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Wednesday, January 31, 2007  
On another note, how has nobody noticed that the Blair government is embroiled in a major, and possibly fatal, fundraising scandal?


Don't ask why I was reading this, but I found the following fascinating passage in Congressional Decree 1441 of the Guatemalan Labor Code. It is as clear a statement justifying labor law as I have ever seen, and it is written directly into the law:

Ideological characteristics of labor law [include] the following: Labor law is a necessary and imperative right. The minimum benefits granted by law are mandatory and limit the principle of "will autonomy." which wrongly assumes that the parties have full discretion to improve a contract, and their will is not affected by economic/social factors and disparities.

I love it. This gets at the nugget of what galls me about the whole conservatarian "right to work" argument (and, frankly, so many of the Free Market Jesus arguments such people so frequently employ). The "right to work" argument posits a world of free contract that does not exist, and simply ignores the fact that employment transactions are not conducted in a vacuum, with each employee given independent standing to negotiate his or her worth. At the lower-skilled, lower-paid positions, the jobs are take-it-or-leave-it propositions, with no negotiations whatsoever regarding salary or working conditions, in fact no leverage at all on the part of the prospective employee. A fundamental goal of labor law is to recognize that, given the interchangeability of low- or non-skilled employees, unregulated employers will lower the terms of that take-it-or-leave-it offer as much as possible. Labor laws force the terms of such deals to be set above minimally acceptable standards of living in a free and just society.

In an unregulated economy, economic desperation will force some people to take the deal, regardless of whether the salary won't cover expenses or the job is highly unsafe. Generations of coal miners toiled and died young choking on dust in clapboard shacks before the unions and then the government forced these conditions to change. In the laissez-faire world envisioned by the conservatarians, the vaunted "freedom" to walk away and choose not to contract is simply the freedom to be unemployed and dependent on shrinking government assistance. In fact, as unemployment insurance and welfare programs have been reformed to require recipients to pursue and accept any possible means of employment, the laborer may not even have this option, and may be forced to enter whatever contract the employer offers. This "freedom," then, is utterly one-sided, and waving the flag of liberty to justify removal of minimum wage/safety/etc. standards is simply rhetoric of the most empty, cynical kind.

The truth is that "freedom" is not the libertarian principle most at work in such arguments. Rather, the real principle being vindicated is that libertarians (and conservatives of a libertarian bent) simply believe that there is no such thing as a minimally acceptable standard of living. It is an article of faith for them that the weak and unskilled will be ground beneath the wheel, and there isn't anything the government should do about it. Distortion of natural market forces is to them a greater crime than permanent reduction of some sectors of the labor market to abject penury.

This Guatemalan code provision identifies and rejects this false front (which it refers to as "will autonomy") as the paper-thin rationalization that it is. And its right there in the law, so no one can play games parsing the statute's meaning later on.

This code provision isn't new, and this isn't news, I know. I should also say that I have no real idea whether, on the whole, Guatemalan workers are treated well and fairly. Maybe (independent labor monitoring success story), maybe not ("Virtual slave conditions prevail on the majority of Guatemala's coffee plantations").


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