Progressive Labor Theology

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

The most durable liberal narrative, Henry Dampier suggests, is that liberalism led to gradually improving labor standards:

The planks of this story are:

  • Work-hour reduction laws
  • Environmental protection laws
  • Minimum wage guarantees
  • Workplace safety legislation
  • Mandatory unemployment insurance
  • Outlawing of child labor
  • Workplace-centered tax collection legislation
  • Abolition of slavery, indenture, and heavily regulation of apprenticeship
  • Transference of workplace training to the regulated school
  • Gender equality legislation
  • Banning of hiring practices that lead to disparate racial, gender, and sexual orientation impact

The trouble with this story is that it did not actually end any of these practices in the world. It simply displaced many of the older labor patterns into the third world, which is where the West shoves all the practices that it finds aesthetically and morally displeasing to make their own countries more appealing to their moral aesthetics.

On occasion, there is a temporary moral craze about labor practices overseas, but those crazes are always short-lived, because the only way that liberalism can be maintained is by shunting the necessary labor that goes into supporting it out of sight, into foreign countries.

The shunting of these labor practices overseas creates a pervasive sense of guilt on the part of those inculcated into the higher strata of liberal spirituality, but part of that guilt can be abrogated by importing more third world inhabitants into living in the purer, more moral states which they inhabit.

Making a great show of how ‘anti-racist’ and ‘tolerant’ these liberals are makes up for their denial of the unpleasant (to their sensibilities) work must go in to supporting their shining cities, which are not really all that shining at all when judged against the great cities of traditional Europe.


  1. Bill says:

    It’s an old story:

    “Athens had the largest slave population, with as many as 80,000 in the 6th and 5th centuries BC, on average three or four slaves per household.”

    On the other hand, no one can see the end point of our development of AI and robotics. If it turns out that all manufacturing, distribution and sales can be done with automated machinery supervised by a very few humans, then perhaps “shunting the necessary labor” won’t be necessary. How an economy could work under those circumstances is anyone’s guess.

  2. Barnabas says:

    I fear the day that a man has no worth, even as a slave.

  3. David Foster says:

    This is quite similar to Orwell’s assertion that “we all live by robbing Asiatic coolies.” The assertion was greatly overstated in Britain then, and it is really not at all true in America today.

    Thought experiment: imagine that the US had maintained very high tariff barriers, with exceptions only for minerals not available in this country. So all products you buy would have to be manufactured here.

    I’ll assert that under this scenario, the US would still have had a high and improving standard of living. Some items would be significantly more expensive, but remember: the incentives for automation and productivity improvement in general are higher when labor costs are higher. So your iPhone would cost more than it does now, but not nearly in proportion to what one would assume by calculating the ratio of American labor rates to that of China and other places where iPhone assembly operations take place today.

  4. Steve Johnson says:

    David Foster:

    Under that scenario the US would have drowned in privatized communism, i.e., unions.

    If you have fixed capital investments in the United States, you have no property rights. As soon as you hire workers, they own the plant and can block you from hiring other workers or even shutting the plant down without folding the entire enterprise.

    If microeconomics describes reality correctly, there’s zero reason to offshore production for reasons of labor cost. Labor gets paid equal to the marginal production, and an employer is indifferent between low productivity and low wages and high productivity and high wages. Either that model is wrong (and good luck coming up with an alternative), or the key factor is that property rights in a third world factory are more secure than property rights in a factory in Flint, MI.

  5. David Foster says:

    Up until the late 1980s and early 1990s, the impact of China and similar sources of very-low-cost sources of labor on the US job market was limited by tariffs (China was admitted to the WTO under the Clinton administration), transportation and communication limitations (no Internet, although private data networks did exist), and, in the case of China, political dysfunction in the country itself.

  6. Toddy Cat says:

    “Under that scenario the US would have drowned in privatized communism, i.e., unions.”

    I’m no big fan of unions, but I remember the U.S. in the 1960′s and 1970′s, prior to Asian competition. Trust me, it wasn’t communism or anything like it, and I’d go back to that in a second.

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