On September 27th Dr. Ben Powell of Suffolk University graciously presented a webinar to Students For Liberty regarding his research on sweatshops.  I have heard his lecture before, but decided to revisit it because I had some qualms about SFL addressing this issue from the typical libertarian perspective. The argument usually presented goes like this: when people have the economic freedom to choose their line of work they will take the best option available. People choose to work at sweatshops voluntarily; therefore it’s the best economic option available to the workers. In addition, working in sweatshops often pays far more than the national average of the countries in which they exist.

Here was my first and main comment (with a few edits for clarification) to Dr. Powell in response to this argument:

I understand that we shouldn’t ban the best opportunities which do exist (while ignoring the institutional and historical factors which have led to these opportunities being the best available) but this analysis of economic development abstracts the market to an extent which is misleading. We are market forces; you and I, everyone listening and everyone not listening. Shouldn’t we use our influence to support firms that don’t use chemicals which result in cancer clusters for their workers; that allow for a fuller conception of human dignity?

I acknowledge that people choose sweatshop labor as their best economic opportunity but then perhaps consumers ought to value more the people who are producing their goods, and not merely in a relative sense. I recognize that this isn’t technically an economic question so much as a philosophical one as it concerns how we ought to treat one another.

If the market is to be free so that what is demanded is supplied, then we should accept the responsibility to demand in the marketplace production models which foster a fuller and more complete conception of human dignity than work in a sweatshop typically allows.

Ultimately, this question isn’t really within the realm of economics because economics can only address one’s means of achieving what one values.  However, philosophy effectively encompasses questions regarding what we ought to value. Dr. Powell responded, and I paraphrase, “that this process toward better working conditions and living standards in developing economies ought to occur via a shift in demand, not in a movement along the demand curve, because if laws artificially place wages above the marginal product of labor then that job will be lost.”

Is this what economic freedom looks like?

This is certainly true, and buying sweatshop products with this in mind will still potentially help people given the current institutional framework. Dr. Powell pointed us toward places that used to house sweatshops like Taiwan and South Korea which are now incredibly developed, but this method of development comes at the cost of knowing that in the time it takes to advance in this manner people will be sacrificed. Rather than being able to grow themselves, become educated and develop more fully as human beings, laborers will have to work jobs of danger and little stimulation in order to survive and expand their economy in the hopes that in a few generations their offspring will inherit a better world of leisure, youth, beauty and learning.

In this way I have come to believe that libertarianism is primarily cultural. If we want to be free from government regulation of our values and the perilous centralization of power which typically ensues then the responsibility will fall directly upon us to choose wisely and regulate the market ourselves via voting with one’s dollar, torts, direct action and protest or the world which we will create under freedom may not be very much better than what we have now. We cannot abstract ourselves out of the market by saying things like, “we’ll just let the market take care of it,” because we are the market.  If we don’t take our charge seriously of what to condemn and support financially and morally, then why are we even bothering with this freedom thing? If I wanted to just sit back and delegate all of my responsibility regarding what should be happening in the world to external forces then my selection of libertarianism as a philosophy would be a terrible mistake.

Edward Abbey once mused, “Anarchism is not a romantic fable but the hardheaded realization, based on five thousand years of experience, that we cannot entrust the management of our lives to kings, priests, politicians, generals, and county commissioners.” In other words, if there is no government but only the market, and we actually are the market, then it is up to us to create a better and more virtuous world.[1] No one else is going to do it for us.

We don’t always have to just buy the cheapest goods. In fact, I think we as libertarians ought to make a commitment to being very conscious regarding what we consume, effectively shifting the demand curve toward more human dignity, which is constantly undervalued by virtually everyone. The signals that one sends in the marketplace clearly communicate what sort of world one wishes to live in and what one actually values.  If one wants the freedom to choose poorly, one should take seriously the responsibility of choosing wisely.  Otherwise, we aren’t ready for liberty, and it probably wouldn’t be worth the struggle anyways.


[1] I actually don’t very much care for the way in which libertarians generally define “the state” and “the market,” but this isn’t the time or the place to deconstruct these concepts.