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Unjust Exploitation is Everywhere

Here’s a letter to The Atlantic:

Your website TheAtlanticWire.com reports on a class-action lawsuit filed against MSNBC and Saturday Night Live seeking at least $5 million in back pay for work done by unpaid interns (“Unpaid Interns Are Suing MSNBC and SNL,” July 3).

The plaintiffs’ lawyers at Outten & Golden, LLP, pushing this case should set their sights higher.  If interns are unjustly exploited by receiving no pay beyond the learning and connections that they gain while interning, then the same is true in spades for college students.  Not only are most college students not paid to put in the hard work required for them to learn, to forge personal connections, and to earn good and credential-rich grades while in school, they must actually pay colleges for these experiences and benefits!  According to the legal-ethical theory fueling this lawsuit, then, colleges clearly exploit young people in a manner far worse than do firms and other organizations that merely don’t pay cash to their interns.

Because simply not being paid to put in the time necessary to gain valuable skills, knowledge, and professional connections is unjust exploitation – and, hence, because being obliged to pay to put in the time necessary to gain these advantages is a far worse injustice – the lawyers at Outten & Golden, LLP, should begin to remedy this social ill by filing a class-action lawsuit against Harvard University.  How many are the poor students who’ve been exploited since 1636 by that oldest – and among the priciest – of American colleges?  And how tragic is their lot?!

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

(I thank Dean Dan Polsby, of GMU Law, for an e-mail that sparked the idea that motivated this letter.)