When Paul Krugman defended sweatshops in the pages of the New York Times and Slate Magazine in 1997, he understandably raised a chorus of criticism, so when I wrote “Do Sweatshops Belong in a Free Market?” I expected at least some cognitive dissonance. After all, sweatshops are an issue that many feel passionately about. However, I was surprised at the level of the resistance that greeted what I thought was not a very controversial position on my part. This article is an attempt to clarify my argument and respond to some of this criticism.
In my opinion, a sweatshop is an antiquated form of wage slavery that does not belong in a free society any more than conscription or the Atlantic slave trade. Economists like Paul Krugman have provided an ideological foundation for sweatshops because they are an integral part of the globalist worldview, but that is a worldview that libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, and other likeminded individuals oppose. Therefore, it is in our interest to not only distance ourselves from this exploitive form of labor, but to repudiate it entirely.
The central tenant of my argument is that force and aggression do not always have to involve the threat of immediate physical harm. A person may be coerced into surrendering their property (or their labor) under a variety of conditions. For example, being tricked into signing a contract he or she cannot read or understand, having the welfare of his or her family threatened, or being required to rent equipment essential to the job while being paid barely enough to cover those expenses. All of these are common practices at sweatshops.
My purpose in attempting to apply the non-aggression principle to this issue was to provide a skeleton around which an effective, free-market argument against sweatshops could be formed. The reason the issue of sweatshops in particular needs to be addressed, as opposed to just force or fraud generally, is because there appears to be a significant number of people who claim to both support the free market (or anarcho-capitalism) and sweatshops. Not only is this position contradictory, in my opinion, but it hurts the free market cause by playing right into the hands of our opponents, who believe that a free(d) market would bring back the worst aspects of industrialization.
Gary Chartier suggests that there are two possible objections to sweatshops, one based on the Non-Aggression Principle and one based on moral grounds. In order to be both morally objectionable and inconsistent with the NAP, a sweatshop operation would have to be responsible for the dispossession that leaves potential workers with little alternative but to accept what they would otherwise regard as unacceptable workplace conditions. Even if the sweatshop operation was not responsible for this, however, the terms and conditions of employment may still be morally objectionable. This moral objection could justly lead to labor organizing, strikes, protests, etc.
There are pragmatic concerns as well. Namely, that any argument in which sweatshops are a legitimate alternative is a losing argument, especially in Western nations. It is one thing to run a thought experiment on the cost or benefits of cheap labor, but quite another to convince an assembly line worker at a factory in Pittsburg to give up his or her government-enforced minimum wage, break time, and overtime pay, not to mention his or her job security and benefits, in the name of capitalism and free competition. Even if for some reason you believe sweatshops are theoretically compatible with a free market or a stateless society, if you ever wanted to see progress toward those ends, it would be prudent to file that belief somewhere away from the court of public opinion.
The following is a short list of additional considerations:
- Opposition to sweatshops should, and can, be a position that unites everyone in the liberty movement, from libertarians to anarcho-capitalists and beyond.
- Many anarcho-capitalist and libertarian philosophers, including Murray Rothbard, have made extensive arguments against the type of unjust contracts that lead to sweatshops.
- Even if sweatshops were a byproduct of a free market, they should be opposed on pragmatic and moral grounds.
- This is not a “left or right” issue. The dignity and welfare of the working individual should be a concern to everyone.
- Just because the West industrialized in a certain way, doesn’t mean that others must industrialize in that same way. They can learn from our mistakes.
It is my hope that further discussion of this subject will yield a consensus that removes this persistent but antiquated obstacle to convincing working people that a free market is in their best interest. I am confident that most of the people reading this have always opposed sweatshops (as well as other excesses of industrial capitalism), but to those who still harbor doubts, I will say this: Think long and hard about what you are supporting and how that support appears to the average person. Do not make things easier for our intellectual opponents by defending this untenable position.