Matt Ygelsias gave an interesting post inspired by the recent deaths in a Bangladesh factory collapse. Many people took issue with his argument, and he responded to their criticisms in a following post.
There are some points to be made about the clarity of Yglesias' original post, and perhaps appropriateness of his post in light of the tragedy. However, I think this kind of debate takes up far too much of our time. Rather, I wish more people engaged with the substance of Yglesias' original post, which is really about international inequality. (Most mainstream inequality discussions focus on national inequality, but even brief reflection will lead one to conclude that the levels of international inequality are graver.)
So Yglesias argued against the notion that their ought to be universal international safety standards for factory workers. Instead, he says, different, and indeed lower, safety standards an be appropriate for poorer countries to choose. This is because safety standards increase the costs of production, which may lead to either lower wages or fewer jobs. If people in a given country decide (as a community or as individuals) to have riskier jobs instead of having lower wages or not job, then we ought to let that be their choice.
Obviously, (as Yglesias' work is known for) this thought goes against the grain of liberal sentiment. It seems rather perverse to say it's okay to let desperate workers put themselves in risky environments so we can have cheaply made cardigans.
Yet we do ourselves no favors when we uncharitably interpret the work of others. So is this really what Ygelsias is trying to say?
I think not. There are some separate questions to be untangled here. First, most people of a liberal disposition, favoring egalitarian principles (and to my mind, any reasonable person) would ideally want there to be enough equality across the world that no one has to work in desperate conditions. That's the kind of world we want. However, since we don't live in that world, we can ask: what we can do to make this world better?
And though equal safety in working conditions would be a part of a perfect world, it does not follow that pursuing that narrow end is the right course of action. Because though it might be risky to work under certain working conditions, it's also very risky to not have enough money to feed your kids. Or to fix a your house, or educate yourself. (I'm not an expert on the living conditions in Bangladesh, but obviously these points apply more broadly.)
Enforcing American-level safety standards on poorer countries is not the answer. Because safety regulations do impose financial burdens, they might mean that a certain factory doesn't open, or hires fewer workers. So this means that the international safety standards decide for the potential workers what risks she ought to take (e.g., working in a dangerous factory vs. not making enough money.) And that's not what we should be in the business of doing, individuals are most often best situated to make these choices. (As Yglesias notes in his post, there are collective action problems about risky workplaces, but these are problems best solved by the local collective, not international fiat.)
These are facts about economics. However, as I have noted in the past, we ought not let studying economics make us bad people. What I mean by this is that even though this might be the right prescription for policy choices, this line of reasoning does not justify personal action. This is where the liberal intuition that Yglesias is saying something perverse comes from, because it sounds as though he is justifying sweatshop labor. This intuition is important, but misunderstood if one takes it to apply to the economic argument.
I think we should pay a reasonable price for our goods, such that the workers who make them should not have to work in unsafe conditions. Because of this, we should try to buy products that we know were made in safe and fair conditions. As a result, a greater portion of our income might go, for example, to clothing, (or perhaps we might just buy fewer clothes.) We should try to act in a way that demonstrates our willingness to accept costs to live more equally with others.