That was their best option... *Assuming the current institutional framework*

A leftist critic of current institutional arrangements says something like, "It is terrible the way that capitalist industries exploit workers, like those poor people who died in Bangladesh."

A typical response from a defender of the current system, especially one with some economics training, will often run something like, "If those workers had had any better options in their opportunity set, then they surely would've taken those, instead of working at that factory. Therefore the factory owner was actually doing them a favor, because they would have been worse off without that option, even if things turned out badly in the end."

This is true… under current institutional arrangements. But it is an absurd way to defend current institutional arrangements against someone who thinks that we ought to have different ones.

Obviously, under significantly different institutional arrangements, the workers would have been facing significantly different opportunity sets: perhaps worse, perhaps better, but surely different. Then the relevant question becomes not "What other options did those workers actually face when they took those jobs?" but "What other options might those workers have had if, say, the international economic system was pushing worker-owned cooperatives instead of advancing the interests of huge multinational corporations?"

PS: I know the company in Bangladesh was not a multinational, but that is who they manufactured for.

PPS: I don't seem to have been clear enough in the above, given the first comment. This post was inspired by an actual conversation I heard:

Marxist: Late capitalism produces awful outcomes for workers, like that factory collapse in Bangladesh.

Neoclassical economist: Well, that must've been the best option in those workers opportunity set, otherwise they wouldn't have chosen to work there.

This is obviously complete rubbish as a response to the Marxist. Marx himself would've readily agreed that, given the existence of industrial capitalism, most workers would have no better option than to slave away for some capitalist under awful working conditions. Pointing out this fact again is hardly a come back!


  1. It's not defending the result, it's defending the process which is improving those conditions.

    Shall I complain to my doctor that healthy people don't need anti-biotics?

    1. Ken, what the hell are you talking about?

    2. Ken, please see my PPS. Your comment seems to be addressing some other post than the one I wrote.

  2. Gene
    I agree saying that "this is their best option" is a weak response to the Marxist. And for the reason you give: it's their best option given sucky circumstances, but you cannot ignore the circumstances entirely.
    After all if Gene steals all their wealth then I can hire them cheap (their best option). Gene and I have a great racket going! The market defender shoudl, and *can*, argue that yes the circumstances are bad but that the operation of these market forces *will make them better*. And indeed it's precisely the operations of markets in the past that made it better here. S

    In short I agree the response you posit is inadequate, but an adequate one lives just next door.


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