Friday, September 30, 2005

We love sweatshops, or do we?

Being on a lefty college campus, it's fun to get to be the person who argues that sweatshops are really rather wonderful. Given the options these workers face, this is a marvelous job. If we deprive them of the privilege of working in sweatshops they would be forced to be subsistence farmers or something. So we should celebrate sweatshops.

This is a classic argument and is true in a very narrow static sense: that is, given all the existing economic constraints and normative orientations under which people live their lives, the Panglossian view is accurate. But activist types aren't arguing that this world can be better (a world with all existing economic constraints and normative orientations intact), they are arguing that there is another possible world which would be better (a world with different economic constraints and/or different normative orientations).

Activists don't dispute that given existing constraints sweatshops are fine; they are saying that there is no reason that companies should be allowed to fire union organizers (a constraint) or no reason that companies shouldn't realize that improved working conditions might actually be good for productivity (a normative orientation). In that other possible world, sweatshops would certainly be less bad than they are in this world -- and in the narrow static sense they would still be the best option for workers, and free-trade types would continue to celebrate sweatshops, not realizing that something fundamental had changed. Thus, activist types and free trade types don't really disagree about sweatshops, they are just arguing about whether we should focus attention on this world, or other possible worlds.

This continues a theme discussed here, using a move discussed here.


Anonymous New Economist said...

Interesting topic. I recently posted about Why feminists should support sweatshops on my New Economist weblog. Readers may find that relevant.

6:46 AM  

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