Sweatshops Are Good for the Poor

Here’s a thought for sweatshop owners: air conditioning. Problem solved.
— Mitch Hedberg

Matt Zwolinski's recent post at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians weblog is a nicely produced and presented video explaining Three Reasons Sweatshops Are Good for the Poor.

His argument is simple: since sweatshops represent the best employment option to the people working in them, banning or discouraging them from operating through regulation is bad for those workers. Voluntary arrangements, even if one or more of those involved have had their options significantly reduced by background coercion, result in everybody involved being better off (subjectively) than they were before. Otherwise they wouldn’t have chosen to enter the arrangement. It’s the same argument I used when defending polygamy against criminalization.

So while I don’t disagree that sweatshops are the best available option to some workers, and it is always bad to further limit people’s choices by outlawing their current best option, I do not see how the chasm between “best” current option and “good” option can be bridged (and the title, at least, of Zwolinksi’s video implies that it can be). To say that because something is the best option means that it is a good option strikes me as something of a naturalistic fallacy. I’d even use the example of considering sweatshops to be “good” as an illustration of how such a leap can lead to an absurd conclusion. A more sensible (and consistent for a “bleeding heart libertarian”) statement would be, “Sweatshops are the best option for some workers, and that is bad for the poor” (even if it isn’t the worst possible “bad”).

Libertarian opponents of sweatshops often question the meaning of voluntary (in the context of “voluntary exchanges are mutually beneficial”). For example, left libertarians will point out that by using similar reasoning to Zwolinski’s even chattel slavery can be considered voluntary (and so “good”) when the worker’s options have been restricted to those of either work or be whipped/killed. More generally left libertarians will emphasize the various forms of coercion implemented by governments in developing countries which limit the options of poor workers. This is the criticism Zwolinski focuses on in his response to left-libertarian critics. It’s a critique which misses the heart of the problem. Instead of opposing sweatshops because they profit from unfree labour markets, libertarians should be opposing such factories because they rely on a labour market at all.

In my mind a consistent libertarian approach to economics leads necessarily to an essential or minimal socialism: an opposition to usury, wage labour, and absentee ownership. The core of the libertarian objection to sweatshops, then, is not that they somehow crowd out better options for workers or merely that sweatshops take advantage of pre-existing unjust conditions, it is that wages as determined by a labour market and the authoritarian property regimes which make such markets possible are inherently antithetical to liberty.

If an owner of a sweatshop can make a profit by paying labour-market wages, then a worker-owned factory can do even better without the parasitic capitalist. So why argue for the former — that capitalists who increase their fortunes off of the desperate humans they treat as commodities is somehow beneficial or mutual? A step towards Pareto efficiency is not the same thing as mutuality.

As Jeremy Weiland wrote in his response to the same article:

“Without a concept of mutual aid, solidarity, and common struggle against an oppressive system, libertarianism is no more than a way to whitewash privilege and sweep injustice under the rug of ‘free choice’. It’s not enough to defend a hollow freedom, because people need more than that. We can help each other achieve more than just freely choosing the best in a set of options the powerful and wealthy provide us.”
— Jeremy Weiland

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