At Cornell, there is a large part of campus which actively rails against free trade. No, they are not explicitly protectionist, rather they believe that people in the Third World have the option to have jobs outside of sweatshops that will provide them with a comfortable standard of living. Opportunities that are stymied by “greedy capitalists” and other lefty fairy tale characters.
globalization propelled vast increases in American standards of living for decades, but it has also lifted hundreds of millions of the world’s poor from the grinding destitution of rural poverty.
As manufacturing jobs have shifted overseas, Americans have quietly reaped the benefits of post-industrial economic progress. In fact, according to a study led by Dartmouth professor Matthew Slaughter, a former member of the Council of Economic Advisors, for every job outsourced by American multinational corporations between 1991 and 2001, these very same American corporations hired two American workers (2.8 million vs. 5.5 million respectively). These new jobs pay better (according to the same study, as much as 31 percent better) and reflect the global economic shift toward a knowledge economy in which everyone can benefit.
Yes, both drinking “fair-trade” coffee and wearing exclusively American-made clothes satisfy the moral sentiment of inequality conscious upper- and middle-class American consumers, but free trade is a tried and established economic principle that has enabled boundless economic opportunities for the world’s poorest people.
What is derided as “sweatshop labor” represents perhaps the only method of escaping poverty for the world’s poorest people. In the world’s most dysfunctional countries, corrupt governments and very ineffective foreign aid have done little to improve destitute living conditions, magnifying, in contrast, the unintended benefits arising from multinational corporations’ self-interested pursuit of cheap labor.
Opposition to the anti-sweatshop and the “fair trade” movements is not a tired regurgitation of laissez-faire dogma or pro-business partisanship. The positive effects of free trade on world poverty are understood as part of a broader bipartisan effort that should never be reduced to the petty left-right squabbling which dominates any conversation on American politics.
Indeed, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof and famously liberal economist Paul Krugman represent two potent voices noting sweatshops as perhaps the only means for economic improvement in the developing world. In a New York Times article from 2000, Kristof details the relationship between sweatshop labor and the explosive economic development of China, where ultimately “sweatshops tended to generate the wealth necessary to solve the problems they created” (“Two Cheers for Sweatshops”). He later outlines the consequences of sweatshop labor in China: a five-fold rise in factory wages and drastically improved labor conditions as a result of increased competition.
And it goes on.
Whenever I talk to students on campus who buy into this “anti-sweatshop” nonsense, they’re usually pretty successful in every other respect. My explanation for their dissociation is that they simply cannot grasp a world where a person’s best option is sewing clothes all day.