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The Realities of Labor

January 15, 2004

At the New York Times, you can watch a slide show called "Realities of Labor" written by Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof.  Some of the images are heart-rending, but the message is ambiguous: one is left to wonder whether or not the Times is for or against free trade. The presentation begins with images of Howard Dean and the democratic hopefuls; it states that they want to pull the US away from free trade. It then shows pictures of Cambodian workers and children: children who rummage through garbage dumps for 75 cents a day, garment workers, and entrepreneurs who sell snacks to workers as they leave the factory.

Again, the message is ambiguous: the photo essay doesn't lead to an unambiguous conclusion. One may look at the photos and captions and conclude that international capitalism is to blame for Cambodian poverty. This is clearly misguided--on one hand, many scholars have shown that free trade works to the general benefit of all (I take up the issue myself in the December 2003 issue of The Free Market).  On the other, Cambodia was a poverty-stricken country before the onset of international capitalism; therefore, we cannot conclude that international capitalism caused modern Cambodian poverty.

The author's intentions notwithstanding, I look at the pictures and see the consequences of government interference with the market process. Protectionism and illiberal domestic institutions both share the blame for Cambodia's situation.  Though Paul Craig Roberts and others have recently argued to the contrary (I refer interested readers to the debate taking place within the Mises.org Blog and elsewhere), barriers to international trade prevent workers in the third world from exercising their comparative advantages and therefore retard economic development.

One caption makes a salient point: the children picking through garbage for 75 cents a day would love to work in a factory.  The work is easier, the pay is better, and the conditions are much safer.  If market forces dictate, they should have that chance.

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