The Limits of “No”

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Nicholas Kristof writes a depressing column about Cambodian kids who spend their days picking through giant heaps of garbage seeking usable scraps and dreaming of the day when they might be able to work in a sweatshop. I think it’s wrong to say that all consideration of international labor standards is merely aimed at keeping people stuck on the trash heap, but it’s a valuable reminder about the generally limited ability of just saying “no” to things to accomplish what people want. Part of the reason sweatshops exist and attract laborers is that life on the garbage heap is even worse, as is the life of a third world subsistence farmer. If you want to improve things, you need to actually be expanding the set of feasible options, not just arbitrarily closing down one path. And this happens in a variety of fields. Some neighborhoods in DC seem to have the idea that if they put tight restrictions on opening new chain stores or bars and restaurants that this will magically conjure up a diverse mom-and-pop economy. In practice, you get empty storefronts; crowded, mediocre bars and restaurants; and people driving to chain stores in the suburbs.

In both cases, there’s nothing wrong with the objective. But it’s a mistake to think that purely by vetoing stuff you can force the kind of positive action you want. To raise actual labor conditions in the third world, we need to create more prosperity and more economic opportunity not just say “no” to particular forms of bad conditions.