It’s something of an inevitability that when the various heinous acts of corporations are brought to light, the Economists march out in lock-step to explain to the dissenters A) how emotional and irrational the dissenters are acting and B) sure, isn’t this the best possible thing that could be happening for ‘those people’?
This line of thinking was most recently articulated by Paul Krugman in The Slate. I want to focus on the two main points of this article: 1) the lie being presented that this is the best possible choice we could make given “the alternative”, and 2) the objection to this is being made on purely emotional grounds (i.e. there are no rational grounds to this objection)
1. Contracting Foxconn is the best possible choice
And as long as you have no realistic alternative to industrialization based on low wages, to oppose it means that you are willing to deny desperately poor people the best chance they have of progress for the sake of what amounts to an aesthetic standard–that is, the fact that you don’t like the idea of workers being paid a pittance to supply rich Westerners with fashion items.
It’s important to note that when this argument is made, only one ‘alternative’ is presented, which immediately drops the whole argument down the toilet. This is a False Dichotomy: there is more than one possible choice.
The argument, as written, paints a fairly dismal picture: life in China sucks. The life that Foxconn offers its employees (and I object to the use of this word in this circumstance, but how-and-ever) is better than the life they would have without the existence of Foxconn. Ergo, companies that support Foxconn are supporting an improvement in the living conditions for the people of China, even if that improvement only affects a small portion of the population.
So this argument isn’t false, but it is Bullshit insofar that the economist doesn’t care if this argument is Sound or not.
On a Utilitarian analysis, any action we undertake should be inspected to see if harm is being committed. Harm is a big red Stop sign for any choice we make, and that action is forbidden to us, unless all other actions also lead to harm at which point we can then choose the least-worst option.
For example, if there exists a factory within which employees are routinely beaten 10 times per day, we are not justified in opening a factory within which employees are routinely beaten 9 times per day. Yes, we’re better than the other factory, but we’re still completely unethical.
I do not deny that (for a person living in China) existing within the realm of Foxconn is less-bad than existing outside of the realm of Foxconn. That, however, is the choice of the people of China to make (akin to “would you prefer to be beaten with a stick, or a rock?”). This is not the choice that Apple (and the rest) is presented with. Unlike the people of China, Apple has a range of choices available, one of which is “don’t interact with Foxconn”, and a second which is “intereact with Foxconn under the current terms that it has with its employees”. These are not, however, Apple’s only two choices.
Apple could form a consortium with other companies that seek hardware from Foxconn, and insist on a change of standards. Apple could choose to open their contract to any and all factory owners in the world, with stipulations for minimum treatment of employees. Apple could offer the contract to an American factory, with a stipulation that the company meets European working conditions (which would likewise increase the quality of life for those American workers). There are a wide variety of choices available to Apple, several of which are without Harm.
So long as there is at least one choice on the table that is without harm, choosing to interact with Foxconn as-they-are is unEthical.
Now the counter-argument may be that this will raise the costs of the products. This is entirely irrelevant to the conversation, for several reasons.
- We are discussing whether an action is Ethical, or not. The fact that Economists have chosen to divorce their calculations from Ethics is an indictment of their profession, not a problem for Ethicists.
- As Naomi Klein explained in No Logo: it’s all about the Brand. The cost of an Apple product is already massively inflated from the large profit margin that Apple enjoys. People don’t buy Apples because they are priced competitively: they buy Apples because they are Apples. It’s an identity thing, not a cost thing. I am somewhat surprised that Economists aren’t aware of this.
- According to Jon Stewart (the Daily Show, Jan 16th, 2012) ), if the manufacturing took place in the US and the cost was passed directly onto the consumer, the cost of Apple products would increase by a mere 23%. An extra $20 on an iPod, an extra $120 on an iPad. While this would no doubt cost Apple some sales, it would hardly be catastrophic.
Furthermore, Krugman’s own argument undermines itself. Compare the following two paragraphs:
More importantly, however, the growth of manufacturing–and of the penumbra of other jobs that the new export sector creates–has a ripple effect throughout the economy. The pressure on the land becomes less intense, so rural wages rise; the pool of unemployed urban dwellers always anxious for work shrinks, so factories start to compete with each other for workers, and urban wages also begin to rise.
First of all, even if we could assure the workers in Third World export industries of higher wages and better working conditions, this would do nothing for the peasants, day laborers, scavengers, and so on who make up the bulk of these countries’ populations. At best, forcing developing countries to adhere to our labor standards would create a privileged labor aristocracy, leaving the poor majority no better off.
leads to a contradiction.
Just so I’m clear here: so long as the wages within a factory are just a teeny, tiny bit better than shitty starvation wages, then the whole country experiences a ripple effect, but if you jack up the wages to a reasonable standard, then you’re creating “a privileged labor aristocracy”? The ripple effect suddenly disappears? I call bullshit.
2. All alternative arguments are based on emotion
The main answer, I think, is a sort of fastidiousness. Unlike the starving subsistence farmer, the women and children in the sneaker factory are working at slave wages for our benefit–and this makes us feel unclean. And so there are self-righteous demands for international labor standards: We should not, the opponents of globalization insist, be willing to buy those sneakers and shirts unless the people who make them receive decent wages and work under decent conditions.
I think that I’ve provided an alternative argument here that is not based on an emotional analysis, thereby demonstrating that the original strawman thesis is false. Of course, any Economist is free to assert that an analysis based on Ethics is a de facto emotional argument. But there are a great many other ignorant things they are also free to assert, as merely asserting something doesn’t demonstrate the truth of it.
In this particular case, dismissing an argument on the basis that “it’s emotional” fails to address it. Ignoring an argument is not “rational”, as an “emotional” argument passionately delivered may nevertheless be correct.
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