Matt Zwolinski on Sweatshops
By David Henderson
Was Schindler Wrong?
Philosophy professor Matt Zwolinski has an excellent video on sweatshops at LearnLiberty.org. LearnLiberty.org has given me permission to put it here.
I basically like the video, although I have one question and one disagreement. My question is about something he said at the 2:00 point. He says:
So long as sweatshop labor is voluntary, even in the weak sense of being free from physical coercion. . .
That suggests that there is a stronger sense of “voluntary.” I don’t know what that sense is. Does anyone reading this post know what that strong sense is? Matt?
My disagreement comes at the 3:11 point, where he says, “Now, of course, most anti-sweatshop activists aren’t trying to shut down factories.” I don’t know what his basis is for this claim. My impression is that that is exactly what many of them are trying to do. When I started writing on this issue in 1996, that seemed to be the dominant theme. Remember that much of the movement is funded, or, at least, was funded, by U.S. labor unions that don’t like the competition and want to hobble it. I’m open to evidence that this has changed, but I haven’t seen much evidence.
Matt Zwolinski has come under attack from, believe it or not, other libertarians. One, philosophy professor Roderick Long, writes:
But even when these corporations [that hire people for low wages in poor countries] don’t share culpability for the oppression, they’re certainly guilty of exploiting it.
I don’t get what he means by the word “exploiting.” The corporations come along and give workers a better deal than anyone else was offering them, and not just a better deal, but a substantially better deal. If Professor Long means that offering people a better deal is exploiting them, I think that’s a strange use of the word. It’s true that the corporations are taking advantage of them. But they’re taking advantage of the corporations too. The term for that in economics is “mutual gains from exchange.”
Professor Long writes:
In his video Matt refers to workers’ being “free to choose within their constrained set of options”; but of course it’s analytically true that we are always free to choose within whatever our constrained set of options may be (otherwise they wouldn’t be options). If someone puts a gun to your head and demands your money or your life, you have, of course, the Sartrean freedom to choose either way; but this is not what voluntariness means in a political context.
But the key that Professor Long misses with his analogy is: who is holding a gun to the person’s head? If person A is holding a gun to person B’s head and says, “Your money or your life,” then, yes, that’s wrong. But the bad situation that people in Third World countries are in was not typically created by the corporations that are hiring the workers. Professor Long admits this possibility, writing: “Cases where corporations actually bring in military support to prop up, or even establish by coup, regimes that clamp down on unions and resist land reform may be the exception.” So to make the analogy closer to the reality, the corporation that’s not the exception would be like person C coming along in the above case and offering the person not just his life but a better life.
I’m guessing that a lot of readers of this blog have read the book or seen the movie, Schindler’s List. When I saw it, I saw Schindler as a hero. What did he do? He hired Jews to work in his factory and did so, at first, solely to maximize his profits. And by doing so, he saved their lives. Here’s part of what I wrote about Schindler in The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey:
What makes the bigger point–and what ultimately makes the movie so satisfying–is Schindler’s transformation into someone who cares intensely about the Jews, enough to put his whole fortune and even his life at risk. But simply by employing them and keeping them out of harm’s way, Schindler did them a big favor.
And, by the way, Schindler paid the Jews exactly zero. The Reich made him pay their wages to it, rather than to the Jewish workers. They still begged for those jobs because Schindler saved their lives.
I wonder if Professor Long, who wrote a post titled, “Why Libertarians Should Oppose Sweatshops,” would also, had he been an adult in the early 1940s, have been willing to write an article titled, “Why Libertarians Should Oppose Schindler Employing Jews.”