Feasible Options

May 27, 2008

The show: Friends
In season five, Emily, Ross’s new wife, gives Ross an ultimatum: in order to be with her, he has to promise never to see Rachel again. In desperation, Ross turns to Joey for advice:

Ross: You should’ve seen the look on her face. I don’t want Rachel to hate me! I don’t know what to do.
Joey: You want my advice?
Ross: Yes, please!
Joey: You’re not gonna like it.
Ross: That’s okay.
Joey: You got married too fast.
Ross: That’s not advice!
Joey: I told ya.


What’s the best way to tell someone that I’m strongly in favor of child labor? Probably not using those words. And yet, whenever I get into a discussion on this topic, those are the words that inevitably find their way out of my mouth. This hasn’t led to good outcomes so far, which ought to give me a reason to rethink my strategy.

I should probably start, not with my conclusion, but with my premise, which is that we ought to choose the best option from among our feasible options. Thus I can say, yes, it would be fantastic if we could ensure that children in developing countries could get a good education, have enough to eat, and wouldn’t have to work. I’m not, as a matter of principle, opposed to happy children.

But does anyone seriously believe that the existence of sweatshops is the cause of child labor? Does the very existence of these jobs cause children to take them, such that if the sweatshop no longer existed, the incentive to work in a sweatshop would disappear as well?

And this is why I’m never prepared for the shocked and offended reactions people have when I talk about child labor. The idea that multinational corporations and their sweatshops are the real problem seems to me so absurd as to be untenable.

If we are going to have a real policy discussion, we have to be able to identify the choices that are actually available to us. Making all the children of the world happy and healthy, as nice as it would be, is not among our options. If we can’t even agree on this point, then we might as well not have a discussion on this topic.

The recent brouhaha over my posts on poverty is another example of this general problem. My point was not to say that capitalism and free trade are wonderful and flawless policies; rather, I attempted to show that capitalism and trade are successful in reducing poverty, whereas central planning or protectionism fail. The criticisms these posts have raised seem to be attacking a claim I didn’t make, namely, that capitalist countries have no problems whatsoever.

Making child labor legal is better than the alternative, because making it illegal doesn’t prevent it from happening. It simply forces children who would have worked in factories to work as prostitutes instead. If I am interested in helping the poor, free trade is better than the alternative policies, which have had no success in reducing poverty in developing countries in the last 60 years (see the Africa- Asia comparison).

A good argument against child labor will attempt to show, not that child labor is morally repugnant, but that it is worse than some feasible alternative. That means accepting the consequences of what laws against child labor actually do. Similarly, arguing that capitalism is bad requires not a description of the extreme poverty that exists in some relatively capitalist societies (e.g. Guatemala, China) but rather some evidence that the outcomes produced by some alternative system would be better.


3 Responses to “Feasible Options”

  1. tripinchina Says:

    The GPI shows zero growth in the US because it was in fact US corporations and their ruling elite, aided by the US government, who reaped the most cash since the 1970s rather than working men and women. Meanwhile, the effects of this unbalanced prosperity on the infrastructure, community ties, environment, educational system, etc. for ordinary US people have been *very* negative indeed. But any sociology student could tell you that. When I see a number that confirms these truths, I’m pleasantly surprised!

    But I digress. So. Everyone knows that child laborers in Indonesia assemble Nike shoes for pennies an hour while Nike reaps an enormous profit. You really, really can’t think of a feasible alternative to this barbaric relation of production?

    The colonial history in this situation is typical: Indonesia was one of the most brutally exploited of all of Europe’s colonies such that *somehow* despite its rich supply of natural resources and key geopolitical position, it emerged from WWII (when Europe’s stranglehold on its colonies relaxed in general) as one of the world’s poorest countries. “Raped by the Dutch for 350 years and then saddled with a robbers’ “peace” by The Hague agreements, [you can read about it here] Indonesia needed foreign exchange so desperately that its nationalist government, no matter how much it hated the imperialists, granted them economic concessions” — thus U.S. business interests tightened their control over Indonesia’s economy and the stage was set for Nike.

    The rise in Indonesia’s GDP since then has been due not to Indonesian-owned companies trading profitably her resources, products, and services with the world in a free market, as a libertarian might reasonably hope, but rather to Multinational corporations, no doubt in collusion with elites in Indonesian society, making money unfettered by any kind of local regulation. Indonesia’s membership in the WTO since 1995 has no doubt contributed to this.

    What is a feasible alternative? How about labor-owned factories? How about local management and ownership of resources? How about a government that can stand up with dignity to its corporate masters? Oh but this last is unfeasible to the extreme, it seems, since the last such democratic agitation in the region (South Vietnam) met with the cruelest, most overwhelming military action of a rich nation (the US) against a poor one that the world has ever seen before or since.

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