Why Sweatshop Jobs Are Worth Defending – A Short Response to Long Reply

By Matt Zwolinski

Roderick Long raises some important concerns about my defense of sweatshops. I’m short on time, preparing for the symposium on John Tomasi’s book next week, but I wanted to get in at least a quick initial response. I trust and hope that we will have plenty of time to continue the conversation later.

First, a lot of the left-libertarian critique of my position seems to be on my emphasis, rather than on the substance of my argument. Why do I spend so much time defending sweatshops,rather than criticizing the background injustices that allegedly give rise to them?

I suppose there are a number of reasons for this, some philosophical, some pragmatic. One pragmatic reason is that I’m a philosopher, not an activist. And so I choose my topics based on the basis of what I think can make a contribution to philosophical understanding, not on the basis of what conclusions, if implemented, would make the world a better place. And the fact is, I think that the philosophical community still has a ways to go in understanding the importance of mutually beneficial exchange, and its role in arguments about expoitation specifically. By contrast, I don’t think there’s nearly as much disagreement about the wrongness of the background injustices that give rise to sweatshops. I could argue that stealing people’s land, depriving of them of their basic liberties, and subjecting them to kleptocracy is wrong. But philosophers wouldn’t find this very interesting, because no one really disagrees. I recognize the irony of the incentive structure here – as I’ve said in another post, philosophers are often driven to talk about what’s interesting rather than what’s important by academic incentives. But there it is.

That’s not the only reason though. The fact is, I am concerned about my work effecting change in the world, and I want to make some contribution to that change being positive. So how do I judge various projects on that criterion? Remedying background injustice would mean a huge difference in a lot of people’s lives. But in judging the expected utility of a project, we have to consider not just the utility of the outcome, but the probability of achieving that outcome via one’s chosen means.

And I think that I have a better chance of producing an effective defense of people’s ability to find meaningful factory work than I do ending the many background injustices to which those people are subject. Sweatshops are under constant criticism within the academy – and not by people like Roderick and Kevin Carson who understand the basic libertarian insights about markets but worry about background violations of rights of association and/or property. I think I have a useful role to play in that debate, and one which has the potential not just to make an impact on the specific issue of sweatshops, but on people’s understanding of the tremendous importance of mutually beneficial exchange. If the freedom to trade can be defended even in this context (or even in this one), then how much stronger must be the case for it in ordinary contexts?

And, let’s be clear, factory work can contribute to a significant improvement in workers’ lives.Look at the kind of work that is so often the alternative to factory work for people in the developing world. And look at the powerful effect that this work can have on people’s quality of life (see the video). Or look at Ben Powell and David Skarbek’s study on wages in sweatshops, and the survey results of what workers say those wages mean to them. In the developing world, factory jobs can be life-changing.

Now, as you say, no one really comes out and advocates that we just take those jobs away full stop. But they do advocate policies that have the effect of taking those jobs away. And as libertarians, this kind of unintended consequence should hardly be a surprise to us. Look at what happened to Masango’s friend as a result of minimum wage laws in the video. Or look at some of the studies that Powell and I cite in our paper. Sweatshops, or the MNEs that contract with them, might be able to afford higher wages or better working conditions. (Though I have yet to see any critic of sweatshops produce hard data about the profit margins in sweatshop-employing companies compared with profit-margins elsewhere in the industry). But what they can afford to do is less important than what they will do. And very often, sweatshops and the MNEs that contract with them respond to consumer pressure by shutting down, automating production, or moving elsewhere. And that hurts people who can ill-afford to be hurt.

I’ve deliberately said “factory work” in this post rather than “sweatshop.” Part of the problem with debates over sweatshops, I think, is that there’s no clear and objective meaning to the term, so that people end up using it simply to mean “factory jobs that I think are somehow immoral.” But that loose definition means that people on different sides of the debate wind up using the term in different ways, and talking past each other as a result. To some people sweatshops might mean “forced labor” or “sexual harassment” or “physical abuse.” To be clear: I do not think any of these are permissible, and they are not part of what I am trying to defend with my work. Period. By contrast, I do think that factory work that involves long hours, “low” (at least by the standards of developed countries) wages, and “poor” (ditto) working conditionsare defensible. I suggest, then, that future discussion of the “sweatshop” issue will be more productive if we focus less on whether “sweatshops” are good or bad, and more on specific practices, or even better – specific real-world cases. If we do this, I suspect that we’ll find that the difference between my position and that of Roderick and some of my other interlocutors is less than it might at first appear.

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