Karl Marx and Frederick Engels had harsh words for business leaders. TheCommunist Manifesto (1848) was a call for all workingmen to unite against those who practiced “naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.” It was time to act: “Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”
Although the days of revolutionary socialism are long past (with a few exceptions), Communist Manifesto ideas continue to find traction in the media, academia, and left political parties. No respectable person wants full-blown communism, but there are many leftists who favor the equal distribution of wealth, income equality, and the elimination of worker “exploitation,” a few of the things that Marx desired.
This Christmas I came across an Independent article: “Christmas is brought to us on the back of worker exploitation.” The author cited one British sports company that “underpaid and terrorized” its workers. Another case was a woman who worked extra hours at Christmas time with no promise of overtime wages. Supermarkets were guilty too; they stayed open until midnight “just to squeeze more out of their workers and our purses.” Marx would likely be proud of the author’s indignant words. So what was the author’s solution? Britain needed stronger trade unionism and more “European social democracy” (socialism).
History tells us that there is worker exploitation where there is slavery and other types of forced labor by way of blackmail or threat of violence. But in democratic capitalist societies, worker exploitation is actually quite uncommon. Leftists are good with their rhetoric of class war, alienation, and exploitation, but not so good with basic economics.
One type of economic behavior is exchange – the transfer of property rights. Countless voluntary exchanges occur in a free, capitalist society. One helpful illustration is from economist Walter Williams: “I buy a gallon of milk from my grocer. I tell him that I hold property rights to these three dollars and he holds property rights to that gallon of milk, I will transfer my property rights to these three dollars.” The exchange took place because both parties “perceived themselves as better off as a result of the exchange; otherwise, they wouldn’t have exchanged.” Williams could have kept his money “and the grocer was free to keep his milk.”
The same principle applies to an employer-employee relationship. Williams argues that a person is free to either reject or accept a job paying a certain wage. Even if the wage is low in the eyes of others, the acceptance of the job indicates that the new employee perceives the job as better than all other alternatives. Williams writes: “How appropriate is it to say that you’re exploiting me when you’ve given me my best offer? Rather than using the term exploitation, you might say you wish I had more desirable alternative.”
It appears that “when people use the term exploitation in reference to voluntary exchange, they simply disagree with the price. If we equate price disagreement with exploitation, then exploitation is rife.” Does not the charge of exploitation become meaningless if exploitation is everywhere?
When I finished college, my first years of teaching included part-time teaching. I received approximately $4000 to teach a semester college history course. It was not a lot of money, but because it was the best alternative available I did not see it as exploitation (at least, I do not see it now as so). I had little teaching experience and not one published book. For five years, I gained excellent teaching experience, got my research published, and eventually landed a full-time teaching job.
When those on the left claim there is worker exploitation, their charge is often misleading. People will take or leave a job on the basis of what other alternatives are available. And despite what progressives might claim, there is ample data showing that a free-market economy (because of greater wealth creation) offers more and better job alternatives to a greater number of people than is the case with a socialist-driven, bigger government economy.
Source: Walter Williams, Liberty Versus the Tyranny of Socialism: Controversial Essays.
This article was originally posted at The Conservative Prof. https://theconservativeprof.wordpress.com/2015/12/28/leftist-misuse-of-worker-exploitation/