Voluntary Exploitation

Written on May 24, 2008. Written by .

Old Factory Worker (Photo courtesy of Yuliia Eric)

Old Factory Worker
Is it possible for a person to be exploited without the use of force?
Photo courtesy of Yuliia Eric

The dictionary says that exploitation means taking advantage of someone in an unfair way. Let’s consider an example. Suppose it requires two carpenters to build a house and that the opportunity to work on building a house comes along about once per month. Two carpenters A and B voluntarily choose to cooperate on the latest job. Both are equally experienced and intend to expend equal amounts of effort in the construction. The only fair way to split the profit is 50-50. But say carpenter A knows that carpenter B has a rent payment due in a week and without this job he will be evicted. This gives carpenter A an upper hand in the situation; he could afford to lose the job, even though it wouldn’t be in his best interest. Carpenter A decides to propose a 75-25 split of the profits. Carpenter B objects and declares that he won’t accept a contract without an even split. Carpenter A calls his bluff and sticks to his guns. Finally carpenter B gives in an accepts the terms because 25% is still enough to pay the rent, despite the fact that he deserves more. Carpenter A did not initiate any force, but he did take advantage of his partner in an unfair way, hence he exploited his partner. Therefore exploitation is possible without the use of force.

This situation is analogous to how employers exploit employees, landlords exploit tenants, and those with power generally exploit the less fortunate. This exploitation may be unfair, but that does not mean it is wrong. In each of these cases, as long as no initiation of force occurs, the interaction will be win-win relative to the alternative, and that makes it just. For any economic transaction, there is a range of prices that produces a win-win interaction, but the range of prices that produces a fair interaction may be a subset of the win-win range.

But there is another way we can look at the carpenter’s example. We could say that nature or circumstance was the initiator of force. In this view, there still is force acting in order to enable the exploitation, it just isn’t the exploiter who is providing the force. However, this observation does not change the conclusion that exploitation is possible without the use of force. Carpenter B may be under no force at all. Suppose he had his rent all paid off, but he really wanted to buy his wife a nice birthday present. Carpenter B could still use this as leverage, even if not quite as effectively. Therefore exploitation can occur even in the absence of any force.

So what is the characterization of situations in which exploitation is possible? Basically any situation with an asymmetry between the acting parties that gives one party leverage over the other will make exploitation possible. Fortunately, exploitation is rarely a beneficial strategy for parties that interact repeatedly. For example, exploitation between friends generally results in lose-lose situations. Even in the areas of the economy where exploitation is rampant, it is not something to get upset about, it is just a fact of reality.

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