On Sweatshops, Liberty, and Social Justice

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:

  1. That historical poverty and statist policies don’t have anything to do with sweatshops often being the best option available.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

11 comments… add one

  • One of the things that most folks never question is the possibility that people might want to work for a “sweat shop.” And not just for remuneration, and not just because no one else would hire them. The sweat shop lifestyle is just that: A lifestyle. It’s often very social. The history of actual workhouses where crowding and children were both involved often shows vibrant communities, with a lot of excitement and bustle ameliorating the tedium of what William Morris decried as “useless toil.” The participants knew they were of use. Kids often worked on and off, and ran errands, and generally had more fun than in schools – which are, in point of fact, tedium for most people, especially given the horrible teaching methods most teachers lurch towards.

    Indeed, I worked for what amounted to a sweatshop, for years. The owner/boss liked to have people do physical things, even where inappropriate by modern standards. Our hours were not infrequently way long (I worked 36-hour stretches quite often). Many of my colleagues complained about work conditions, such as no hot water in the bathroom sink. The pay was not great.

    And yet it was best described as a labor of love. The harder times were often the funnest times.

    There’s a huge amount of condescension involved in “opposing” sweatshops. People choose to work where they do for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes sweatshops are actually better places to work than, say, boring part-time work or other forms of low-paid, low-skill labor.

    Reply
  • Great article, Geoffrey!

    Reply
  • What most people never realize is that most sweatshops are essentially slave labor because of the following:
    – local governments expropriate land and control its use
    – local governments tax the population
    – local population is forced out of their previous humble but peaceful lifestyles by the above, i.e. they no longer have control of the water supply and agriculture handed down to them by their pre-statist fore-fathers
    Lo and behold, to pay their taxes, the only jobs available are the ones set up by the government: sweat shops

    The whole premise behind the vulgar-libertarian argument that sweatshops are the best choice available to those workers is insane and ignorant.
    As long as their local governments are taxing them and controlling the common land, there can not be any intelligent interpretation of the choices of employment manifested by the sweatshop workers. If the statism of their local governments disappeared tomorrow, those workers may choose to go back to fishing, farming, hunting and gathering — such a preference can not be manifested through their actions because their hands are tied. Their first choice of living off the land has been stolen from them.

    Reply
    • Charles,

      You say that “most sweatshops are essentially slave labor” due to the three conditions you mention. Yet, it seems to me that governments the world over typically (indeed, paradigmatically) do all three of those things. Expropriating land and controlling its use? As governments do with property taxes, zoning regulations, etc. Taxing the population? As all governments do. Forcing people out of their pre-governmental way of life? Again, as all governments do.

      So, do you take your argument to be implying that *all* labor in a statist society is “essentially slave labor”? If not, why not? If so, why do sweatshops draw particular ire?

      Reply
      • Matt,
        Yes, I take my argument to imply that all labor in a statist society is essentially slave labor. Sweatshops draw particular ire because they are really REALLY bad slavery whereas here in the affluent West, our slavery is only bad.

        Reply
    • Charles Anthony,

      Lo and behold, to pay their taxes, the only jobs available are the ones set up by the government: sweat shops[.]

      Ah! so government is responsible for the injustice, not necessarily the sweatshop owners and managers and multinational enterprises. I’ll grant that sometimes they collude. I don’t know proportionally how much either way, but I doubt there’s always corporatism involved as critics of sweatshops always seem to imply (when they bother to include government in the blame at all, that is).

      Ironically, Kleen seemed to lay all the blame on businesses and none on government, so much so that I felt compelled to point out how he was overlooking the role of historical poverty and statist policies in creating the conditions for sweatshops to exist. So it’s odd that you seem to be calling me a vulgar libertarian and implying I overlook this.

      The whole premise behind the vulgar-libertarian argument that sweatshops are the best choice available to those workers is insane and ignorant. As long as their local governments are taxing them and controlling the common land, there can not be any intelligent interpretation of the choices of employment manifested by the sweatshop workers.

      Well, even so, working in a sweatshop may still be the best choice available, because the state has limited the options available. You follow?

      I fail to see how pointing this out and arguing that prohibiting sweatshops will be a counterproductive and harmful “solution” makes one a vulgar libertarian. Prohibiting sweatshops will just deprive the poor of the best option available, leaving them with the next-best option available, which of course is not as good. I think some left-libertarians throw the term “vulgar libertarian” around too readily, with little understanding and as if it is an argument in itself.

      If the statism of their local governments disappeared tomorrow, those workers may choose to go back to fishing, farming, hunting and gathering…

      Maybe. Maybe not. But then they would have more options available than they did before and some of them may be better than working in a sweatshop.

      Reply
      • Geoff,
        I think Kleen’s article is very poor in its slant. However, the conclusion is correct.

        I’ll grant that sometimes they collude. I don’t know proportionally how much either way,

        Neither do I. We both know that none of these things are quantifiable. You follow?

        Well, even so, working in a sweatshop may still be the best choice available, because the state has limited the options available. You follow?

        Until you can demonstrably read the minds of sweatshop workers, there is nothing of any merit to follow in what you just wrote and your libertarianism is vulgar.

        Reply
    • Sweatshops appeared in America in the big cities during the huge influx of folks from Europe. That strikes me as far more relevant than whatever taxes and land policies New York, N.Y., say, had. Land was scarce on Manhattan and other parts of New York, by the time of the sweatshop days, and a certain amount of crowding was happening.

      I have some trouble believing the taxing policies were more important.

      People wanted to live around other people – hence the crowding – because it is around other people that opportunities present themselves. Going into the prairies wouldn’t have increased an immigrants’ likely opportunity set.

      This is not to say that local taxes are not often bad. They are. They were. And I’m willing to be convinced otherwise. What natural experiment would Mr. Anthony like to engage in to test which causal factor was most in play, in our past or other countries’ present?

      A historical sense is necessary as well as a sense of opportunity cost. People travel to where opportunities are. From foreign countries, often, and to cities that sometimes have sweatshops.

      My ancestors moved to this country willingly. Why come here? Because there was a logging boom, and Finland went through a pretty tough period during the period of my ancestors’ migration. America had better opportunities. So, a bunch of Finns moved to the Pacific Northwest to engage in one of the most dangerous industries on the planet (my uncle died when a snag got him, a hill away from my father) – far more dangerous than most sweatshops – and they did so quite willingly and even enthusiastically. Work conditions in the old days weren’t very good. But these men from Ostrobothnian Finland loved their work. They made lives for themselves. When they could, they started their own businesses, even inventing new equipment.

      As for me, I would never want to work in the woods. Never did. The work was hard, wet, grimy, often cold, and far riskier than working in a meat factory or a garment sweatshop. The hours were often quite long. But many in my family did work as loggers, and if anyone suggested they were “slaves” because of this law or that, or the working conditions in Finland, or in the mill towns, or what-have-you, they’d spit in your face – or at least want to . . . they were pretty gentlemanly, actually, for being loggers. (My grandfather hated the Wobblies, by the way. He thought they were borderline crazy.)

      The condescension in Mr. Anthony’s unlearned, narrow-minded and shrill diatribe is not the only thing wrong with it. Stating baldly that libertarians who defend free labor are “vulgar” and “insane” is pretty damn extreme. Calling free laborers – people who could quit, mind you, and sometimes did, and moved to other occupations – “essentially” slaves is also calumny.

      Some actual facts, careful research, and a whole lot better argumentation would be required before I went over to his side.

      Sympathy for others’ plight is one thing. Bigoted dismissal of others’ choices and values and such is not required to be concerned over their well-being.

      Reply
    • This looks very much like the left-libertarian critique of sweatshops that I was attempting to rebut in my own essay, to which Kleen’s piece is a reply:
      http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2011/10/answering-the-left-libertarian-critique-of-sweatshops/

      Reply
  • “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?”

    Possible answer: Other statist and elite “maneuvers”, e.g., it’s very hard to secure property rights (see Hernando de Soto), government allowing absentee landowners to claim huge expanses of land appropriated eons ago (see, for example, Bill Bonner’s squatter problems in Argentina).

    Reply
  • I am from China. I say the whole argument against so-called ‘sweat shops’ is simply nonsense. If peasants can’t work in a factory they are then left to die in the countryside because they are SO DAMN POOR. It’s the manufacturers who are so despised by left-wing self-appointed intellectuals that have stopped the greatest famine in human history produced by thirty years of utterly mad socialism. Because socialists, always in their righteous dreams, care nothing about reality.

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Current ye@r *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.