There is a strain of argument for free markets that purports to be on the side of working people. It says that while do-gooder regulations may be nobly intended, ultimately they often hurt the people they are trying to help. The point is applied against various attempts to control extortionate or exploitative corporate practices, whether by raising the minimum wage or reining in debit card fees. The suggestion is that pushing on one part of the system causes movement in another part, an inadvertent effect that those committed to regulation willfully ignore. Raise the minimum wage and you will correspondingly raise unemployment. Cap debit card fees and watch free checking accounts disappear. The argument concludes by implicitly positing a binary: we either allow companies to do as they wish, or we try to control them and in the process do more harm than good.
For some years, Nicholas Kristof has been applying this same pattern of reasoning to the anti-sweatshop movement. Liberals, he says, have their hearts in the right place, but do not understand economics:
Mr. Obama and the Democrats who favor labor standards in trade agreements mean well, for they intend to fight back at oppressive sweatshops abroad. But while it shocks Americans to hear it, the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough.
Kristof says that without sweatshops, poor countries would suffer even further. And so “anyone who cares about fighting poverty should campaign in favor of sweatshops, demanding that companies set up factories in Africa. If Africa could establish a clothing export industry, that would fight poverty far more effectively than any foreign aid program.” Africa will only be competitive if it is able to offer lower wages than anywhere else, and so vigorously enforced labor standards doom any chance for jobs and corresponding economic uplift.
Kristof offers us the binary: either accept the economic reality of sweatshops or attempt to impose restrictions on them and see manufacturers flee elsewhere. Paltry wages and factory fires are unfortunate, but the numbers speak for themselves: people want jobs, and flood to these supposedly abominable employers. Who are Western liberals to try to take away the only source of income in a community?
The argument contains a careful sleight-of-hand, however. By first positing the inevitability that attempts to regulate labor practices will result in the movement of industry, and by second framing such movement as one might speak of the travel of liquid through glass tubes, any idea of free will and moral responsibility is removed from the discussion. The reasoning process thereby slyly exonerates corporations for what would be considered deeply immoral acts if they were evaluated by the standards that the criminal justice system uses for individuals. After all, what does the argument actually say? If it is that employers are purely self-interested, and will wriggle out of any attempt at imposing requirements, this may be correct, but surely if that is true, these employers suffer from a deadly and irredeemable sociopathy.