Vulgar Libertarianism Watch: Part 9 (or is it Part 1 Redux?)
The Independent's article on sweatshop labor takes us right back to our starting point in the Vulgar Libertarianism Watch feature:
Economists across the political spectrum, from Paul Krugman on the left to Walter Williams on the right, have defended sweatshops. The economic reasoning is straightforward. People choose what is in their perceived best interests. If workers voluntarily choose to work in a sweatshop, without being physically coerced, it must be because it is their best option compared to their other even worse alternatives.
Admittedly, sweatshops have abhorrently low wages and poor working conditions by western standards. However, economists point out that alternatives to working in a sweatshop are often much worse; oftentimes scavenging through trash, prostitution, crime, or even starvation are the other choices workers face.
Sure. And if I stick the muzzle of a .45 in your belly, handing over your wallet might be your best option compared to your other even worse alternatives.
Whether physical coercion enters into the picture, in setting the "available alternatives" to sweatshop labor, is precisely the question at issue.
If the people working in sweatshops (or their parents or grandparents) were robbed of traditional property rights in agricultural land, in a modern replay of the enclosure movement, then I'd say that counts as physical coercion. If they are prevented from organizing independent labor unions, as a result of their authortarian government's policy, that's physical coercion. And you'd better believe American sweatshops gravitate toward places where land robbery and death squad atrocities take place.
In fact, it's the very same kind of physical coercion that occurred in "laissez-faire" Britain during the Industrial Revolution: that other period in which, as vulgar libertarians like to point out endlessly, the "available alternatives" to the dark satanic mills were so unsatisfactory.
In the first installment of Vulgar Libertarianism Watch, I pointed out how frequently the term "available alternatives" seems to pop up in apologetics for modern sweatshops, and the sweatshops of early industrial Britain. The idea appears in Mises' defense of working conditions in the Industrial Revolution:
The factory owners did not have the power to compel anybody to take a factory job. They could only hire people who were ready to work for the wages offered to them. Low as these wage rates were, they were nonetheless much more than these paupers could earn in any other field open to them. [Human Action, Regnery Third Revised Edition, 619-20]
It appeared more recentlly in articles by Radley Balko, who described Third World sweatshops as "the best of a series of bad employment options available," and Art Carden (on the Imolakee farm workers):
Wages are not foisted upon workers; they agree to pick tomatoes for "sub-poverty wages" for a reason. In a market economy, they do so because the 'sub-poverty wages" paid by Taco Bell suppliers are a better deal than anyone else is offering. It's the same reason people line up for "sweatshop" jobs in developing countries. Far from contributing to "continued misery," Taco Bell is making workers' lives a little bit better by offering something better than their next-best option.
And in between, it has reared its ugly head in a long series of by-the-numbers boilerplate in The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty:
But are the “low-wage, non-union” Ecuadorian laborers better off working now for some foreign corporation? Apparently they think so, or else they would have stayed with what they were doing previously. (Would you leave your job for one with less pay and worse conditions?) [Barry Loberfeld. "A Race to the Bottom" (July 2001)]
People line up in China and Indonesia and Malaysia when American multinationals open a factory. And that is because even though the wages are low by American standards, the jobs created by those American firms are often some of the best jobs in those economies. [Russell Roberts. "The Pursuit of Happiness: Does Trade Exploit the Poorest of the Poor?" (September 2001)]
What the Industrial Revolution made possible, then, was for these people, who had nothing else to offer to the market, to be able to sell their labor to capitalists in exchange for wages. That is why they were able to survive at all.... As Mises argues, the very fact that people took factory jobs in the first place indicates that these jobs, however distasteful to us, represented the best opportunity they had. [Thomas E. Woods, Jr. "A Myth Shattered: Mises, Hayek, and the Industrial Revolution" (November 2001)]
In nineteenth-century America, anti-sweatshop activism was focused on domestic manufacturing facilities that employed poor immigrant men, women, and children. Although conditions were horrendous, they provided a means for many of the country's least-skilled people to earn livings. Typically, those who worked there did so because it was their best opportunity, given the choices available....
It is true that the wages earned by workers in developing nations are outrageously low compared to American wages, and their working conditions go counter to sensibilities in the rich, industrialized West. However, I have seen how the foreign-based opportunities are normally better than the local alternatives in case after case, from Central America to Southeast Asia. [Stephan Spath, "The Virtues of Sweatshops" (March 2002)]
If you're a glutton for punishment, you can also calls up an almighty long list of examples by Googling it.
Granted, there's no gun immediately at the backs of Third World workers (at least for the most part), forcing them into the sweatshops. And there's no sign over the gates that says "Arbeit macht frei." But the coercion is there. It's in the basic framework of rules, set largely by employers, that determines what the "available alternatives" are.
Another piece of corporate apologetics, whose central message amounts to "them pore ol' bosses need all the help they can get." And the pot-smoking Republicans wonder why it's so hard to sell libertarian ideas to working people.