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.”
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?
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- Todd Seavey on Noticed elsewhere
- good_in_theory on Specificity and Overspecificity about “Social Justice”
- les kyle Nearhood on Specificity and Overspecificity about “Social Justice”
- Sean II on Links
- Kevin on Social Injustice as Emergent Property