Sunday, September 07, 2003

"Exploitation" and Confused Thinking on Globalization

Bjørn Stærk has a very, very good post up on the hypocrisy and muddled thinking of those who complain about the evil multinationals "exploiting" the labor of poor countries. There is a strange circularity to the complaints one hears from such people, who in the name of preventing the "exploitation" of the poor, would actually condemn them to lifetimes of poverty, by denying these unfortunate people the right to work at jobs that, however wretched they may seem in the eyes of most Westerners, are actually a step up in life from those they might have otherwise been employed at - were they lucky enough to be working at all.

The problem with people who want to foist Western labor and environmental standards on poor countries is that they don't seem to understand what this would do for the attractiveness of such countries as investment havens - or perhaps they do understand, and just don't give a damn, being more concerned to protect low-productivity labor at home than to engage in trade that boosts the welfare of both participants, without the indignity of one party playing the generous philanthropist, and the other the grateful supplicant. Corporations are not charities, and cannot be expected to bring jobs to countries that have the high wage and environmental expectations of Westerners without the high worker productivity necessary to back these expectations up, and anyone with a historical perspective will be keenly aware that Third World jobs that strike us today as unbearably toilsome and ill-rewarded are often far easier and better-paid than what was typically on offer in the early days of European and American industrialization. As harsh as working conditions in the Third World may be in many circumstances, the truth is that there is no real way for a people to bypass this stage in industrial relations unless they are the beneficiaries of Saudi-like windfall riches.

It is with these thoughts in mind that the notion of Howard Dean succeeding to the White House fills me with the greatest alarm. As bad as Bush is, he at least belongs to a party that is nominally committed to free and unfettered international trade, and there are many conservatives who are grumbling loudly about his protectionist pandering to the producers of steel, catfish and other uncompetitive domestic products. Despite the excellent free trade record of Bill Clinton, no such counterweight exists in the Democratic party, many of whose members really do seem to believe that by pushing for "fair" trade, they will actually be doing a favor to the citizens of poorer countries, rather than the immense harm they will in truth be engendering.