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The Real Progress of the Progressive Movement

Daniel Tortorice

This summer while staying at George Washington University I attended an informational meeting concerning the Worker’s Rights Consortium (WRC). The WRC, a non-profit organization whose members are colleges and universities across the United States, aims to ensure that factories making apparel for its member colleges and universities meet certain labor standards. While I do not intend to debate the merits of the WRC, I intend to discuss some of the general ideas presented at this meeting. Ideas that, while common in the progressive movement, are dangerous to the very people this movement intends to protect.

As we settled down in our chairs the speaker began to inform us of “myths” that we might encounter. The first “myth” she warned us against was the belief that a company would raise its prices when required to increase wages. Large companies make millions of dollars in profits and all they need to do to increase wages is to dip into those profits. But this is simply not true.

As investors are often faced with opportunities for profit in other sectors, the profit in a particular industry must be high enough to maintain continued support. When you single out one industry for regulation, you provide an incentive for investors to flee that industry. The result: less investment in that industry, less supply and therefore higher prices. Why the progressive movement dismisses this necessary consequence of its proposal, I do not know. But what I do know is that a movement which rejects reason as myth will never garner sufficient popular support.

The second myth we were urged to reject was the belief that these companies, once regulated, would change their hiring practices, firing some of their current workers. The speaker urged us to believe that these companies would just dive into their money bins and give workers more. Even if these firms did decide to pay more, the policy will not help those people. As a company begins to pay better wages, more productive workers will choose to work for that company, and some less productive workers are displaced. While the plan was meant to help the current workers at a factory, it in fact will result in these workers losing their jobs.

The third “myth” we were urged to reject was the “myth” that free trade is beneficial to workers in developing countries. In fact, the speaker told us that these sweatshops exist because of free trade. But where would these workers be if free trade did not give them the chance to work at all? These workers would be living in a beautiful paradise if it were not for the evil force of globalization that stole their Shangri-la throwing them into sweatshop bondage. The reality is that despite the horrid conditions, low pay, and long hours, these workers choose this way of making their livelihood over the other options available. They would only work in the factory if they believed that working in the factory is better than not working in the factory. It is globalization and international investment that brought them this better option. And it is globalization that the progressive movement today wishes to destroy.

One cannot help but sympathize with the progressive movement. Its members have incredible empathy for the suffering of others. But when that empathy drives the movement to ignore the necessary economic consequences of its proposed policies these suffering people would do better without the irresponsible policies of the progressive movement.