Cotc At Tasty Manatees

Carnival of the Capitalists is now up for this week at Tasty Manatees. In addition to my airport time slots post, COTC highlights a few posts that I read last week too and think are really good. I’m running out the door for the day, so will only highlight one for now. More later.

At Catallarchy, Jonathan Wilde asks: Does capitalism create poverty? In discussing the decision of these workers to become illegal immigrants and accept these jobs, Jonathan observes

However, under the assumption that they chose to work at these jobs, why did they choose to work under such horrible conditions? Clearly, in their own eyes, it was better than the alternative. Perhaps the alternative was the starvation back in China. Maybe they thought that working their jobs would help them save enough money to give their own children a better life. It was their own subjective appraisals of the situation which led them to choose these jobs among the available alternatives.

This dynamic has been pervasive throughout all of human history, and has been universally decried by ex post historians and observers. You see the same type of argument against enclosure in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries, and against the movement of underemployed agricultural workers from rural areas to the newly industrializing urban areas in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to work in factories.

I have always been bothered by such ex post judgments. The way I tend to put it is twofold: how do you know, and compared to what? As Jonathan says, people make subjective evaluations of alternatives based on the available alternatives. Where do we get off judging their choices? And it’s hugely unfair to judge their choices and alternatives relative to some idealized benchmark that we only realize after the fact was either available or better, or wasn’t even available.

But there is a more subtle question one can ask: why do some alternatives exist and not others? OK, if people make choices in the face of a discrete set of alternatives, can’t we judge the alternatives among which they choose? Put more concretely, did the agricultural proletariat (I’m using Marxian-speak to hook back in to the end of Jonathan’s post) have any “meaningful” choices? Did the Chinese workers who chose these dangerous jobs have any “meaningful” choices?

Again, I think this question requires an ex post perspective. But the thing that I think is the most pernicious in the conception of “meaningful” choices is that the people making this argument believe that someone has a positive obligation to provide those meaningful choices, as opposed to everyone having a negative right to general liberty, including the freedom to change location and employment.

Others are better qualified than I to discuss the destructive incentives and social environment that the positive entitlement approach engenders. But one of the core, fundamental principles underlying the great economic prosperity that humans have created over the past three centuries is the freedom to make that ex ante subjective, individual choice about how much and what kind of risk you are willing to bear, and what actions you are willing to take to have a chance of improvement in your well being.