Reply to Yoram
By Bryan Caplan
As promised, here’s my reply to Yoram Bauman’s guest post. Yoram’s in quotes, I’m not:
1) What did you think of the page on public choice (p82)? Buchanan
got his own Nobel Prize joke, and I thought that was pretty good!
One page on public choice is definitely better than zero. But you still seem to treat public choice as an afterthought. Take a look at the last panel on p.82. The text box reads: “[Buchanan’s] work on public choice theory cautions that government action might increase inequality rather than reduce it.” The panel shows a politician (Saddam Hussein?) saying, “I want to help the poor people of my country… starting with all of my poor friends.” This makes poor-to-rich redistribution seem like an aberration, found primarily in the Third World. But poor-to-rich redistribution is the essence of the immigration restrictions ruthlessly imposed by every First World democracy.
I’d add that public choice has grown a lot since Buchanan. Now it’s more focused on the many inefficient policies that win by popular demand, rather than the corrupting influence of special interests on the noble democratic process. Imagine how different chapter 15 (“The End of Youth?”) would have been if you’d emphasized the absurdity of giving all elderly citizens tons of free stuff.
2) Regarding Chapter 9 (“Complications”), you write that it “bends
over backwards to consider objections to free trade, but ultimately
grants them very little.” Do you really see it as that simple? When you
read articles about foreign countries and child labor or unsafe working
conditions or human rights or environmental pollution, do you just
shrug and say (as the character does on p112) “as long as we can buy
bread from them cheap, who cares?!”
I don’t shrug. But I find the arguments you make on pp.116-123 about “exploitation by choice” extremely convincing. Sweatshops and the like are the best available option for people in the Third World. Their living and working conditions are bad because they’re poor. Refusing to trade with them just makes their poverty worse.
I hasten to add that First World immigration restrictions are a major cause of Third World poverty – and a massive human rights violation. If we feel sorry for the world’s poor, we can make a huge difference with more free trade in labor rather than less free trade in goods.
3) #2 above also makes me curious about your take on the history of labor laws in the USA. When you read about, say, the 1911 Triangle Fire,
do you really just get a hop in your step from thinking about the joys
of an unregulated market? If you could go back in time and eliminate
laws in the U.S. about child labor and workplace safety &etc, would
When I read about things like the 1911 Triangle Fire, I think, “How sad that people used to be so poor that high-risk jobs were their best option.” It’s basic micro: If workers valued better working conditions at more than their cost, employers would be happy to reduce their pay and improve their working conditions.
Much the same goes for (harsh) child labor. It’s sad that some parents are so poor that they can’t give their kids a decent childhood. But banning child labor doesn’t make those families any less poor.
I’d add that people in the First World have an irrational horror of the very idea of child labor. Yes, kids endure some horrible jobs. But kids also endure some horrible schools. We should focus on typical job and school experiences, not living nightmares. There’s no reason why kids, poor and rich alike, shouldn’t be allowed – indeed encouraged – to enter the labor market part-time to earn their own money and gain valuable work experience.
Happy holidays, Yoram!