Like sweatshops, we should do our best not to support companies that use child labor. Right?

I’ve previously brought up my belief that sweatshops are a positive force for the people that work in them. Similarly, I believe that international activism aimed at ending child labor practices are not only misguided, but actually make the conditions of children even worse off.

Like sweatshops, children work in relatively harsh conditions because their better alternatives stink. If you take away the best alternative, you don’t make those people better off my ‘taking a stand’. You put them into even worse conditions. Such was the case when, as Oxfam documented, a closing of a “sweatshop” caused a large majority of the young women employed to go into prostitution. Sweatshops are horrible, but is prostitution better? (Read the article by Ben Powell to get a full argument in support of sweatshops.)

In America, we like to think that all children have the right to education and that kids shouldn’t have to work, especially in horrible conditions. But picture America 200 years ago (or maybe even more recently than that). Kids were working all around the country. On farms, in factories, in daddy’s blacksmith shop, etc. This was because, at the time, America hadn’t reached a stage of economic development where those families could afford to forfeit their child’s free labor so that they could get an education. Only later, when America experienced tremendous economic growth, did families have the luxury of sending their kids to school instead of using their labor for working. In short, economic growth – though sometimes slower than we have patience for – is the true remedy for improving working conditions, not labor laws.

These arguments might not seem persuasive. You might be saying “sweatshops are just one of those things I know are wrong. How can you justify these cruel practices?”

I bring up this topic because a recent article linking international activism against child labor with decreasing conditions for the people that activism is aiming to help. To sum up, when we lower the demand for the products that these children are producing, their wages and conditions consequently decrease. Why is this, and why is there nothing that we can do through interventions like boycotts and legislation? Again, I suggest reading Ben Powell’s essay.

I am a firm believer that everyone should expose themselves to the ideas/works of opposing viewpoints, no matter how ridiculous one might think such views are. I feel a lot of people read blogs, books, and articles only by people with similar views. This acts as a re-enforcement of opinions rather than an enhancement of knowledge. As such, I like to think that I break out of this mold by reading people like Paul Krugman, Ezra Klein, or even Naomi Klein.

One of the issues that seems most obvious to me is globalization and its net benefits for people around the world. The chief critic of globalization is Joseph Stiglitz, a nobel laureate in “information economics.” I picked up his magnum opus, Globalization and Its Discontents, today and just finished reading the first fifty pages. Interestingly, I find myself agreeing with him much more than I thought I would. First off, he is not nearly as anti-“globalization” as he is in opposition to distinctly non-market institutions like the IMF and the World Bank (where he was chief economist for a few years). The IMF and World Bank, in my admittedly limited knowledge, are organizations that are indeed detrimental to growth in developing countries and more often make things worse than make them better.

From the start, he acknowledges the undeniable benefits to people around the world and even seems to offer some support for sweatshops:

People in the West may regard low-paying Nike jobs at Nike as exploitation, but for many people in the developing world, working in factory is a far better option than staying down on the farm and growing rice.

So far, it seems clear to me that Siglitz isn’t opposed to globalization as much as he is against how it is being carried out. In the back of my mind I also remember that his expertise is in asymmetric information and not international trade (though his time at the World Bank does give him expertise on how it carries out its business).

I have only read a fifth of Stiglitz’s book, so he might go onto issues where his opinions part from mine later. Meanwhile, I look forward to seeing what he has to say against all the good things of globalization I hear so much about.