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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Vulgar Libertarianism Watch: Part 9 (or is it Part 1 Redux?)

Via Dr. Chris Tame on the Libertarian Alliance yahoogroup.
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.


Blogger Richard said...

Or, to put it differently, if fascism paid more than communism, it would seem quite reasonable to expect people to choose fascism over communism. But that would not make either a good thing.

June 09, 2005 2:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The same argument has been used to justify slavery.

June 09, 2005 8:45 AM  
Blogger The Futon Revolutionist said...


Surely the point is not that the situation is descriptively accurate. To simply say that someone will choose the least bad option in a fucked up situation is not to say very much at all. The issue is that this approach to sweatshops, as I think Kevin has stressed in his general Vulgar Libertarianism Smackdown, is that so-called libertarians are making prescriptive and normative claims.

They don't follow up these comments by arguing that we should work for the dissolution of those systems of hierarchy that produce this desperation but present it as the first step on the great ladder of development.

I think.

June 09, 2005 12:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since this description is in fact accurate, in a short term tunnel vision fashion, any solution must recognise it as a point of departure as well as recognising KC's broader understanding of what a desirable destination would be. Sometimes that involves incremental change, and sometimes abrupt change - but either way we still need to recognise both ends of the journey to work out a transition.

June 09, 2005 9:57 PM  
Blogger The Continental Op said...

"Granted, there's no gun immediately at the backs of Third World workers (at least for the most part), forcing them into the sweatshops."

But there often are guns -- in the hands of the national military or private security thugs -- pointed at the workers if they dare try to take any action to improve their working conditions. Don't underestimate the extent to which the sweatshop economy rests on good old fashioned violence or the implicit threat thereof to keep the workers participating.

June 10, 2005 4:18 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Charles Hueter,

It's technically correct to say that sweatshop workers are taking the best of a set of bad options put before them by big business in collusion with the state. But corporate apologists who use the argument are doing so in order to cast global corporations in a positive light, to say they're the good guys, and that the present "free market system" [sic] is the best of possible worlds.


For starters, I'd get rid of subsidies to the export of Western capital, get rid of international patent law, and stop propping up authoritarian Third World governments. I'd encourage genuine land reform, on the basis of "land to the cultivator." I'd also encourage the growth of radical Third World unions based on Wobbly-style direct action on the job.

June 11, 2005 4:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

KC, are those recommended policies for today's conditions or examples illustrating principles? Because if the former, "land to the cultivator" would encourage dispossession in anticipation, and if the latter, powerful unions are an evil of the same sort as powerful exploiters - both construct leverage to use against individual targets, dividing the herd. The rationale applied against the Tolpuddle Martyrs by the Combination Acts was sound, it was just that the principle was asymmetrically applied (so giving one side an advantage) and the practice was implemented in Draconian fashion. Maybe a look at Solon's reasoning and dealings would help understanding?

June 13, 2005 8:58 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


I assume any recognition of possessory ownership, in factories or land, would define possession as of some date. If by anticipatory dispossession you mean syndicalist seizure, I'd actually prefer it be done from the bottom up rather than by a state policy. As for libertarian land reform, "land to the cultivator" means (if possible) identifying the person who worked it before corporate/landlord dispossession, or his heirs or assigns; if that's not possible, it would be recognized as property of those currently working it with their own labor. Either way, better than the present "ownership."

On the Combination Acts, I'm quite happy to allow any voluntary combinations that either workers or capitalists see fit to enter into, so long as the state isn't involved in enforcing entry barriers. That's leaving aside the fact that the Acts were enforced by administrative tribunals, with no due process rights for the workers.

June 14, 2005 10:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

KC, what I was getting at was that if you have incremental land reform, the owners on day -1 can see things coming and evict occupiers in advance. This is one of the few problems with an incremental approach, and it is why Solon did his land reforms overnight. With enough warning, you can end up with all the land affected by a sort of planning blight and being used for pasture instead of holding tenants. I was wondering what approach you would use to these transitional issues, particularly since Solon's method only works on an "if I ruled the world" basis - and requires a self denying Solon to make things stick.

June 14, 2005 9:51 PM  

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