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Epstein on Bangladesh: “Blame the Workers”

Richard Epstein, the libertarian legal scholar, has helpfully chimed into the discussion about the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed over 1100 people so far by zeroing in on who’s really to blame: the workers.

Richard Epstein, the libertarian legal scholar and author of such classics as The Case Against the Employee Free Choice Act and Forbidden Grounds: The Case Against Employment Discrimination Laws, has helpfully chimed into the discussion about the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed over 1100 people so far by zeroing in on who’s really to blame: the workers.

Specifically, those workers who have been pushing for better conditions at factories such as Rana Plaza:

Ironically, that labor agitation was itself one of the contributing causes to the collapse at Rana Plaza. Quite simply, the occurrence of such disruptions — and the threat of future ones — places enormous strains on the firms that have to deliver goods to foreign purchasers in order to remain in business. The threat of a repeat protest has led many firm bosses to step up the pace of work in the factories, which in turn means longer shifts, more workers, more extensive use of heavy equipment in order to make up for lost production, and stockpiling goods. That maneuver turned into a fatal insurance policy against future labor disruptions.

Writing as a member of the Hoover Institution’s “Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity Task Force,” Epstein conjures up images of a kind of libertarian commando unit parachuting into disaster zones, ready to inform victims of their culpability in their own deaths at a moment’s notice. Thus Epstein adds to the literature of Western commentators warning Bangladeshi workers and their sympathizers not to take the wrong lesson from this (yes yes, very unfortunate event) by getting too uppity. Slate’s Matt Yglesias was one of the quickest to respond to the deadliest industrial disaster in recent history, taking it as an opportunity to wax about the virtues of lax safety standards for poor countries, while the Spectator’s Alex Massie reassured us that “industrial accidents – even tragedies, are . . . a price the Bangladeshis themselves are prepared to pay” to be included in the global supply chain.

Of course, in their rush to pontificate, Yglesias and Massie never bothered to check if Rana Plaza was legally abiding by Bangladesh’s building codes (it wasn’t) or if Bangladeshis really are content paying such a price (judging by the subsequent demonstrations, it seems not). Yglesias, to his credit, offered a feeble half-apology after, by his account, maturely getting over his initial reaction to the outrage his shoulder-shrugging provoked, which was mild annoyance.

Epstein at least waited for the dust to settle, and thus avoided making the sort of basic factual errors (like Yglesias who said the deaths were caused by a fire, not building collapse) that might lead more annoying readers to conclude such pundits don’t think very hard about impoverished workers dying horrifying and preventable deaths halfway across the world. He does make his own dubious presumptions, however, about the tradeoff between wages and safety standards: that, in Epstein’s mind, Bangladesh’s factory owners gave workers a choice between better pay and not having roofs collapse on their heads, and they chose the former. Or that, were it not for periodic wage hikes imposed on them by unions, the factory owners surely would have invested the money they saved into workplace safety rather than offering even more competitive prices to Benneton, or, say, keeping it for themselves.

In practice, wages and safety standards tend to rise together through collective bargaining, as employers are generally loath to improving either except under worker pressure, and workers do not see them as an either/or proposition. Epstein has a hard time believing this is possible, at least without the heavy hand of government intervention. Unions and the nanny state are peas in a pod, because unions can only set wage standards in an industry “if they induce the government to take measures to restrict the entry of non-union firms that could underbid them.”

Epstein has evidently never heard of trigger agreements. But as one of the leading crusaders against the Employee Free Choice Act, he is certainly familiar with the rise of private election agreements (“card check” being the most famous type) between unions and employers which bypass the government entirely. In reality, workers can and do set wage and safety standards without government assistance in regimes that are hostile to organizing, such as “right-to-work” states. Here, the increasing adoption of such private agreements and abandonment of the National Labor Relations Board election process is precisely a reaction by American unions to the perceived toothlessness of that agency, and a general inability of the government to enforce existing labor laws.

It is likely this specter that informs Epstein’s circular logic and which worries him the most: not the unlikely resurgence of labor market regulation but the more likely resurgence of labor militancy as a result. People who dislike business regulations tend to also dislike unions and trial lawyers, but like to think they can somehow have none of the above. But slash safety protections, and you get accidents resulting in angry workers, lawsuits, or both. Epstein is smart enough to see the connection, so it leads him to the prima facie un-libertarian conclusion that what we need to prevent private wage agreements between workers and employers is, yes, an activist state:

The threat of massive labor market turmoil strengthens the case for the effective public enforcement of state building codes. These codes are directed only toward safety issues, and do not touch the hot-button topics of wages and working conditions. Yet, if Bangladesh could only make good on this one public commitment, it would take the safety issue off the table, which would in turn remove from local unions the one key issue that makes their activist campaign so credible in the eyes of workers.

In other words, the danger of Bangladesh’s negligent safety enforcement isn’t just the massive loss of human life, it’s a far graver threat: the impulse to take collective action, which must be squelched to save Bangladeshis from their own reckless desires for better pay and treatment on the job.

What is most surprising about Epstein’s argument is that, between the typical union-bashing and griping about minimum wage laws, it contains a rather robust defense of workplace safety protections. When forced to choose between greater state intervention in the form of stricter safety regulations, and greater worker agency in the form of unions, he goes with the former. Epstein would probably prefer neither, but it’s notable which he considers the greater evil.

As libertarian arguments for big government go, Epstein’s is comparatively benign. “Give me five years of despotism, and France shall be free,” proposed Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot. “Personally I prefer a liberal dictator to democratic government lacking liberalism,” said Friedrich Hayek. Turgot may have been kidding; Hayek, a defender of Chile’s Pinochet dictatorship, clearly was not. Epstein isn’t arguing for despotism, just proper enforcement of safety laws. Insofar as he calls for regulation in the public sphere to forestall collective bargaining agreements in the private sphere, however, the lesson is the same: when it comes to keeping a thumb on uppity workers, sometimes a little nanny state isn’t such a bad thing.