Book Review: Praising sweatshops

Out of Poverty: Sweatshops in the Global Economy, by Benjamin Powell (Cambridge University Press, 2014)

Okay, I haven’t read it, I’ve only read the review in Barrons magazine, so this is really a review of a review.

Benjamin Powell is a very conservative (actually libertarian) academic with a Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University whose current gigs are (1) director of the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University and (2) senior fellow at Independent Institute, an Oakland think tank notable for publishing the papers of S. Fred Singer, a critic of climate change science and health findings on passive cigarette smoke.

The reviewer, Gene Epstein, also a very conservative guy, is a financial journalist and Barrons’ longtime economics editor. He has an MA in economics from New School and is a former economics instructor. You can read his review here.

The central thesis of Powell’s book and Epstein’s review is that Third World sweatshops are a positive thing and an inspiring example of how capitalism lifts the poorest of the poor out of abject poverty (into something only slightly better). Perhaps an Amazon reviewer named Fr. Clifford J. Stevens, a priest from the Archdiocese of Omaha working at Boys Town, who gave this book 1 star under Amazon’s 5-star ranking system, best summed up this line of thinking:

“This is a brutal book, wriitten with an ideological bias – justifying working conditions that keep the poor deeper in poverty and personal distress – making the pockets of their employers (many from rich countries like our own) rich in cash. The book shows graphically how far an advocate of Free Market Economics will go to hide the brutality of the Free Market and the ingrained insensitivity to inhuman conditions of employment and personal suffering. It is clear from this book that, once an economic bias takes hold, someone like Benjamin Powell will go to any lengths to justify the victims of that bias. … Shantytowns and sweatshops are not steps on the way to progress. They are the evil and cruel effects of Free Market Economics, vividly portrayed in a recent book called ‘Breaker Boys’ by Michael Burgan. An even more vivid portrait is ‘How the Other Half Lives’ by Jacob Riis, recently re-published. Notice the sub-title: ‘Sweatshops in the Global Economy’, with ‘statistics’ to ‘prove’ that sweatshops work for the financial advantage of the workers and that the sweatshops existence is a benefit to those caught in its tentacles. … ‘Out of Poverty’ is a disgrace to the Science of Economics, and the politics that go with it. Sweatshops have never improved the economic condition of anyone, as any visitor to underdeveloped countries know. … Sweatshops serve the economy of the entrepreneurs who run them and no amount of Austrian Economics will give respectability to one of the most massive social evils to inflict developing nations.”

Geez, that’s pretty rough, especially coming from a priest. But then, so are sweatshops and shantytowns, the creations of greed without conscience. By the way, 8 of the 10 Amazon reviews give the book 5 stars; the remaining one is another 1-star.

You can, of course, make a case for sweatshops (and just about anything else), and Epstein tries:

“The author tells [a] story that highlights the harm done by the well intentioned of the First World who refuse to recognize the real choices faced by the poor of the Third World. In 1993, in response to pressure from the U.S. government, textile companies in Bangladesh stopped employing 50,000 children. The displaced child workers ended up on the streets, or in worse jobs, with many finding jobs as prostitutes. ‘As repulsive as a child working in a sweatshop may be,’ observes Powell, ‘it is not nearly as repulsive as a child forced into prostitution through the actions of unthinking Western activists.'”

In other words, do-gooder activists are responsible for child prostitution in Third World hell-holes by denying kids the opportunity to work in sweatshops. A not very subtle dig at do-gooders by a guy who, himself, lives fairly well on a pretty good salary. (But fairly typical of Epstein’s work, based on my experience as a regular reader of Barrons — for their investing advice, not their humanistic philosophy. I like to eat, too.)

I can write my review of this book (which I haven’t read) and Epstein’s review (which I’ve read) in four sentences.

1. One of conservatives’ favorite knocks on liberals is “moral relativism;” but Professor Powell’s thesis, and Editor Epstein’s endorsement of it, constitute moral relativism with a vengeance.

2. Sweatshops, especially those exploiting child labor, are an absolute evil; and any society has the ability to legislate or decree decent pay and working conditions for its worker population if it chooses to.

3. It’s fine that Professor Powell chooses to investigate, and write about, this subject; but anytime scholarship becomes advocacy, it’s subject to moral judgment, and as a defender of Third World sweatshops, including those exploiting child labor, he casts himself as a capitalist ideologue with little concern for human values. Actually, quite a few capitalists are better than that.






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