I propose to criticize two strands of argument—contractarian and utilitarian—that liberals have put forth in defense of economic coercion, based on the notion of justifiable paternalism. To illustrate my argument, I appeal to the example of forced labor migration, driven by the exigencies of market forces. In particular, the forced migration of a special subset of unemployed workers lacking other means of subsistence (economic refugees) cannot be redeemed paternalistically as freedom or welfare enhancing in the long run. Further, contractarian and utilitarian approaches are normatively incapable of appreciating this fact because the kinds of reasons that they adduce for justifying the long-term freedom-enhancing consequences of forced migration are not ones that would be acceptable to the migrants themselves. I conclude that only a discourse ethical approach, which mandates direct, empathetic communication between would-be migrants and members of potential host communities, captures the full range of reasons that would be acceptable to both migrants and members of these communities. These reasons—appealing both to agency-enhancing communal attachments as well as to agency-enhancing freedom of choice—fully reveals the extent to which a global capitalist system composed of relatively closed national communities coerces the world’s poorest migrants.
Gerald Dworkin (1983) notes that “hard” cases of paternalism—in which the rational competence of the coerced agent is not impugned by ignorance or cognitive and emotional deficiencies—are difficult to justify precisely because of the voluntary nature of the action that is suppressed. In cases such as these—where the nature of the act itself (its irreversibility as in the case of suicide or its severe risk to the health of the actor) and not the competency of the agent is what is at issue—the coercer might justly appeal non-paternalistically to the potential harm caused to society. For example a society where persons are legally entitled to sell themselves into slavery voluntarily imposes unconscionable burdens on those who would be required to return run-away slaves. But perhaps voluntary acts like these can also be forbidden on “soft” paternalistic grounds as being contrary to the “good” of the agent (here we assume something like the divided-will theory noted above in which an agent’s failure to appreciate fully what is really in her best interest impugns the fully voluntary nature of her act).
D. Schweickart (2008) argues (with Marx) that the need to maintain labor discipline and heighten profitability by lowering wage costs through labor-saving technology that is endemic to capitalism leads to chronic domestic crises of un- and underemployment (and corresponding overproduction) which are solved by opening up new markets abroad. The dumping of cheaply produced goods in developing economies and the corresponding replacement of sustainable labor-intensive domestic agriculture with high-tech export-oriented agribusiness reinforces and exacerbates poverty and unemployment in these economies.