Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Even If You Answer My Question, A Half-Hour Later I’ll Be Puzzled Again

Confession can supposedly assuage a guilty conscience, so let’s see if that’ll work for me: a couple of weeks before Christmas I found a funky new dollar store on the cusp between the good and bad parts of town. The store sold those crystal-prism “suncatcher” pendants that take even the dullest, most overcast light and break it down into rainbows; I bought a few of the crystals and hung them on my Christmas tree.

Such prisms usually cost ten or fifteen dollars apiece, rather than one dollar (plus six cents tax). Why were they so cheap? Well, that’s why I’m feeling guilty: the crystals came from China. Everything in that store did. I don’t usually buy Chinese products because there are companies in the country which use actual slave labor to man their factories, and there’s no way of knowing which products were made by free people happy to have a job, and which made by slaves forced to toil for no compensation. (With one exception: never buy Chinese Christmas lights. People imprisoned for being either Christians or members of Falun Gong are forced to make them for export.)

That’s why I try not to buy Chinese, and why I feel guilty for buying those dollar crystals. But some people have told me this is the wrong attitude to take: China may use some slave labor but there are also plenty of businessmen in the country whose free workers are happy to have their jobs. And improving the economy of a quarter of the world’s population is a good thing, isn’t it?

There are two ways to view the Chinese situation: to avoid hurting honest businessmen and their employees we buy Chinese even though we risk enriching slaveowners; or, to avoid enriching slaveowners we stop buying Chinese even though this hurts honest businessmen and their employees. Which is the right choice?


Anonymous Grant Gould said...

Take a bit of advice from ol' Marx: Objects whose value depends on skilled labor or on automation are comparatively less likely to be slave-produced than those which rely on unskilled labor. Slave labor's cost savings vanish as more skilled labor or more capital is required for production. (Of course, capital-intensive goods are more likely to be the product of corrupt and mismanaged state enterprises, but that's as much a hinderance as a help to those producers.)

Crystal thingummies are a bad bet, slave-avoidancewise; wireless electronics are a fairly good bet; software and media are an excellent bet.

5:19 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

I would have thought that electric Christmas lights would fall under the no-slave category then, Grant. (Another moral dilemma: if I'm a slave forced to make Christmas lights I'd do my best to miswire them so that they catch on fire after a few hours of use. I wouldn't blame any slave for doing that, and yet it's not true to say that a family which buys its Christmas lights from a discount retailer deserves to have their house burn down as punishment. So if a bunch of poor but nice families lose their houses or even their lives due to bad Christmas lights causing fires, is the slave who made those lights actually guilty of arson or murder?)

6:44 AM  
Blogger Anne O'Neimaus said...

My personal feeling is that slavery is one of the most-abhorrent institutions ever invented by humanity. I consider it one of the "great evils" - probably even worse than murder (although they are pretty close to each other, IMHO). It deliberately breaks and destroys that which makes us unique: the human spirit.

That said, slavery is also an institution that is almost predestined to occurr. Not only does it continually show up in societies throughout history, it even exists "in Nature". Ants, in particular, are known for taking and keeping slaves.

I believe that we, as human beings, have a moral obligation to oppose slavery when and where we find it. The question you raise, however, is one of efficacy. What can I, as a private individual, effectively do to affect the situation? Not only in any particular case, but over the long haul of my entire life. Clearly, taking up arms and personally invading a Chinese prison-camp/factory is most likely to result in me being dead, with no noticeable salubritory effect.

I think that refusing to traffic in slave-produced goods is a nice, moral stance, that might actually have some small effect. The typical capitalistic theory seems to be that if you improve the economy in general, the living conditions of all (including slaves) will improve. I think the ever-widening gap between the "haves" and "have-nots" puts this premise in question.

On the other hand, there is the old stand of "Everybody else is buying this stuff. My refusal makes no effective difference, and makes me pay more for stuff from other sources." Like many idealists, I consider this a cop-out. Like many modern Americans, however, I admit that I rarely even think about such considerations. My bad.

I think grant's espousal of Marx' rubric is probably as good and useful a rule-of-thumb as any I have seen. I think, however, that it needs to be modified slightly. Substitute "educated" for "skilled". It clearly takes significant "skill" to craft an oriental rug - however, it is a skill that can be (and is) taught to children under duress, who are then forced into slave labor. I think that light-bulb manufacturing probably comes under this category.

Unfortunately, so does much consumer-electronics manufacturing. The actual assemblers don't have to know anything about engineering, or even electronics. They merely have to learn to position part "A" into socket (or solder-pad) "A", and press the appropriate buttons on the machine. Automation, rather than making slavery obsolete, is merely making it more generally applicable. Any poor schlub can be trained to feed a machine and push a few buttons; with the slavey tender, the machine doesn't have to be nearly as sophisticated (and expensive) as one which would run totally unattended.

So long as the state itself is in the slavery business, it will remain economically viable. The state doesn't have to worry too much about a shortage of qualified labor (especially in China). I'd say that the "real" moral stance must be to refuse to buy ANYTHING Chinese, until the state changes its policies. Unfortunately, that is virtually impossible in our modern society - just about everything is made in China, or manufactured from Chinese components.

I don't have a good solution.

9:34 AM  
Blogger Timothy said...

The condition of all tends to increase as the economy improves. Economic growth is the single greatest liberating factor in human history, therefore enriching the whole of the Chinese economy is likely to lead to more freedom eventually.

Near vs long term goals. I think the best choice out of the crappy ones is to buy things from China that you guess are less likely to be made by slaves.

9:34 AM  
Anonymous Jeff P said...

China is a lost cause. It cannot be fixed until it breaks all the way. Either through economic collapse, internal strife, or via collateral damage from the inevitable war in Asia.
As such, I would buy as much Chinese product as possible, regardless of its manufacturing origins, if only to have some tangible memory of a culture that had a magnificent aesthetic, an understanding of the need for philosophy, and sublime comprehension of beauty, until inhuman politics and governance based on murder put an end to that.

11:22 AM  
Blogger Anne O'Neimaus said...

if only to have some tangible memory of a culture that had a magnificent aesthetic, an understanding of the need for philosophy, and sublime comprehension of beauty, until inhuman politics and governance based on murder put an end to that.

While I agree that the Cultural Revolution was a cultural disaster, I'm not really sold on the "sublime superiority" of traditional Chinese culture. I think it was another case of the very few at the socioeconomic pinnacle enjoyed and promulgated some impressive culture. The vast majority of the peasantry were little more than slaves, with almost no prospect of improving their situation. And, there was a state-sponsored philosophy (Confusionism) aimed at making it virtuous to be resigned to one's fate and place in society.

The British-sponsored capitalist society that followed the traditional Chinese culture was manifestly so bad for the average man/woman that Mao was able to stir up and lead a successful revolution of basically unarmed peasants against a relatively modern and well-armed government. Thus, it probably wasn't any better than the traditional culture it replaced.

True, the traditional Chinese culture gave us many important things. They invented paper, after all. However, they have long had the highest population in the world, and have long had some of the most oppressed peasantry to go along with it.

1:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anne: I only praised their art & philosophy, and the fact that both were central to their culture. The political/class nature of its society was as crummy's as anyone else's at the time.

1:41 PM  
Blogger Anne O'Neimaus said...

A peripherally-related, somewhat amusing, commentary is at

1:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Grylliade doesn't allow anonymous postings, but I think the reason you're having trouble getting your ads on the left is that you really don't have extra space on the left, per-se. Instead, if the browser window is wide enough, you get "blank" space on both the left and the right.

To see what I mean, just try making your browser window more narrow a little at a time and you'll see the blank space on the left (and right) disappear.

6:50 PM  

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