No: Well-Intentioned Boycotts Actually Make the Climb out of Grinding Poverty Even More Difficult

Someone once noted that the law was amazingly equitable – it forbids both the king and the pauper to sleep beneath the bridge! And it is this form of equity that liberal ideologues of the world seek to impose on those less fortunate than we. Much of the world remains tragically impoverished – as the left when railing about income inequality never ceases to emphasize. The one-fifth of mankind that inhabits the United States, Europe, Japan and a handful of other places around the world are vastly better off than the rest of humanity. For most of them, choices such as whether to labor in a dismal factory in a tropical backwater long have disappeared into history but remain a tragic necessity for the poor of the developing world.

But these choices are real and painful. For too many families in Asia and Latin America children must contribute early on to the family income. These people lack the wealth to delay the entry of their offspring into the world of work until after they’ve gone to grammar school, much less college and graduate school. In traditional agricultural societies, children quickly move into the fields to work under the supervision of a family member or friend in the village. Having grown up in a poor rural farm community in Louisiana, I know well the results of that process – parasitic infestation (hookworms or worse) resulting in poor health and inattentiveness in school, early maturation and escape into early marriage or the military.

We can all hope that the developing world will gain the wealth that might allow their children to attend school, develop their intellectual capital and move into a more fulfilling adulthood. But increasing wealth is the vital prerequisite. To ban a painful choice because we would prefer a better choice is merely to push under the table the painful realities these people face.

Recall Western history: It was only the Industrial Revolution that gave poor people and their children the opportunity to escape into a somewhat better world. The “satanic mills” of England must be contrasted with the absolute horrors of traditional rural life. People moved into the urban sweatshops from the even sweatier life of farm serfdom.

Historical records show that the average life spans increased far more rapidly as urbanization and workforce participation increased. Families were able to afford some furniture, some tools, some reading materials, more than one change of clothes – pathetic accumulations but better than none at all.

The liberal scolds of the world love the symbolism of boycotting the evils of the global marketplace. America’s chattering-class elites don’t buy Reeboks or tropical-wood products or California grapes or an increasingly long list of products that are disapprovingly discussed at the cocktail parties of the rich and famous.

Yet the world isn’t changed by symbolism but by reality. Such boycotts frequently are futile. And successful boycotts do nothing to increase family wealth in the developing world. On the contrary, the children who once were employed in the now-closed factories don’t go back to school, much less aspire to college. Rather they go back into the fields or, even more tragically, in some cases become child prostitutes. Paternalism is far from unusual in the world – but does it help?

Boycotting the products of sweatshop labor is an attempt to dissolve options one wished didn’t exist. It is the cheap out for the modern liberal. On the stateside economy this mind-set leads to calls to increase the minimum wage—to ensure that everyone has a “living wage.” But what about the person who now has no wage at all? As Dou Bandow of the Cato Institute pointed out recently, welfare recipients in states that have raised the minimum wage remained on welfare 44 percent longer than those in states that did not take this moral step. Conclusion: Raising the minimum-wage bar makes advocates for the downtrodden feel better but is actually bad for the poor. Minimum wages are bad policy at any time; in today’s booming economy, they are especially costly. For the first time since WWII, employers are willing to reach into the ranks of the (once) unemployable, to make the investments in training that would give these people a real chance to gain economic independence. Minimum-wage increases threaten to reduce that hope.

Internationally, the same moralistic sentiments that lead to minimum-wage laws at home lead to protectionist policies abroad. American consumers are urged to boycott products from Myanmar because the regime there has too little regard for human rights. Our chattering classes talk smugly about trade sanctions, when in fact trade provides one of the very few windows available to the struggling citizens of Myanmar. Do the Burmese elites notice the effects of these sanctions? The Burmese poor certainly do. Or, we are told, “Boycott United Fruit and buy only Rainforest Crunch” – that will certainly fail to increase living standards in the jungles of Latin America.

Liberals are precious – their love is for humanity as an abstraction. Meanwhile, individual people must fend for themselves. Liberal policies may be motivates by moral values but, in practice, they do more damage than have any imperialist policies in history. Protectionist policies motivated by moral concerns curtail trade in exactly those countries most in need of openings to the world. Such moves deny the poor of the world the self-help measures that provide the first rungs on the ladder out of poverty. At best, the liberals would promote the dependency-producing welfare state as a substitute for trade. Liberals redistribute wealth; they do not create it – that requires sweat and liberals aren’t into sweat.

And if the United Students Against Sweatshops get their way, the World Trade Organization, the only positive international organization, will become an arm of Greenpeace, Amnesty International and Ralph Nader’s brigades. Economic protectionists – labor unions and their corporate allies – have forged an unholy alliance with these groups. Protectionists have become cross-dressers – seeking to cloak their traditional special-interest cause in moral garb. They must not be allowed to succeed.

In effect, advocates of consumer boycotts seek to implement in other countries a liberal vision that is increasingly discredited here at home. It’s as if they are saying, “The poor may not be able to afford our level of regulation but by God they’re going to get the chance.” And if progressivism fails there, too, and the poor are made even worse off, they can always say, “Well, we tried!”

Progressivism no longer can do much damage here at home – Americans no longer are listening to liberal polemicists – but the poor of the world remain vulnerable. American supermarkets and department stores don’t need to buy from Burma or tropical villagers or Bangladeshi school children. If a boycott is threatened, the Levi-Strauss firms of America simply will shift to a less controversial substitute. The producer won’t suffer; the wealthier customers will never notice – although the working poor will find their choices narrowing dramatically. Most tragically, the thwarted dreams of the child in Asia will never be heard at all on the nightly news. Instead, we will hear only tales of moral triumph from a compliant media. A proud Mattel will note that “we sell toys to children – and we don’t ask children to make toys!”

Americans have a proud egalitarian tradition. As a child I was proud when a family friend working in Latin America discussed his policy of paying local workers the same rate as Americans. His attitude – the traditional American views – is that merit, not ethnicity, should determine outcome. But that egalitarian view has been subverted into a form of radical egalitarianism which argues for equality of outcome – even when we have no meaningful way of bringing about that outcome. Americans should seek a world where children will not have to go into the fields or the factories, where they too will have the opportunity to build intellectual capital for the future. Tragically, that day is not yet. Today, people must painfully accumulate tiny amounts of capital through family efforts, and, for many, only open world trade offers them an opportunity to climb out of poverty.

America, of course, has its own special poverty problems. For example, some religious communities, such as the Amish, hold beliefs that make it difficult for them to participate fully in the American prosperity. Their traditional nontechnological lifestyle makes it critical for their children to contribute to family income very early in life. And Congress has enacted laws to allow them to work at an early age under conditions that many of us well might find distasteful. Our reasons for doing so are understandable. Americans respect religious beliefs – even those we do not support – and we recognize that allowing Amish children to labor in their communities may help them reach responsible adulthood. Indeed, even strong opponents of child labor recognize that value. Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, in these pages (July 15, 1996, p. 26) noted that “child labor contributes to family income and can even train children for future work.” In tomorrow’s Internet economy sanctions against child labor take on an even more oppressive note because there is every reason to believe that even some school-age children will be able to leapfrog from poverty to prosperity by working at home on laptop computers. Do we really wish to let child-labor restrictions hamstring the Bill Gates of the next generation?

Sadly, leaders of consumer boycotts who drape themselves in the banner of a children’s crusade will not protect the children of the world. It even may be argues that such is not really their purpose. Liberal protectionists’ real goal is to protect their liberal sensitivities. How much more pleasant to ban all ugliness from the world. Boycotts, global child-labor laws, sanctions against developing-world products, minimum-wage laws – all are motivated not primarily by the desire to help the poor but rather to protect liberals from reality shock.

And to those who argue that we must increase the wealth of these people so that their children would not have to work, we must ask: But how? Show us a practical way of achieving that desirable result. To cut off painful options based on the theoretical argument that such choices should not be necessary is to assuage an elitist aesthetic concern at the expense of those who would have desperately preferred freedom to choose. Trade offers a slow escape from poverty. Feel-good remedies leave the poor anchored in place. But escapist fantasies are too high a price to pay for boycott policies whose only connection to civility and humaneness is their superficial attractiveness.