Sunday, June 10, 2012

Good post by Roderick Long on Sweatshops

I'm not strongly anti-sweatshop. I take the standard economists line that it's a step up the ladder, better than many (most?) counterfactual situations these people would find themselves in, etc.

...but I'm not strongly "pro-sweatshop" either. There are a lot of economists out there that get very insistent not just that sweatshops aren't as bad as a lot of people think, but that they're manna from heaven for developing societies. Maybe, in some cases. Again it depends on the counterfactual in a particular case I suppose. But it seems too strident to me to assume that there aren't obvious better alternatives. I'm not a development expert so I don't know what that alternative is, but that's the nagging issue I have with coming out enthusiastically in favor of sweatshops.

Roderick Long had much the same view on BHL (in response to Matt Zwolinski), and here are a few particularly good passages:

"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.

...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."

That last point reminds me a lot of people that get bent out of shape about the local food movement too. Yes, there are stupid arguments for buying locally, sometimes around faulty protectionist logic. And yes, the average person who supports buying locally rarely has good intuitions about economics (but isn't this true of the "average person" in general? It's certainly true of the "average libertarian", for example). So there may be a few things to say in criticism as a result. But a lot critics take this way too far and condemn the whole movement, which is not based on these failed arguments.


  1. You know, this is an excellent point that correlates with a discussion I was having with my father earlier this week. I think that too often, we (meaning people in general) don't make enough of a distinction between what would be ideal in an ideal world and what would be ideal in the world in which we live. I think a lot of libertarians, for instance, have a conception in their minds of a world with low taxes, very little government, and efficient markets, and as a result they take little bits and pieces of this perfect world and use them as policy prescriptions for our world. The problem, though, is that this doesn't always work.

  2. "But it seems too strident to me to assume that there aren't obvious better alternatives."

    How do "sweatshops" arise? It's because other businesses do not successfully develop. Maybe they don't develop because of government intervention in other sectors, or because of the distribution of wealth. But without any positive evidence that those factors are important the assumption must be that entrepreneurs are responding to prevailing prices.


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