The horrific factory collapse in Bangladesh, now surpassing 1,100 in total deaths, has caused many to ponder how we might prevent such tragedies in the future, leading to plenty of ideological introspection about economic development and free trade.
Describing the situation as “neither too simple nor too complex,” Brian Dijkema encourages a healthy mix of confidence and caution. With folks calling for the complete take-down of global capitalism on one end and elevating stiff pro-market arguments on the other, Dijkema reminds us that we should respond, first and foremost, to the simple “brutality of death,” with clarity, prayer, and compassion.
Yet when it comes to understanding the drivers of the disaster, we should recognize the complexity of things. Responding to Pope Francis’s corresponding critique of profit-driven business decisions, Dijkema warns that by “conflating what is complex into what is simple or vice-versa,” we risk dishonoring the “dignity of the human person” and “the dignity of labour.”
Over at Ethika Politika, Andrew Haines places a similar emphasis on complexity, focusing on an argument free-market advocates routinely make in response to such circumstances:
If you know a free market champion, then you’ve heard the argument that low-wage, low-skill, mostly mindless jobs are better than no jobs at all. The idea works well in theory. I admit, I’ve even made the case myself from time to time.
On the other hand, you might have heard recently about things like the collapse of an industrial building in Savar, Bangladesh—home to five garment factories—where the death toll recently topped one thousand.
I say “on the other hand” since the any-job-is-better-than-no-job argument (AJBNJ) works well, until it doesn’t.
Haines proceeds to offer what I think is a fair critique of the any-job-is-better-than-no-job maxim (AJBNJ), arguing that it “suffers a huge blind spot when it comes to connecting ‘better’ economics with ‘better” humanity.’”
Haines points out that when AJBNJ proponents speak of “any” job, they don’t really mean any job. Prostitution, for example, would not be considered “better” for many in the AJBNJ crowd. (Similarly, I would add, AJBNJ proponents would not be overly eager to elevate the stereotypical spoon-shovelers of Keynesianism.)
Such flexibility, Haines writes, “provides a flag for why AJBNJ isn’t very cogent”:
Proponents remind us that just because jobs exist doesn’t mean anyone has to take them; but if they are taken, it’s assumed that the risks and rewards have been weighed and that the decision is rational. Something about mass prostitution isn’t rational, though—and presumably for reasons other than its clear, long-term unsustainability (otherwise, the same hesitation would probably have to apply to the mass production of plastic trinkets). Built into AJBNJ is a recognition that, in reality, “better” for people includes something more than calculated economic risks and rewards. It might be a subtle concession—and maybe not a universal one—but it’s there.
What the sad case of Savar, Bangladesh suggests, I think, is that the positive rationality criterion of AJBNJ is far less comprehensive than most advocates would admit.
Though I’m not sure that this “blind spot” exists as often as Haines believes — his critique seems to be more about the maxim itself, which is, after all, a maxim — his point about a more comprehensive “positive rationality criterion” is a good one. Just as we would do well to avoid hasty finger-pointing at miserly capitalists, we would benefit by recognizing that whatever rational cost-benefit analyses we concoct on behalf of our distant neighbors, humility is always in order.
But although the cogency of AJBNJ would be improved if we stretched things accordingly, as a simple matter of poking ourselves toward a healthier perspective overall, I’d suggest that it might be more helpful if we pulled back the lens a bit further. Given the inevitably far-reaching complexities of each economic situation, perhaps the bigger, broader, and more helpful reality to recognize is that economic development is itself an inevitably difficult, messy, and complex thing.
With increased freedom comes increased opportunity, as globalization has aptly demonstrated, but the road out of poverty is bumpy, both for the person and the people. Whether Crummy Job Y is slightly better than Crummy Job Z or not, the crumminess needn’t be belittled away. We can bring plenty of optimism to the frontier, to be sure, but we mustn’t forget that it is indeed a frontier.
Let us remember, even here in America, economic success was not waved into existence by the flick of a central planner’s wand. Free trade played an integral role in the process, but the overarching narrative is one filled with struggle and supreme sacrifice. Our current position of comfort and economic security was fought for and toiled for by ancestors who spent years breathing dirty air, working long hours, and bringing in little pay, risking it all along the way. They did so for a purpose: for themselves, for their children, and for their children’s children. Whatever economic lessons we might glean from that about the “true path” to economic progress — and there are many — all of that sacrifice and risk and blood and sweat is something to behold and appreciate with sincerity.
Thus, when we respond to such catastrophes, let us prayerfully mourn the loss of life and try our best to recognize the corresponding conditions in their fullest context. There is hope, but the practical “response” or the “solution,” with all of its struggle and romance and eventual triumph, is not done justice by talk of cost-benefit spreadsheets.
AJBNJ tells a necessary truth within the bigger, broader messiness of economic development, but we should be careful that we remain acutely aware and appreciative of the full implications, both harsh and hopeful, of that bigger, broader messiness itself.