The Faceless, Cosmic Exploiter

Proving that Crooked Timber comment threads are worth mining for the occasional gem, Gabriel Rossman pens a short, sweet knock-down of Marx's theory of exploitation:

The technical concept of exploitation basically holds that profit margins are objectionable. Thus a unionized auto-worker in Michigan who gets paid $60,000/year to build $120,000 worth of SUVs is being pretty harshly exploited. In contrast, a garment worker in Thailand who gets paid $1000/year to sew $1100 worth of t-shirts is far less exploited. Nonetheless, I would rather be an auto worker than a garment worker and I suspect so would everyone else. So in today’s economy compensation often has much more to do with productivity than with exploitation.

Now you can turn it around and say that the garment worker is not being exploited by the manufacturer but by the consumer or the market or globalization. While there is some sense to this it still ultimately relies on a labor theory of value since such an argument assumes that the consumer isn’t paying the full value (as compared to reservation price) of the shirt. If one has to twist the meaning of exploitation so severely to make it work, one might as well be rid of it and admit that the objection is not to exploitation per se but simply to poverty and inequality. I suspect that the real attraction of exploitation is that poverty is simply a state whereas “exploit” is a transitive verb so the term implies wrong-doing.

Thomas Sowell touches on that last point in The Quest for Cosmic Justice. As Don Boudreaux explains in his review of the book,

By “cosmic justice” Sowell means the relief of all misfortune. It is the broadest concept of justice going. The narrowest (and, in Sowell’s view, correct) concept of justice is the traditional one—justice defined according to the fairness of the process. If the process is unbiased and if all parties abide by the agreed-on rules, then justice prevails...

Nor does traditional justice require, even when no error mars the process, that the result is one that would satisfy a benevolent omniscient designer. The fact that something in my background beyond my personal control -- poor musical genes, absence of childhood piano lessons, whatever -- prevented me from becoming the concert pianist that I would ideally like to be is not an injustice.

Cosmic Injustice Oppresses The Masses

The understandable human emotion to help the less fortunate has led to a confusion of language in which “injustice” is becoming synonymous with misfortune. (Calling something an “injustice”—unlike calling some thing a “misfortune”—suggests that remedial action is appropriate.) This confusion would be merely annoying if it did not breed support for public policies that exacerbate rather than ameliorate problems.

It's difficult to ignite people's passions and inborn sense of injustice at the thought of misfortune caused by a faceless system, absent a wrongdoer. Better to have an evil villain, an object of blame, an exploiter.


A cosmic, god-like being whose existence defies human comprehension and logic, Galactus can satiate his awesome hunger only by feasting upon the raw energies of unsuspecting planets, leaving them lifeless and barren. He means no malice, but his very nature drives him to act. Though at first compassionate enough to devour only uninhabited worlds, survival dictates Galactus cannot be so selective. To avoid the destruction of inhabited plants, he enlists the Silver Surfer as his herald. An advanced scout, the Surfer locates energy-rich, lifeless worlds for his master to consume.

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Interesting reading. Thanks

Interesting reading. Thanks for your good reporting and research. Exploitation, like justice, can only be understood in a sense where a nation has entered into a contracted agreement as to the values and mores that they hold dear. They become a set of (sort of) absolutes that guide the society and make it work. It worked in Rome until the nation abandoned them in the late 200's and 300's. This opened them up and made them prone to weaknesses that allowed inferior nations to overwhelm them in the 400's. Some would say that the trend has become visible in the USA. Certainly much of this nation has spewed the original values that kept us glued together. However, I'm not as pessimistic about our future because we still dialogue and debate here and we (On both sides) still have powerfully patriotic devotion. The important question is, can we overcome the sense that justice is defined as, "Me getting what I want", and exploitation as, "Me not getting what I want". Or even, "Me not getting a specific percentile share of the big pot". A man who makes $60,000.00 has nothing whatsoever to complain about. The notion that someone else is making more so that is unfair does not fit into a just definition of fairness. The point is, we need to make enough to pay the bills and provide for my family. America has led the western world and much of the rest of the world in keeping the unemployment and poverty rates very low. Any starving or deprived people is, of course, a tragedy, but I doubt (because of human nature) if it can be obliterated anywhere. Fairness is that everyone is given the chance to succeed and I believe it would be hard to find a better way than what is now provided. Certainly no communist or socialist system has ever been this successful. Well, I blah, blah, blahed enough.
Thanks and keep up the good work.

"A man who makes $60,000.00

"A man who makes $60,000.00 has nothing whatsoever to complain about."

That is a very odd statement. Nothing to complain about, in what terms? Surely, if the mean cost of living was thrice what it is now, then they would have something to complain about. But complaining is not the same as demanding that their misfortune is an injustice that must be remedied by government action.

Subsequently: in today's U.S. cost-of-living terms, yes, $60,000 is plenty, but, aside from mere survival minimums, wealth is wealth, and it is all relative. Let's say you make $400,000.00 per year for ten years. Then, one day, the government decides that it is going to up your tax rate to 85%. Bam, you're taking home $60,000 per year, but the government is taking 85% of your income. Would I have "something to complain about" then?

"Fairness is that everyone is given the chance to succeed"

This is the central idea: "Everyone has the chance". But the focus in this quasi-socialist system has shifted from equal opportunity to equal outcome. It is assumed that the goal is not equality of opportunity, but equality of the end result. We have gone from "all men are created equal" to "all men must end up equal". Thus, any sort of misfortune is seen as a roadblock in this quest for infinite equality, and must be remedied.

I don't know if your statement, "fairness is that everyone is given the chance to succeed", is really accurate, at least when it comes to systematic structural/governmental duties. Because that implies that in order to maintain "fairness", the governing body should distort the organic societal structure and ensure a "level playing field" in all terms. But the duties of government is that this "equal chance to succeed" is not encroached by other humans. For example, if my chance to play pro football was thwarted by another human who maliciously broke my legs, then it is job of that governing body to remedy that. However, if my chance to play football was thwarted by, say, a viral nerve disease, then, it is no longer the duty of the governing system to ensure my "equal chance". Thus, this "equal chance" only goes as far as human rights of non-aggression are concerned.

It's important to maintain

It's important to maintain the distinction between the terms "fairness" and "justice." I'm not about to make any conjectures as to the definition of "fairness," but I'm fairly certain it is something the state should not be concerned with. Every event outside of an individual's control has the capacity to be "unfair." Automobile accidents and tsunamis certainly are unfair. We can strive for a just world, however. Justice is the equal protection of every individual's rights. Justice, not fairness, is the purpose of the State.