Economics, Politics

Factory exploitation and mutual advantage

In 1970, The Individualist ran an article called The Factory Exploitation Myth by Rod Marris. This article not only sought to correct some widespread misconceptions about the conditions of factory workers in 19th century England but also mentions the role the declining English aristocracy played in disseminating incomplete information about working conditions in the factories and about the standard of living:

A review of the political struggles of the times offers an important insight into why the aristocracy was eagerly spreading the myth of factory oppression. At the time the factory-owning middle class was vigorously opposing the Corn Laws which worked to the advantage of the land-owning aristocracy.

He also mentions the rise of the Romantic movement as a contributing factor.

Critics of unfettered free markets may acknowledge some of Marris’s points but could still claim that factory workers were exploited in 19th century England because the workers were in an “unfair” bargaining position. In essence, such a claim boils down to the opinion that mutual advantage is neither a necessary, nor a sufficient condition for justice.

In his book Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom , the economist Paul H. Rubin writes:

there is no reason to expect that an innate module to measure gains from trade has evolved. Rather, we are each selected to try to be sure that we gain from trade; gains to our trading partners are irrelevant. Moreover, mental mechanisms work against this recognition of mutual benefit.  Even in mutually beneficial trades, an aspect of competition is found.  Both sides want to engross for themselves as much as is possible of the gains…These modules focus on the zero-sum aspect of trade – that aspect dealing with the terms of the bargain, rather than with the gains.

As a consequence, the topic of “distributive justice” gets excessive attention in political philosophy. To many contemporary political philosophers, justice does not refer to conventions that incorporate mutual advantage but a set of principles that can be discovered by (impartial) reason and enforced by the State to alter the terms of agreements and to redistribute income. An excellent collection of articles about the widespread habit of treating justice as “something else” (fairness, equality, or moral intuition) is Anthony de Jasay’s Justice And Its Surroundings.