Friday, February 8, 2008

Rural Poverty -vs- Urban Sweatshops

My friend and fellow blogger Keith Giles clued me in to an interesting article about the positive impact of Walmart on world poverty and world peace.

It's a thought-provoking, well-written, well-researched (as far as I can tell) and clearly provocative piece. I hope you'll check it out, whatever your opinion might be of Walmart. One section sort of jumped out at me:

China is the most populous country, with 1.3 billion people, most still poor enough to willingly move hundreds of miles from home for jobs that would be shunned by anyone with better prospects.

If we care about alleviating global poverty we need to take this fact seriously. Without Wal-Mart, about half a million of these people each year would be stuck in rural poverty that is, for most of them, far worse than sweatshop labor.

It's that last part that sort of jumped out at me. Is rural poverty really worse than sweatshop labor? Maybe it is - I don't know anything about either, to be honest. I can only speculate, and I'm reluctant to even do that. But it seems to me the author makes an unproven assertion, that a sweatshop worker is better off than a farm laborer, because the sweatshop worker makes twice as much money. Is that really the way to assess the situation - in dollars (or Yuan)?

Maybe that is indeed the case, and 100M Chinese people who left farms for cities seem to indicate it's true. Maybe sweatshop labor is better than rural poverty. I realize subsistence farming isn't all idyllic and lovely. But I'm not convinced sweatshop labor is really a step up. Maybe it's because I'm desperately hoping for a third alternative. Maybe it's because I don't know enough about either situation. I just have a hunch there's something missing in this equation.


Mark said...

Maybe this is off-topic, or maybe this is part of what you are getting at: wouldn't subsistence farming fit right into distributism?

The question I have about distributism (not having studied it at all other than clicking around the interweb a bit) is - how does it actually get implemented? If the general theory is that no larger organization should produce something if a smaller sub-organization can produce it, who makes this happen? Seems to me like it would require some degree of enforcement/oversight. Are there any examples of widespread distributist economies (nations?) to look at?

The Dan Ward said...

Farming is indeed much more consistent with distributism than factory work is. You can own a farm and work it. The guy who owns a factory, in contrast, typically doesn't pull a shift on the production line. Of course, there are factory farms too, worked by hired laborers, and as I said, I don't really know much about either situation.

The thing distributism advocates is individual ownership of the means of production. In that sense, it's quite like capitalism. But it advocates smallness - and that's sort of the tricky part.

You ask a great question about how distributism could work. What sort of limits would be necessary to restrict the overgrowth of either business or government? Ah, I think that's the problem (and that's why distributism has a hard time taking hold).

There are ways for it to work, and they start with establishing a set of cultural values. As I've written before, I think the set of technologies & ideas known as web 2.0 might be helpful in establishing (or at least expanding) a distributist economic model.

As for Capitalism, check out John Medaille's recent post on The Distributist Review, titled "Does Capitalism Work?"

Mark said...

I think capitalism is kind of like American Democracy - its the worst system in the world, except for all the others. :)

The Dan Ward said...

Too true!