Over at the Center for a Stateless Society, Michael Kleen asks whether compassionate libertarians can agree to oppose sweatshops as a matter of social justice. Ah, but what does he mean by “oppose” and “social justice”?
Libertarianism is not about people just getting by; it is about maximizing human liberty. Liberty cannot be achieved as long as eking out a living in dangerous conditions for 12 to 14 hours a day is an individual’s most attractive option.
So there could not have been liberty prior to modern times?
Either this line of argument was not thought out or Kleen subscribes to a Marxist-style determinist-materialist conception of history. I hope for the former, as these lines strike me as a propagandistic rhetorical flourish.
Incidentally, the conception of liberty used by Kleen here equivocates between the libertarian conception (i.e., not being subject to the threat or use of initiatory physical force) and a more left-liberal/socialist conception of liberty as positive economic freedoms. I’m afraid compassionate libertarians cannot get on board with such a conflation. To treat both as a matter of political justice is to try to wed contradictions, because “promoting” positive economic freedoms in this way will necessarily require the violation of rights (liberty). This is the mistake made by statist socialists and left-liberals.
Although Kleen uses the term “social justice,” he actually conflates political justice and social justice here and elsewhere in his post. If one insists on using the term “justice” in reference to positive economic freedoms, it is important to distinguish social justice (more a matter of personal morality and unenforceable in a libertarian legal system) from political justice (liberty/rights, which are enforceable in a libertarian legal system).
Kleen also seems to conflate pointing out that people often choose to work in a sweatshop because they see it as better than the alternatives with endorsing sweatshops as ideal work environments. I can’t speak for everyone who doesn’t see sweatshops as unjust and an indictment of capitalism, but I think that most do not think of sweatshops as ideal or unequivocally good. We just do not think that capitalism, as amazing as it is, can magically allow a poor, agricultural society to just skip over the terrible working conditions of the Industrial Revolution in its transition to an industrial or post-industrial economy.
Sweatshops are simply often better than the alternatives available and opposing them via statist means will only be counterproductive, harming the very poor such policies are meant to help. This does not mean we “favor” sweatshops in the abstract or propose them as an ideal business model. It does not mean we do not sympathize with the plight of the poor working in such conditions. Having to point this out makes me feel like I do when libertarians oppose the state performing some function and statists of all parties assume that means we don’t want that function performed at all — e.g., we oppose social-welfare policies so that must mean we hate the poor and want them out on the streets, starving to death, dying of disease. Hardly.
Kleen’s post contains a few other nits in need of picking:
A sweatshop is not any working environment in a developing economy; it is a working environment that is considered to be unreasonably difficult or dangerous.
This strikes me as a question-begging definition of sweatshops. For one thing, what is “unreasonable”? This qualification reminds me of the reasonable-man standard in social contract theories. The problem is that the interpretation of what is reasonable is rather subjective, which is why every social contract theory just so happens to arrive at political conclusions the theorist already favored to begin with.
But then Kleen goes on to contradict himself in the remainder of the paragraph — for when he describes the conditions indicative of sweatshops, he is describing the type of working environment one would expect to exist in a poor, developing country.
Against those who are supposedly in favor of sweatshops, Kleen writes,
No considerations are given for alternative labor models, such as co-ops, family owned farms or businesses, mutual associations, or guilds, all of which are available to any individuals who choose to utilize them. (emphasis added)
What is stopping people working in sweatshops from setting up such arrangements? If they have the capital and entrepreneurial acumen to do this, then why do they choose to work in sweatshops?
Kleen further claims, “Since sweatshop owners and managers are directly responsible for the conditions of their businesses…” the evidence is there that these owners and managers, and the multinational enterprises who contract with them, are implicated in the injustices that workers have suffered.
This seems to assume three things:
- That historical poverty and statist policies don’t have anything to do with sweatshops often being the best option available.
- That there are no economic constraints on one’s behavior — that economic laws do not apply — and the only thing stopping sweatshop owners and managers from providing their employees with 1st-world working conditions is a callous heart and selfish greed. They can afford to raise operating costs without hurting their bottom line — without shrinking their profit margins and negatively impacting their competitiveness in the market — or making personal financial sacrifices.
- That sweatshop owners and managers have an obligation to provide “reasonable” working conditions and pay regardless of eonomic conditions and their own situations — not just a moral obligation, mind you, but an obligation grounded in justice such that they would be violating the rights of their employees by not doing so. As a matter of justice, one must engage in personal self-sacrifice, forego profits, and risk going out of business.
I don’t see how any of these assumptions hold. Kleen just assumes the truth of his “Since….”
When “eking out a living in dangerous conditions for 12 to 14 hours a day is an individual’s most attractive option. In such a society, the mutually beneficial arrangements that define the world of commerce have clearly broken down” (emphasis added).
Unless there are actual rights-violations involved, I don’t see how this is the case.