If Matt Yglesias sneezes you can bet there’s going to be a chorus of left-of-center tweeters ready to unleash a tidal wave of vitriol and scorn. So go ahead and guess how ugly things got yesterday, and remain today, after he wrote this:
It’s very plausible that one reason American workplaces have gotten safer over the decades is that we now tend to outsource a lot of factory-explosion-risk to places like Bangladesh where 87 [since revised to 238] people just died in a building collapse.* This kind of consideration leads Erik Loomis to the conclusion that we need a unified global standard for safety, by which he does not mean that Bangladeshi levels of workplace safety should be implemented in the United States.
I think that’s wrong. Bangladesh may or may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States.
If you don’t feel like guessing, here’s an example:
Being a talentless hack who makes money by shamelessly propagating the highly remunerative Washington neoliberal consensus is easy: anyone can do that, and regularly they take that *fistpump* to the bank. But inuring yourself to the horrific conditions in which many people live while justifying those conditions with an incoherent mishmash of social darwinism, willful ignorance of how colonialism led to the abject poverty of “third world” countries and an arrogant tone that would make Dawkins proud, well, that’s just a masterwork of callousness.
But tell us how you really feel!
More seriously, I also did not like Yglesias’s post — but not for the reasons I’m seeing cited by most of his critics; he’s racist, he hates poor people, he thinks it’s OK for people to die so his clothes can be cheaper, etc. All of that is far more a response to the social signalling inherent in Yglesias’s response, his lack of performative empathy, than it is to what he actually wrote. What he actually wrote is in fact rather banal.
Yglesias basically makes the usual argument about development, industrialization, and the tradeoffs necessary between equality, safety, and wealth. To cut to the heart of it, albeit somewhat crudely, you could repurpose the argument like so: Awful things happened to workers in America during the Industrial Revolution, but considering the skyrocketing wealth and standard of living that happened, too, it was overall for the best. That may be callous, flippant, and rationalist to a fault — but it’s not racist and it’s not a precursor to drinking a goblet of orphans’ blood.
While fending off assaults on Twitter, though, Yglesias made an argument that, to my eyes, undermines his whole position. His interlocutor, after commending Yglesias for not wanting to be a dog rapist (don’t ask; it’s Twitter), says, “[A]wesome, we’re achieving common ground. This is how consensus is built. Next up: unsafe worker conditions are bad everywhere.” To which Yglesias responds:
The problem with this answer — and my more-libertarian readers are going to be amused to hear me, a liberal, say this — is that Yglesias assumes the laws of Bangladesh are the product of the whole Bangladeshi people, that the people who died in that disaster were involved in their country’s decision-making process just the same as the elites. This is nonsense. It’s arguable that no democracy, anywhere, is fair or true enough to accurately say it represents the will of its people, writ large. What’s less tenable is to claim that a developing nation — one in which institutions are dysfunctional enough to allow such a disaster to occur — is a land where the common people are autonomous and free.
Put simply, it’s really, really difficult for me to envision any scenario in which the people who died in that building’s collapse can accurately be said to have made their decision to work there on their own, without the presence of individual and systemic coercion. And as long as that coercion is in-place, it’s obtuse to talk of those dead in Bangladesh as anything other than victims of an immoral status quo.