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Workers and the Space-Time Continuum

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Tomorrow evening, at Bucknell University, I’ll debate Thea Lee of the AFL-CIO on the issue of international trade.  (I’ll champion competition; Ms. Lee will champion monopoly.)  The debate is sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. [2]

Doing some last-minute research for my debate, I ran across an essay that Ms. Lee wrote for a book entitled The Case Against "Free Trade" [3](Earth Island Press, 1993).  I was struck by her recommendation, on page 74, that

NAFTA should require all countries to meet the highest labor standards now in place in any of the three nations.  To enforce those standards, workers and unions should have the right to challenge the import of goods produced in a way that violates standards of their own country.

If, unlike me, you accept the logic of Ms. Lee’s argument that it’s wrong to let American consumers buy goods made by workers who toiled under government-regulatory standards that are less strict than those that American workes currently toil under, why limit the restrictions she endorses to other countries?  Why not bring in the time dimension as well?

Why not prevent Americans from buying things such as antique furniture or vintage automobiles or houses constructed before World War II?

If the argument against buying things produced by allegedly exploited labor is chiefly a moral one — an argument that such things are tainted by exploitation and, hence, are unfit morally for human consumption — then things made in the past by U.S. workers are tainted because workers in the past didn’t toil under the same "protections" that workers today toil under.

The same conclusion is reached if the argument rests principally upon the proposition that it’s unfair for workers today, whose employers are commanded to offer greater amounts of workplace protection than were employers in the past, to compete with products produced by exploited workers.  Why should today’s house-construction workers have to compete with houses produced by their exploited brethren of 75 or 100 years ago?

Of course, what’s done in the past is done.  Preventing the sale and use today of products made in the past by exploited workers does nothing to save those workers in the past from their cruel fates.

But banning the sale of thing made in the past when labor standards were lower would nevertheless increase the demand for workers today in those industries whose outputs compete with used products — products such as residential housing, office buildings, recreational boats and commercial ships, furniture, jewelry, and to some extent automobiles, musical instruments, and household fixtures such as kitchen sinks and chandeliers.  If it’s unfair and immoral for workers today who are protected by high labor standards to compete against products produced without such hindrances — because such competition unfairly reduces the demand for today’s output, or because it puts pressure on government to reduce workers’ statutory protections — then it makes little difference that the products produced unfairly are produced today by exploited workers or produced in the past by exploited workers.