The Acton Institute is a Christian organization that seeks to promote individual liberty based upon religious principles. Put another way, it’s a Christian organization that attempts to uphold individualism, so you can probably see where this is going.
While they do have many good things to say, overall – especially when it comes to their economic views – they tend to let conservative (Austrian) economics walk ahead of their Christian beliefs. While they do attempt to tie their beliefs back to Christianity, it’s often filtered heavily through a dedicated philosophical viewpoint; the end product is something that would appear foreign to the early Christians. Of course, the same can be said of Christian Marxists or Christian Communists who look at the book of Acts and go, “See, Communism!” But just as we think it silly to justify Communism via Scripture, it’s equally absurd to justify individualism (or laissez-faire capitalism) via Scripture.
Liberal and conservative, right and left, red state and blue state—there are dozens, if not hundreds of ways to divide political and economic lines. But one of the most helpful ways of understanding such differences is recognizing the divide between advocates of proximate justice and absolute justice…
The primary appeal of absolute justice is its purity. Why align with compromisers and those who are satisfied with “good enough” when you can fight for full justice? Being satisfied with proximate justice sounds more like an excuse to do less rather than a principled position.
The primary appeal of proximate justice is its realism. Since absolute justice is not attainable this side of the new heaven and new earth, settling for less is the best we can ever expect. When absolute justice is our standard we can even end up allowing injustice to continue and flourish.
With that understanding, he goes on to write:
But first I want introduce one of the most paradigmatic, and controversial, of proximate justice positions: the defense of sweatshops.
A sweatshop is the pejorative term for a workplace that has working conditions those of us in the West deem socially unacceptable. Because of Western laws and norms, sweatshops are now found mostly in developing countries…
The absolute justice advocate would say that the working conditions in sweatshops are unacceptable—and the proximate justice advocate would agree. But the proximate justice advocate would ask, “What are the alternatives?” Invariably, the absolute justice advocate’s preference is either unworkable, unrealistic, or would lead to worse living conditions for the sweatshop worker.
Proximate justice requires that we don’t improve people’s lives or bring them justice by making their lives worse. As Benjamin Powell says, “Because sweatshops are better than the available alternatives, any reforms aimed at improving the lives of workers in sweatshops must not jeopardize the jobs that they already have.”
To summarize Carter’s own words, the argument is essentially, “Yeah, sweatshops aren’t ideal, but they’re better than nothing, so it is what it is.” He points out that in places such as China, while we might find the conditions deplorable, the Chinese factory workers like it because it’s better than the alternative:
What Chang is saying is that whether we understand or agree, the Chinese workers believe accepting their current working conditions is better for them than their realistic alternatives and that the work will help them to life a better life. Many of us intuitively understand this point because it has to with meeting material needs (e.g., without the factory job the workers might not be able to feed their families). What we have a harder time understanding is when people endure less-than-optimal working conditions for other needs, such as self-actualization.
Thus, the argument boils down to that while things might not be ideal, they’re better than an alternative, or, it’s better to be a slave than to starve. Now Carter would certainly object to such a summary, but his objection would be without merit as it’s almost word-for-word what he says, only without the round-about way of saying it. Continue reading