Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

04.30.13

Should We Force Other Countries to Be Safe?

Questions linger in the wake of the Bangladeshi disaster

Matt Yglesias took a lot of flak last week for responding to an Erik Loomis post about the tragic collapse of a Bangladeshi garment factory by saying:

It's very plausible that one reason American workplaces have gotten safer over the decades is that we now tend to outsource a lot of factory-explosion-risk to places like Bangladesh where 87 people just died in a building collapse.* This kind of consideration leads Erik Loomis to the conclusion that we need a unified global standard for safety, by which he does not mean that Bangladeshi levels of workplace safety should be implemented in the United States.

I think that's wrong. Bangladesh may or may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it's entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States.

The reason is that while having a safe job is good, money is also good. Jobs that are unusually dangerous—in the contemporary United States that's primarily fishing, logging, and trucking—pay a premium over other working-class occupations precisely because people are reluctant to risk death or maiming at work. And in a free society it's good that different people are able to make different choices on the risk–reward spectrum. There are also some good reasons to want to avoid a world of unlimited choice and see this as a sphere in which collective action is appropriate (I'll gesture at arguments offered in Robert Frank's The Darwin Economy and Tom Slee's No One Makes You Shop At Walmart if you're interested), but that still leaves us with the question of "which collective" should make the collective choice.

Of course, it's probably not going to help Matt in their eyes if I defend him, but I'm afraid I can't resist.  

Yglesias was responding to this post from Erik Loomis, which advocates holding companies responsible for these sorts of tragedies.  And not "responsible in the court of public opinion", but actually legally responsible.  Effectively, Erik Loomis wants to make US safety standards the law of the land in any country which does business with US companies.

Matt Yglesias made the standard neoliberal rejoinder to anti-sweatshop activism: workers in foreign countries have lower productivity than those in rich countries, and imposing US-style labor and safety standards might simply deprive these workers of jobs, pushing them into even more dangerous work on farms (forget what you saw on Little House on the Prairie: agriculture is dangerous, especially when it includes the risk that you will starve.)  

There have been a number of interesting responses to Yglesias, pointing out, for example, that the factory appears to have been violating Bangladeshi law, and that the Bangladeshi government is sort of corrupt and may be too responsive to the desires of the factory owners, and not so much to the workers.  

But few of the people piling on Yglesias really offered a satisfactory answer the core question: should we lean on US and European corporations to impose our safety standards on Bangladesh?  Or any safety standards? I don't think that answer is obvious, even if we concede that the Bangladeshi government is inadequately responsive.  

The obvious critique of such efforts is bascially the same critique that many of the same people made about Iraq: foriegners who impose themselves into a strange country's problems rarely do a very good job.  Most of us probably agree that Iraq would be better off as a stable, pluralistic society.  But imposing this coercively is problematic, no matter how well intentioned it may be.  Even if we don't simply fail through lack of information, we will almost certainly end up subsituting our vision of a good society for the vision that the locals themselves hold, while creating considerable collateral damage in the process.  

In Iraq, that damage was the civilians who died or had to flee.  In Bangladesh, it would be the workers who lost jobs.  What keeps Bangladeshi garments competitive is that they are very, very cheap.

You see this quite poignantly in a story about our own country:  this story about a North Carolina factory where the working conditions seem to have caused significant neurological damage to the workers.  The factory makes a relatively convincing argument that if it weren't using this fairly dangerous glue, they'd lose the business to China.  The doctor who initially wrote to OSHA begged them not to shut the factory down, since that would be even worse for the patients.  

Who's qualified to make that decision?  Me, sitting in my comfy Washington office?  You can argue that the workers shouldn't face those terrible tradeoffs, but absent an immediate revolution, they do.  Should we shut down a factory that provides jobs, and great danger, or should we let it continue to operate, even though it may harm future workers who may not really grasp the risks?  I don't know the answer to that in my own country.  How can I answer it for Bangladesh?

Even if we allow that the Bangladeshi government is thouroughly captured by the garment interests, it doesn't therefore follow that our intervention will be an improvement . . . just as you can think that Saddam Hussein was a horrible dictator who was dreadful for his country, and still think that the Iraq War was a bad idea.  

What Erik Loomis is proposing is left-wing economic imperialism.  It's not as bad as the version where you invade a country and take their stuff, but it has many of the same deep problems.  We are susbstituting our choices about the safety and employment tradeoff for the judgement of people who are closer to the situation, and far more invested in the country.  Maybe they're terrible people, but even so, this is just inherently problematic--something that the left understands quite well when Westerners start questioning the choice of economic systems, or left-wing strongmen, in the developing world.  

To be sure, we will inescapably judge the decisions that other governments make; I judge folks like Hugo Chavez all the time.  But it's one thing to judge them, and another to impose your judgement coercively. I'm not saying that we never should do so.  But we should always be aware of the dangers.  And the folks who piled on Yglesias showed no awareness that they were advocating the unilateral imposition of our standards on a foreign country that they didn't actually know very intimately.