I have no quarrel with Matts 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 its analytically true that we are always free to choose within whatever our constrained set of options may be (otherwise they wouldnt 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 shouldnt take away the robbery victims 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 dont 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. Its wealth, not poverty, that requires the special explanation.
Thats true enough if were 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, its 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 theyre not unknown (United Fruit being the most celebrated example). But even when these corporations dont share culpability for the oppression, theyre certainly guilty of exploiting it.
Does this matter to Matts point, though? After all, hes not claiming that sweatshop owners are morally virtuous; all hes saying is that as things stand, poor workers are better off with sweatshops than without them.
Fair enough; but hes saying a bit more than that, for hes 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 theyre 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, theyre 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 thats a reason for condemning stupid anti-sweatshop boycotts, not for condemning anti-sweatshop boycotts per se.
But what if the company cant afford to offer higher wages and better conditions? Sometimes thats the case; but with most of these international corporations theres 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 Smiths 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?