Sweatshops and Social Justice: Can Compassionate Libertarians Agree?

Article by Michael Kleen.


In the past several months, Matt Zwolinski and Ben Powell took to the pages of the Journal of Business Ethics, as well as the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog, to defend what they consider to be the mainstream libertarian position on sweatshops: that sweatshops represent a positive good in developing economies. Citing Kevin Carson and I as representative of the left-libertarian position against sweatshops, Matt Zwolinski took us to task in his recent article, “Answering the Left-Libertarian Critique of Sweatshops.” (My two articles on the subject can be found here and here.) I cannot speak for Mr. Carson, but I do not consider my opposition to sweatshops as a “left wing” position; I consider it to be the only sensible position for libertarians and other champions of a free market to take.

First, let us be clear about the definition of a sweatshop. 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. Many factors might contribute to a factory being labeled a “sweatshop,” including long hours without breaks, low pay, overcrowding, poor lighting and ventilation, unsanitary conditions, and few to zero considerations for employee safety. Low pay is just one of these factors and may not even be the chief factor in determining whether a particular place of employment can be called a sweatshop.

The argument in favor of sweatshops, as laid out by libertarians like Matt Zwolinski and Ben Powell (as well as neo-liberals like Paul Krugman and Nicholas Kristof), is essentially an economic argument. Sweatshop labor, they argue, is often the best (or only) option individuals in the developing world have for improving their lot in life. Therefore, it would be immoral to oppose sweatshops because their absence would take away a crucial option for economic improvement.

That argument only holds up, however, if and only if sweatshops are the sole option for economic improvement in a developing economy. The individual is presented with a false choice: accept these conditions or face starvation and death in a grim struggle for survival. Under that dichotomy, it is assumed that accepting the unfavorable conditions of a sweatshop is the only sensible choice for that individual to make (it is also assumed that the employer has no control whatsoever over the conditions in his or her own factory, but more on that later). 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. However, the simplest alternative to a sweatshop is a factory owner that does not treat his or her employees like chattel.

Therein lies the mistake proponents of sweatshops make; it is not the poverty of the employees, but rather the conditions to which they are subjected that is the injustice. In Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, he argued that social justice dictates that a free market must be tempered by moral considerations. “Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.”

It is this moral imperative that is missing from Zwolinski and Powell’s analysis. According to Zwolinski, “Left-libertarian critics of sweatshops… have offered no evidence that sweatshops, or the multinational enterprises that contract with sweatshops, can be directly implicated in the injustices that workers have suffered.” Since sweatshop owners and managers are directly responsible for the conditions of their businesses, however, the evidence is there—it just requires the observer to look beyond a worldview that measures quality of life by the number of coins in someone’s pocket.

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. In such a society, the mutually beneficial arrangements that define the world of commerce have clearly broken down. There is no reason that libertarians or other advocates of a free market need to sacrifice their moral compass at the altar of economic development. Economic development can and should be achieved in many different ways, but it will take the cooperation of both labor and capital to see that sweatshops do not continue to be an acceptable path to prosperity. I hope that libertarians will be at the forefront of that struggle.

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