Freedom and Unfreedom
Nobel economist Amartya Sen begins his new book, Development as Freedom, with a provocative comparison: "The battle against the unfreedom of bound labor is important in many third world countries today for some of the same reasons the American Civil War was momentous." Is it possible that Americans are once again participating in an economic system that is half free, half unfree?
The question does not seem farfetched when one examines more closely the predicament of the young women in many Chinese factories. Typically, they are recruited from remote villages by a government agency that collects a fee from them for the job. They must pay for their own travel, then place a "deposit" with factory managers, who will withhold their wages for the first month or two and frequently also take away the workers' official ID cards. Hired under three-year contracts, they cannot leave or jump to better jobs without losing their money and perhaps identity papers too. Their factory dorms are fenced and guarded, the workers cannot come and go freely, the stories of brutality by security guards are commonplace.
This is not slavery, to be sure, but it does resemble a sly form of indentured servitude, imposed on people who are powerless to resist its terms. What can be done to stop it? For starters, a serious Congressional investigation that digs into the ugly facts and calls corporate CEOs to explain themselves would do more than embarrass industry. The American people, I believe, cannot bear the guilty knowledge of how their consumer trifles are produced, any more than they could live with knowledge of the racial caste system in America once the civil rights movement compelled them to confront it. This new movement has the same task of teaching and confronting.
The "enhancement of human freedom," Sen argues, "is both the main object and the primary means of development." Democracy and civil rights are thus central to economic progress, but the "unfreedoms" Sen describes involve much more than legal guarantees of free speech and religion or standards for powerful corporations. Poverty also enslaves lives. So do the still-existing, precapitalist feudal systems that deny individual aspirations in some countries. So do the social hierarchies that send adolescent girls to work in the factories while the boys go to school. These confining forces and others interact with the marketplace, which sometimes liberates people and sometimes uses unfreedoms for its own ends.
Human rights, in other words, pose the most profound challenge for reform because the issues go to the core nature of every society, and legislation alone cannot resolve them. Americans, above all, must remember to bring humility to this struggle. The promise of life expectancy, as Sen observes, is greater for people in some very poor nations than it is for African-American males in the United States. Our luxurious wealth, not just our values, is sometimes implicated in the unfreedom of others. As this new movement educates us about global realities, we shall see ourselves more clearly.