Slavery is bad for all sorts of reasons. The most extreme form of slavery is chattel slavery, where one person is considered to be the property of another, and the master can do anything they want with or to the slave.
I want to concentrate on one particular feature of slavery that appears in other contexts. Because it doesn’t involve the full horror of chattel slavery, I’m going to use a different word to distinguish it: servitude.
By this, I mean a situation where the (marginal) fruits of a person’s labour are primarily enjoyed by someone other than the worker. How can we tell if this is the case? Well, if we imagine the worker becoming more productive, we can ask ourselves whether the extra productivity would improve the condition of the worker; alternatively, if the worker becomes a little less productive, are they less well off, or is the cost borne by others?
In chattel slavery, the slave receives some of the fruits of their labour, though possibly indirectly. This is because the slave requires food in order to stay alive. Why do I say that this food is part of the fruits of the slave’s labour? Because if the slave isn’t productive enough to (directly or indirectly) supply their own food, then the master would be better off selling the slave, or, if that isn’t possible, freeing or killing the slave (which I think is permitted by some forms of chattel slavery).
The master may even find that their slaves are more productive if they’re allowed certain luxuries that aren’t strictly necessary for survival or continuing work.
But if a slave becomes more productive (for example, by some fortunate event, or by choosing to put in more effort than their master thought was possible to obtain by coercion), then it’s their master who benefits; the slave doesn’t get to eat more or better food, or take more rest breaks (unless, perhaps, the master wants to make an example of them to get more productivity from their other slaves).
Conversely, if a slave becomes less productive, (for example, because of an injury), they might be worth a bit less to their master, but as long as they’re still productive enough to be worth the food they eat, then the slave isn’t personally deprived of any income.
So we see, unsurprisingly, that chattel slavery fits my definition of servitude. But it isn’t the only situation that fits this definition. For example, if a person ends up in so much debt that they can’t earn enough to pay it off, then in some times and places, the creditor might insist that the debtor works for their benefit for the rest of their life. In modern western countries, this kind of debt servitude is prevented by the fact that debtors can resort to declaring bankruptcy if they simply can’t pay back their debts.
In fact, in modern western countries, any kind of individual servitude is quite rare, and almost always illegal, but I’m going to argue that a kind of class servitude exists in the west (and, undoubtedly, elsewhere, probably to a greater degree than in the west). By this, I mean that there are situations where there is a class of people such that if everyone in the class becomes more productive, then that extra productivity primarily benefits people outside the class. This can be the case even if any individual member of the class can better themselves by being more productive.
Regular readers might recognize that I’ve already argued that (where fiat currencies are in operation) debtors are subject to class servitude, although I didn’t give it that name at the time.
One debtor becoming more productive makes that debtor better off, but every debtor becoming more productive doesn’t make them each as much better off as they would be if they were the only one to be more productive.
What this means is that members of the servant class each have an incentive to become more productive, by learning a new skill, for example, or demonstrating to potential employers that they will work harder than other potential employees. But because every member of the servant class has the incentive to be more productive, they all become more productive than they otherwise would, and none of them benefit to the extent that their effort deserves; the benefit goes to the class of masters, which in the case of debt-based class servitude is the class of net creditors.
Now it’s important to distinguish between individual servitude and class servitude. Why? Because our response should be different.
If we boycott the products of slavery (and other kinds of individual servitude), we can imagine situations where the slaves become better off: perhaps the boycott makes it uneconomic to keep the slaves, who are then released; or perhaps it just makes it less likely that more people will be forced into slavery.
But if we boycott the products of sweatshops where the working conditions are very poor because of class servitude and the general economic state of they country they’re in, then we may do real harm to the workers. If — please note, I said if — if the workers have chosen to work in the sweatshop, and can choose to leave, then we would be very arrogant to assume that they would be better off if our boycott forced the sweatshop to close or to hire fewer workers; after all, the workers know better than we do what the working conditions and pay are like, and what their lives might be like if they didn’t have the job, and they have revealed by their choice to work in the sweatshop that they believe they would be worse off without that job.
There are real-life examples of sweatshop boycotts resulting in far worse conditions for the workers. This is expanded on a bit by Eric Crampton.
Of course, the purpose of the boycott might be to get better working conditions for the workers, not to close the sweatshops. It might involve buying alternative products from factories where the workers are known to be paid wages that are considered “fair”. But unless there is fairly free migration from the country with the sweatshops to the country with “fair” wages, then this still doesn’t help the workers, who will still lose their jobs and end up in worse situations.
So by all means, try to boycott the products of individual servitude, but boycotting the products of class servitude misses the point; it tries to eradicate some of the milder symptoms (perhaps making the worse symptoms more common), but it doesn’t cure the disease causing the class servitude.