Thursday, September 28, 2006

Boycotting the Needy

Can someone explain to me what's wrong with economic exploitation, such as sweatshops and prostitution? It's terrible that people are ever in such desperate need to begin with, of course, and we should endeavour to alleviate this -- a major reason why I support the UBI. But given that these people are so desperate that they prefer to be "exploited" in order to relieve their desperate poverty, how does thwarting their preference through an economic boycott actually help them at all? Rather than demonstrating a genuine concern for those in need, the moralists risk engaging in the far less admirable activity of fetishizing their own purity. Is this charge justified?

Case 1: Sweatshops

An article at Inside Higher Ed describes the influence of the anti-sweatshop movement on campuses. We can all agree that forced labour, being a form of slavery -- and making people worse off than they otherwise would be -- is utterly unacceptable. We should certainly avoid supporting that in any way, no question. But here I'm interested in voluntary exploitation, i.e. those who prefer to work in a sweatshop, due to the lack of any better alternatives. On this point, I agree with Matthew Yglesias (HT: Joe Miller):
The problem... is that the people who don't have sweatshop jobs are miserable. So miserable, in fact, that the terrible conditions in sweatshops are better than their best other alternative. Closing down the sweatshop option would seem to just force everyone to stick with misery, which doesn't sound very appealing.

Though, to be fair, the campus anti-sweatshop folks described in the IHE article sound like they're trying to bribe sweatshops into improving their working conditions, rather than shutting them down. So hopefully they really are doing more good than harm. If so, this model demonstrates that boycotting the needy isn't always as counterproductive as capitalist orthodoxy might suggest. The key is that whilst boycotting some, you invest more in others. That extra investment is a good thing, like any form of charity, but I don't see any reason to think that anyone is obliged to adopt this particular form of charity over any other. (That is, there's nothing here to suggest that buying cheap sweatshop products is strictly immoral.)

This raises an interesting question: is creating market demand for expensive but humane working conditions the best way to achieve this goal? Or would activists be better off buying cheaper goods and investing their savings in a charity aimed at relieving the underlying 'misery' that Yglesias points to? (Though even if the latter would be more economically efficient, the former approach might be more psychologically effective in eliciting charitable action.)

Case 2: Prostitution

Patrick Smith has a mostly good post in which he dissects Feministing's odd assumption that it's somehow intrinsically worse to commodify the genitals than the other parts of us that employers make use of. This is something I've discussed a bit before. So far, so good. But along the way, Pat suggests that it is 'very obviously condemnable' to engage in exploitative economic exchanges, e.g. employing a prostitute who was 'driven to it by economic hardship and a lack of opportunity.'

But this is not obvious to me at all. It's obviously bad that she has so few opportunities, of course. What I don't see is why we should insist on depriving her of yet another one. If a poor woman is so miserable that she'd prefer to sleep with you in order to make some money, and you like the sound of that too, then what harm is done by acceding to her wishes?

No doubt it would be even better to help her out without taking anything in exchange. Charity is good, for sure. But we're not obliged to donate to charity at every opportunity -- it wouldn't even be possible! It permissible to let some sad cases pass us by. But if it is permissible to do nothing, and employing the prostitute is better for her than doing nothing, then mustn't this also be permissible?

I have to admit that my emotional response gets left behind by this analysis. I'm pretty uncomfortable with the thought of personally engaging in such exploitative relations, even if it would benefit the other person.* But for someone of more liberal character, who could procure pleasure here without any accompanying discomfort, I'm not sure if there are any compelling grounds for criticizing them. What do you think? Perhaps virtue ethics (or character-based indirect utilitarianism) could ground such blame: is the liberal character likely to live a worse life overall, outweighing the local benefits his business provides to prostitutes? It's not obvious, at any rate, though the prerequisite lack of empathy might be cause for concern.
* = Here I'm tempted to ask, how could you enjoy sex in the knowledge that your partner was hating every second of it? Wouldn't that put a damper on things? But perhaps self-deception could come to the rescue, especially if the sex worker was a good actor. And it's not as if (even non-exploitative) prostitution was ever going to provide an emotionally satisfying connection. That's plainly not what their customers are after!


To reiterate, the moral problem is not with particular acts of consensual exploitation, but rather the underlying 'miserable conditions' that make it possible in the first place. We definitely should work to dispel desperation. But while we're in the unacceptable situation whereby some people are desperately needy, to the point where degrading work is a step up from their current position, and a step that they want to take, then I can't see what is gained by denying them this. However inadequate an improvement it may be, it is at least better than nothing at all. So it doesn't strike me as especially praiseworthy to boycott the most desperately needy if this is done simply to avoid "complicity" in mutually-beneficial "exploitation".

Of course, it's better to help the same people without exploiting their desperation at all. Charity is a very good thing. We're arguably obligated to engage in some or other form of charitable giving. But paying extra costs (or abstaining from proffered benefits) in order to locally counterbalance exploitative relations is but one form of charity among many. At least, that's the perspective I've explored here; it's probably this claim that critics will wish to dispute in comments. So, have at it...


  1. You have to ask why sweatshops exist in the first place. Peasants who have enough land to grow food and a little extra for the market don't go to work in sweatshops. The reason why they are landless or nearly so has to do with the fact they have been dispossessed either by feudal landlords, coruption or big corporations. Sweatshops also exist because there are no unions, or like in China and Mexico the unions are part of the state and serve the state's interest and not the workers. In many sweat shop-ridden countries death squads torture and kill unionists, as with Columbia and Honduras. Sweat shops also exist where there are no environmental laws and once again the death squads to their dirty work against those that would fight for sustainable practices. The answer to underdevelopment is not multi-national sweatshops but democracy, land reform, the formation of credit unions, and cooperatives and the institution of fair trade practices. In other words create a mas of free and independent self-employed economic actors instead of hyper-exploited wage slaves living and working in environmentally degraded conditions. For a good free market attack on sweat shops see:

    Oh, and by the way, there is nothing wrong with prostitution, providing it isn't forced or involves children or the mentally handicapped. With the concept of self-ownership, you have the right to do with your body what you please...

  2. The charge is not justified as the same folks boycotting the sweat shops are usually the same people who support fair trade products, demonstrate against death squads etc. The "boycotting hurts the innocent" is an old line anyway. Apologists for the South African Apartheid regime used to trot it out all the time. Logically such bad company does not mean an idea is wrong of course, but the clincher is that groups fighting for their rights, such as the Chicano grape pickers in the 1960's, the Chileans under Pinochet and etc etc, - the ones who would supposedly suffer from the boycott - are the very ones aking for it.

    "Fetishizing their own purity." is also an old straw man. The right has been throwing this slander at us since the 60's. No doubt a few people like this do exist but the vast majority of us are not that way. I regard it as a nasty, cynical and underhanded tactic.We are not in this to save our souls, or be holier than thou. We do this because there is no free lunch. Poverty and oppression abroad impact negatively on us at home. "An injury to one, is an injury to all" is not a hollow slogan, but a concrete reality.

  3. > Peasants who have enough land to grow food and a little extra for the market don't go to work in sweatshops.

    One could then argue sweatshops are in part the result of things like having too many children not to say that others can't take their land of course.

    > The "boycotting hurts the innocent" is an old line anyway.

    its a bit like "the bombing hurts the innocent" I can see how it might work and I can also see how it might hurt. It depends quite a bit on if you reach some sort of tipping point and if your plan is a workable one.

    > the ones who would supposedly suffer from the boycott - are the very ones aking for it.

    Sometimes that is true but I expect it isn't true in places like china or indonesia. Of course maybe the Cileans are right and the chinese/indonesians are wrong.

  4. The problem is that if we eliminate the boycott of authoritarian regimes, we are left without a tactic, or rather we are left with one tactic that you really aren't going to like, armed struggle. If you deny the possibility of peaceful change you make for violent change, and I sure don't want that. Would a boycott be more harmful than a civil war, such as rages now in Columbia? These authoritarian regimes box us in a corner, by not allowing democratic change, they force us to use extra-parliamentary means such as the boycott. If the workers go on strike they will be murdered. So it is up to us to help them out. There is another aspect to consider. Most people are too complacent to boycott a product . Even the most sucessful of boycotts only engage a minority, unless with S Africa, you can swing the government on side. Thus most of the sweatshop workers that you worry about – like the grape workers or the Chileans – remain working. But the boycott cuts into profits and this is where it hurts. If only 25% of the people stop buying a product a company is in trouble. I suggest that a boycott is probably the least harmful to the poor of any tactic.

  5. "the ones who would supposedly suffer from the boycott - are the very ones aking for it."

    I think this is the key question. If those who are being exploited would actually prefer NOT to have our custom, then we should respect that preference. (It indicates that they are not really working voluntarily at all.) But for those who DO want our business -- as I've been assuming here -- I don't see anything wrong with granting that preference.

    "You have to ask why sweatshops exist in the first place."

    Yes, exactly, a central theme of my post is that we should do more to alleviate the underlying causes (i.e. desperate poverty). My point is simply that WHILE we're working on that, there's nothing wrong with doing business with the exploited (so long as they do indeed want this).

  6. I think the root causes of poverty may well be "third rails" or "sacred cows" so to speak.

  7. I think genius is right, except that it isn't poverty isn't caused. Poverty is the natural state of mankind. What requires an explanation is the aberration known as prosperity. One precondition for prosperity is that there be no bad third rail policies keeping people down. Another, and you'll find this in EVERY case of prosperity, is that people are willing to buy what you have for sale. No oppressed group ever became better off because someone boycotted what they had for sale.

  8. I think the argument for not buying from sweatshops is, in a way, similar to the argument for not giving in to the demands of hostage-takers. Yes, denying a hostage-taker's demands may cause suffering for his victims in the short term, but in the long term it makes everyone safer by discouraging hostage-taking as a tactic in the first place. Similarly, refusing to buy from sweatshops, and instead buying from employers who treat their workers well and pay a living wage, will in the long run put the sweatshops out of business and encourage the flourishing of businesses that treat workers humanely. After all, if we buy from employers who use sweatshop labor, won't that just encourage them to continue using sweatshop labor and stymie any efforts to improve their employees' living conditions?

  9. But it's not clear that "put[ting] the sweatshops out of business" is a good thing at all, given that they are better for their workers than the presently available alternatives. The key question is whether such boycotts create demand to provide a new alternative to these same workers, e.g. decent factory labour.

    This then raises the question in my main post: "is creating market demand for expensive but humane working conditions the best way to achieve this goal [of humane working conditions]? Or would activists be better off buying cheaper goods and investing their savings in a charity aimed at relieving the underlying 'misery' that Yglesias points to?"

  10. There is the risk that the ability to profit from sweatshop labor encourages companies to destroy tolerable existing ways of life (as Larry mentions), creating the misery that makes sweatshops look like a good alternative. I suppose this is an indirect case of forced labor - the coercion occurs once, up front, but it's still coercion.


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