatshop boycotts per se.

But what if the company can’t afford to offer higher wages and better conditions? Sometimes that’s the case; but with most of these international corporations there’s a sizable gap between what the employers are offering now and what they can afford to offer while still remaining profitable – otherwise strikes, particularly strikes on the Immokalee model (see here and here, and broader reflections here), 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. (Moreover, a fair bit of improvement in working conditions could be effected without much cost, simply by a change in management methods.)

Indeed, why not offer Immokalee as a model for sweatshop workers to follow, supported from without by vigorous pressure on the employers? What could be a more bleeding-heart libertarian solution to the sweatshop problem?

Print Friendly
 
  • http://profile.yahoo.com/JAAIPFVHDPOIJKWIYYKZWKDTEM Sharon

    Thank you, Roderick,  for this welcome “thick” analysis of sweatshops.  Too many libertarian analyses act as if this issue were a simple either/or when in fact as you have essentially pointed out, to simply say sweatshops are better than the alternatives presents a false dilemma. While it may be true that sweatshops are better than some alternatives, e.g., slaving away on low-productivity farms, to stop there still makes us look as if we are simply sweeping away the problems that still remain–brutally long hours, often unsafe conditions, etc. It still makes us look heartless to outsiders.
    Libertarians are good at criticizing; not as good at providing alternatives. You have pointed out some of the alternatives to simply accepting sweatshops. We need more such arguments.
    –Sharon Presley

    • Tommy

      You have to start somewhere right? You can’t just go from a slab of land to a Macy’s can you? It’s not pretty, but we had sweatshops in America once too did we not? We came out of it pretty well I’d say. Some places are just behind. I’m not saying that it’s right of the companies involved to do such, but who are we to say otherwise. It’s nice being in the position that we’re in that most of us can work in great conditions 98% of the time, but when we put ourselves in the position of those workers we might have a different outlook on the situation.

      • http://profile.yahoo.com/JAAIPFVHDPOIJKWIYYKZWKDTEM Sharon

         You are still thinking in either/or terms. Long is not saying that they should not accept such jobs if that is the “best” alternative. He is saying that it is both reasonable and wise for analysts to look at the big picture, including commenting on the conditions,  considering the possibilities of protests, urging companies to improve conditions, etc. Why is that so hard to understand?

  • Pingback: Why Sweatshop Jobs Are Worth Defending – A Response to Long | Bleeding Heart Libertarians

  • Calion

    Okay, this needs serious debate.

    Point one: It is generally accepted that raising the standard of living of the poor has at least a minor snowball effect; as wealth increases, people demand more freedom (which may be granted because that increases tax revenue), which leads to greater wealth, etc.

    Point two: if we accept PoInt One–and, really, even if we don’t, though the argument is weaker–sweatshops are desirable on the face of them; they are Pareto efficient. Do we really wish to protest things getting better?

  • Calion

    (Add “higher wages” to what people are likely to demand–or, honestly, just get without demanding as their skills improve–to Point one. Sorry, apparently Disqus hates my iPhone; once I type something, I cannot edit it, only post)

    Especially if:

    Point three: attempting to interfere with this situation is at least as likely to harm as to help. First off, it’s hard to see what a not-stupid protest would look like. If Nike closed their sweatshops, would we continue to protest, claiming in essence that Nike has a moral obligation to keep its sweatshops open, but at higher wages?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roderick-Tracy-Long/1037941173 Roderick Tracy Long

      If Nike closed their sweatshops, would we continue to protest

      Yes, that’s what I said.

      claiming in essence that Nike has a moral obligation to keep its sweatshops open, but at higher wages?

      I don’t care that much what Nike’s moral obligations are.  When you negotiate for a raise, do you necessarily have to claim that your employer is obligated to give you a raise?

      • Calion

        No. But when you or I say “I will not buy your products until you give Bob a raise” we are saying exactly that.

      • Calion

        Put this another way: You speak of protestors “demanding” better wages and working conditions for sweatshop workers. That does indeed involve a claim that employers are in some sense obligated to comply. As you said, I negotiate for raises. I do not demand them; at most, I will give an ultimatum, but that is not a “demand.”

        And if employers are not in some sense morally obligated to provide better working conditions, why do we really care if they do or not? Yes, that would be nice, but it would also be nice if they instead passed on the savings to the consumer.

        What you’re trying to say here is that employers of sweatshop workers aren’t doing anything wrong, but we should protest them anyway. I doubt very strongly if any sweatshop protestors would agree with you.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roderick-Tracy-Long/1037941173 Roderick Tracy Long

          at most, I will give an ultimatum, but that is not a “demand.”

          I think most English speakers would consider an ultimatum a demand.

          And if employers are not in some sense morally obligated to provide better working conditions, why do we really care if they do or not?

          Gee, I dunno — if you don’t think your employers are obligated to give you a raise, why do you care whether they do or not?

          What you’re trying to say here is that employers of sweatshop workers aren’t doing anything wrong

          No, I didn’t say that; as I noted earlier, I think they generally are guilty of exploitation.  I was responding to a different question — namely, whether they have an obligation to keep the shops open at higher wages.  And what I said was that the case for boycotts doesn’t depend one way or the other on the answer to that question.

          • Calion

            Then you seem to be making a different case than what would seem to be implied by your article. You seemed to be saying, pretty clearly, that it is correct and wise–or at least not unwise–to agitate for higher wages and better conditions at sweatshops. That is, what sweatshop owners are doing wrong is not providing high enough effective wages. If that is NOT the case, what exactly are you arguing?

        • Ladycravens

          as in all business, you can only make money when people are willing to spend their money on your products or services.  this is the way societies show their approval/disapproval of those in business.  if you aren’t making money, change what you’re offering. 

          however, the public can’t take the Ayn Rand horror road and demand that companies work at a loss.  If the gains aren’t worth it, no one will run a business.  it’s all about what we’re willing to live with and what we aren’t.  

  • Pingback: Why Sweatshop Jobs Are Worth Defending – A Short Response to Long « Attack the System

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    I see the sweat shop as a step on the ladder up.. The US used to have them, and so did nations like S.Korea. later on they can implement more fair labor practices. My main issue woith the sweat shops is when manufactures with rigid labor laws are undersold by nations without them. It seems unfair for a nation to export manufaturing jobs because they are made more cheaply using methods that are illegal in the nation that is outsourcing.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roderick-Tracy-Long/1037941173 Roderick Tracy Long

      My main issue woith the sweat shops is when manufactures with rigid labor laws are undersold by nations without them. 

      If the laws are unjust and destructive (minimum wage laws, for example), then countries with them deserve to be undersold by countries without them.

      • Calion

        This I agree with. But you are also arguing that companies not take advantage of this by utilizing the lack of minimum wage laws to hire labor very cheaply. This is puzzling.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roderick-Tracy-Long/1037941173 Roderick Tracy Long

          What’s puzzling about it?

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeffpaulwilson Jeff Wilson

    It seems like there is no conflicting arguments here.  
    Matt’s just saying that sweatshops in and of them self aren’t good or bad just that we shouldn’t have the government dictate what sort of contracts they make with their employees, and Roderick is saying that we should work to improve the workers conditions/pay.  Of course everyone always tries to improve their lives, so I would say that is already going on.  If one of the sweatshop employees came up with an idea of how to make more money/value and gave jobs to all the other employees then the sweatshop would have to shut down or raise their wages.  So basically the best way to increase the working conditions/wages of sweatshops is for the people who care about the workers (which could be the workers themselves or even YOU) would be to come up with ideas for better jobs for them.

  • Calion

    Wouldn’t that, in effect, be an argument that Nike has a moral obligation to better the lives of  not just their employees, but potential employees? If we can argue that Nike should reopen a closed sweatshop, could we not then argue that other companies have a moral obligation to open factories that pay whatever we consider to be a fair wage in undeveloped regions? Is this really where we as libertarians want to go?

    Which leads to Point four: Saying that companies “should” provide better wages and/or working conditions implies that we know the correct wage and safety level. Well, what is it? Isn’t that exactly what the market is for, to determine these things? We can say, of course, that the labor market is unfree and that the government of the country in question should cease intervening in the market so these things will find their proper level, but no libertarian would NOT argue that. This all sounds (especially your calculation of what companies can afford to do given their profit level!) like “trading for the public good,” which Adam Smith correctly had harsh words for. 

    Point five–and this is the biggie for me: Let’s say we succeeded. Through our protests, American companies have a moral obligation to provide relatively high wages and good working conditions (which really just raise the effective wage paid). Have we made the world a better place? Or have we merely discouraged companies from opening factories in low-wage areas of the world, as saving money was the primary reason for moving operations there to begin with? They will no longer have the incentive to open factories in the poorest regions, as they can get better personnel at the same rates in wealthier areas. Aren’t we just trying to set an effective minimum wage, with all that that entails, when we protest sweatshops? I say: Hooray for sweatshops!

    Two caveats: 1) Nothing here should be taken to imply that workers themselves should not strike. Especially in a  less-than-free labor market, strikes can be an effective means of ameliorating intolerable conditions. But it’s up to the workers to decide what’s intolerable, not we consumers. Absent government sanction, strikes can only succeed when there is general and strong dissatisfaction with existing conditions. 
    2) All of the above is void if the company in question actually created the conditions that led to sweatshop work being the best alternative for the locals. 

    (When responding, pleas ignore minor problems with the form and flow of my argument and focus on the substance. As I said, I’m unable to edit.)

    • TracyW

      Yes, I think this is a good point.  Surely protesting companies that do open sweatshops is the wrong area to focus, it would be much better to protest at companies that could open sweatshops, but don’t. 

      Protesting people who are improving the poor’s living conditions, however incompletely, while blithely ignoring people who are doing far less to improve the poor’s living conditions is like prosecuting good samaritans for negligence if they try to save someone’s life. It’s something to be done only after thorough thought for all the consequences. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/jaredmark Jared Mark

    I would like to challenge a few things in this article.

    1)  “in most case the answer is that these workers live under oppressive regimes that have violently closed off other options”
    — Back up that assertion please.  Where are most sweat shops?  What types of governments do they have?  What percentage of sweat shops are under oppressive and violent governments?

    2) “of course it’s analytically true that we are always free to choose within whatever our constrained set of options may be”

    Bad faith argument.  It is taking the extreme (especially with the “your money or your life” part), and making the argument in to one of absurdity when the original argument was quite reasonable.   The argument you are responding to is a choice between work and work, not between work and death.  In essence, you are being hyperbolic and strawmanning.  Stop it.

    3) “why should libertarians expend “so much precious time, energy, and money on justifying” a bad situation, rather than investing that same “time, energy, and money into advocating for an improvement in the set of choices…”

    The argument against sweat shops is more of an argument against the radical demagoguery and misuse of language.  A “sweat shop” is a derogatory term for what others would usually call “a job”.  The fact that it’s a job that YOU wouldn’t take because you’re too damn good for it, and it wouldn’t pay you enough, doesn’t mean it’s “unjust” or “demeaning” (which is a subjective thing anyway). 

    4) “But what the people protesting sweatshops are demanding is not that the
    employers fire all their employees and close down the shops; rather,
    they’re demanding higher wages and better conditions.”

    Wouldn’t demanding higher wages be the same as minimum wage laws, and have the same impact?  Wouldn’t you then be able to say that the protest groups demanding higher wages and conditions MIGHT AS WELL be demanding that they close?  These people are economic illiterates, who ignorantly demand things, without understanding the over-arching impacts of their demands… if we connect the dots for them, and come to the logical consequences, is it wrong of us to restate their demands in terms of those consequences?

    5) “with most of these international corporations there’s a sizable gap
    between what the employers are offering now and what they can afford to
    offer while still remaining profitable”

    Here’s where I get to accuse you of not being a true libertarian.

    The profitability of the company, the prices they are paying for wages, and all of those other factors… ARE NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS.  It doesn’t matter if they have a 95% profit margin… the wage they pay is the wage they can get others to work for.  It’s a contract between party A and party B, where party C has no right to come in and tell B “Hey man, you’re getting screwed here”, while telling party A “you oughtta be ashamed of yourself!”

    Who gave party C that right?

    • Miko


      Who gave party C that right?

      I’ll assume that you’re a minarchist or worse (since an anarchist wouldn’t think that someone needs to give them that right), in which case the answer is the 1st amendment to the U.S. constitution.

      • Calion

        All you’re doing is picking at his language. He wasn’t debating whether someone has the right to say what they want. The point is, Long, as party C, is claiming that A and B’s contract is unjust. Under what moral principle does he claim that?

        It’s hard to say clearly.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roderick-Tracy-Long/1037941173 Roderick Tracy Long

          I didn’t necessarily say it was unjust (if by unjust you men rights-violating); that would depend on the details.  But a contract can be morally wrong without being unjust.

        • http://www.facebook.com/jaredmark Jared Mark

           I was saying that it doesn’t matter if the contract is unjust, immoral, degrading, wrong, exploitative, etc… Party C has no business injecting himself in to that and declaring it to be ANYTHING, either positive OR negative.  Party C certainly maintains the LEGAL right to say whatever he wants about it… you can do so in your own echo chamber with no one listening, or on the world stage as president of the united states, for all to hear.  That’s fine.

          It’s still none of your business.

          You have a right to freedom of speech, but you don’t have a right to not be judged by what you say.  You have the right, as party C, to SAY that something is unjust, and I have the right to call you out for injecting your nose in to someone else’s business, and to tell you to “Butt out”.

          • DLM

            This is ridiculous! Of course it “matters” if contracts are “unjust, immoral, degrading, wrong, exploitative, etc.” There are times when Party C, in the name of human decency and morality, has a responsibility to stand up and say “No more.” However, context matters, as always.

            For instance, if someone that one loves and cares for enters into a slavery contract, one (Party C in this case) is perfectly within their rights to intervene in said arrangement and try to convince the loved one that the contract is exploitative, degrading and immoral. And, to be quite blunt, they are within their rights (and frankly have a responsibility) to forcibly remove the loved one from the contract if they do not try to leave it voluntarily. In addition, considering society at large,  a just society would automatically consider such contracts null and void, and actively prosecute anyone who tried to enter a contract as a slaveholder. (This would hold true wether the society is minarchist, anarchist, or whatever).

            However, there are always cases that are not so clear-cut and the course of action not so obvious. Labor contracts generally fall  under this category. There is no easy answer. Yes, some labor contracts are indeed exploitative, immoral, etc. Nonetheless, even in those cases –but not all– the best course of action is to let the market, such as it is, increase the standard of living which will in turn make oppressive  labor contracts/conditions less and less common.

          • http://www.facebook.com/jaredmark Jared Mark

             You just altered the argument by inserting the love relationship between party B and C, which is special pleading and another strawman.

            I never argued that family members shouldn’t put pressure on their loved ones to exit a bad situation.  The context of this discussion is in random “society members”, enforcing morality (via the use of government force if necessary) based on otherwise uninvolved persons making declarations of immorality or exploitation.

          • DLM

            Actually, it is not a strawman. It is a response to your sweeping statement that it “does not matter if the contract is unjust, blah, blah, blah, etc…Party C [unspecified by you!] has no business interjecting, yada, yada, yada”

            Regarding the “context of this discussion” please note that I was properly putting a check on your sweeping statement mentioned above, and I concluded by saying 1.) A just society would consider slavery contracts null and void, and 2.) “Labor contracts/conditions are not so clear cut-cut, yada, yada” and are therefore the best course of action is to stay out of the way.

            Stop accusing people of strawmanning when they aren’t; it make you seem dishonest and as though you have no real argument.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roderick-Tracy-Long/1037941173 Roderick Tracy Long

      Where are most sweat shops?

      The third world. 
       
      What types of governments do they have?

      You really do not know what most governments in the third world are like?

       
      Bad faith argument.  It is taking the extreme (especially with the “your money or your life” part), and making the argument in to one of absurdity when the original argument was quite reasonable.   The argument you are responding to is a choice between work and work, not between work and death.  In essence, you are being
      hyperbolic and strawmanning.  Stop it.

      You’re confusing an argument by analogy with an argument by counterexample.

      “unjust” or “demeaning” (which is a subjective thing anyway). 

      So you believe morality is subjective?  Why are you participating in a discussion about right and wrong, then?

      Wouldn’t demanding higher wages be the same as minimum wage laws, and have the same impact?  Wouldn’t you then be able to say that the protest groups demanding higher wages and conditions MIGHT AS WELL be demanding that they close?

      I already addressed this question in my main post.

      Here’s where I get to accuse you of not being a true libertarian.
      The profitability of the company, the prices they are paying for wages, and all of those other factors… ARE NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS.  It doesn’t matter if they have a 95% profit margin… the wage they pay is the wage they can get others to work for.  It’s a contract between party A and party B, where party C has no right to come in and tell B
      “Hey man, you’re getting screwed here”, while telling party A “you oughtta be ashamed of yourself!”
      Who gave party C that right?

      Who gave you the right to criticise my argument, given that I violated no rights in making my argument? I suspect it’s the same answer.

      • http://www.facebook.com/jaredmark Jared Mark

        Where are most sweat shops?
        The third world.

        Assertion without evidence.  What about China?  Is China 3rd world?
        Is Indonesia 3rd world?

        What types of governments do they have?
        You really do not know what most governments in the third world are like?

        I know what they’re PURPORTED to be like.  I don’t know what they are ACTUALLY like, and neither do you.  You are making an assumption here, passing it off as fact, then using an appeal to ridicule for those who don’t buy in to your unsupported assertion.

        “You’re confusing an argument by analogy with an argument by counterexample.”

        I was not confusing anything.  Whether it be an analogy or a counter example, it’s still rhetorically absurd.  It’s not analogous:  Money vs Live != Money vs Money, thus as a counter example YOU are not supplying a proper counterexample BECAUSE they are not analogous.

        For those trying to understand the problem here… Counterexample is this:

        If All A does X
        And All B does X
        Conclusion: all A are B.

        Counterexample (to refute conclusion): Here is a B that is not an A, thus conclusion is false.

        If B is not actually a B, but is instead a C, you can’t equate it to A in any way.  It’s a false analogy to say that C = B, and thus B != A, thus refuting the counterexample disproof of the original conclusion.

        “So you believe morality is subjective?  Why are you participating in a discussion about right and wrong, then?”

        Strawman argument.  I did not say that morality is subjective.  I said that something being “demeaning” is subjective.  This is objectively true, in fact.  Some women consider doing porn to be demeaning to the women, while other women revel in doing porn and deny that it is demeaning.

        Please stop restating my arguments in ways that make it easier for you to refute them.  To do so is logically fallacious and a sign of someone more intent on WINNING and BEING RIGHT, than on discovery of truth.

        “Who gave you the right to criticise [sic] my argument, given that I violated
        no rights in making my argument? I suspect it’s the same answer.”

        I never said you didn’t have the right to criticize “sweat shops”.  This is another strawman argument.  You avoid taking responsibility for your argument, sir.

        The act of you MAKING THE ARGUMENT is indeed a freedom of speech issue.  This is, quite obviously, NOT what I take issue with.  It’s the implicit impact of what you’re advocating FOR.  The real world results of your ideas, not the act of you espousing them.

        I’m about to terminate this conversation, by the way… this is your final warning.  Stop being fallacious, stop twisting my words to suit your desired goals.  Intellectual honesty demands that you concede to points when warranted, and the use of strawman arguments is a clear indicator to me that you are not interested in anything but winning the argument at the cost of your own intellectual honesty.

        I do not voluntarily associate with people like that.

        • DLM

          Jared,

          You are not writing very clearly at all. In your original comment, the one that begins with “Here is where I accuse you…” which Roderick quoted above, you sound as if you are indeed making the blanket statement that Party C has no right to say anything at all. This is what Roderick is responding to and why he asked you who gave you the right to criticize.

          …”‘unjust’ or ‘demeaning’ (which is a subjective thing anyway). ” You said this! Very inapt! It can read like you are saying that BOTH “unjust” and “demeaning” are subjective, and therefore Roderick was not engaging in a strawman when he asked you if you believe that morality is subjective.

          As for your convoluted discussion about “All A does X”, etc, it does nothing to further your charge of “strawmanning” but instead demonstrates that you did not understand Roderick’s point about the importance of whether or not an arrangement is voluntary or not.

          Yes, unclear, inapt, convoluted writing, and then you accuse Roderick of being “fallacious” and say that you do not ” do not voluntarily associate with people like that.” Sheesh! Who is being intellectually dishonest, I wonder?

        • http://theruleoffreedom.wordpress.com/ Menso

          I don’t know if Professor Long has lived in the “third world”, but I have. I have lived in China and Egypt, among other places, and I can assure you that the state there is two, three or ten times more corrupt and rapacious than in the rich world. Chinese officials frequently violate property in a way that makes railing against eminent domain in the US look petty. Yes, opportunities are stolen from them by the state.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=11833594 Eli Harman

    ‎”we need to ask why these are the available alternatives; and in most case the answer is that
    these workers live under oppressive regimes that have violently closed off other options”

    True, however; even if no oppressive regime had ever existed, the progression from living in the “state of nature” as wild animals, to being rational agents in an advanced, market-based, society would still entail passing through a variety of stages of increasing productivity and standard of living.

    Some societies have had their progress arbitrarily retarded (or even reversed) at certain points by oppressive regimes for extended periods of time. But no particular level of economic development is itself intrinsically unjust. They are each necessary steps which must be attained before still loftier steps, higher up the never-ending stairway of progress, are within reach.

    Furthermore, individuals and societies must climb this stairway themselves. It’s sad that some have had that option needless barred them for certain periods of time (indeed that many still do) but we still can’t make their progress for them. We can’t wave a wand and magic away the need (once arbitrary restrictions have been lifted) to climb, climb, ever higher. We can’t “abracadabra” a whole society from a state of relative poverty to opulence overnight. The only way to make the transition is by steady gains in productivity as a result of capital accumulation. “Sweatshops” are engines of that transformation.

    In that sense, I can have nothing against “sweatshops”, in the abstract, (although delving into particular cases may reveal truly controversial instances.)

  • Ladycravens

    In my albeit limited experience, poverty also finds roots in a combination of low-self esteem, and lack of motivation.  Lack of education, due to apathy or geography or cultural influence or even an older poverty, also plays a roll.  Oppression that leads to poverty usually reinforces a state of dependency in it’s victims, keeping them ignorant and fearful so they will not develop skills to better their lives or be willing to take the risks neccessary to find success.  However, this oppression is not always a government or a military.  It can be as close to home as an abusive parent or as strange and formal as many cult-like religious organizations.  Society itself can oppress with the goal of maintaining dynastic leadership families/clubs.  

  • David

    If the sweatshop providing the best local alternatives were to close, and the protests continue despite the elimination of them, then the protest are EFFECTIVELY decrying the local government, NOT the sweatshop (which would have been the proper focus in the first place.)

    Attacking the highest paying employer because THEY are somehow deemed ‘greedy ‘ (???) is illogical insanity.

  • TracyW

    One major downside of the protests against sweatshops is that I’ve noticed some people now say that they don’t buy anything made in third world countries, so as to avoid any risk of buying things from sweatshops.
    Which is really bad for poor people in third world countries. 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/VSXQERIUWC2GPLFH3T4DZ5T5O4 Doug

    Sweatshops exist for multiple reasons. Rent extraction in less developed nations inhibits capital investment- yes sweatshops represent capital investment, but LDNs are way behind the west and pacific rim. Part of the problem is that the people in these nations themselves tend to embrace social democracy or some other type of anti-progress anti-freedom system. Many still believe in an impossible socialist ideal despite the fact that they have endured persistent governmental failure. Changing beliefs in a democracy is not easy, as is changing a China type rent-extracting autocracy. Last week I spoke with a Ukrainian econ prof, and she thought that Democracy would fail in Russia bevcause Russians still have the same mindset that prevailed in the USSR. 1 thing that really shocked me UConn 20 years ago was the extent to which the Chinese and Indian students were enamored with large authoritarian governments in principle, even if they were disgusted with their own past experiences in China or India. I had expected the opposite…

    Intervening Bush II style is obviously a bad option, and impossible where China and Russia are concerned anyway. The Bush I strategy of prosperity leading to freedom has not worked with China, or many other places.

    Worse still, the American Keynesian/socialist left has now made a huge comeback, all based on the mythological notion that Bush II implemeted Lassez Faire, which failed. Does any market fail more so than the market for valid economic ideas and evidence?

    • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

      “Does any market fail more so than the market for valid economic ideas and evidence?”

      Why is that market failure and not government failure?

  • AnarchyPrime

    “eliminating sweatshops without changing anything else would be bad for the poor. “

    Okay, then…

    “But even when these corporations don’t share culpability for the oppression, they’re certainly guilty of exploiting it.”

    Where is the guilt? If the corporation isn’t to blame for the oppression, if the workers are better off with the sweatshops than without, where’s the wrongdoing?

    And if there is wrongdoing, what makes the sweatshops deserving of such special attention? There is no completely freed market of notable size in the world. Even the countries that rank highest for economic liberty have oppressive property and labor regulations (which are not uniform amongst countries) that constrains employees’ choices. Every employer in the world then is guilty of exploitation.

  • jacked

    Here’s an historical point.
    I’ve heard libertarians say that the south should have seceded (‘state’s rights’) or that they should have been allowed to use slaves because slavery would have eventually ended on it’s own.Free market advocates say that businesses that mistreat their workers wouldn’t be in business for long because consumers wouldn’t buy their products and force them out of business. 

    There are more people living in slavery now than there were during that time. More people working below poverty levels. In private industries.  80% of forced labor cases are in private enterprise.
    And when people do speak out about it or boycott, Learnliberty.org makes videos telling them they are making things worse. When a business is in danger of collapsing because people don’t like their business practices, libertarians defend the business saying that it would hurt the people losing their shit jobs. Or we should mind our own business.
    I don’t know how many libertarians I’ve heard who ridicule protesters or boycotts.
    IF you don’t want the government to get involved and make things better for workers and you don’t want consumers to get involved to make things better for workers and you damn sure don’t want workers to get together to make things better for themselves, then how do they suppose businesses who mistreat their workers will stop?
    I have a feeling people don’t really care
    Profits seem more important than peopleI applaud you, Roderick, for speaking on innovation.  Why aren’t libertarians putting effort into finding ways to make things better?
    Here are some questions I ask in this situation.  Is the work or working environment detrimental to the worker’s health?  Is it that way by nature of the job or is it that way because the employer does not put in measures to make things safer?Is the employer able to give the worker better wages without putting the company in the red? (example, Nike, Apple).Does the worker have  adequate shelter, proper nutrition, sufficient health care?  Beyond that, does the worker have access to training to gain more skills so they can get a better job or generate their own income?  In excess, Does the worker have access to child care while they are working or safe transportation?  All these questions can be asked regardless of what country a person lives in.All this can be gained in a few ways.  The person has the knowledge and resources to provide these things for themselves.  The person lives in a community that will provide these things for them.  Or the person works to pay for these things.  My whole idea was to make it possible for people to provide for their own needs or generate their own income.   I’m puzzled by the amount of resistance I’ve come across.

    When I first started looking into libertarianism, I  heard people saying that government should stay out of people’s lives and people in need should rely on non-profits, religious organizations, and charity.  But when I started interacting with the online libertarian community I saw something different.  When people talk of actually helping the poor, all charity goes out the window,  And it is replaced with ‘screw them if they can’t improve their own lives’.  “Why should the rich be obligated or even care about the conditions of the poor”, or “I am poor and I’m not asking for handouts or anyone else’s help, so screw those who are”.What I see is a libertarian revulsion to anyone wishing to help workers improve their situations. Any ideas that advocate for workers challenging their employers are met with disgust.
    Even if it is through private means.

    It all doesn’t make much sense

    • jacked

      Correction:
      Here’s *a* historical point

      • AnarchyPrime

        Just assumed you were British.

    • http://blog.monstuff.com Julien Couvreur

      I hear a lot of good intentions, not many effective strategies.

      Governments cannot help people, as they open up the unhealthy option of coercion and will only succeed to produce some unseen harm by bringing restrictions (minimum wage, minimum safety, maximum hours, etc).

      Consumers can help by purchasing products they want. But they should be aware of the effects of boycott or pressure against sweatshops (similar to effects of minimum wage).

      Finally, to answer your dilemma, it is private enterprise and the workers themselves which will eventually stop these bad working conditions. Competition pits greedy companies against each others to hire workers.

      Sadly, there are not many ways to accelerate the process, although one is worth mentioning: opening up the borders of “1st world” countries (and in general removing bad government restrictions, which is easier said than done).

      • JOR

        “Governments cannot help people, as they open up the unhealthy option of
        coercion and will only succeed to produce some unseen harm by bringing
        restrictions (minimum wage, minimum safety, maximum hours, etc).”

        Roderick didn’t say governments should do anything. But as a matter of obvious fact, governments help people all the time (especially government employees).  Furthermore, looking at things from an amoral, value-free perspective, anything anyone could do causes unseen harms to someone somewhere. Every possible use of a resource forecloses all other possible uses; every possible action breaks someone’s window.

  • Darian Worden

    Labor conditions in the developed world only improved after serious labor struggle, and connections can often be  drawn between improved conditions and concessions given to placate discontented workers. See for example the Lawrence, Massachusetts Textile Strike. Sweatshops are only a step on the way to prosperity if people actively advocate their improvement or abolition. Encouraging workers’ struggles instead of shrugging them off is one way in which the relatively privileged can help.

  • DavidCheatham

    If someone puts a gun to your head and demands your money or your life, you have, of course, the Sartrean freedom to choose either way; but this is not what voluntariness means in a political context. And while it would be true enough to say that we shouldn’t take away the robbery victim’s freedom to avoid death by handing over the money, it would be a strange bleeding-heart libertarian analysis of the situation that went no further than this.
    I know that was mostly a joke, but can I perhaps suggest that, actually, it would be in the best interest of the state to take away ‘the robbery victim’s freedom to avoid death by handing over the money’. (Assuming that some way could be found to take away just this ‘freedom’ and not anything else.)

    Why? Because the inability of the mugger to end up with any money would, rather rapidly, would stop muggings from happening at all. What would be the point? Granted, in these circumstances it seems rather difficult to figure out how to do it, and especially difficult to avoid the loophole of ‘Just shooting the victim and taking cash from his body’. So it is perhaps not workable here.

    But I’ve actually argued something similar: We should ignore hostages. Anyone takes a hostage, we give them exactly one warning and one minute to put down their weapon, and then we just shoot them. Obviously, we would _try_ to avoid hurting the hostage, but if we can’t figure out a way around that,  or can’t figure out a way to stop the hostage taker from doing so, we just go ahead and shoot the hostage taker anyway.

    Within six months, no one would ever take hostages again. (Well, almost. There are some circumstances where it would still work, but it wouldn’t work in a standoff with the police, is what I’m saying.)

    So, in general, _if we can find a way to do just that_, it actually is in the state’s best interest to stop extortion, of any sort, from working. If it can do this by somehow taking away a victim’s ‘right’ to pay the extortion demand, that method seems fine, both morally and legally, because the actual result would be ‘No one would try that sort of extortion anymore’.

    • JOR

       A number of false premises (one of which you acknowledge – forbidding mugging victims from voluntarily giving up their belongings wouldn’t stop muggers from getting them). The main practical one being that states simply don’t have an interest in stopping extortion, or hostage-taking or general terrorism for that matter, and they certainly don’t have an interest in forbidding economic exploitation of dispossessed third-world workers!

      The second practical one being that even if you could put an end to (private) extortion, or hostage-taking, or whatever, you haven’t necessarily improved things generally (leaving aside the fact that it’s impossible to improve things generally, because value is subjective).

      There is also an assumption of a fairly naive form of consequentialism, without which none of your suggestions are morally “fine”. Also it’s pointless to say any state’s method or policy is fine or not legally, since anything that is done by authorities is legal by definition.

      • DavidCheatham

        The main practical one being that states simply don’t have an interest in stopping extortion, or hostage-taking or general terrorism for that matter,

        Erm..what? Since when do they not have an interest in stopping those things? There appear to be a lot of laws intended to do just that. (Did I accidently wander onto bleedingheartanarchy while I wasn’t paying attention? I’m pretty certain even the strictest libertarians are against those things and think the state should try to stop them.)

        The second practical one being that even if you could put an end to (private) extortion, or hostage-taking, or whatever, you haven’t necessarily improved things generally

        Again, I have to say…what?

        (leaving aside the fact that it’s impossible to improve things generally, because value is subjective).

        Well, presumably the _criminals_ are worse off, but, uh, that’s not really the point.

        I’m baffled by everything you’ve said in your post to this point.The government _does_ have an interest in stopping crimes, and we as society _are_ generally better off when such crimes are stopped. (That is, presumably, why we made them crimes.) Now, there are crimes that you can argue shouldn’t be crimes, but I rather doubt ‘extortion, hostage-taking, and terrorism’ are included there. (Also I’m confused where ‘terrorism’ came into this discussion.)

        There is also an assumption of a fairly naive form of consequentialism, without which none of your suggestions are morally “fine”.

        Uh, no. In fact, my position is pretty explictly deontological. Hell, it’s _Kantian_: If everyone negotiated with hostage takers (As currently happens), there is incentive to take hostages (As there is). If no one did that, there would not be.

        I really have no idea what you’re talking about at all. Just because I argue ‘The outcome would be better’ does not make my position ‘a fairly naive form of consequentialism’. Hopefully, _most_ ethical positions, under any philosophy of ethics, make people ‘better off’. That is rather the whole idea.

        In fact, it’s the ‘We’ll negotiate with this hostage taker this time’ that’s consequentialist. Yes, every time we as society do that instead of just shooting, _that specific_ instance probably ends better off…but all we’ve done is encourage more of them. 

        This is, in fact, a major issue with consequentialism. Give one poor person $100,000 dollars, you’ve probably saved their life…give everyone that, and you’ve crashed the economy with inflation.(I can’t believe I, as a liberal, just made that point.) We are caring a little too much about each individual hostage, and too little about what this does to society in general.

        Likewise, we already have laws against agreements made under duress, so I have no idea why you’ve decided that we should, _as a matter of moral principle_, allow such agreements to complete. I mean, if someone offers me my money or my life, and I give them my money, and the police catch them…I get my money back, no matter what I ‘agreed’ to.

        I would understand if I had proposed some sort of impractical solution or a solution that infringed on people’s rights, but I specifically did not do so, and admitted such a solution is impossible. Which means you must be objecting to ‘People should not be able to make agreements under duress’ in _principle_.

        Which is, again, a little baffling.

        If you want to argue against it based on some philosophy, go ahead and do that, but don’t wander around just assigning it a philosophy and dismissing it because of that, or stating there’s some moral objection to it without stating what that is.

        • BK Broiler

          David, I find it a little baffling that you haven’t considered that although your prescription may disincentivize hostage taking, it may incentivize something else.

          Some clever suicide terrorist may welcome that policy as a nifty way to kill some Americans while demonstrating to the rest of the world that American government doesn’t care squat about ordinary Americans.

  • Pingback: Zwolinski e Long debatem os “sweatshops” | Ordem Livre

  • Ryan Long

    Here’s a thought: Abolish all sweatshops and replace them with what?

  • http://tatemwatkins.com/ Tate Watkins

    “. . . with most of these international corporations there’s a sizable gap between what the employers are offering now and what they can afford to offer while still remaining profitable”
    I’m not convinced that that’s the case, but I’d love to see some good data on poor-country textile profit margins if it’s out there somewhere.

    Adam Davidson has reported on this a little re Haiti, e.g.,

    Since it’s so easy and cheap to move production from one country to another, and since the work requires no prior skill, commodity T-shirt production is highly competitive. If Haiti doesn’t work out, it’s not so hard to pick up stakes and move to Honduras or Nicaragua or Madagascar.Since commodity T-shirts are, well, a commodity, T-shirt manufacturers primarily compete on price. Squeezing a fraction of a penny per shirt can mean the difference between getting that big Wal-Mart order or going out of business.All this is to say: When a country is in the commodity T-shirt game, they are at the very lowest, least attractive rung on the ladder of industrialization. They are beggars, fighting with lots of other poor countries for whatever business they can get and the competition is over price. . . .

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2011/06/10/137064161/would-a-5-a-day-minimum-wage-make-life-better-in-haiti

    ‘Sweatshop’ jobs and development is currently a major point of discussion/debate re Haiti: http://tatemwatkins.com/post/24470577277/lamenting-textile-jobs-in-a-country-with-70-percent

  • Pingback: “We Are The Birds of the Coming Storm”: Nick Ford of ALL-oNE’s trip to Chicago for the Anti-G8/NATO Protests | ALL-oNE

  • Pingback: Libertarianism Means Worker Empowerment | Bleeding Heart Libertarians

  • Pingback: In Defense of Sweatshops | The Skeptical Libertarian

  • Tedd

    There are four sets of agents relevant to this question: people in relatively poor countries; companies and corporations producing in relatively poor countries and selling in wealthier countries; customers in wealthier countries buying those products; and the governments of those poorer countries. (Governments of the wealthier countries might be said to be involved, too, but not as directly.) Sweatshops can exist even when all of these agents follow their own rational self interest.

    But we only have the right to demand that one of these agents not follow their rational self interest: the “oppressive regimes that have violently closed off other options,” as Mr. Long described them. I agree with Mr. Long’s available alternatives argument, but the rational conclusion of it is that those who want to do something about the injustice should direct their energies toward changing the behaviour of the governments of the poorer countries, since they are the actual source of it.

    I grant you that that kind of change is harder to achieve than changing the behaviour of the employers, but that doesn’t stop it from being the right course of action.

  • Pingback: Should You Buy a T-Shirt Made in Bangladesh? | Bleeding Heart Libertarians

Set your Twitter account name in your settings to use the TwitterBar Section.