Sweatshops and Social Justice: Can Compassionate Libertarians Agree?

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.

One response to “Sweatshops and Social Justice: Can Compassionate Libertarians Agree?

  1. What is called sweatshops is, presumably, the best job open to those who work in them. Who is to outlaw them, anyway? The state?

    Opposition to them might be called “left” but historically it is one nation Toryism in the UK that opposed what it called sweatshops. The Tories, and men like Robert Owen, the pristine English Socialist, campaigned for the Factory Acts. They were of the pristine right. Protectionism is opposed to free trade.

    Oddly, the definitions I have seen fits fairly well the building sites I worked on in the 1960s. No unions, no Heath and Safety claptrap and the like.

    Equally oddly, Paul Krugman looks good on this topic. Calling him a neo-liberal is about the only thing that Kleen seems to get right. Why should people go back to half the pay on a farm just because fools want to outlaw sweatshops?” sums his point up [this is not a quotation of what Krugman says but a synopsis!]. Why indeed.

    Is it any of Kleen’s business to oppose workers in the sweatshops? Kleen writes like a Tory, or worse, a schoolteacher or yet worse still, a crass Romantic historian like E.P. Thompson, a UK Communist Party member but earlier he would have been in the Conservative Party.

    Starvation has rarely been an actual alternative to sweatshops. That is just schoolteacher hyperbole. The more likely alternative, as Krugman says, is, rather, a worse paid job than the sweatshop, or primitive factory, offers the worker. If there were better jobs, why would workers do the jobs they do? Anyway, it is not likely that what are called sweatshops pay less than the rival jobs; Krugman is clear that it is the way better pay in the sweatshops. He says they pay double the wages. That seems to be more likely to be the case. In any case, it is the free trade to allows sweatshops, the free trade that Kleen, incoherently, says that he favours. Free trade is a moral imperative.

    A Pope, [i.e. either a liar or an actual fool who thinks there is a God] is cited on sweatshops, but in what way is it his business? Are the workers in the sweatshops all Catholics?

    Free trade is the moral outlook of pristine liberals.

    I used to work 9 hours a day on the building site in the 1960s but some workers there stayed on for longer. They said they preferred it to going home! They may well have done over 14 hours a day. They were there at 8am, when I arrived, and they were still there at 6pm, when I departed. They said they started at 7pm but I never asked them what time they stopped at.

    The number of coins in someone’s pocket should not be the main criterion, says Kleen, but the workers in the sweatshops may not share this distain for money that he expounds. Moreover, it fits oddly with his earlier idea that the sweatshops offer only very low pay.

    He writes as if the workers taking the most attractive option cannot truly be liberty unless it also fits Kleen’s outlook. That looks like a delusion on the part of Kleen to me. It is not the case that the gains of trade fall down on the workers working a 14-hour day. Presumably, the worker thinks it worth doing for the pay he gets. So the surplus on his side remains. Kleen’s ideas on this are hardly germane to that fact.

    I do not sacrifice my moral outlook to economic development in this reply in defence of liberty or in the similar ones given to others who oppose sweatshops from their armchair but rather I instead uphold the liberty of the workers to judge for themselves whether to work in sweatshops is worth the pay they earn in them.

    As to the sacred Romantic fetish of “struggle”, I have no sympathy with it.