Economics 101 & Public Square

Is Capitalism Exploitative if Sweatshops Exist?

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Editor’s Note: In his essay, “Is Capitalism Exploitative?” Joseph Connors discusses whether capitalism leads to exploitation and how Christians should respond to the existence of sweatshops, like those in Bangladesh. Below is the summary of Connors’s essay. Since this is a difficult and emotional issue, we encourage you to read his full essay in IFWE’s latest book, Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism.

Christians are commanded to love the Lord with their whole heart, soul, and mind, and to love their neighbor in like fashion (Matt. 22:37–39). The exploitation of others is a violation of this greatest commandment. The opportunity to exploit others will, like the poor, always be with us. There are no perfect economic systems. Every human institution, including capitalism, is imperfect. But, despite our fallen world, capitalism is an economic system that encourages human flourishing and freedom.

Everyone must be firmly opposed to true exploitation, such as forced labor, when it occurs. But factory jobs in developing countries with undesirable working conditions are not exploitative. Many in developing countries do not have attractive employment options. If factory jobs are unavailable, people must support themselves through farming or a trade. Often, people turn to more dangerous occupations such as digging through garbage dumps or to exploitative occupations such as prostitution.

People flock to these factory jobs, as unpleasant as they may seem, because they are better than the other alternatives. China and Bangladesh now have substantially fewer people working in agriculture, because people have left the fields for better employment prospects in the factories.

When exploitation does occur, it is often in countries that are not capitalist, which leads to a fundamental point. In order to have a capitalist system, private property rights must be respected and enforced for all. Exploitation occurs when there is an absence of these rights.

To blame capitalism for exploitation is akin to blaming democracy for the mayhem of a dictatorship. Capitalism, like democracy, is present only when the appropriate institutions, such as property rights and the rule of law, exist:

Taking a broader view and examining human flourishing in the context of capitalism, one observes that capitalism is responsible for more, not less, flourishing over time.

  • People in capitalist countries live longer and healthier lives.
  • They have advanced healthcare that lowers infant mortality and improves lives.
  • The massive poverty reductions during the last thirty-five years are a result of developing countries slowly embracing capitalism.
  • Civil liberties and freedoms abound in capitalist countries, while corruption stunts human flourishing when capitalism is absent.

The record of capitalism is straightforward and simple: declining exploitation and increasing human flourishing.

Christians should labor to bring capitalism [economic freedom] to the poorest parts of the world where it is needed most.

The poor in developing countries intuitively understand the need for capitalism. They express this by voting with their feet. They leave fields and difficult occupations for factory jobs. Many try and only some successfully migrate to capitalist countries. The poor in developing countries know where flourishing takes place. It takes place in capitalist countries, where private property rights and the rule of law allow for human flourishing.

Editor’s note: Get 25% OFF Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism to read Connors’s full essay on capitalism and exploitation. Use code: CTC2019. Offer ends 2/3/2019.

Photo: Tareq Salahuddin, CC-by-2.0.  

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