Rules That Liberate

By Kuttner, Robert | The American Prospect, May-June 1997 | Go to article overview

Rules That Liberate


Kuttner, Robert, The American Prospect


Recently, I participated in a new television program called Debates, Debates, in which two teams have an hour to argue an issue of the day. The proposition under debate that day was whether trade sanctions should ever be used to advance human rights. For the opposition, the team captain was Eugene Rotberg, former vice president of the World Bank. Rotberg, cross-examining my debating partner, William Greider, expected to score a nice point on Greider with the following exchange:

Greider We all have our choke points. I

wouldn't trade with a country that used slave

labor....

Rotberg: Who's "we" here?

Greider Americans. This is a political

question.

Rotberg: Do you know where the parts to

the car that you're driving are made?

Greider What's that got to do with it?

Rotberg: Do you know that the car parts are

made with child labor?

Greider: But, see, you're starting from the

position that governments are incapable of

addressing these questions, so us poor

consumers are supposed to resolve them. I

don't agree with that. Look at American

history. They didn't get children out of the

coal mines until the government made it

illegal. They didn't close down the

sweatshops until reform movements passed laws.

Quite so. A consumer may be sovereign when it comes to deciding between a Taurus and a Toyota, but the individual buyer is powerless to know, much less influence, the labor practices at, say, a Ford engine plant in Mexico.

Within advanced countries, governments enact wage and hours laws, health and safety regulations, regimes allowing collective bargaining. These and kindred policies all offer relief from economic pressures that would otherwise yield hardship for ordinary workers. They are the fruits of a century of political struggle. But between countries, there are no such rules--as yet. So the default position for traded goods is laissez-faire: The country with the lowest standards enjoys a competitive advantage, and drags down the standards of other countries. This is why the question of whether, and how, to link trading rights to labor rights is so contentious. The domestic forces that don't like these safeguards let international trade do the dirty work of tacitly dismantling them.

The above exchange between Rotberg and Greider offers a much broader insight about the paradoxical relationship between individual freedoms and society's framework of rules. The now ascendant libertarian view depicts rules as nothing but constraints on individual freedoms. But rules can also be empowering. Rules set social standards in realms where the individual as consumer is essentially powerless to achieve constructive social change. And rules protect the individual as producer from acceding to "contracts of desperation" that leave society as a whole worse off.

For example, no matter how dire a household's circumstances, we no longer allow six-year-olds to work for wages. In the short run, child labor might put a bit more bread on a poor family's table, but in the long run it would yield a society with more urchins, less education, and lower breadwinner wages. A custom--child labor--that market society would otherwise lead desperate people to "freely" choose is precluded, by law. A spurious liberty is foreclosed, for the sake of creating a society with more genuine freedom--the freedom enjoyed by a better-educated population that can command higher earnings as adults. There was a time early in this century when the courts held that such laws interfered with the freedom to contract. But a more complex conception of freedom acknowledged that such laws enhanced liberty.

If we look a little harder, we can think of other examples where people are forced into Hobson's choices because the available menu presents no good options.

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