Nicholas Kristof writes a depressing column about Cambodian kids who spend their days picking through giant heaps of garbage seeking usable scraps and dreaming of the day when they might be able to work in a sweatshop. I think it’s wrong to say that all consideration of international labor standards is merely aimed at keeping people stuck on the trash heap, but it’s a valuable reminder about the generally limited ability of just saying “no” to things to accomplish what people want. Part of the reason sweatshops exist and attract laborers is that life on the garbage heap is even worse, as is the life of a third world subsistence farmer. If you want to improve things, you need to actually be expanding the set of feasible options, not just arbitrarily closing down one path. And this happens in a variety of fields. Some neighborhoods in DC seem to have the idea that if they put tight restrictions on opening new chain stores or bars and restaurants that this will magically conjure up a diverse mom-and-pop economy. In practice, you get empty storefronts; crowded, mediocre bars and restaurants; and people driving to chain stores in the suburbs.
In both cases, there’s nothing wrong with the objective. But it’s a mistake to think that purely by vetoing stuff you can force the kind of positive action you want. To raise actual labor conditions in the third world, we need to create more prosperity and more economic opportunity not just say “no” to particular forms of bad conditions.
via Will Wilkinson, who adds:
Damn straight. Matt nails it. So why is this line of thought so elusive for so many would-be decent people? I am constantly dumbstruck that so many who profess to care about “social justice” do little more than complain that desperate people have really terrible options and then work to take away the best options.That, of course, is not the intention, but that’s usually how it ends up working, whether the issue is “sweatshops” or “human trafficking.” Some day, more of us will see the devastating irony in the fact that social justice activists spend a lot of their time making things worse for some of the world’s poorest and vulnerable people.
People who oppose sweatshops, or boycott Walmart for selling goods made in those factories, are well-meaning people who are rightfully disgusted by the working conditions in impoverished countries. But policies have consequences, and quite often the unintended consequences may do more damage than good.
Indeed, the story of industrialized capitalism over the past two centuries is that initially conditions for factory workers are harsh (though not as harsh as their next-best options). But over time, the new employment generates higher incomes than would otherwise be possible. As incomes rise, workers are able to "purchase" better options for themselves and their children. School attendance rates rise with incomes, and education and better health lead to higher productivity. More productive workers can demand higher wages and better working conditions, and the situation improves over time. This has been the story for all industrializing countries. It is sometimes tough to watch the transition, and the process never moves as quickly as we would like it to, but the worst thing we can do is stop the progress of economic activity through boycotts or demanding labor and environmental standards that are too high for the local economies to bear.