Do Sweatshops Belong in a Free Market?

This article originally appeared at on March 18, 2011. It was the first in a series, the fallout from which led me to end my brief flirtation with “market anarchism.” There’s no room for genuine discussion in an echo chamber, and arguments over intellectual purity get boring pretty quickly. They’re still probably over at C4SS and Strike-the-root, churning out articles from the ideological vending machine.

Libertarians and market-anarchists often cite the non-aggression principle (no force, no fraud) when summarizing their philosophy, so I am perplexed when I hear support for sweatshops in conversations with individuals who self-identify as libertarians or market anarchists. In fact, sweatshops, those citadels of cheap labor associated with laissez-faire capitalism and industrialization, perpetuate both force and fraud against the people employed there, so they are incompatible with a free or libertarian society.

By supporting this form of economic exploitation, many libertarians and market anarchists both undermine their philosophy and alienate potential supporters among the working class.

Sweatshops are generally considered to be factories or workshops in which employees, often children, work over nine to ten hours a day for wages that barely cover basic necessities. The working conditions at these factories or workshops are often considered to be hazardous or unsafe. Sweatshops do not provide their employees any benefits, such as health insurance or worker’s compensation, and employees do not enjoy any form of job security. Today, sweatshops can be found all over the world, but they are most common in developing nations, such as India, China, and Mexico.

Most arguments in favor of sweatshops, which are common to every socioeconomic theory (libertarian or otherwise), consist of two general propositions: “workers are better off in the sweatshop than they would have been otherwise,” and “no one forces them to work there.”

Neo-liberal economist Paul Krugman (in)famously made those arguments in his 1997 article in Slate Magazine, “In Praise of Cheap Labor.” Responding to “self-righteous” critics, Krugman pointed out that working in a sweatshop in Manila for $20 a week is preferable to scrounging around a garbage dump for scrap metal or scratching out a living on a subsistence farm. “A policy of good jobs in principle, but no jobs in practice, might assuage our consciences, but it is no favor to its alleged beneficiaries,” he concluded.

These arguments are fallacious for two reasons: 1) They depend on a narrow definition of “force” and a generous interpretation of “choice,” and 2) They wrongly presuppose that sweatshops are the only alternative to bare subsistence in those economies.

If, borrowing a scenario posed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract, a thief were to hold you up at the edge of the woods and demand your purse, that would be an example of naked force and aggression. The thief offers you a choice: surrender your property or face injury or death.

No reasonable person would argue that this is a fair choice, but as Rousseau pointed out, there is an element of choice—you could attempt to hide your purse, in which case you would no longer be compelled to hand it over. You could also simply refuse to surrender your purse, thus risking your life. The fact that you have these choices, however, certainly does not make the thief’s actions moral or legitimate.

Hopefully we can agree that the practical application of the non-aggression principle means having freedom of action in the absence of force, which applies neither to the thief nor the sweatshop. A sweatshop does not arise as the result of men and women who agree to sell their labor in a mutually beneficial arrangement. Although no one holds a gun to the worker’s head, he or she is given a false choice between skeletal wages and dangerous working conditions and exposure and starvation.

This arrangement and the thief in the woods are equivalent agents of aggression. Yes, you can choose not to work at the sweatshop, just like you could choose not to surrender your wallet to the thief, but this is not a fair and free choice.

Perhaps the most revealing question to ask is this: If, with access to all the information about their industry, workers employed at sweatshops were able to decide the conditions of their labor, would they choose to continue to perpetuate their current condition? If the answer is “no,” then the exploitation of these workers is obvious.

No human being, given a free and informed choice, would work under sweatshop conditions. Sweatshops can only exist under a lopsided arrangement, perpetuated by force and fraud, in which one party (the company) exploits ignorance and desperation to reap a majority of the benefits.

Any agreement between libertarians, market-anarchists, and neo-liberals like Paul Krugman on economics should be followed by some serious self-reflection, especially if that agreement relies on a false dichotomy and a distorted notion of choice. Even if sweatshops take advantage of and promote the notion that they are the only alternative to starvation, that is not the case.

In a free market, workers – should they choose to enter into the field of manufacturing – have a wide variety of options, whether those factories are simply unionized, cooperatively owned, or based on individual agreements between a worker and the factory owner. In all of these situations, if all parties adhered to the non-aggression principle, the conditions that give rise to sweatshops would not exist.

What are your thoughts?

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